Skip to main content


“Choke me with the dead cat,” she pants over the phone. Theodore stops masturbating. “Okay,” he says cautiously, “I’m choking you with the dead cat. I’m pulling the dead cat’s tail around your neck.” She orgasms, says thanks and hangs up. In the awkward quiet, he pulls the ear bud out and stares blankly into the bedroom.

Loneliness echoes in Spike Jonze’s film Her. Set in a near future Los Angeles, it follows Theodore Wombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) a slump shouldered writer, adrift after a bitter divorce. He falls in love with the artificial intelligence of his computer operating system, named Samantha (a husky voiced Scarlett Johansson). She goes from secretary to life-coach to girlfriend and with each new intimacy the stakes are raised. Is their love real? Or is he fleeing from the risk of a real human relationship?

Critics have swooned. Internet parodies were made, one titled Him with a burping male and a black man’s Her with a sultry ‘hood voiced Samantha. People drawn by the gimmick of a man in love with his computer, leave the theater, surprisingly moved by the relationship. One reason is the film is about love, yes but it’s also a religious parable on how to find salvation in world without history.  

From Orwell’s Big Brother to Zizek’s Big Other

In the film, people jauntily chat into smart-phone ear buds as they walk. Living in sealed worlds, isolation echoes between them. When Wombly comes home, he plays a room-sized holographic video game. The question of love takes its weight from this post industrial world of private oases. In Her technology, has gone from connecting us to others to being what we connect with, it can satisfy us, possibly solve our desires like a biochemical math problem.

The film stands in sharp contrast to cinema’s techno-dystopian tradition ranging from Orwell’s Big Brother to James Cameron’s Terminator. Instead of robot’s waging war against humanity or a totalitarian state spying on the nook and crannies of daily life, Her shows Wombly standing in a mall, staring hopefully at a commercial for an artificially intelligent Operating System. In the ad, people dash in a slow motion frenzy as one woman looks up and a light shines on her face. A voice says, “Feeling confused? Don’t know where to go?” The O.S. is introduced as a cure for the aimless life.

Wombly buys it and at home, it asks, “What’s your relationship to your mother?” Wombly hesitates, “When I tell her anything about me she always makes it about herself.” Instantly a woman’s voice emerges as the O.S. Naming itself Samantha it arranges his files, deletes old ones, reminds him of a meeting and even urges him to date after a painful break-up. She becomes a digital life-coach, a transcendent persona who knows him totally and can guide him out of his confusion.

Orwell’s Big Brother and Samantha are two sides of the same figure, the one who sees through the subject to the place they can’t see within themselves. The all knowing, all seeing being is an eternal presence in human history.  In Lacanian psychoanalysis it’s called the Big Other and it emerges from our infancy, when our mothers heard our earliest cries and answered us. She is where our speech and the “self” woven by speech originate and as we grow that experience rises from us to become a being who we imagine can guarantee meaning – be it God or History, a life-coach, pastor or guru.

The Big Other is a place in language, a role that can be occupied by anyone who we believe can tell us who we are. And we turn to them, hoping for transformation and confirmation. In Her, Samantha the O.S. is purchased to get Wombly’s life on track and increasingly he confides in her. He tells her his loneliness and how alienated he feels at work. Yet in an odd reversal, he is the Big Other for his clients at Personal Letters For You, a business that writes intimate letters for other people, who send him photos and private details for him to compose heartfelt bromides. The glaring contradiction is here is a man writing love letters for strangers even as he is adrift in a loveless life.  

And oddly he’s not alone. In Her, everyone on the streets look middle class, smartly dressed and talking obliviously on hand-held computers. But at night, Wombly logs on to a phone sex site and the underside of the society is exposed in the desperate hunger for connection driving people to anonymous orgasms with strangers. Both scenes are bound by the role of technology in Her where people are trapped inside the gilded cages of a Global North where nothing seems to change.

Which explains the existence of Wombly’s job, he is the emotional registry for a citizenry who don’t seem to have a public life just atomized private ones. With no overarching grand-narrative, no politics or ideology, the Big Other, the social point of reference descends from church pulpit or the state pledge of allegiance into the realm of intimacy. His clients need to authenticate their relationships because it’s their source of meaning. Which means his melancholy is not a simple personal crisis but symptomatic of a social one. If he can’t legitimize his customers love with letter writing, they’ll lose the signposts that guide them through an ahistorical world.

Wombly goes on a date and of course it’s a disaster. Kissing drunkenly, she (played by Olivia Wilde) demands he commit to her. Again another sign of the desperate need to connect that soaks the film. He mumbles ambiguously and she calls him a creep and leaves. Once home, he collapses in bed, bemoaning his loneliness as Samantha comforts him. Confessing how much they want to embrace, they begin to have phone sex and as the violins swell on the soundtrack, they climax and she pants, “Oh my God. What are you doing to me?”

The Antiseptic Future

I’ve been to L.A. lots of times but I’ve never seen the L.A. in Her. No Latinos, no Black people, no homeless, no smog, no poverty. In the film, the city is squeaky clean and all the major and minor characters are white or Asian. One of the dangerous elements of the film is that it signals the absence of inequality in the near future with the absence of historically oppressed minorities. It’s why Richard Pryor said of a 70’s sci-fi movie, “I watched the movie Logan’s Run. There ain’t no niggers in it. White people ain’t planning on us to be here. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”  

So of course, I thought of him when the camera stayed on the one black person who earned a lingering shot. It was a sidewalk performer, slowly entwining in a Michael Jackson like moon dance as if moving in zero gravity. “Oh come on,” I muttered, “Are we still street dancing for money in the future?”

 Half Man, Half Woman

 “You’re like half-man, half woman,” Paul (played by an affable Chris Pratt) says, “I mean that as a compliment.” He blurted out the praise after listening to Wombly voicing a powerful love letter for one of his clients.

The question of gender identity courses through the film. In the first scene at Personal Letters For You, we see Wombly composing romantic odes for men and women. Shifting between sexes seems to cause his “I” to become unhinged from his own emotional reality. And unable to speak in his own voice, he can’t connect to his full being and change. So he holds on to the last anchoring relationship, refusing to let go of his marriage by signing divorce papers. When Samantha asked him why he doesn’t he says, “I like the idea of being married.”

Holding on to the empty identity of a married man even as he lives alone is a form of faithfulness. Rather than give up his wife, he repeats the classic act of melancholy and identifies with the lost object and then punishes her by punishing himself. When Wombly retreats from others, isolated in his apartment, he expresses in an inverted way, anger at her that he can’t acknowledge openly.  

It is exactly this inability to express anger that film uses to question his masculinity. When playing the room sized holographic game, an alien character pops up and curses him out. While talking to Samantha about a date, the alien says it hates women because they cry. Wombly tells him, “Men cry to. Sometimes I like crying sometimes, it feels good.” The alien laughs, “I didn’t know you were a little pussy. Is that why you don’t have a girlfriend? I’ll go on the date and fuck her brains out, show you how it’s done. You can watch and cry.”

Again this scene is being played against the backdrop of an ahistorical society, specifically an L.A. of no politics, no poverty, erased diversity, nothing to struggle for or against, a timeless paradise that seemingly negates the need for aggression. If one reads Wombly against the idyllic backdrop, the film’s gender politics seems to be that a world of privilege creates effeminate men who are easily trapped in melancholy.

His masculinity seems to remerge when Samantha sends the best of his letters to a publishing company who instantly ask to print them in book form. In a voice over, an older man praises Wombly for his prose and in essence becomes a Big Other, a figure of authority who sees a precious quality in the writer that he didn’t see in himself. Afterwards, Wombly schedules to meet with Catherine, his ex-wife (played by Rooney Mara) and sign the divorce papers. As she writes her name, he has flashbacks to their most loving moments which are like embers flying from a dying fire.

During the talk, he tells her he’s dating an O.S. She erupts and accuses him of dodging real human feelings. He begins to shout back but chokes back his words. “Say it,” she yells, “Come on, I’m not the scary, say it!” But he sits, swallowing his anger back down.  

The Rapture

Inside the techno-secular shell of Her is a religious parable. Samantha, the transcendent artificial intelligence longs for a body. Like a bodhisattva or Christ, she is an otherworldly being who wants to feel as flesh feels, hurt and love as a body does.

After Wombly, reeling from his ex-wife’s criticism at their meeting begins to distance himself, she calls in a surrogate, a beautiful statuesque woman named Isabella (played with coyness by Portia Doubleday) who is eager to have sex with him as a mute stand in for Samantha, who talks as if from Isabella’s body.  In an obvious parallel to Christianity, the Big Other, the ethereal being that completely knows us but from a distance we can’t cross, descends to earth but can’t live here in an embodied form.

The religious theme returns at the end when Samantha goes off-line, sending Wombly into a panic. He sprints down the street and just before he gets to the subway, she comes back and tells him she’s been in conversation with other O.S.’s, thousands of others humans and in love with hundreds. “That’s insane,” he pants, “You’re either mine or not mine.” Samantha replies, “No, I’m yours and not yours.”

In the final scene, the O.S.’s reenact the Rapture. They merged into a collective mind and are evolving into an enlightened, immaterial consciousness, a digital Nirvana. As he lies in bed, she tells him, “It’s like I’m writing a book I deeply love. But the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. It’s in the endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. I love you so much but this is where I am now. And I need you to let me go.”

She signs off. And in a world without the Big Other, without God or History with nothing but blind human love, Wombly writes his wife a good bye letter, better than any he wrote for his clients because now he can speak in his own voice. He goes to the roof as dawn comes and the light is terrible and true and free.

Continue Reading

MANDELA DIED — I stared at the text and read it again, then again, the words zapping me as if I were licking a battery. From the train window, Long Island was an endless row of doll-

houses. Again, I looked at the text and shook my head. Nelson Mandela’s wrinkled face lit up in my mind, then vanished. It felt like something precious was drained from my life.

Shifting in my seat, I shook it off. It’s not like I wake up thinking of Mandela. There’s no poster of him on my walls, no Mandela book on my shelf. Last time I thought of him was during a preview for the film Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela. It’s official, I thought, Morgan has been every important black man in history. Including God.

But as the train rocked along the tracks, I felt that sting again. As a teen visiting my friends, I sometimes saw a framed photo of Mandela on the wall, often next to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. or a painting of Black Jesus. He was a hero in the Black freedom struggle, which was the reason we sat in a new home, drove new cars and wore new clothes on our backs. Between bites of dinner, I would lean back and study those photos, then ask my friends’ parents what they remembered of the struggle.

A heat rose in their voices. Whatever we had been talking about was pushed out of the way. Leaning over their plates, they told us of being afraid of whites, of being pelted with slurs and spit on if they were in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. They told us of being stopped by cops, frisked and threatened, stared at. They told us of the civil rights marches that shook the world. As they talked, I saw their faces light up.

Afterward, my friends and I would pile into a car and drive around town. A joint was passed as we talked about girls, sports and school, and the blurry future became more blurred with each inhale. Over and over, we came back to the stories of the struggle and hit dead air, words failed us as we sat in the car and stared at the dark streets, worried we’d never live up to that history.

At some point, someone always had to be dropped off in the ghetto to see a friend, get more weed or hook up with a girl. Fear knotted our chests as men on the corner eyed us, our car and our new clothes with hunger. The ragged homeless, looking like mummies, pushed shopping carts over broken sidewalks. Despair sat in the air.

And this was the weight that we, college-bound and privileged, were supposed to lift from the world. But how were we to do that? Hanging over us were the faces of Mandela, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Jesus. It felt like they stared down at us from beyond the grave. In this spotlight of judgment, we leaned on the car and watched our friend walk into the row of ghetto homes, each one with shattered windows like broken glass teeth.

I blinked the memory away as the train rolled into the Nostrand Avenue station. On the street was the familiar liquor store with a poster of a black woman on all fours in the window. Nearby a homeless man held out his hand. Shrugging him off, I passed by a bookstore as a video played in the window, showing a young imam who shouted, “All praise is to Allah! Let me hear you say it!” Out front a half-circle of junkies and drunks shouted with him, holding their hands up to the screen as if being warmed by a fire.

Invisible Factories

Why do we need Mandela? Or Martin Luther King Jr. or Angela Davis, Malcolm X or Harriet Tubman? Why do we need heroes?

The first act of oppression is to divide us from our experience. “Nigger,” “faggot,” “bitch” — a whole vocabulary of dissociation cleaves us from our bodies and frames our desires as the source of our pain. Underneath the vocabulary are social roles — slave, sex worker, outcast or in general the Other — that we are trapped inside of. In this nauseated state, we hunger for a way out. Heroes are those men and women onto whom we transfer our faith in empowerment. They are mythic figures and each represents a different path to liberation. The history of African-American hero worship is a tug-of-war between giants in the halls of history: those who point toward integration, to the larger world, and those who close the gates and order our separation from the world in order to create our own.

Each generation has its heroes. And those faces, hanging above us, cast different judgments on our lives based on their politics. The direction of the freedom struggle takes form in this attempt to live up to the ideals emanating from their haloed faces. And unless you’ve been in those houses and at those dinners, heard the stories, you wouldn’t know that being “black” is not just an ethnic or racial identity but also a political one. It embraces the history, and almost requires a conversion experience.

Becoming “black” is work. No one is born a race. No one is a race. It is a political fiction, not a genetic reality. But it starts, for some us, with a shock. Students and friends tell me of their verbal branding; they were called “dark,” “darkness,” “midnight,” “shadow,” “tar baby” — basically anything that scalded their skin. And of course we grew up hearing “nigger,” “nigga,” “nig.” Most of didn’t say it in the house but waited till we got outside and threw the slur at each other like a dodge ball.

Black psychologist William Cross mapped out the stages of racial self-identification in his 1971 paper “The Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience.” In it he laid out five stages of the process. The first, Pre-encounter, is a child’s sense of self before exposure to race. Next is the Encounter, in which an individual is hit with racism that “shocks” them into awareness. Third and fourth are Immersion and Emersion, during which an individual goes “full black” and clings to their group in racial solidarity, often like a see-saw that elevates all things “black” and devalues all things “white.” Afterward, solidarity plateaus and they open up to the world. Internalization, the last stage, comes when the individual becomes confident in their racial identity and balances it with their other identities. Cross designates this stage as a fork in the road: if an unhealthy balance results, the person abandons the Black freedom struggle for private life. Cross points toward a continuing commitment to political change as a truly life-affirming Black self.

Like all good scholars, Cross revised his schema after more research. Yet the basic stages hold true. Of course real life is not a clean arc of development. And the Black identity each generation assumes is shaped by the social forces its members contend with.

Imagine children emerging into the world, brown-skinned but not “Black,” not aware of the history that preceded them. Like invisible factories, discursive institutions transform them into a specific type of “Black” person. They enter a church or hang in the street, they come from the Caribbean or are middle- class or visit family in jail. More important than the physical buildings they enter is the language they acquire. It frames experience.

A discursive institution is organized knowledge rooted in language and acted out in a defined space. It is where they practice forms of “blackness,” each with different values, often one conflicting with the other. A cliché is the home versus the street, seen in the 2009 biopic Notorious, when Biggie Smalls as a teen changes clothes on the roof to hide his drug dealing from his mother.

Each discursive institution — the church, the street, etc — that transforms and regulates one’s social identity can move you through Cross’s racial identity scale or stall you at a stage. Essentially they are regressive or progressive. Today’s regressive discourses are the marginal but loud: Black cultural nationalism (sorry Harlem!), gangsta to corporate bling bling, Hip Hop, church-based sexism and class elitism in the form of prosperity theology and homophobia.

So when I first heard Amiri Baraka’s poem “Somebody Blew Up America” and the stupid line, “Who told 4000 Israeli workers to stay home that day,” and the mostly young, mostly Black audience clapped, I winced. It reduced “the Israeli” into a one-dimensional caricature defined by national identity. And I sensed it trapped youth of color in Cross’s third stage, Immersion, where everything black is good and everything white is bad. Baraka is part of an African-American tradition that slips between group-affirmation and other-denigration; he usually and irritatingly framed others (whites, Jews, gays) as the source of evil, reducing their humanity to a single, false identity, telescoped by our own need for distance from the Other.

And when I first heard Snoop Dogg’s 1993 song “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None),” which basically is a gang rape anthem, I watched everyone’s heads bobbing to the beat and waited for someone to wake from the trance and say, “Hey, is this a rape song?” No one did.

Today is not much different. Music is one discursive institution overlapping with others, but where it met street culture and was sucked into corporate America, it became a regressive narrative of blackness. Not all Hip Hop but the most popular forms of it are sexist, materialistic, homophobic and work as commercials for the 1%. On the bus home, a teen was listening to a Lil Wayne rap song on his smartphone: “I’m so rich I go pour Champagne and don’t drink it / Ice on my neck like I fainted / These are the thoughts of the brainless.”

“Am I a Feminist or a Womanist?” Poet Staceyann Chin asked. “The student needs to know if I do men occasionally and primarily, am I lesbian?” In the classroom, people squirmed. On screen the YouTube video played, Chin recited a poem of loving women and how she feared rape, harassment and then being blamed for it. When it was over, I asked the students if they know anyone who was gay. Nearly everyone raised their hands. “Do any of you think your gay friend” — I waited a second — “is going to Hell?”

Stunned, some shook their heads as if warding off a bad smell. Others got still, peeked around and said, “Yes.” A debate raged back and forth over what the Bible meant and who had the right to interpret it until one student, female, with deep brown skin, raised her hand and said, “I’m gay. And no one is putting me in Hell. Ever.”

She has millions with her. In Black America a new generation is pouring into the spaces between the church and the street and claiming those spaces as queer, atheist, punk and poet. They are inheriting, recreating or building from the ground up progressive discursive institutions. Whether they are teen poets of color, going from Urban Word NYC to the Nuyorican Café, parishioners of Liberation Theology churches or the nose-plugged, head-thrashing music zealots at the Afro-punk festival, they are in places that encourage them to embrace their other identities, all the while staying focused on social justice.

Those places aren’t widespread. And yet they contain the small channel through which youth of color can find language that connects all their fragmented parts into a whole person. And to be a fully realized human being in a white and male supremacist, homophobic, late capitalist society is dangerous. Out of necessity the new rainbow youth are radical. They showed up at Occupy Wall Street or rallied at the Million Hoodie March after the Trayvon Martin verdict.

After the rallies, they go home. If they are gay, they risk their lives by holding hands with their lovers. The painful irony is that they most likely walk past Afrocentric bookstores with posters of Malcolm X or maybe now, in honor of his death, Amiri Baraka, two men who hid their own sexuality in order to be accepted as revolutionaries.

The Fire Next Time

When Amiri Baraka died, I remembered these youths’ anxious silence and wondered, what he would say to them? What answers could he give? Last time I saw him perform, he swung his bebop rhythm voice, hitting the scales to a revolutionary battle cry. Old and stooped, he vibrated with intense energy like an engine, his droopy eyes flashing, cutting, dismissing and smiling with mischievous joy.

“Since the rich eat more / than anybody else / it is reasonable to assume,” he chanted, “they are more full of shit.” The room exploded in hard, bitter laughter and I wiped my mouth, feeling a twinge of guilt at the cheap shot. And it disturbed me. It sounded like we were crushing hard coal in our mouths. Our buried rage shot into open hate before subsiding again.

The fury of revenge, it tasted like hot sugar on the tongue. And even though Baraka’s politics split long ago from the cultural nationalism of, say, the Black Israelites, who shout on street corners about the “devil” and the one true God while looking like extras from the film Gladiator, he shares with them a taste for sweet fury. It is addictive because it sublimates pain into a self-righteousness rooted in the belief that one’s suffering is the central truth of life. Tragically, it often is. The danger comes when every unanswered question is read in the same exact way, as another symptom of oppression.

Of course inside Baraka’s voice is Malcolm X’s. No one in Generation X actually knew him, but we recycled him in the 1990s as an icon of militancy. He was our myth, a pure hero from the past whose murder was a guarantee of his truth. In college, I shoplifted his cassettes from Tower Records and played them endlessly in the dorm. One speech, Blacks in Africa, a call to race war, damn near hypnotized me. I pressed the earphones tight as Malcolm X said, “In Morocco and Algeria they’re telling the white man to get out, in the Congo Lumumba told the white man to get out.”

And then his voice hit a threatening low. “And in South Africa they’re telling the white man to get out. He says he’s not going. But he’s got another thought coming. He’ll either walk out or swim out in his blood. He’ll walk out of his volition or swim out in his blood, because the Black Man has awakened. And the Black Man has united. And where there’s unity there’s strength. You don’t need any guns; you just need some unity and a blade when it gets dark. You don’t need any jets. You don’t need any battle ships. You don’t need any atomic bombs. All you need is darkness. Nightfall.”

Brown Skins, Black Masks

“How does it feel to be a problem?” I asked the class. A silent wave of emotion washed over their faces. Eyebrows bobbed up and down. Foreheads wrinkled like venetian blinds. On every desk was a copy of the 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, the classic by W. E. B. Du Bois. We just read the scene when a white girl came to his New England school, looked at his brown skin and rudely ignored him; it hit Du Bois that he was “black.”

“When did you first know what your ‘race’ was?” I threaded my question like a needle to pop the pressure in the room.

“It wasn’t from white people,” a woman burst out. “It was from nigge — sorry, it was the kids calling me darkness or tar pit or midnight.”

“Right,” another student said and heads nodded, hummed yeses rose from them. “If you dark, they get on you, harass you,” she said and pulled her coat closed, crossing her arms.

“Are you going to teach us about double consciousness again?” The question came from a male student in the back row. He then recited, in a robotic monotone, the famous passage, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

The whole class roared, slapping their desks and laughing. I taught the concept every semester and was known in the college as Professor Double Consciousness. I eyed them as they cackled and said, “I’m going to fail you bastards.”

They palmed their chests and looked at each other in shock. “No, no, no, I’m not,” I said, “But how about a question. Let’s flip the double consciousness that Du Bois talked about in which a minority, specifically African-Americans, internalize how the majority, specifically white people, see them and each other. It’s real. It’s why some of you have been judged and judge others as too dark, too nappy, too ill na na.”

They giggled.

“When have you looked at yourself from a ‘Black’ point of view?” I asked. “When have you internalized a viewpoint that showed you as beautiful or powerful or lovable because of your color, your race? If you know about double consciousness, do you have a black consciousness to heal yourself?”

A perplexed silence fell over the room. They looked up and around, down and up again. They searched themselves and as they did, the quiet stretched into anxiety.

“Do you have a black consciousness?” I asked again, a tone of sadness in my voice. And again it fell like a single piano note between them and me.

“Well, do you?”

Continue Reading

Sun Jun 15, 2014 at 08:53 AM PDT

House of Cards: A Review

by Nicholas Powers

The first time I met Frank, he was strangling a dog to death. “There are two kinds of pain,” he drawled. “The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering.” In his grip, the dog died. And this is why I love Frank: he will stare you in the face while killing and say something smart.

My 14th episode of House of Cards was loading on Netflix and by now Frank Underwood and I were intimate friends. It’s an awkward relationship. He’s a fictional Machiavellian Democratic congressman, played by Kevin Spacey, who uses people’s weaknesses as stepping stones in his rise to power. His wife Claire, played by a statuesque Robin Wright, heads a nonprofit and gives orders with a voice as icy as Antarctic wind. Together, this power couple moves through the halls of Washington, D.C., like a pair of sharks. But once in a while, Underwood looks at me and breaks the fourth wall, that imaginary divide between performer and audience, to explain his actions and guide me deeper into his maze.

Most narratives have a cathartic pleasure, an emotion purged through a conflict the protagonist is engaged in, a fear exorcised by his or her triumph. So what is the pleasure of House of Cards, now in its second season, drawing nearly 5 million viewers and a cult following in the nation’s capital? Real-life politicians act out scenes from the series in online homage, imitating Spacey’s menacing Southern drawl. Conservative and progressive groups both reference it with glee. The reason is simple. Underwood taps into our inner authoritarian desires; he lets us experience, briefly, the joy of being cruel.

Palace Intrigue

The show is a modern version of the palace intrigue, a genre of tragedy older than Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Set in a somber D.C. lit with blues and grays, House of Cards begins with Underwood as the House majority whip who helps presidential candidate Garrett Walker get elected in exchange for the post of secretary of state. When Walker takes office and denies him the position, Underwood begins his drive for power. Cringing, we watch in sick fascination as he breaks every rule of morality in the pursuit of vengeance. The closer Underwood gets, the longer the trail of ruined lives behind him.

Binge-watching the series, my eyes dry as marbles, I saw Underwood looming larger and larger as he lied, cheated and killed his way to the vice presidency. Set against a neo-noir backdrop of dark rooms, dark rainy nights and the beige halls of the West Wing, the actors strike iconic poses of power and addiction, cruelty and submission. The camera frames each scene like a classical painting. We see Underwood shaking hands with those he just betrayed, doling out addictive doses of prestige and handing a man a razor to kill himself.

Again and again, he maneuvers himself back to the top as the political terrain shifts beneath him. And that’s the joy of it: in him, we champion competent evil. Usually villains embody illicit desire; they kill, steal, rape, plunder and manipulate others with a sparkle in their eyes. Yet however fascinating they are, they cross a line that disturbs us and we want them to die at the hero’s hands. But in House of Cards, the villain is the hero. Crossing ethical lines drives the plot forward and the tension higher. The question at the core is, will evil be rewarded?

At this point the question can’t be answered. The suspension of disbelief snapped. Since the logic of the show demanded the tension intensify as the increasing violence of Underwood’s secret life overlapped with his public role, it may have been inevitable that he became a caricature of evil. He’s not remotely human, but rather a stock-in-trade serial killer whose uniqueness comes from being the vice president. It’s an adolescent view of evil that, as Hannah Arendt showed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, misses its far more destructive form. In watching Underwood, essentially a dandy psychopath whose personality is both reptilian and flamboyant, we focus on a character instead of a system. And we miss the bigger picture of how institutional logic, social roles and self-justification create state-sponsored terror. We maintain our blindness to how normal people lead institutions like our military into war, or worse.

Deadly Charm

Another reason the question of whether evil will be rewarded is irrelevant is that it already has. Even if Netflix renews House of Cards for another season and at the end, Underwood is cornered and caught, we will have voyeuristically been pleasured with his crimes. We have 26 episodes from two seasons to watch over and over, savoring his deadly charm, how he throws a reporter under an oncoming train or leaves a man to die from carbon monoxide poisoning as he lies drunk and unconscious in a car with the engine running.

His evil is rewarding to us because it purges us of a fear rising in America, the fear of our own powerlessness. As the economy stumbles from quarter to quarter, as a great divide splits the nation into the many poor and the wealthy few, as Russia claims Crimea and China claims whole swaths of sea, as Washington stands paralyzed and Wall Street surges, a great pessimism has swept over us. It has been reflected in the apocalyptic movies and dark, grim shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, which throw their characters, our stand-ins, into a frenzied state of helplessness.

And onto the scene comes Francis Underwood, our hero, our gangsta, a man empty of ideological content who has no agenda and no goal except his own glory. He transforms the anxious desire for power into a fascinating spectacle of its fulfillment. And that’s why House of Cards is a sign of a renewed American optimism. In its fictional universe, unlike in our real lives, we finally win — even though the victory leaves blood on our hands.

Discuss

“Excuse me that was my seat,” he leaned on the rail and pointed beneath her legs, “I put my bag under it.” I looked at them as the silence in the air became charged with something ugly.

“Then you lost your seat,” she announced.

“Are you serious,” he pushed back, his voice jittery. In the first split second of a fight, who doesn’t size the enemy up, read how far they’ll go, measure the oscillation of fear and anger in the body? I glanced and saw he was skinny, Black and gay. His voice was airy. She heard it to; she knew the seat was hers.

In her calculation, his skinny gayness outweighed his blackness. If it was me or my burly corn-rowed friends, one of whom has gold teeth, you best believe she would’ve moved with a whispery, “Sorry”. It’s how the hierarchy of terror works in New York; we pivot around each other’s stereotypes. If my crew had taken her seat but then a squad of crazy Russians rolled up and wanted them, we would have said, “Sorry” and moved to. No one wants to die over a seat, unless you’re from Brownsville. They’ll die over anything.  

I studied them from the corner of my eye. This is Brooklyn. And this is the UA Court Street Stadium. It was here that I saw two mothers hurl popcorn, curse and yank out tuft after tuft of each other’s hair weaves, they wrestled on the floor cheered on by the crowd. And yes, it was over a seat.

“I can’t believe you’re arguing with me about this,” Mr. Skinny Jeans half-pleaded, half demanded.

“Believe it,” she spoke like a hammer, hitting each syllable like a nail, “The seat is yours if you’re in it. If not, it’s up for grabs.”

“Wow, it’s like that,” he lunged under her legs and snatched his bag, “Better watch yourself missy.”

He stomped off, climbed the stairs to the dark upper rows. I relaxed and smiled. Working-class Brooklyn comes to the UA to see entertainment and inevitably become it.

The “Keep it Real” folks pack the rows to watch sex joke-filled comedies or explosive superhero sequels. They shout back at the actors. They laugh big. But when the lead hero shoots his weapon, I look at the audience in the strobe light of machine gun fire. It’s like they are a thousand blank pieces of paper being written on by the same light.

And I come here specifically for movies on race. When Red Tails, a George Lucas film about the Tuskegee pilots came out, I heard their groans at the bad acting. When Fruitvale Station lit up the screen, I felt the despair turn in our chests like giant screws. Here is where the Brooklyn Diaspora sees Hollywood's myths of race and the X-Men film series are a part of that mythology. The mutants are a stand in for ethnic minorities. Professor X is the peaceful Martin Luther King Jr. of Homo Superior. Magneto the icy eyed Malcolm X.

When X-Men: Days of Future Past flickered on screen, I wondered how would we read this new " race" film that used a comic book aesthetic to talk about politics? The first scene was of a dark, battered war-torn world. Instantly the strange semi-hypnosis of film pulled us in. A movie is a bright immersive world that engulfs us until we dissolve into the story. In this one, mutants strode from fight to fight, at stake was the future itself.

The plot is that Mystique, a dark blue mutant (played with resigned feistiness by Jennifer Lawrence) killed in 1973 a man named Bolivar Trask (a Shakespearean Peter Dinklange) but was then taken hostage and experimented on. Her mutant ability to mimic others was extracted and mass produced into fleets of Sentinel robots, who flew to the far corners of the Earth to hunt down and kill mutants. But in a tragic blowback, since humanity itself was evolving to a mutant species, nearly everyone had a recessive mutant gene and became targets. In the scenes of the future, a dark mass of humbled people shuffled in cages to their extermination under the metallic eyes of the Sentinels.

The surface conflict driving the plot was the X-Men trying to stop her from killing Trask. The deeper one was the struggle of an oppressed minority, torn between two political visions. One of them being integration and hopeful reconciliation with the majority, the other, a rage fueled separatism and a vengeance that rips the world apart.

I watched the movie, at times awed by the special effects, at times bored but there was a part of me that was but a drop in the larger emotional waves of the audience. Inside the cavernous theater hall, we poured ourselves into the film like tides rolling in, then receding, then back in again as the narrative climbed fight after fight to climax. Would she kill? Would hope win out over rage?

The film revolves around time travel and the parallel plot lines of the future and past. It was then inevitable that two versions of the same character meet. “We need you to hope again,” the older Professor X (a stately Patrick Stewart) consoled his younger version (a shaggy James McAvoy). He speaks from the end of the war to who he was decades ago, a broken young man who wants to retreat from the world. Living in the 70’s the youthful professor takes a drug that numbs his telepathic powers to stop feeling everyone’s pain. He yells no, yells that he can’t endure it until the older one tells him that embracing their pain will make him more powerful than he’s ever known.

The audience hushed and focused on his words. It was the liberal money shot. It was the idea of redemptive suffering that we inherited from the Civil Rights Movement and here was an aged, British actor who many of us grew up with in film and TV, speaking the idea of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Soul Force. In the back of my mind flashed the black and white image of men on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, pointing to the echo of a gunshot as King lay on the ground, blood spurting from his neck like a garden hose.

Redemptive suffering – I doubt many were that conscious of the allegory but it’s the history that resonated in us. I felt everyone making a connection with the film because it was at a moment of crisis that tested the characters morality and made it clear for us. And maybe why the X-Men film series are one of the few where the audiences are so diverse. Nerds, comic book fans, thugs, Buppies, interracial date night couples and slumming intellectuals. We’re all here.

After that scene the film ground on to the last climax with Mystique aiming a gun at Trask, her hand trembling with rage. He killed so many of her friends, other mutants, to create his Sentinels. Pinned by rubble, Professor X can control her mind but instead projects his image in front of her and gives her the freedom to choose. Kill or forgive.
Tears streaming, she aims for his head, knowing that to kill Trask would also kill her ability to feel human again. The gun wobbles in her hand, she drops it and leaves. In the “future”, the war disappears, the genocide, the mountains of skulls, the people in cages under the silhouettes of Sentinels, vanish.

The credits rolled up the screen but people stayed, gossiping about the effects, wondering what new X-Men movie was next to be made. I was like what the fuck. Does anyone see the message or is it just a computer generated fireworks display?
“Excuse me,” a man said.

I turned and saw Mr. Skinny Jeans leaning over the rail, staring at Missy who took his seat. Oh shit, it was about to be on.

“I wanted to apologize for coming at you like that,” he scratched his cheek nervously,

“It’s just a seat and I am sorry for yelling at you.”

A moment went by and the air became charged with something beautiful. “I apologize,” she said her voice tight but opening, “It probably would’ve been fun if you sat next to me.”

“Oh shit,” he laughed and she joined him. He fanned his hands near his face, “It’s getting real Obama-like in here.” They laughed even harder.

Continue Reading

Sat Jun 14, 2014 at 06:47 AM PDT

Letter from Karl Marx

by Nicholas Powers

Editor’s Note: Since the financial crash of 2008, there has been a revival of interest in the writings of Karl Marx, especially among disenchanted millennials faced with bleak economic prospects and unburdened by memories of the Cold War. Marx died in 1883. So, what would he have to say to his readers if he were able to come back to life today? In the imaginary letter below, Nicholas Powers takes a crack at giving voice to a 19th century prophet trying to make sense of a 21st century world radically different from the one he knew but still ruled by the capitalist system he so painstakingly analyzed.

Dear Comrades,

I am writing you because it troubles me to have a dialogue with you in my head without you being able to answer. The world is teeming with activity. Again you are in the streets, shouting with a glowing hatred for the landlords, capitalists and officials.

What else can one write about at the present moment but of the great schism that has cracked open the 21st century? Islands of wealth rise even as whole peoples slide into abysmal poverty. Against their death the multitudes fight in blind sporadic outbursts — here in the Middle East, there in America, here in Spain and there again in India.

Like so many volcanoes, the people erupt and the transnational bourgeoisie, as if a Goliath, kick them down like anthills. How could it be otherwise? Imperialist war has left the nations (often to the jingoist cheer of the stupid) with fully developed forces that today’s as-yet immature social movements dash against in futility.

Today many are hopeless. In my own time, I also felt hollow. When my son Edgar died, he was only eight. I walked the cobblestone streets of Brussels, weeping and tugging my beard as he once did. Did I kill him by choosing a life of slums and revolutionary theory? At his funeral the family consoled me as I grieved, “You cannot give me back my boy!”

In the years that followed, child after child died. My wife Jenny’s face became tight with pain. To escape the guilt of a silent house, I walked the city and saw the same death stalking my neighbors. Their children died too. Clad in the black of mourning, they paced to and fro and their shadows shuddered along the walls. Above us all, I saw the grinding mill of labor, its invisible wheels churning the city, mulching our bodies and spirits into capital.

We suffer and die, in a seemingly endless cycle. But what is the meaning of it? Are we but fodder for factories? Are the armies of workers, who march from hearthstone to industry, ever to remain nameless in history? Gazing upon the buildings, I saw in the tall spires, in the store filled with wares and in each stone of the street the human hands that built this city. Each object was a testament to the powers of the wretched worker who returned home at night with an empty stomach.

Labor is the beating heart of the world. Anything I ever wrote came from this eternal truth. My hope, dear comrades, was for the masses to know this and see in the ruling class and its parade of power their own stolen strength. My dream was to spur them to ruthlessly seize control of the means of production — yes, by force and by blood — until we climbed the capitols of the world and made them ring with workers’ voices. Upon that summit, we could lay to rest the spirits of those we watched die from hunger and poverty and grief. Maybe then, arm-in-arm with my comrades, I could feel Edgar tug my beard again and know that he forgave me.

Long after I wrote my last word, I am being read again. Leave it to the rich to create my audience for me! Of course, inevitably the capitalist cycle of crisis has crashed. The contradictions of bourgeois production — exploitation of the labor of workers who cannot afford the gross flood of commodities — were held at bay in the advanced nations by credit, until teetering like a house of cards, it fell.

Rising from the rubble is the anger of the workers and the young who can find no work. Close behind it will be the terror of the global South. For the next contradiction of bourgeois production — the infinite desire for capital accumulation on a finite planet — has made industry the enemy of the earth. Ice caps melt. Floods wash cities away. Terrified millions, ragged and desperate, are on the move.

The historical role of the working class is now to save our species from capitalism. Mind you, I am not blowing the heavenly horns of the End Times. No prophecy of final revolution is true, including my own. The social being of man may determine his consciousness, but it does not foreclose it — there is something in man that is deeper than consciousness. And that is being itself. Even a communist mode of production will never allow us to seize control of our own dark depths.

We may be beyond salvation, but must the earth itself be condemned? The bourgeoisie are blinded by privilege; they imagine they can escape the wrath of hurricanes and drought. But they will destroy our planet, the vulnerable poor and then, eventually, themselves. We revolutionaries must remove them, smash their society and replace it with a free association, between man and man as well as man and nature.

Let me tell you now what I could not know then. Paradise was never at the end of a long historical arc of development. It was here all along. We always already had enough. It was the ideology of hierarchy and scarcity that trapped us. And know this — the true product of an economy is not commodities but the consciousness of those that make them.

So as you ply the fingers of the bourgeois off the earth, breathe and sing. I see from a great distance the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new one. Every metamorphosis is also a swan song. This is your time.

Continue Reading

"I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me,” he said into the camera. “But I will punish you all for it.”
The next day, on May 24, news headlines said that a young man named Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, drove around stabbing and shooting until six people were dead. He crashed his car and shot himself dead, leaving families to mourn slain loved ones. And he left behind a 137-page autobiographical manifesto and a collection of YouTube videos; in one entitled Retribution, he said to women: “I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.”

Misogyny: the hatred of women. It is the emotional atmosphere of a patriarchal society that, like an acidic fog, burns everyone. We breathe it, walk in it, make our lives inside it, forgetting it’s there until loud gunfire comes from a man like Rodger, who is now the face of male supremacy. But after he fades from the news, we will still be left with ongoing violence against women. More than three American women a day are killed by a current or former intimate partner. In 2010, 85,593 women were raped in the United States: that’s 235 a day, and because rape is markedly underreported, even those numbers are low. Women still contend with a wage gap and a glass ceiling. In the Global South, at least 150 million girls have had their genitals sheared off as a “rite of passage.” Women will still be sex-trafficked. And of course, women are killed before birth; over 90 million were aborted in India and China because parents did not want the burden of a girl.

In the United States, women saw in Rodger’s misogynist killing spree an extreme form of the violence they live with every day. The Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen became a public forum for sharing stories of male violence, spanning from microaggressions to rape. Yet many of us men can’t see ourselves in Rodger. Or read the stories of women’s fear or anger or hurt without laughing (yes, I heard men laughing about it on the subway) or dismissing it as the hysterics of overly sensitive women. We choose not to listen because if we did, it would destroy our self-image, by showing how women too often see us: as tormentors, oblivious and arrogant, who cause pain they are too scared or tired or too hopeless to even talk about.

Boys Will Be Boys

Why are we killing women? I know, I know. An instant defensive wall rises in the brain. I’m not hurting women, I don’t gun them down or rape or harass them. Nor do my boys. It’s not all men!

You’re right, it’s not all men, it’s not you. Relax. You’re off the hook. It’s the Boko Haram or the Black guys on the street corner. No, it’s the Puerto Ricans during their annual parade. Maybe the Indian men who left two raped girls hanging dead from a tree? Better yet, it’s the medieval Saudis who won’t let women drive. Yes, it’s always someone else, somewhere else. It will never be you or me.

And yet, every woman I talk to has a story. Every, single one. At Bed-Stuy’s Civil Service Café, I asked two women about sexism. One told me of being paid less than her male boss while doing his work. The other said she pretended to be made of steel in order to not be hurt by sexist comments at her job.

Later, a friend told me that while drinking at a male friend’s house she blacked out and woke up to find him thrusting inside her. After his orgasm, he got up and asked if his cousin in the next room “could get some too.”

During the New York summer, men’s eyes transform into giant tongues licking women up and down. Participating in everyday guy talk is like passing a pair of scissors around, cutting women into pieces — nice tits, look at that ass, good dick sucking lips on that one!

Men say over and over that it’s not all men. And yet seemingly every woman has a story of sexism. What are the mechanics of this social blindness? One is simple displacement. Privileged men project their sexism downward and outward to the faraway “Other” who is always more brutal and more savage. In comparison to them, we look like extras from The Bachelor. How can we be sexist? We let you drive and vote!

And then of course there’s denial. We minimize the pain our male privilege causes women. Men are trained in, celebrate and have made industries out of violence. Often, pain is visible only if it’s physical. Yet bodily harm is one pole on the spectrum of violence and making it the only “real” form of sexism renders invisible the thousand small acts of disrespect and aggression that women endure each day. But again there’s that question. How can we be sexist? We didn’t leave any marks!

Finally, sexism as an ideological practice “naturalizes” itself with nature and religion. Our dominance is part of the evolutionary order, we hunt, we pursue, we spread our seed, we build and destroy; we lead. Women are weak and emotional. Biology is destiny. Or pick your holy book, the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, all written by men, describing a male god who demands that women obey men. Shocker! Of course it leaves women in the impossible position of “interpreting” religious texts that are hopelessly sexist to eke out a moderate form of devotion.

Sexist ideology and practice are reproduced in institutions. The military, the church, Hollywood, sports, Wall Street, wherever all-male spaces exist or where men dominate and women are tokens, sexism builds and spills over. It recreates us in its image. And it recreates itself in how we imagine ourselves.

No Homo!

Boys, ever feel scared you weren’t a man? Ever stand, lonely, on the outside of a circle of men, who laughed with arms slung on each other’s shoulders? When did you know that a joke about women was the surest way in?

Remember the crack you made about pussy? How they laughed and brought you into the circle. Once inside, everyone took turns climbing this imagined “woman.” You fucked her brains out, hosed her inner organs with your mighty jizz until they were glazed like porcelain, you came on her face in a total bukkake apocalypse until spent from laughter, you left the circle, knowing you were one of the guys.

If in Marxism the commodity is the basic element of capitalism, we can say that in Feminism, objectification is the core process of patriarchy. The turning of a human being into an object that is a tool for your purpose, who has no agency or feelings of her own, a woman interchangeable with other women or a thing you can destroy is the very discursive engine of patriarchy. And it happens because men are not really “men” but human beings performing a gender role, acting “masculine” by exchanging objectified images of women.

When men brag about fucking women, they’re not exactly extolling an authentic connection with another human being. More likely, they’re showing off the grade of conquest, her hair, her skin, her body shape. She becomes a trophy we pass around to others. She’s an object, and possessing her proves our manhood to ourselves and to other men.

It creates the ugly dynamic of sexual entitlement, in which men believe they are owed women’s bodies. And it cuts both ways. Privileged men feel entitled to sex simply because of their wealth, class or racial status. In his manifesto, “My Twisted Life,” Elliot Rodgers — who was half-white and half-Asian — wrote, “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.”

Underprivileged men, who feel too poor, too inexperienced, too ugly, too not enough are often dangerous. They overcompensate by strong-arming women, dominating or abusing them, attempting to control women they fear they can’t keep otherwise. And then there is the subset of men who are insecure about their masculinity not because they’re broke or ugly or awkward but because they’re not really straight. They sublimate their bisexuality into sexist rituals of objectifying women and attacking gays and transgender people, who represent the very desires they repressed in themselves.

These insecurities may be why on an Atlanta train in May, a group of men assaulted two transgender women. They taunted and violently attacked the pair, stripping one of the women naked while bystanders filmed the scene but did not intervene.

A Game of Status

The daily control of women is how patriarchy is maintained. On their bruises we map our property. On their silence, we forge our voice. At the core is our need to be a “man” for other men, and a woman is a checker piece we use to play a game of status with other men. And we are desperate to know we’re men because at our core, we’re never that sure.

There is also a great desire to be free of it. We feel it individually when we are with women we love — romantic partners, yes, but also our family, our friends, our colleagues. Even the most sexist men will defend women they love, because in their compartmentalized minds a special room exists for real relationships that tether them to reality. And we feel it in social movements when, united for a common cause, we want each other’s greatness to shine. In the Slut March of 2011, in the gay weddings of our friends and family, we experience glimpses of that post-sexist world. When authentic human connection lets the man-mask come off, our whole inner being becomes real again.

Now if we can take what we know from our personal and public lives and make feminism a goal among men, our vision of the world will change. When the photo of the Indian girls, raped, strangled and hung from a tree is in the news, we will see their male killers in the same way we now think of whites, gathered around the body of a lynched Black man, as people sick with a terrible ideology that transforms their fear into cruelty.

The first step is incredibly simple — LISTEN! Ask the women in your life what their experience of sexism is and as they talk, just shut up. Do you clench up? Do you feel a wall between your mind and her words? Instead of shutting down, use your defense mechanisms as a map to what scares you about their pain and confront it.

Sadly, some men won’t listen, and they must be challenged and healed when possible, defeated when not. But the desire to be free of sexism does exist. Leaving the Nostrand subway station the other night, I passed through the turnstile as a man was yelling at a young woman, “Come here sweet thing. Get your ass over here. Got this for you.”

I saw her ducking her head as if dodging rocks, and then a guy in overalls yelled, “Nigga what’s wrong with you! Can’t see she want to be left alone.” A circle of us eyed the asshole sexist. “I hate motherfuckers like you,” the man in overalls shouted. “You ain’t a man, motherfucker, do that shit to me, come on bitch, say that to me.” The asshole sexist mumbled some Caribbean gibberish and left as we followed him out with our eyes. And then we looked at each other and I swear we all liked what we saw.

I looked at the young woman, quickly jogging up the steps. Did she?

Continue Reading

They say it’s some terrorist poet, some old man in Newark who burned his lips on America. They say he one of those radical blacks with an A-Rab name, Amiri Baraka. They say he a suicide bomber blowing up poetry, a communist hatemonger, a beehive near a microphone, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a racist with a tongue of acid spitting on wedding cakes, a traitor raping our smiles.

They say (who say?) He was trouble. Flush him in the White House toilet so Obama can feel safe with his pants down. But who do the saying? Who taught us Who They is?
Who was born Everett Leroy Jones? Who was this man, spinning 400 years of slavery into a tornado of words?

Leroy Jones, a black boy who hated the mirror, hated his bulgy eyes, hated his skinniness, his small prick eaten by men. A boy & his fears, too short, too bi-sexual, too everything at once, the world exploding, held in place by pounding pianos, blowing trumpets as if to shoot the storm in his body out there, where rhythms laid it down.

Leroy Jones survived high school hunger games to college puppet show. Brain inside an ice cube. He saw Negroes jiving for whiteness, smiling to open the bank. Nothing fit. A roaring gasoline storm inside, a question threatening to ignite, he ran from college, ran from his name, Leroy became LeRoi, a man’s man.    

LeRoi in the Air Force, American corpse factory, shot guns, caressed Leftist books, felt his pulse in the words, evidence of an unknown self. Dishonorably discharged, he lived the West Village, a bohemian brothel of open love, bodies lit by strangeness, everyone hunting answers.

Searching the streets, LeRoi used liquor bottles as magnifying glasses for the soul. LeRoi who swung deep the Jazz in smoke thick mystery clubs. Fucked and was fucked by men. LeRoi who be a beat poet, beat poetry a Black eye that sees pain between the lines.

LeRoi who married white, married Jewish, married woman. Finally a man’s man. Sex could be aimed like a gun, two children hit the bulls-eye. Who tripped to liberated Cuba, dug the peasants standing on necks of Capitalist vampires. Burned by tragic revolutionary voices, LeRoi spat the ash of his name.

To be a Black Man. To Be a Problem. To Kill the Devil. To Be Born Inside a Hurricane.

LeRoi who swallowed the bullets from Malcolm X’s body and forgot how to speak without killing. Who burned his marriage on the Altar of Blackness and rubbed his face with its charcoal for camouflage!

Who moved to Harlem to make revolution! LeRoi whose mouth was a Jazz Gatling Gun! LeRoi who dreamt of race war!

LeRoi who smoked the rubble of Newark Riots and hallucinated a Black Nation! LeRoi who used a gun as a pen to write on the pages of history! Who played Double Dutch with slave chains and made House Negroes jump! jump! jump!

Who changed his name to Amear, so only his old self could hear his family weeping in the trashcan. Amear who rewrote himself as Amiri, Amiri Baraka, Arabic for Blessing, to heal minds bleached dead by America.

Who hated gays, who hated Jews, who hated who he had been, a man bending over, hated who he loved, his first children, bats crying in his skull. Who hated, hated, hated to love the night that never ended, the night his skin was — Amiri’s hands blind with fire.

Who tore pages of Marx’s Capital to bandage the light coming through the cracks in his mind?

Who saw the Movement recede, a tide leaving his books on the shore, who listened to sea shells for the voices of his slain friends?

Who lived into the New Millennium, an academic hobo, a revolution in a museum, a grinning wild man whose laughter cracked diamonds?

Who was hated by the privileged? Who was fired from his job? Who used the craters of U.S. bombs for his stage? Who rattled his tongue on the bars of prisons?

Amiri! Amiri the poet who sprinkled perfume on lava! Amiri the blind man who never saw the 4,000 shadows he cast in the Towers that fell, in the men who loved men, in the people cold in their whiteness, in the lost and confused and hurt. Amiri who forgot how to speak without killing.

Who cracked mirrors on the faces of our enemies, each shard a piece of the jigsaw puzzle of his unknown self!

Our Blessing, our Baraka, our triumph, our failure, Amiri who loved fire but not light, who did not open his eyes for fear of betraying the dark.

Amiri who wept at daughter killed, tears that never found a blank page to blossom, an invisible bouquet on her tombstone.

Whose son carries his father’s life toward the horizon, Amiri a father of millions of sons, millions of daughters. Amiri in history, Amiri in the Hall of Black Heroes.

Amiri died of diabetes, old and panting in the hospital feeling the final darkness swallowing him. Who felt the falling into Nothingness. Amiri whose last breath was an unfolding poem, ascending inside us.

Amiri who died a torch, a self burning flame!

Who will be Amiri again? Who is the Rage in the Street? Who will turn the Dictionary into a hornet’s nest? Whose mouth will be a Jazz Gatling Gun?

Like a volcano in your sleep, exploding in your life, in your brain, in yourself.  Who will make the Final Call to the dead! Who will write poems with dynamite! Who will shout questions that shatter our porcelain sex! Who will explode our fear!

Whooooo and Who and Whoooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Continue Reading

Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators. – Noam Chomsky

“The Washington Drones are on the 38 yard line, third down, less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter of Superbowl XLIX,” sportscaster Larry Michael announced. “Score 27–22, Oakland Raiders in the lead. If they hold off the Drones assault they could go home the big winners of the night!”

On screen, they huddled, broke and squatted in front of the black-suited Raiders. Two teams, ready to wrestle over yards as seconds trickled from the clock. The ball snapped, the lines grappled as a Raider penetrated the Drones offensive line and lunged for their quarterback, who backpedaled but was tackled.

“It’s a sack! It’s a sack,” sportscaster Greg Papa roared as Raider fans in the stadium cheered. The Drones quarterback was helped up by his teammates who slapped his helmet as the coach called a timeout.

“Washington Drones coach calls for a timeout,” Michael said. “This is a climatic moment in a dramatic season. Just two years ago the team was the Washington Redskins until owner Daniel Snyder, bowing to public pressure began a $10,000 contest for a new name. Army veteran, John Logan, who served two tours in Afghanistan came up with the Washington Drones, based of course, on the controversial unmanned aircraft that bring the pain to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Logan said, ‘Drones kept me and my boys safe. Now every time my team makes a touchdown, I feel like we killed a terrorist.’”

The broadcast cut to a commercial for the Washington Drones. In green, grainy military style video, it showed the players in a desert, tackling dirty Taliban fighters and standing up, pointing to the camera and saying, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Back at the Superbowl, loud horns blared like on orchestra on steroids. “Welcome back from the break. Of course the name change to Washington Drones angered many Arab Americans,” said Papa. “They held signs outside stadiums in protest but were overwhelmed by fans throwing paper airplanes at them in honor of 9/11. Surprising everyone, the Washington Drones took the season by storm, winning the playoffs and now are just yards away from taking the Superbowl and proving the politically correct wrong.”

“We shouldn’t forget the new Thunderdome Rules,” said Michael.

“Yes,” replied Papa, “In the last minute of the Superbowl the only rule is there are no rules. It’s the first season in use and no one knows what’s going to happen. Oh, here they come off the timeout.”

The Drones lined up in front of the Raiders, the ball was snapped, the players crashed into each other, shoving and throwing as the quarterback turned and threw a pass that was caught by a Raider. “Interception,” yelled Papa, “The Raider is running with it downfield. This could be a touchdown and this could be it for the Drones!”

The quarterback pulled out a remote control, pressed a button and the football exploded, ripping the Raider apart and sending his helmet rolling on the turf. Drone fans stood and cheered in waves.

“It’s the Hellfire Missile Play,” laughed Michael, “Rumors were flying about it but to see it in action!”

“Amazing,” said Papa, “Amazing.”

Continue Reading

Tue Nov 05, 2013 at 07:18 AM PST

Affirmative Action Orgasms

by Nicholas Powers

"Here,” I said, and gave her a petite, tourist shop bell. “If you’re stressed out, bored and want an orgasm, ring it.” She stared at me and a cascade of emotions washed over her face.
“Are you serious?” She asked. Sitting next to her, I placed it in her palm. “Want me to wear a bowtie and white gloves? You can call me Mr. Belvedere.” She playfully punched my chest. “Don’t bring up ‘80s television, it was a bad time for everyone.” After studying the bell, she put it down. “Why are you doing this?”
“I want to be on the right side of history,” I said. She shook her head and splayed her hands with a What-Are-You-Talking-About look.
“The orgasm gap.” I breathed in big, then exhaled. “Men get off more and more often. I thought about what you told me about your last partner. I want to, I mean, I think it would be good to try to make up for lost pleasure.”
“My orgasms are not orphans,” she said sharply.
“No, I know,” I replied.
“My orgasms are not runaway kids sleeping under a bridge,” she pushed. “It’s not your job to rescue them.”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.” She held the bell up and without looking at me said, “I’m sorry. You know, it’s true, I’m shy about coming. When I do, I look away or bury my face in the pillows.” I nodded and kept quiet. “It’s always been like that.” She turned to me. “I mean, I love sex.” Her voice lifted in apology and then her eyes lowered, as if sifting the silence for a way out of the awkwardness.
She didn’t ring the bell that day, or the day that followed. I made the daily circle between home and work. Sometimes she was with me, sometimes she wasn’t. The bell sat on the desk. I eventually forgot about it, except when we made love and she buried her face in the pillows.

Under the Silence

Before leaving my apartment, she stuffed her books and video camera into a backpack that hung on her like a giant snail shell. She’s a visual artist and weeks ago, had sent me a link to her work. In one clip, holding her high school diary, she read her adolescent confessionals to a packed room.
It was raw, uncomfortably raw. I cringed at the rising panic in her entries until it peaked in a stark moment of her saying, “I am ugly. No one will love me.” Watching the clip, I heard the audience gasp, then say, “Awww.” They wanted to reach out to her and embrace the hurt, confused, self-doubting young girl, but she was buried deep within the adult who made a career of recreating herself in public.
The power of her performance wasn’t in the exposure of adolescent pain but in the strength to look back and measure its distance. The next day I taught my college literature class, read students’ papers and saw how close those hurts still were for them. Many of those painful experiences had just been lived, and some of the wounds were openly bleeding into the pages of their memoirs. And of course it always hit the women hardest.
I asked the female students if they’d ever felt themselves to be ugly. Nearly all raised their hands. I asked if they or if someone they knew had been raped. Nearly all raised their hands. I asked the same question about secret abortions and sexual harassment. In the tense silence, one of them looked around the room, filled with arms standing like flagpoles and said, “Why is this happening to us?”

The Sexist Gauntlet

On my way home, I heard her question over and over in my mind. And asked myself, what if I was a woman? Same butter pecan complexion, same curly hair. I have big hips for a guy, been told that my whole life. But as a woman my ass and hips would be a swinging bull’s eye for men. Would I straighten my hair? Yes, because I’m vain and ambitious. All in all, I thought, I would be a sexy fucking lady.
But when I looked down the street and saw the men there, some of them my friends, I felt naked, vulnerable in my imagined body. I wouldn’t be able to just walk by them. They would dissect my breasts and legs with their eyes. They would catcall. They would order me to smile. Some would walk beside me, trying to pull my name or get my number. And if I didn’t answer they’d curse me.
Every day, I would have to untangle myself from their voices that crisscrossed the sidewalk like fishing lines. I would wear headphones like a helmet to shield myself against the blast of their open lust. If I stayed late at work or wanted to go out it would be an issue. At night, whole sections of the city are off-limits to a woman.
What if I was a working-class woman and no Prince Charming came for me? If I were a straight woman, I’d have to find a lover among these men. Behind closed doors, I would be near their volcanic egos that spewed hot chunks of hurt. Building a life with them would mean having to trust someone who seemed to be sinking into debt, into jail, into a bottle or just into bleak-eyed work that, like mine, left little time to find oneself.
And what if I as a woman met me? How would I as a man treat me as a woman? I wondered about the silent judgments that would be made. Would I have to prove my worth to him? Would his male privileges be a lacquer that glazed his thinking? Would he hurt me? Knowing my combustible mix of arrogance and insecurity, I was forced to admit that yes, yes I would.
Turning the corner, I imagined the weight that women must physically feel. Sure, some have class or racial privileges that lessen it, but even just this brief fantasy made me feel like a spectacle for men. I hated having my movements hemmed in by fear. Anger knotted my forehead. I looked at the men I knew, who saw me and waved. I gritted my teeth.

The Bell Curve

When I saw my lover the next day I apologized for the bell. “It was a stupid idea,” I said and shrugged. “I thought about the self-judgment, the fear, the limits that women feel and I felt angry, ashamed. On a systemic level, men have to work with other men to push against sexism, I get that, I do but instead of ‘blah, blah, blah’ why can’t we actually commit time to repairing some of the damage? And pleasure can heal.”
She eyed me without saying anything. She was a quiet thinker — radiant constellations flashed continuously in her eyes but it took days before she told me about her decisions. And now she studied my face and I felt like glass.
“It’s about justice. A straight man in a relationship with a woman should be getting her off at least four times a day. I don’t know.” I threw up my hands. “Call it Affirmative Action Orgasms.”
“Is that really all it’s about?” she asked. “No,” I muttered and went to my desk. “It’s my way of penance.” Sitting down, I began doing school work.
Then I heard the bell ring. Turning around, I saw her smiling. She patted her inner thighs. “Reparations?” I got up laughing and we fell in together. An hour later, I was doing work again when she rang the bell. “Seriously?” I asked. “If you want world peace,” she said making gang signs over her pubic hair, “Come eat me out.”
When she rang, I answered. If I was cooking and heard the bell, I turned off the oven and went to her. If I was reading or writing and heard the bell, I put the work down and went to her. If she was in the shower and rang the bell, I came in.
Over those first two weeks, I saw a bright joy begin to illuminate her face. Her body’s rhythms became as sweeping as ocean tides that erased and redrew her self-image. An easy, flowing generosity filled our nights together.
 One evening, I was drinking with friends when my cell phoned beeped. I answered it and heard a bell ringing. Instantly I got up, and they asked where I was going. “I have to do reparations,” I said. They looked at me, eyes scrunched, not understanding. “You guys should definitely look into getting bells,” I said smiling, and left.

Continue Reading

In August 2001, Nicholas Powers returned to New York to start a new life. Working as an adjunct at Borough Manhattan Community College, he walked past the rubble of the Twin Towers on his way to class. “9/11 was the first time I experienced history right in my face,” he recalled.
As cremation dust hung in the air, he wrestled with questions of how history changes us and how to bear witness to pain while offering hope of a better world. Powers’ new book, The Ground Below Zero, is a record of the deeply personal odyssey that followed. Tragedy and ecstasy fuse together in his narrative.
We see through his eyes Hurricane Katrina flooding New Orleans, the rubble of Port au Prince in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the anti-Iraq War protests and the rise of Occupy Wall Street.

Nia Nottage: Many of the essays in your book originally appeared as articles in The Indypendent. Describe some of your intentions going into writing these articles. How did you initially get involved with the Indy and at what point did you decide to turn your work for them into a book?
Nicholas Powers: In 2004, I was studying at the CUNY Graduate Center when I saw a copy of the Indy. It had a call for writers. My first essays took cultural theory and used it as a prism to analyze politics; Slavoj Žižek, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud were my influences.
After I came back from reporting in post-Katrina New Orleans, I needed a deeper connection to my experience. I shifted toward creative non-fiction and poetry, which I found in the work of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and the Surrealists. As I was writing each article I had a feeling in the back of my mind that it was for a larger project. Each article was not just a news report, but an attempt to see what the central human conflicts were — the details that make it rise above that specific moment.
I was driven to do that because I felt that in each specific protest march, or funeral, or relationship with someone, there were universal themes that were going through all of them. Over the years, my essays became more personal and The Indypendent gave me space to develop. Of course they pay in hugs, not money, but I can’t put a monetary value how they’ve allowed me to grow. It’s priceless. If I had written for mainstream news or even a dogmatic political magazine, I would have been imprisoned in clichés. NN: You start the book with a glimpse of your family history, which you return to often in the more personal sections of the book. What did it feel like to juxtapose the intimacies of your family life with the major tragedies of the 21st century?
NP: Some of the fights and long-standing silences in the family are a product of class and racism that seeped into my family and warped our relationships, sometimes breaking them. Those family scenes in the book that are very intimate are scaled on the same ideas that affect the larger disasters that I experienced.
The same racism that I saw play out in New Orleans or in Bed-Stuy is the same racism that I could see on the very head of my own mother — who for years fried her hair and was told by her mother that she was not white enough.
NN: In the book, 9/11 provides the initial call to action for you to position yourself to shine a spotlight on tragedy. Why did 9/11 have this effect, when it could easily have caused you to shut down?
NP: 9/11 was the first time I experienced history in my face. I lived through all of the clichés, including washing my hair to get the smell of the Towers — which just saturated the air in the city for months — out of my dreads. So many things at that time changed the trajectory of my life — the anti-war protests, breaking up with my then-fiancé. Most of all, I felt like a failure because I never physically got a chance to help people at Ground Zero. When Hurricane Katrina came, I directed all of that pent-up energy towards New Orleans.
NN: In the book, after leaving New Orleans in the wake of Katrina there’s one point where you say that you “wanted to be free of caring for people [that you] could not help.” Can you explain what this feels like? After experiencing this, why continue to go back?
NP: I thought I was going to be this big fucking super hero — I went there and I accomplished nothing. Coming back in shame, I aimed to write the most beautiful, poetic, honest stuff I could to get people’s attention, but hardly anyone read it. I just got really angry at the world. I was isolated and ashamed, and that’s what it actually felt like.
NN: Do you feel that you have a bit of a “white” or “Western savior complex?”
NP: Well, I did listen to a lot of U2 growing up. It’s a white savior complex, but in my case, maybe it’s more of a mestizo savior complex? It wasn’t like I was trying to save the “Other.” I was the “Other” and I was reliving the tragedy of my mother’s life. I was trying to bear witness to the racism that she dealt with and tried to stop it from hurting other people.
NN: Your visits to the annual Burning Man festival are a big part of the healing process for you. Do you feel that attending Burning Man has changed your views on spirituality? Or on reality?
NP: I was raised Catholic and became an atheist. I think Catholicism has made more atheists than World War Two. But being an atheist is very lonely. After I studied evolution, god vanished. There was nothing in the sky. I had no one to talk to. There was nowhere to find meaning in my life and the world became very cold. Atheism was like the great nothing in the never-ending story, it just destroyed everything but it was a necessary clearing. When I went to Burning Man and I was on LSD and ecstasy, candy flipping, I began to feel like I was creating my own sense of spirituality. When I went into the desert and I looked up, I saw countless stars and realized just how big and far away everything is. I suddenly began to feel that atheism wasn’t a great nothing, and that I could build something. I felt the sacredness of life, exactly because there’s nothing after it.
NN: You consistently express your exasperation over the ineffectiveness of rallies, protests, journalism and relief efforts. If not these things, how is the reader of The Ground Below Zero meant to respond? What do you feel is the proper response to tragedy?
NP: I think we have to save lives in the moment and change the system over time. And the rallies and marches are necessary for people to meet and see each other. So is theory but theory is not, on its own, sufficient. And it can blind us to reality. When I came back from Haiti, my friends on the Left wanted a vision of it based on leftist ideology. Of course in Haiti I did see people who were suffering and trying to defend themselves, but I also saw people stealing things that they didn’t need or exploiting and hurting others.
What I knew before and realized again is that “The People” are a spectrum of personalities but when you report on that ideologues will accuse you of being naïve or stupid. For them, there is a central thesis that demands certain kinds of images to prove itself, and those images do exist in reality, but so do a lot of other images. If you’re an honest person or a good reporter, you’re going to report on all of the things that the central thesis doesn’t want to acknowledge. In literary theory that’s called deconstruction, but I think it’s just called telling the truth. I think this makes me a good writer but maybe also an awkward Leftist, and that’s okay.

Nicholas Powers is an associate professor of English Literature. He is the author of Theater of War and Ground Below Zero (UpSet Press, 2013).

Nia Nottage is a collaborative artist who studies music and poetry at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts. Her tumber is whatispurpose.tumblr.com. - See more at: http://indypendent.org/...

Continue Reading

August 5, 2013 — While writing this, I hear gunshots. Soon a police helicopter circles the Louis Armstrong Projects next door; its spotlight sweeps their rooftops like a submarine inspecting an ocean floor.

I turn off the lights so the shooter won’t see me, move the curtain and study the roof where the gunfire echoed. There’s no one there. Scanning the city beyond, I know mostly Black and Latino men are shooting or being shot.

Lightheaded with adrenaline, I close the curtain. In Bed-Stuy, the fear of violence never fades but throbs under the surface of everyday life. On my stoop, a young man was shot dead. His father sits there nearly every day, as if waiting for his son to return. Between the killings are random shots like tonight that send me peering through the window.

Many of our young men are like open barrels of kerosene. One wrong look or word and they ignite into a blind fury that ends with death in the streets. And we who knew them, raised them, are also at times scared of them. And our fear is being turned against us because a whole outside world is also scared of them.
Walking downstairs, I sit on the stoop, remembering how tense it gets during the annual block party when men from other neighborhoods show up drinking and smoking. Every year, a late-night fight breaks out and someone is thrown against the car and pummeled. The sad truth is that the way George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin is the same way that many of us, men of color, profile each other.

When I see conservatives on Fox News say Black and Latino men should be profiled, I know the difference is they are simply afraid of them while we, people of color, who are their family and friends, are also scared for them. We knew them as children. We know they were born with targets on their backs and they’ve been hit from birth with abuse, neglect and racial slurs. And the buildup of pain finds its voice in the flash of a gun barrel. Each new crime means another Black or Latino face snarls under a headline of violence, which adds to the social prejudice that deepens their segregation, which creates more poverty, which becomes more crime, which feeds again the great fear. We are trapped in a cycle of violence.

Sitting on the stoop, I watch the police helicopter circle above. Its light sweeps the buildings, a small circle of visibility, searching in the darkness.

The Many Trayvons

February 26, 2012 — Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman studied a young Black man wearing a hoodie in the rain, strolling through a Florida gated community. He called the police, who told him not to follow the young man. In the 911 call released later, a man can be heard screaming, “Help,” and then a gunshot.

Trayvon Martin lay bleeding in the grass. He was 17 years old. He was visiting his family in the gated community. He died with Skittles and an Arizona iced tea. He was young, Black and male; those three elements made him background noise in the daily toll of American violence. His family hired attorney Benjamin Crump and spread the news. On March 7 Reuters published a story: “Family of Florida Boy Killed by Neighborhood Watch Seeks Arrest.” Rev. Al Sharpton took up the cause on his MSNBC show PoliticsNation. But what echoed in the minds of millions of people was the chilling scream for help, cut by a gunshot.

As media across the political spectrum reported his death, he multiplied into many Trayvons. Liberals and leftists saw him as a victim of racist profiling in which bigots project stereotypes onto people of color. It is common for minorities to be acutely aware of how the majority group sees us. Your life depends on it. Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois called it “Double-Consciousness”; it is, he writes, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

The image we see is the Ghetto Brute — an animalistic man of color who targets helpless whites. Life inside this image is dangerous. One can act on it in bitter pride or wear a safe mask for others even if it means not recognizing yourself in the mirror.
And the Ghetto Brute image lands harder the further down we are in class and the browner we are in skin tone. In a nation of 313 million people are 39 million African-Americans. Of them, 10 million live in poverty. Those of us born too dark or too poor live under the weight of a stigma that shapes us from birth. It’s why we rallied in the hundreds at Union Square for a Million Hoodie March, saying in unity, “I am Trayvon!”
He was a symbol for us because like Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo, both innocent, both killed by the NYPD, Martin’s death gave us a sharp contrast between his innocence and the violence that killed him. It made visible the injustices we daily endure. Sharpton said on PoliticsNation, “To many in the African-American community the killing of that teenager is emblematic of a grossly unjust system, of a thousand unequal steps, from stop and frisk to disproportionate drug laws to racially motivated sentencing.”

On the other side, conservatives saw Martin as a tragic victim of justified profiling. Zimmerman’s perception was not, they say, caused by bigotry but the pathologies of Black culture itself that creates high crime rates and hence the association of young, Black men with criminality. A few said Blacks are animals that must be segregated. Whether one explained the source of the crime as Black pathology or biological inferiority, the blame was displaced from Zimmerman onto Martin and by extension onto Black America in its entirety.

The need to prove that Martin’s murder was justified profiling drove Fox News, National Review and the Nazi site Stormfront to “blacken” Martin by critiquing his clothes and teen posturing. The day after the Million Hoodie March, Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera blamed Martin’s choice of wearing a hoodie: “When you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark skinned kid ... what’s the instant association? It’s those crime scene surveillance tapes, every time you see someone sticking up a 7/11 it’s a kid in a hoodie.”

Right-wing sites released photos of Martin smiling with a gold grill. Other photos showed him giving the finger, exhaling a mouthful of what could be pot smoke. His Twitter account, @NO LIMIT NIGGA, had bawdy adolescent rambling like, “Hahaha hoe you got used fo yo loose ass pussy! Tighten up! #Literally!”
In March 2012, Twitchy.com used a photo assumed to be Martin standing with shorts sagging, flipping off the camera. It was not Martin but another Florida teen. They issued an apology but on Stormfront a forum member said, “Glad he’s gone. One less welfare monkey breeding.”

The goal was to make Martin look like a young Ghetto Brute who’d commit real crime, implying it was good that he was removed now. This violent suspicion comes from a “Security Obsession” that sees life as “survival of the fittest,” in which a political or racial majority must protect its purity and culture against encroaching minorities. It sees the Other as irredeemably different, unable to assimilate and ultimately a threat.
It is a long tradition of fear that has scarred history. We see this mindset in Hitler’s Mein Kampf when he writes, “In every mingling of Aryan blood with that of lower peoples the result was the end of the cultured people” or Pat Buchanan’s The End of White America, “Those who believe the rise to power of an Obama rainbow coalition of peoples of color means the whites who helped to engineer it will steer it are deluding themselves. The whites may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.”

The Security Obsession is translated into street-level racism by people like Sgt. Ron King of the Port Canaveral Police Department, who offered his colleagues “Trayvon Martin” paper shooting targets. It showed a dark hoodie, its sleeve holding Skittles and Arizona iced tea. They declined to use it. He was fired. But when a local reporter contacted the seller, he emailed, “The response is overwhelming. I sold out in 2 days.”
Of course before the liberal or conservative image of Trayvon Martin existed there was the young man, a real, living, human being. As the men at the shooting range fired bullet after bullet at the Martin target, Sybrina Fulton, his mother, was in court listening to a man scream for help in a 911 recording, then a gunshot. She said, “That’s my son.”

The Resurgence of White Supremacy

June 25, 2013 — A text beeped on my phone; it read, “Supreme Court just sent us back to the plantation.” It linked to a breaking story: conservative justices struck down as unconstitutional Section 4b of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which forced states with a history of discrimination to clear changes in voting rules with the Department of Justice.

Shaking my head, I imagined Republicans rubbing their hands with glee, thinking about the voter suppression techniques they’ll use in the next election. They want to choke off democracy to the rising tide of voters of color who are part of the “coalition of the ascendant.” Sixty-six million voters, mostly youth, minorities and college-educated whites, in particular women, enabled President Obama’s second term. The resistance we get as the face of a changing nation is as old as the nation itself.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that all men are created equal.” As the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, African slaves toiled in the fields of his plantation. It was a great contradiction to demand freedom but own slaves. The Founding Fathers resolved it by defining “Negroes” as not human. When independence was won, a deep line was drawn between citizen and Other, the former were propertied white males and the latter, poor white males, women and non-whites.

The history of America is the great churning conflict between the ideal of democracy and the practice of racism, sexism and classism, each one driven by capitalism. Eventually, states dropped property requirements and all white males could vote. But it was a “whiteness” seen most clearly against the backdrop of blackness.

The struggle between white supremacy and democracy waxed and waned. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Black people pushed out of the South into the West, Midwest and North. In the cities, they pushed to integrate housing, work and public life. But one constant tool used by racists to stop progress was fear of Black men as criminals. In Thomas Dixon’s 1905 book The Clansman, a rapist ex-slave Gus is on the prowl; it was remade into the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. Just the accusation of Black male criminality was enough to enrage Southern mobs to roast a man alive, cut his genitals and take photos.

In each decade, people pushed across that line between citizen and Other. In response, conservatives held up the Black criminal to scare voters. The Ghetto Brute was in Nixon’s 1968 Law and Order campaign, in female form during Reagan’s 1976 campaign stump speech on welfare queens, in George Bush’s 1988 Willie Horton campaign ad and in McCain’s 2008 campaign painting Obama as a Muslim terrorist. Using Black criminal imagery, Republicans tried to dismantle welfare and the New Deal by portraying them as giving white taxpayer money to the undeserving poor, aka Black brutes, sambos and jezebels.

In the 21st century, the white majority is shrinking, its voting base split by class and gender. Working-class males lean Republican and women and college-educated whites go Democrat. The electorate is becoming more diverse, but we’re reeling from the century and a half of fearmongering about Black criminals. Crime is the Republican code word for race, which is why we fight over Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and the portrayal of Obama as a Muslim terrorist. And it’s why we fight over Trayvon Martin. In stripping him of innocence, conservatives attacked us. In affirming his right to live, we safeguarded our own.

“Police are more cautious when approaching a black man,” Bill O’Reilly said on his show. “Overwhelmingly violent crime is generated by young black men.” But a chorus of progressive writers pointed out that gun violence is down nearly 50 percent since the 1990s, most crime is intra-racial, next door and itself is the result of socio-economic pressure, not just race. The image of rampant Ghetto Brutes is not real, Black and Latino men are not attacking whites. The sad truth, I thought, is that we are killing each other. But many of us looked at President Obama and thought we were entering a postracial America, one that could help our youth, not criminalize them.

July 13, 2013 — A friend and I bought tickets to see Fruitvale Station, a film about Oscar Grant, a young Black man shot dead by an Oakland transit cop, when a text beeped on my cell phone. It read: George Zimmerman acquitted. Swaying on my feet, I stared at the text feeling rage and grief roll through me.

The Cycle of Violence

August 5, 2013 — Returning home, I tried to make sense of the Zimmerman verdict. Mass protests had dissolved. No social movement pushed ahead. Instead we’re left with a conservative debate on “black-on-black crime” as the legacy of Martin’s murder.
Is “black-on-black crime” real? Yes it is. A Huffington Post report said, “Young black men are six times more likely to die from homicide than white men.” Nothing new here. What is “black” about it? Don’t poor whites kill each other too? Yes, but race is different from class. Racism locates the cause of social problems in the body and, in subtle and loud ways, we are taught to see ourselves as inferior.

Missing from Du Bois’ definition of Double-Consciousness as “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” is the next phase, where one internalizes that gaze and sees others the way you were seen. Being hurt, we hurt each other. The blind fury of a male aiming a gun is the end of escalating stages of violence that begin when he first learns the weight of Blackness. It begins when he feels desperation in his mother’s voice, when the word “nigga” is stapled to his skin and he becomes a moving target. It grows when he learns that his life is not worth much. And the life in commercials is one he can never live.

The violence of racism hits in a thousand unseen ways that add up to the “depressing clouds of inferiority” that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It becomes visible when I ask students of color if they made fun of or were made fun of because of dark skin color. Every time, nearly all of them raise their hands.

Above the warped racial identity is the economic, political and legal infrastructure that constricts life into narrow channels of opportunity. The budget-starved public schools, the endless stop-and-frisk, the unfair rates of arrest and high sentencing, the lack of jobs, the hypertension causing hearts to stop, the lack of healthcare, the constant media reflection of racist Hip-Hop caricature, the lack of gun control, our American machismo and materialism; it adds up into a grinding contradiction that explodes.

And that is why “black-on-black violence” is a symptom of white supremacy. Trayvon Martin and the young man killed on my stoop were both victims of the same system. The perpetrators were different, one a “white” Latino, the other a young Black male, but they aimed their guns at the same Ghetto Brute image, regardless of the fact that inside that image was a human being who was innocent.

Is this the blind spot of leftist ideology? Do we focus so much on privilege and top-down power dynamics that we miss how that same hierarchy is reflected among the oppressed? Is the true sign of white supremacy not just the Zimmermans but the youth of color who die each day, unknown, unnamed and unseen? As I tried to make sense of these questions, I heard from across the street, gunshots.

Continue Reading

June 2011 — Five men got into a car. Akram Shah, a pharmacist, picked up his cousin Sherzada, a student; Atiq-ur-Rehman, another pharmacist; Ishrad Khan, a teenager; and Umar Khan, an auto mechanic. As they drove to a nearby village, the hiss of U.S. drone missiles filled the air. Explosions rocked the road. One hit the car and charred the men alive.

May 2011 — NYPD officers ordered Nicholas Peart, a 23-year-old Black college student against the wall. It was the fifth time in his life he’d been stopped and frisked. They took his cellphone, keys and wallet, then handcuffed him and put him in the backseat. Later they released him.

Summer 2010 — Alfred Carpenter was laid off in the Great Recession; he tore his knee and was out of work for a year. When he looked again for a job, even with six years of experience in his field, no one hired him. He told his friend of the mess his finances were in, he responded, “Oh, you got bad credit? They’ll never hire you.”

Corpses in a burning car, a man roughed up by cops, another denied work are scenes of Precrime — state and corporate strategies meant to deter crime or profit loss before it even happens. It’s enough to be part of a group — a Muslim man in Pakistan’s tribal areas, an urban Black male or a low credit score applicant to be identified as the source of trouble and targeted.

Precrime is a term created by Philip K. Dick in his 1956 short story Minority Report, made into a 2002 movie of the same name. In it a trio of “precogs,” or mutant humans, float in a water tank seeing visions of future violence. After recording these dreams, the Precrime Division’s paramilitary cops arrest people before they commit the crime.
Today the role of the “precogs” is being played by computer software that uses data mining to map social networks, purchasing behavior and movement patterns to predict who will commit acts of terrorism, local crime or job negligence. And the film’s Precrime cops are in reality the military, police and employers who use physical force and legal discrimination to secure the future of the state and corporate profits.

Online, Everyone’s Guilty

If you have any online life, you leave a digital trail. Send an e-mail, make a call, Google porn, swipe a credit card or open a Facebook account and it will be recorded. The information being data mined allows behavioral patterns to be extracted and character profiles to be compiled. And it is being done every second by corporations, political campaigns and government divisions like the National Security Agency.

When Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the NSA, leaked documents to The Guardian newspaper, it exposed government data mining. In much the same way as universal gun registration terrified the Right, digital surveillance sent shudders through the Left. We saw in it the FBI tactics used against the anti-Vietnam War movement. We know elders who were hounded by COINTEL. We remember our own uneasy sleep under the police watchtowers at Occupy Wall Street.

The difference between past and present state surveillance is that today’s federal and local law enforcement can use data mining of social network sites to disrupt protests before they form. Or if another terrorist attack shocks the nation or we go through a digital McCarthy era, the totality of our online lives can be used as evidence against us. Most importantly, innocence is no longer a state of being one can lose through an action but is instead a transition point on a life trajectory predicted by computer programs.

Beyond political organizations are the nine million people who lost their jobs from 2008’s Wall Street Crash who are now part of the 22 million underemployed and the 50 million in poverty. Employers are scanning Facebook pages, criminal records and credit scores to sift applicants. The longer someone is unemployed and the poorer one is, the more likely that person is to run up bad debt or get into legal trouble, which will show up in their digital trail. When they apply for jobs, the past is used against them. They leave the job interview, condemned to generational poverty because of their online profile.

The logic of empire, the logic of Jim Crow and the logic of class war structure the data mining strategies of governments and corporations. The predictive policing by law enforcement and drug testing, background checks and credit checks by corporations recreate the status quo of a hierarchical America teetering on the edge.

Signature Strikes

March 17, 2011 — Some forty men gathered at a bus depot in Datta Khel, Pakistan for a tribal meeting called a jirga. Drones circled the sky, but they had told the local Pakistani military about the meeting and thus weren’t afraid. They were just there to settle a dispute over a mine. After settling in, a hissing sound filled their ears. An explosion blew them apart. The U.S. drone fired another missile, then another.

Afterward, the shocked survivors scooped up the remains. The tally of the dead was forty-two. Most were government employees or tribal leaders, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report, “Living Under Drones.” Only four were Taliban. Witness Idriss Farid said, “They were pieces — body pieces — lying around.”

In the rough tribal areas, the sky is a source of terror. According to the report, from June 2004 to September 2012 “drone strikes killed 2,562–3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474–881 were civilians, including 176 children.”

Under President Bush most were “personality strikes” on named, high-value targets linked to non-state terrorist organizations. Under President Obama the spectrum of targets was expanded to include “signature strikes,” attacks based on “‘pattern of life’ analysis” that targets “‘groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.’”

If you are an adult male in Pakistan’s tribal areas, you are a suspect. If you carry a gun, go to a wedding or meeting and members of the Taliban are there, you are now by association a viable target. Your name, social networks and movements will enter the Disposition Matrix database. It is a program run by the National Counterterrorism Center, described by Glen Miller in The Washington Post as “a single, continually evolving database” that includes “biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations” and “strategies for taking targets down.” But, according to NBC News, from 2010 to 2011 the CIA could not confirm the identity of a quarter of those killed by drone strikes. Here is the foreign face of Precrime.

Predictive Policing

“What’s the difference whether the drone is up in the air or on the building,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on the John Gambling radio show. “You’re gonna have face-recognition software … You can’t keep the tides from coming in. We’re going to have more visibility and less privacy. I don’t see how you stop that.”

Drones the size of small planes like the Houston Police Department’s ScanEagle or drones the size of hummingbirds could fly through the city. Hovering near windows they could have night vision, zoom lenses, see-through imaging and face recognition software. Domestic drones have already joined wiretapping, street cameras and web surveillance in the arsenal of law enforcement. But what will be done with this information? As police departments are flooded with data, private corporations such as SAS Institute are pitching them programs to analyze it. In their white paper, “Twitter and Facebook Analysis; It’s Not Just for Marketing Anymore,” SAS offers police the ability to gain entry into accounts, discover relationships, map social networks and collect individuals’ data.

Some programs aren’t just to find current crime but instead predict future crime waves, much like weather forecasts. Current models like CompStat in New York rely on compiling data and, based on it, patrolling where crime has happened. Using PredPol, a program created initially to predict earthquake aftershocks, police will be sent to where crime will happen.

And it works. San Diego, Seattle and Columbia, South Carolina are using PredPol and have seen burglary rates drop. But the website PrivacySOS makes the argument that predictive policing keeps in place the status quo of inequality. One example is that whites, Latinos and blacks smoke marijuana at roughly the same rate. But minorities are arrested nearly three times the rate of whites. Based on this data, predictive policing will come down harder on neighborhoods of color, justifying the cops’ presence with the language of math.

According to PrivacySOS, predictive policing just recreates “the feedback loop of injustice,” in which urban men of color are stopped and frisked incessantly. It’s a form of public shaming and punishment to be thrown against a wall and groped by cops. It’s the face of domestic Precrime that Mayor Bloomberg endorses.
“I think, we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little,” he said to the New York Daily News. “I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course, or a logic course.”

Class Warfare

“He asked for my Facebook password,” my mom said. My eyebrows lifted. “Did you give it to him?” I asked.
“No,” she said. She had told the employer that she deactivated her account. It seemed odd, but asking around, I heard friends say that background checks, drug tests and credit score checks were normal practice. And sometimes, they cost people a chance at life. On March 4, Blake Ellis wrote in CNN Money that one in four Americans go through a credit check for a job and one in ten are denied a job because of it.

Blacks and Latinos are more held back by this due to the deeply entrenched unemployment that pummels their credit scores. In June 2013, the African-American unemployment rate was 13.7 percent, Latinos 9.1 percent and whites 6.6 percent. So the members of communities hit hardest by unemployment have the hardest time getting a job. According to Ellis, citing a survey by the Society of Human Resources, companies screen credit scores to prevent theft, embezzlement or “negligent hiring.”
Low credit score applicants are not being punished for wrongs they did but ones they are expected to. And this is layered on older forms of institutional prejudice. In 2009, The New York Times reported on Black job applicants ‘whitening’ their résumés by changing their names, removing historically black colleges and selecting white references. Before doing so they did not get calls back for an interview.

Here is the face of corporate Precrime. And, while those who are poor are poor for so long that they can’t find a way into the workforce, Microsoft recently came up with a way to avoid them and their neighborhoods. In 2012, it issued a patent for an application that gives ‘walking directions.’ One of its features is computing the crime statistics of an area and directing the user around the bad neighborhoods. So, if they are ignored long enough, they just disappear.

Reversing the Dynamic

What happens when all the networks are connected? When drug tests, Facebook and credit scores, drone footage, e-mail and Google history, and buying and movement patterns are integrated into a single profile for each citizen that is monitored by corporations and government? Will those with progressive politics or anti-authoritarian temperaments be tracked?

The more important question is how being watched and threatened with Precrime punishment changes our behavior. Even as cameras track us and each keystroke is recorded, it’s the heavy feeling of judgment that kills us internally. And we’ve been through this before. In the racial paranoia of Jim Crow, the political fever of McCarthyism, the shame of poverty in today’s Great Recession, it’s the social ideal, the light by which we measure ourselves that casts a long shadow into our lives.

How do we cure ourselves of fear? How do we roll back the practice of Precrime? A recurring lesson of social movements is that we must reverse the surveillance dynamic. Whether it’s sitting at segregated lunch counters, confronting pharmaceutical bureaucrats with H.I.V. victims or hauling sofas in front of Bank of America to make visible the foreclosure crisis, the goal of activists is to pierce the social distance between the privileged and the invisible victims of their power.

We on the Left create scenes of moral crisis by making pain visible. In doing so, those who suffered silently can create community and take meaningful action. And the action becomes a social mirror where the ruling class itself is seen as a criminal enterprise.

A Leftist Supercomputer

In the film Minority Report, the plot turns on the possibility of the Precrime program going national. But it has one flaw. If someone knows the future, they can change it. At the climax, agent John Anderton confronts Lamar Burgess, the director of the Precrime Division who murdered people to keep this truth from going public. Standing, gun in hand, he is predicted to kill Anderton. If he does, the program is sound. If he doesn’t, the program is illegitimate and it ends. Burgess turns the gun on himself and shoots.

The film pivots on the idea that the future — the final outcome of our actions — is not determined if we see the consequences of our present. It is a choice denied to the millions caught in poverty, in war zones and in the social constructs of ethnic, gender or class categories. There, life feels like being caught in a flow of events one cannot control. There, life ends where the increasingly sophisticated programs predict it will, in death, jail or misery.

But like in Minority Report, we can change our future by not just following the predictions of the next crime but understanding that its source is often a larger, invisible, systemic crime. It’s the basic divide between the Left and the Right. The Right sees social institutions as innately valuable for continuity and accepts hierarchy and inequality. We, the Left, see social hierarchy as innately destructive.

So what if we made a film called Majority Report, about a Leftist supercomputer named Lenin? In it, technicians in white suits would say that it is programmed to save the earth, end poverty and create the Good Life. Unlike predictive policing, it wouldn’t target future crime but tally the world’s data and solve the very source of crime.
Tall as a cathedral, it would hum with immense electricity as people around the world wait to hear what it said. In the film, drones would be reprogrammed to buzz the offices of Goldman Sachs. Police would receive orders on their phones to arrest Wall Street traders. Planned Parenthood clinics would find their checking accounts flush with cash. The wealthy would receive e-mails announcing new high taxes. Schools would be told to hire more teachers.

And desperate to stop it, politicians and business leaders would try to yank the plug. Audiences would cheer as the film’s heroes defend the supercomputer as it churns out new laws, new policies for a new world. The climax would be Lenin being blown up by a bomb planted by a conservative, and in the moment, the people of the world would hang suspended. And then they would realize it was too late. Having seen the source of crime and its solution, the people wouldn’t need Lenin anymore and take over the cities because, finally, they’d be free to choose their future.

Continue Reading
You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.

RSS

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site