Emmett Till and George Floyd as “Galvanizing Images”

Yesterday, I went to a march for Dreasjon Reed. Dreasjon was an Indianapolis native, and I didn’t know a ton about his death. I guess it goes to show the frequency and ease with which the police and media conspire to create a story that criminalizes a black victim and exonerates, even glorifies, officers. An open and shut case. It probably also goes to show the ignorance of white people like me to such killings, which often seem outside of my world – inconsequential to my life.

On May 6, 2020, Dreasjon Reed was shot and killed while running from the police. Police say that Reed had a gun on him and fired at them as he fled,[i] although his family unequivocally denies this claim.[ii] Dreasjon had been livestreaming on Facebook using his phone, and the audio of his death was therefore broadcast and recorded. The stream continued following the shooting, and recorded a detective making a joke: “I guess it’s going to be a closed casket, homie.”

This callous remark speaks to the inhumanity with which black victims of police violence are frequently treated. It also reminds us what a world without recording devices  would mean – and has meant – for the killings of black people in the past. For most of American history, the narratives of black deaths have relied solely on the firsthand accounts of officers and their comrades — untrustworthy to say the least.

But since Rodney King’s vicious beating was recorded by bystander George Holiday’s now ancient camcorder on March 3, 1991, the advent of recording devices has proven instrumental in making the case that police murder black men and women wantonly and even lustfully, jovially. This has led to an increase in prosecutions of officers for police brutality and, in some cases, even murder.

A transcript shows that an officer participating in Rodney King’s beating told another that he hadn’t ″beaten anyone this bad in a long time,″ while another officer made a joke about the film ″Gorillas in the Mist” over the radio, referencing a film about Rwandan gorillas that came out in 1988. Sgt. Stacey Koon, who reported the bludgeoning to headquarters, said ″you just had a big-time use of force … tased and beat the suspect of CHP [California Highway Patrol] pursuit, big time.” HQ responded “″Oh well … I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it … haha I’ll let them know OK.″[iii] Two of the four officers involved in the beating were acquitted of all crimes while two others, Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon were convicted of violating King’s civil rights, and were sentenced to 30 months in prison, each.

The recording of killings of black men and women – frequently described as “unarmed” as if that and only that factor corroborates their faultlessness in being shot, despite the fact that white men and women often flaunt their firearms in public and are not murdered – has helped prove to the world that such injustices occur daily. It likely didn’t need to be proven to the black community. The murders of slaves with impunity, lynchings gone unprosecuted, not to mention the routine abuse (the police guns drawn on when the black driver reaches in the glove compartment for license and registration) – these are embedded in the consciousness of American black people. George Floyd’s murder could be considered a modern day lynching, as could Eric Garner’s, Walter Scott’s, Sandra Bland’s, 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s, 14-year-old Trayvon Martin – the list goes on and on and on.

Fred Hampton, the Black Panther Party (BPP) deputy chairman, stirring orator, community organizer and socialist intent on unifying the masses to rise up against the powers that be, was shot and killed by Chicago Police Department in cooperation with the FBI on December 4, 1969. This was only uncovered when the “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI”[xvii], comprised of civilians, broke into the FBI field office in Pennsylvania, and found documents about an FBI surveillance program known as COINTELPRO, whose mission was to subvert black “militant” groups like the Panthers and to stymie the rise of the “black messiah” who could unite the US black population.[xviv] Hampton was shot while incapacitated by the drug Secobarbital, slipped into his drink by an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Panthers. After Fred’s death in 1969, the BPP and Hampton’s family held an open-casket funeral, which 5,000 people attended.[iv]

Dissemination of photographs of black death as the result of injustice have been powerful tools used for change. Famous lynching photographs still hold grave power.  Like in 1916, when the NAACP magazine The Crisis, edited by W.E.B du Bois, used an image of Jesse Washington’s body tied to a tree and burnt beyond recognition. The image was disseminated by the magazine to its 30,000 readers.[viii]

I still remember the day in Mr. Bishop’s 7th grade Social Studies class that I learned about Emmett Till. I remember Mr. Bishop warning us about the video’s serious and graphic nature. It was a documentary called Eyes on the Prize. It was in that documentary, that I first saw the image of the 14-year-old Emmett Till in his casket, a hardly human visage, so mangled and misshapen by torture at the hands of two white men. This image was a far cry from the handsome, bright-eyed young man in a suit and tie that I had seen on frame a few seconds before. Till was from Chicago, and had been visiting family in Mississippi in late summer 1955 when he was accused of grabbing a white woman named Carolyn Bryant by the waist and saying “You needn’t be afraid of me, baby I’ve (done something) with white women before.”[x]

The documentary told of what happened to Till as a result of the alleged overstep. That night, between 2 and 3 AM, he was kidnapped from his bed by two white men—J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, Carolyn’s husband—who strapped him with barbed wire to a 75-pound cotton gin fan and marched down to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where he was beaten viciously until his face was purple. They gouged out his eye, choked him and ripped his tongue out, cut his right ear nearly off, knocked all but two of his teeth out, scalped him with a hatchet and finally shot him in the head—the most merciful thing they did. Then, they heaved his body, still tied to the metal fan, into the river, where it was recovered three days later, bloated and unrecognizable. His uncle had to identify him by the ring he wore that belonged to his father.[x]

The open casket has been both a sepulcher for black hope, a tomb of despair, a vessel for outrage. Most of all, it has been a tool, wielded by the most courageous who would share an excruciatingly painful private image with the world in service of spreading the truth. Who would want to put their son’s mutilated corpse on display for tens of thousands of people to gawk at? Nobody. But Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, believed it was necessary. Otherwise the horror of this crime would go unseen. That took unbelievable bravery. I am not saying that black death is ever a good thing, or necessary fuel for a revolution. Yet these images are  galvanizing.

Till-Mobley allowed photographers from Jet Magazine, The Chicago Defender and The American Negro: A Magazine of Protest, to publish photographs of her son’s body. Those who have seen the image  have been beyond disturbed, beyond moved. Till-Mobley said at the time: “[People] would not be able to visualize what had happened, unless they were allowed to see the results of what had happened.”[v] As James Baldwin said: “It was myself in that coffin, it was my brothers in that coffin … I can’t describe it so precisely, because it had been so mutilated, it had been so violated. It was him but it was all of us.”[vi]

David Jackson’s photograph of the grieving mother, staring brokenly at her son’s body, resonated with the larger American community, just as George Floyd’s calls for his mother in his final throes have touched thousands.[xvvi] Tens of thousands of people flocked to the A. A. Rayner Funeral Home in Chicago to view Till’s body. On one day, September 6, around 50,000 people viewed the body. All told, more than 100,000 viewed Emmett Till’s body, maimed by torture, further distended and deformed by the days at the bottom of the Tallahatchie. The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till-Mobley exposed the world to more than this grisly image, but to the barbarism of racism in America. “If the death of my son can mean something to the other unfortunate people in the world, then for him to have died a hero would mean more to me than for him just to have died,” [vii] she said.

Throughout Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan’s trial, Mississippi’s newspapers painted Till as a savage brute, while they called his accuser Carolyn Bryant  “a pretty 21-year-old married mother of two”[ix]. Mamie Till-Mobley was referred to as “a somewhat plump 33-year-old divorced mother.” [ix]  Southern media made Emmett Till into a bestial, lumbering animal. In the words of one reporter, he was a “husky Negro lad who stuttered.” [ix] Meanwhile, the French newspaper Aurore referred to Mrs. Bryant as “a crossroads Marilyn Monroe,” (referring to the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi) . Timothy B. Tyson wrote: “News reporters from Detroit to Dakar never failed to sprinkle their stories about l’affaire Till with words like “comely” and “fetching” to describe her.”[x] Ultimately, injustice prevailed: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milan were acquitted for “justifiable homicide.”

For decades, the American media hasn’t just ignored violence done against black people, but actively justified it. For many years, the only means for black people to prove their mistreatment and murder were through such images. However shocking and offensive to the delicate white gaze – and to the human mind at large – their effect is undeniable.

 

I wish I could say that when I first watched that documentary in Mr. Bishop’s classroom I became an ardent anti-racist and a warrior for black justice. In a way, I thought that I was – that my understanding of racism as something so stark and terrible as that vicious murder absolved me from cooperation in it, and that to disclaim such evil was to do my part. The image stuck with me, clung to my memory, surely impacted me. But I still had growing up to do.

It took a long time for my politics to evolve, and for me to come to terms with my own complicity in a culture I thought that I had disavowed forever after reading Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and a few essays by James Baldwin. But there was (and still is) much self-work to be done, more looking in the mirror. I remember when the notion of  “white male privilege” used to really get under my skin. I’ve had to reckon with a lot of innate defensiveness, had to question myself and deal with ideas and perspectives that were foreign and sometimes offensive to my preconceptions. But I have come a long way, and the stories and images – and more than ever, videos – that make it into the mainstream news documenting the killing of black people by police officers have contributed to that process.

In his 2017 Netflix comedy special “Equanimity,” Dave Chappelle recounts the story of Emmett Till. Chappelle reports that the woman, Carolyn Bryant, who accused Till,  admitted that she had lied (what she said was ““Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”[x]). Chappelle talks about that lie, and how it influenced the events following 1955; the role it played in motivating the civil rights movement. And he concludes that, though it was a vicious lie that resulted in an even more vicious and brutal killing, it was ultimately a providential lie. “That murder set in motion a sequence of events that made my wonderful life possible, that made this very night possible,” he says, a black man given a prestigious stand-up special on a major content service. “How could this be that this lie could make the world a better place? It’s maddening. ” [xi]

 

Many historians and activists have referred to Emmett Till’s murder and the outrage that it sparked as a critical moment for the civil rights movement. Four months after he was buried, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. Emmett Till’s lynching and his open-casket funeral made a major impact. Author and Professor of English Clenora at the University of Missouri wrote:

 

Till’s brutal lynching in Mississippi was undoubtedly impressed on the minds of the Alabamians [participants in the 1955 bus boycott], giving them strength to carry the boycott through. Indeed, the image of Till, permanently etched in American consciousness, could not die, thereby setting the stage for the boycott.[xii]

 

Yet while it left a lasting imprint on the hearts and minds of black Americans, according to historian Elliot J. Gorn the jarring image did not impress itself onto white American consciousness until long after 1955:

 

Years later, many white Americans remembered — falsely remembered — the epiphany of Till’s ruined face in 1955. [But] few white people saw the photos until thirty years later when the documentary Eyes on the Prize opened with the Emmett Till story. Only then did [his mother’s] words, “Let the people see what they did to my boy” begin to be fully realized.[vi]

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of posts about coming to terms with one’s white privilege. Don’t mistake me – fighting that battle of self-reflection is a good fight, and it’s something that I’ve gone through and still go through, and don’t mean to affect a holier-than-thou attitude by suggesting that I’m beyond it. Just that it’s no moment of transfiguration, but simply a rote liberal platitude, that as an end in itself only results in complacency.  While certainly “checking your privilege,” or understanding the benefits that existing as a white person in a white supremacist society proffer as opposed to living as a minority is an important first step, it’s actually, especially in relative terms, an easy act, even self-congratulatory. As Fredrik deBoer writes[xiii]:

Those who publicly go through with this ritual are, ostensibly, undertaking the hard work that [George] Yancy asks for, waging “war within themselves.” Yet they don’t appear to be at war, at all. Despite their declarations of guilt, they don’t appear guilty. If anything, they have always struck me as supremely self-satisfied.

DeBoer also quotes Mic writer Charlotte Clymer, who says: “acknowledging my privilege has been liberating for me; it has made me a better person and better equipped to stand beside those who suffer prejudice, often in silence.” Why should acknowledging white privilege or male privilege be “liberating”? Why should admitting culpability – a culpability that remains, continues, even after it’s confessed – absolve guilt? The answer is the act of “checking” or confessing privilege is just paying lip-service to a characteristic that is beyond one’s control, and in effect, supplicating to black people in a patronizing fashion.

At yesterday’s protest, I saw a sign carried by a black woman that read, “Our lives are not a fad.” It’s a valid rebuke of white cooption of black deaths – using hashtags for clout, taking pictures at protests like they’re at Coachella – especially when the analysis of racism in America goes only skin-deep.

I don’t doubt the general good faith of most of the white protestors out there. Nor do I consider white liberals to be bad people, per se, especially considering their context in a society perfused by a media that has, for years and years stereotyped, criminalized, dehumanized blacks and lionized police officers.

But I do doubt the notion that a sustained, long-lasting and, inevitably permanent change to America’s socioeconomic structure – which is what we mean when we say “systemic racism,” racism that stems from practices that economically benefit whites, especially corporations and the very rich, invariably white institutions – and devastate black communities, by design – can sustain itself purely on the emotions generated by “galvanizing moments,” (read: compelling, tragic, heart-rending but intermittent images of black deaths). They are viewed through white eyes sympathetically, rather than empathetically, meaning there is still an element of pity and patronization, for most whites cannot imagine himself or herself ever under the knee of a police officer, gasping for breath.

If movements can be built on emotional moments, then there would have been more change since 2014, when  President Obama called rioters “criminals and thugs,”[xiv] just as his supposed opposite Trump did in a recent Tweet. [xvvii]  There would have been more change since 2012, when Trayvon Martin was murdered by self-proclaimed vigilante George Zimmerman. Or since 1991, when Rodney King was viciously beaten on camera precipitating the Los Angeles riots in 1992, which looked like they may have changed things permanently. Since 1955, when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men, who went free. Undoubtedly all these events evoked the sympathy of white America. But it wasn’t enough to realize systemic change.

That’s not to say that nothing has improved. Because of the photograph that proliferated throughout America in America, thousands of people were inspired to pursue careers in civil rights. It’s likely that the same phenomenon is taking place with the recent video of George Floyd, as it likely did with Trayvon Martin’s death, and the countless before him. Filmmaker Keith Beachamp said: “I’ve seen death time and time again with the work I do…but nothing has ever hit me harder than the image of George Floyd. When I saw that image, it brought me back to when I first saw the photograph of Emmett Till at the age of 10. And it was something that I could not really wrap my head around. And I had the same reaction when I saw the officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.”[xv] But for all the shock and revulsion we feel at witnessing those deaths, and the other thousands, millions like them, shouldn’t 65 years, 40 years, 30 years, 20 years – even just the six since the riots in Ferguson – be enough to make significant, systemic changes? Strides, rather than incremental steps? Why do black communities still go underserved, over-policed, and treated like a battleground? Why has it been so slow-going, if radical change really is the will of the people?

Just as, Emmett Till’s murder was, per the words of  the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the “big bang” of the Civil Rights Movement,[xvi] George Floyd’s death has, so some say, been the spark that set the Black Lives Matter Movement ablaze, and amplified its message manifold. White people, en masse, seem to be on board this time around – at least in display. More and more people, black and white, appear to understand that racism in policing is rampant. Some seem to grasp that it’s endemic. But, from my experience, most don’t, and the anodyne slogans on signs I saw at the protest revealed as much to me. So has the popularity among liberals of the 8-point reformist solution proposed by Deray McKesson and his organization Campaign Zero (Many of which are already in place in police departments around the country). Most liberals don’t or can’t concede that racism is part of policing’s DNA – indeed, America’s DNA – and cannot anymore be patched up, reformed or ameliorated than an alchemist can transmute tin into gold. No matter how many times they disclaim the rhetoric of a “few bad apples,” they still don’t acknowledge the truth that policing is, has been, and will continue to be racist, so long as it serves the same role. It’s not broken, so it can’t be fixed.

Superficial solutions such as McKesson’s – rooted in reformism, not revolution – are economically and historically illiterate. They fail to acknowledge the racist, fundamental and functional economirole that racism plays in capitalist society, its role in stamping out riots borne not just of boot-heel brutality but brutal economic suffocation of the black community. This community can’t breathe; it has had a knee on its neck for centuries. Reforms will not change that if the core mission of policing remains to keep racial and class distinctions rigidly separated and unequal.

If I hadn’t found a specific politic through which I can envisage a new world – for me, the lens of socialism, I would be still be hopelessly strapped to the liberal incrementalism that the system will inevitably offer, the 8-point solutions, non-violent protests, lists of demands read at city hall. We mustn’t accept these acts as radical victories or congratulate ourselves for our participation. We cannot confuse the onanism and self-liberation of exhibiting our white guilt for genuine helpfulness and solidarity. Recognizing your privilege and understanding racist ideology in its micro and macro forms in America is not enough. These measures are ideal for short-term outrage but cannot sustain a long-lasting unified movement between blacks and whites in the working class, a unity that is direly needed if true systemic change is to happen. If we truly want to abolish the endemically racist structures of our society, then we have to find a politic that projects a future that is non-capitalist, non-imperialist, and as a result, non-racist. MLK called for the extinguishment of “the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism,” interrelated pathologies in the American body politic. [viv] Malcolm X said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”[xvviii] Fred Hampton said, “We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”[xvv]

If we, as white people, don’t summon our anger instead of simply expressing our sadness and disturbance at the images we have seen; if we don’t embrace a long struggle, and most importantly develop a political, theoretical lens through which to view the purposively brutal policing of black communities instead of wringing our hands and apologizing white guiltily; if we don’t follow future black leaders carrying on the legacies of Fred Hampton, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr;  if we don’t embrace abolition over reform, revolution over revision, radicalism over liberalism, then for many white folk, #BlackLivesMatter may become just another passing fad, awaiting the next image of horror, the next “galvanizing moment” to become modish once more.

 

 

[i] https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/05/14/indianapolis-police-shooting-dreasjon-reed-closed-casket-officer-suspended/5191182002/

[ii] https://fox59.com/news/it-did-not-happen-family-attorneys-say-dreasjon-reed-didnt-shoot-at-police-before-deadly-encounter/

[iii] https://apnews.com/552e596558541c15af6cfdee81670ede

[iv] https://stmuhistorymedia.org/murder-or-justifiable-homicide-the-death-of-the-revolutionary-fred-hampton/

[v] Till-Mobley, Mamie, and Chris Benson. Death of Innocence: the Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America. Ballantine Books, 2005.

[vi] https://www.npr.org/2018/10/30/660980178/-let-the-people-see-shows-how-emmett-till-s-murder-was-nearly-forgotten

[vii] White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind: a History of African Americans, with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.

[viii] https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/how-author-timothy-tyson-found-the-woman-at-the-center-of-the-emmett-till-case?mbid=social_twitter

[ix] Grindy, Matthew A, and David A Houck. Emmett till and the Mississippi Press. University Press Of Missi, 2010.

[x] Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. Thorndike Press, A Part of Gale, Cengage Learning, 2017.

[xi] https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/03/dave-chappelle-equanimity-2017-full-transcript/

[xii] Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Emmett Till: the Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. AuthorHouse, 2006.

[xiii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/28/when-white-people-admit-white-privilege-theyre-really-just-congratulating-themselves/

[xiv] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-minneapolis-police-obama/former-us-president-obama-condemns-violence-at-protests-idUSKBN2383IC

[xv] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/george-floyd-emmett-till-deaths-inspire-calls-change-justice/3135768001/

[xvi] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/06/george-floyd-emmett-till-deaths-inspire-calls-change-justice/3135768001/

[xvii] https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2019/mar/08/fbi-media-anniversary/

[viii] https://timeline.com/the-crisis-waco-naacp-anti-lynching-b9d235f11aa2

[viii] https://timeline.com/the-crisis-waco-naacp-anti-lynching-b9d235f11aa2

[viv] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/martin-luther-king-hungry-club-forum/552533/

[xviv] https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro

[XVV] https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/fhamptonspeech.html

[xvvi] https://www.ctinsider.com/local/greenwichtime/article/The-Mother-Lode-As-he-lay-dying-George-Floyd-15315226.php

[xvvii] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-minneapolis-protesters-thugs-flagged-twitter/

 

[xvviii] https://socialistrevolution.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/FreddieGrayMalcolmXLeaflet.pdf

The inextricable union of capitalism and racism

Is racism a natural impulse?
Does looking at black skin naturally invoke fear and hatred in a white mind?
If you believe that, then you believe that these cosmetic, superficial differences were enough to inspire and sustain 300 years of brutal slavery, instead of the more reasonable alternative: that racist ideology provides justification for a system that profits from another person’s free labor and immense suffering.
Historian Howard Zinn writes in his work The People’s History of the United States about two factors that distinguished American slavery from other examples of slavery in human history as the cruelest and most evil form. First was “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture,” and second was “the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.”
Racism is not a natural impulse that arose in the white mind when they first laid eyes eyes on African skin. It was a rationalization that allowed unimaginable cruelty. If your slaves are deemed by pseudo-scientists to be subhuman, then their relentless, ruthless exploitation is no worse than driving the oxen all day long.
There was another benefit to racism for the ruling class of the early colonies: it divided and distracted the class of overworked, over-exploited workers, constituted by both black and white.
In the early days of the colonies, white indentured servants and black slaves commiserated, communed, intermarried and convivially interacted. As Zinn writes, “only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.”
The white ruling class of the early colonies began to legalize codes that granted a modicum of upward economic mobility for white indentured servants, and discouraged interaction with black slaves. Lawmakers in Virginia increased punishments for whites who conspired to escape with blacks. In 1691, Virginia provided for the banishment of any “white man or woman being free who shall intermarry with a negro, mulatoo, or Indian man or woman bond or free.”
Then, in 1705, the Virginia Assembly passed a law that required masters to give white servants whose indenture period had expired ten bushels of corn, thirty shillings, and a gun, along with 50 acres of land. Poor whites were suddenly less rebellious, and now had something to guard. They became jealous.
From there, the elites could nurture the rivalry between the black slaves and the poor white servant class to ensure that they wouldn’t join forces and unite against their common oppressor. As newly propertied, elevated people, whites now turned away at the sight of brutal black repression – it no longer affected them, and their intervention could result in losing the meager prosperity they had suddenly gained.
The conditions for racism’s efficacy in America persist today. As Zinn writes, “that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.”
All it takes is a little competition to perpetuate enmity between groups. But it also instills a willful blindness in the white community when police officers beat, maim, and murder members of the black community.
First, racism was used to rationalize a brutal, soulless, merciless form of chattel slavery. Then, to keep poor blacks and poor whites at odds, so that no class unity could form that might threaten the sinecure of wealthy, landowning whites.
But make no mistake, racism is a shrewd tool of class oppression. It is far from a natural tendency. It continues to serve its function in sowing division among the working class. The enforcers of these divisions have always been the functionaries of the state – police, intelligence agencies, etc. – who are tasked with making sure that the most exploited and oppressed people – black people in America – do not mount resistance.
Our view of police violence must be class conscious, otherwise it mistakes the police force for a well-intended entity that has somehow become corrupted. It is not – it is the cudgel swung by the ruling class. This is their role – to enforce class stratification, to keep us hating each other instead of looking up at the real oppressor.

Statu Quo Ante Bellum, the state of things before the war

 

When I was planning my initial voyage from Indiana to Los Angeles to attend UCLA in 2012, my family and I were frequently assured that the UCLA campus was located in a very “safe” neighborhood. Westwood was always referred to as a safe place. The brochures said as much, and the public image of the little Hollywood hamlet was squeaky clean, especially when compared to its crosstown rival, USC, located in South Central Los Angeles, which is widely considered to be a “bad neighborhood.”

Westwood, on the other end of town, was clean and nice, filled with rhododendrons and ivy, an active police force committed to keeping the peace, relatively few homeless, and hardly any crime. For most of the time I was at UCLA, it felt like a sheltered summer camp, a bubble within greater L.A. Westwood was small and insulated, but not lacking in the touches of Los Angeles glitz; billboards, palm trees, beautiful Mediterranean architecture, golden stars embedded on the sidewalk with the names of celebrities, our own little walk of fame.

The UCLA campus was where the movie Old School, starring Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson was shot. Some scenes from The Godfather were shot there (Francis Ford Coppola was an alum) as well as Legally Blonde, where Royce Hall and Powell Library were used as stand-ins for Harvard’s Georgian edifices (mainly inside shots). In 1993’s Menace II Society, a black character tells a white insurance agent who is attempting to hire him steal a car: “Man, get the fuck out of here? Don’t bring your narrow ass up in here no more! Go on back to Westwood where you belong! Hope you find your way down Compton Avenue, motherfucker!” Westwood has long been thought of as Compton’s Angeleno antipode.

It was a quiet place, a safe place for strolls at night. There were only two major alcohol-serving destinations. So far as night life was concerned, Westwood was pretty dead. Working at one of the two bars, then-O’Hara’s (now Rocco’s Tavern), I learned that there was even a no-dancing rule, like the one in little Bomont, OK, from the movie Footloose. I would never have guessed that Westwood had been one of the most thriving spots to go out in LA a few decades before. Nor did I have any idea that the whole culture of the village—and LA at-large—shifted dramatically in 1988, when a random act of violence claimed the life of a young woman.

Karen Toshima was a 27-year-old graphic artist in 1988. She was out celebrating in Westwood on January 30, 1988. She had had just received a promotion at the Studio City Ad Agency where she worked. She was strolling down Broxton Avenue when a gang member from South Central fired on a rival gang-member, but missed. The bullet instead struck Karen in the temple. She died a day later.

Toshima became a tragic figure in the media, an innocent bystander, victimized by the brutal gang-warfare that many associated with the Los Angeles black community. She became not only a martyr, but a political weapon, used to evoke fear and eventually, to attack gang-violence at its point of origin. Sandy Banks of the LA Times wrote in 1989: “Karen Toshima came to represent ‘everywoman,’ and her death made all of Los Angeles feel more vulnerable.” Then-LA county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said: “You knew instantly that the press would blow this thing into a cause celebre, and that Westwood was going to be portrayed as a place that was no longer safe.” For his part, Yaroslavsky urged the Los Angeles City council to offer a $25,000 reward for the capture of Toshima’s killer, which precipitated a strong backlash from the black community, who objected to the disparity between the bounty for Toshima’s killer and the vastly smaller rewards offered up for the killers of black citizens—if there were rewards offered at all.

 

Yaroslavsky was right about the media. They seized upon Toshima’s murder to monger fear of black violence creeping into white areas. Toshima’s murder gave credence to white Angelenos fears of the wild animals to the South and East. John M. Glionna of the LA Times wrote in 1998 that story reached across the nation, striking fear into people who lived miles from Los Angeles. Citizens of neighboring cities reported noticing “Los Angeles-style gang graffiti and gang attacks” in their own neighborhoods. Gang crime in Los Angeles in the 1980s was viewed as an epidemic. It was addressed not as a pathological failure, instead attacked in its symptomatic manifestation.

 

The Los Angeles PD used the killing as an excuse to ramp up anti-gang programs across Los Angeles, and to further militarize the police force. Glionna writes that the murder and the subsequent crackdown “sparked resentment in black and Latino communities, which grew outraged that one gang-related murder in Westwood seemed to matter more than the thousands that had occurred in South and East Los Angeles.” Indeed, the travails of the black community in Los Angeles had been largely ignored by police and went uncovered by the media. Robert Reinhold for the New York Times wrote of one case in particular—the drive-by shooting of DeAndre Brown, a 9-year-old boy, also caught between the crossfire of street gangs—as going relatively undiscussed in public, like the 386 other gang-related killings in 1987. Reinhold writes that it wasn’t until gang violence struck in the mostly-white, wealthy neighborhood of Westwood did LAPD decide to crack down on gang violence. Many in the black community were outraged.

US Representative Maxine Waters, then a California Assemblywoman, told the LA Times: “The black community has known for years that a problem is not a problem until it hits the white community…There is a deep feeling in the black community that the philosophy of the police department was, ‘Let ’em kill each other in South-Central L.A.’” Glionna wrote in 1998: “The Westwood killing hit Los Angeles in its living room, shattering the naivete of Angelenos who assumed that gangs were confined to inner-city minority neighborhoods. It forced people to acknowledge that gang violence, which had jumped 50% since the late 1970s, was out of control.”  What it did not force people to do was consider the systemic reasons that gang violence had gained such a foothold in Los Angeles.

Instead, Karen Toshima’s death resulted in heightened fear in white communities, and a push for more punitive paramilitary tactics from the Los Angeles police force. After Toshima was killed in ’88, the police departments of Los Angeles gathered together for a “gang summit,” to discuss ways to combat the increase of gang violence in the city. They collectively determined 1988 to be “The Year Of The Gang.”

Los Angeles police departments seized the opportunity to bolster their anti-gang unit. Just months after the murder, the city of Los Angeles hired 650 new police officers and poured $6 million into programs combating gang violence. Spearheaded by Police Chief Darryl F. Gates, LAPD’s “Operation Hammer” conducted numerous large scale sweeps of gang-ridden areas. In one weekend in April of that year, the LAPD arrested 1,453 people for gang-related crime. Then-Deputy Chief Bill Rathburn called the Operation an “outgrowth of a lot of frustration and an outrageous level of violence . . . which all seemed to crystallize in the city when Karen was killed.” Rathburn acknowledged that Toshima’s murder was integral to the heightened crackdown on gang violence in LA. “Before that, we in the police department knew that the gang problem had gotten out of hand … but the politicians had escaped any responsibility for it. The Karen Toshima homicide put the gang problem very high on the public agenda. It has remained high since then.” Toshima’s image was the perfect weapon for the LAPD; her death was the perfect excuse to hyper-militarize the police force, and launch a full-scale assault on South Central Los Angeles.

Daryl F. Gates was a police officer’s Police Chief. He took an iron-fisted approach to handling crime in the black community. Many in the black community considered him a racist. In his song The Wrong N***a To Fuck With, Ice Cube raps: “Don’t let me catch Daryl Gates in traffic;/I gotta have it to peel his cap backwards./I hope he wear a vest, too,/And his best blue,/Goin up against the Zulu.” Gates was a police commander during the 1962 Watts riots, an explosion of racial tension in LA which left 34 dead and more than 1,000 injured. In his 2010 obituary from the LA Times, Gates was quoted as saying of the Watts riots: “We had no idea how to deal with this.” When he became the police chief for all of Los Angeles, he dealt with the black community with a punitive philosophy.

Gates didn’t recognize the Los Angeles he had inherited in 1978. As Patt Morrison wrote for the LA Times in 2010: “Daryl Gates’ problem was Los Angeles’ problem. 1960s L.A., that ‘white spot’ the city once advertised itself to be, looked in the mirror of 1980s L.A. and didn’t recognize itself.” The city had become vastly more diverse since those Halcyon days. The multicultural muddle of Los Angeles had lost the image of a pure, palm-lined paradise of Hollywoodland—a place where crime was mysterious, scandalous and worthy of noir-flicks, not brutal and barbaric. The PD’s response was to militarize the police force. Fighting fire with fire. Gates was responsible for developing the first SWAT teams in America. The teams were used to conduct raids on the strongholds of black political groups.

It wasn’t just no-knock raids. Federal agencies worked with the LAPD to undermine black groups in Los Angeles in the 1960s. A shooting at UCLA’s Campbell Hall, resulting in the deaths of Black Panther members Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins Jr. took place in 1969. The killings were the result of infighting between black radical groups. The alleged shooter, Claude Hubert, was a member of the black group Us. Though it was never cleanly proven that the attack was coordinated by members of federal or state agencies – though some have suggested FBI involvement, or instigated by the Los Angeles PD’s own CCS (Criminal Conspiracy Section), which was almost exclusively dedicated to subverting black militant groups – the UCLA shooting represents the sort of internecine in-fighting that law enforcement groups sowed within black radical groups in the ‘60s. Throughout the decade, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram) worked with the LAPD to perform violent raids on Black Panther groups with impunity. Many Panthers were killed by police during these raids, which took place across the country. Most notable among the murdered was the young Fred Hampton, who was chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP).

Hampton left Chicago in early November, 1969 for Los Angeles, where he would meet with BPP leadership, and deliver a speech to the UCLA Law Students Association. While he was gone, two Chicago Police Officers were killed in a shootout with Black Panther Party members. One Panther, 19-year-old Spurgeon Winter Jr. was killed. The Chicago Tribune published an article on November 13 with the title “No Quarter For Wild Beasts,” which encouraged Police not to hold back on Black Panthers. “They have declared war on society,” the columnist writes. “They therefore have forfeited the right to considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim.” The writer advised that officers “should be ordered to be ready to shoot.” On December 4, Fred Hampton was shot twice in the head at point blank range, despite not resisting officers. In fact, he couldn’t. FBI informant William O’Neal, who had infiltrated the group as an undercover officer, admitted in 1990 that he had drugged Fred Hampton with the barbiturate Secobarbital, rendering him unable to move. Jakobi Williams writes in his book From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther that when officer’s found Hampton’s unconscious body, they called out in excitement “That’s Fred Hampton!” This implied that his assassination was the raid’s primary intent. He also writes that fellow BPP member Harold Bell heard the following exchange:

 

(First Voice): “That’s Fred Hampton.”

(Second Voice): “Is he dead? Bring him out [of his bedroom].”

(First Voice): “He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”

(Two shots ring out and a third voice, believed to be Carmody’s, states) “He’s good and dead now.”

 

As Deputy Chief under Ed Davis, LAPD chief from 1969–1978 (and later a state senator), Daryl Gates headed up the city’s “red squad.” Red Squad’s date back to the 1920s, and refer to groups dedicated to unearthing political groups—originally groups involved in the Communist party, hence “red”—and bringing them to justice. The LA Red Squad was formally called the Los Angeles Public Disorder and Intelligence Division (PDID). Red Squads are the reactionary result of public hysteria regarding a perceived political threat. The first red squads were used to break up strikes and derail trade unions, and use force to politically repress radical groups—or any group, really, that bothered the police department or opponents of government officials . In his book Big Brother in Blue: Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America, Frank Donner defines the political repression that red squads effected as: “police behavior motivated or influenced in whole or in part by hostility to protest, dissent and related activities perceived as a threat to the status quo.” That is, activism of any kind, or any group of people that threatens the capital class, the ruling class, who benefit from the state of things remaining static.

The LAPD was a family, and Gates had his family’s back. The LAPD was also one family Gates could fix. If a cop stepped out of line, it was a matter for the family to take care of — not some discipline-by-public-committee. When he became chief, he dumped the swags of gold braid that had made some chiefs look like operetta admirals and put on the plain ink-blue uniform of the LAPD cop. They loved him for that too.

LA Times columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote in his review of Donner’s book: “Here, the cops infiltrated black and Latino advocacy organizations. In the late ’60s and ’70s, the anti-war movement was a target. Today, it is vaguely defined as ‘terrorists.’” Boyarsky argues that Donner fails to provide an answer to the burgeoning police state. He offers one of his own:

 

The answer…is that law enforcement already has that capability through line officers investigating all sorts of crime. They’re regular cops, subject to department oversight and discipline. Treat threats of terrorism the same way as threats of bank robberies, with the investigators subject to the same control–civilian and uniformed–as any other detectives.

 

Gates enhanced surveillance and he militarized until the LAPD resembled a highly-armed battalion. The Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH, became part of the LAPD in 1979. The program was originally called Total Resources Against Street Hoodlums—acronymically “TRASH”—but was forced to change the term “after civic leaders objected to the implication that human beings, even gangsters, were no better than trash,” as Tom Diaz writes in his book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (though the last word in the acronym receives no criticism for being racially-coded). The original eponym better suited CRASH’s mission, which was, as an LAPD officer told LA Times Columnist Gregory Boyle, was harassment and destruction. “Our strategy is a simple one: Make life as miserable as we possibly can for the gang member.”

CRASH spearheaded the “Operation Hammer” program institute by the LAPD after Toshima’s killing. It was disbanded in 1998 following several scandals involving Rampart Police Officers involved with the CRASH unit. One officer beat and choked a gang member when he refused to confess to his affiliation until the man being interrogated vomited blood. Another officer, in a deal with prosecutors for stealing six pounds of cocaine from evidence, told prosecutors that he and his partner had shot and paralyzed an unarmed gang member, then testified that he had assaulted them. In 1999, Boyle wrote in his column that virtually every gang member to whom he had spoken had a negative story to tell about CRASH officers involving “gun and ‘dope’ plantings, prolonged beatings and being deposited by officers in the heart of rival gang territory.” The CRASH unit, marked by a desire to frame, maim and kill, was the epitome of the “us vs. them” mentality that is inevitable of a militaristic philosophy of policing.  But that was the way Daryl Gates saw the LAPD’s role, to stem the tide of crime, to meet violence with violence.

When Gates’s tenure at the LAPD ended ignominiously after his police force’s failure to properly “handle” the 1992 LA riots, he worked with video game developer Sierra On-Line to create a computer game based on the LAPD. It was called Police Quest: Open Season (literally, they named it open season). It was the fourth installment of the hardcore police video game series Police Quest. In the game, you play a police detective, John Carey, who is hunting the South Central thug who killed his partner. Duncan Fyfe, in his piece on the video game for Vice.com, writes of the various racist and brutal aspects of the game. Los Angeles, Fyfe writes, is depicted as a fallen arcadia, transformed by the animals of urban gangs. Fyfe writes: “Naturally, per Gates, gang terror is enabled by social welfare programs: ‘This is an all-girl Hispanic gang,’ Carey reads in the LAPD files. ‘To enter and stay in the gang a girl must rob at gun-point a retail business. Many of these girls are unwed mothers and receive public assistance.’ Fyfe points to more examples of racism and a simplistic view of Los Angeles’s gang crisis:

In this LA, a city of “dirtbags, creeps and losers,” graffiti is an “urban blight.” Mothers entreat the police to “make [the] streets safe for the children,” and the cops can’t bear “to see the little children and the innocent families hurt by all the street violence.” A cop is killed walking a woman to her car. A little girl hugs Carey when he solves the gruesome murder of her father. Gay men and sex workers are lascivious. Black characters say things like “Yo, I be fly today!” and “This be my ‘hood. I be Raymond Jones da third.” (Asked to comment by Vibe on that, Gates ducked the blame: “I told [Sierra] that these people use the same language that you and I use.”) Fyfe explains how the game not only denigrates the black characters, but glorifies the police officers as knights in the darkness, trying to clean up the streets.“Of Gates’ elite C.R.A.S.H. team…one cop enthuses: ‘Now those boys are men!’ In-game banners promote D.A.R.E., Gates’ anti-drug education program. If you try to touch one, the game protests: ‘Leave the banner in place. It’s a source of pride for the department.’ A desk sergeant even recommends Gates’ autobiography: ‘I learned a few things.’

The game’s overall message, Fyfe writes, is all Gates: “If the police fall, everyone dies. So stay the fuck out of our way.” Gates even puts himself in Police Quest, as the chief of police, encouraging John Carey in his pursuit. Police Quest was Gates’s self-restoration, a virtual rendering of the way policing has to be, in a world that is quickly going to hell. In a review of the game from the magazine Computer Gaming World in March, 1994, Dennis Owens writes:

Many games over the years have encouraged that lack of consideration for NPCs [non-player characters]. The tendency to slaughter all and take all in role- playing games has been so pervasive that the few games which punish such behavior could be counted on one hand. But to run across such selfishness in a game like this seems incredibly damning — and heartrending — because it’s true to life. We treat each other, the game implies, in our attempts merely to cope with the problems with which we are faced, like NPCs.

During Gates’s reign, the use of surveillance was expanded through the Special Investigations Section, which was founded in 1965 as a unit meant to apprehend robbers and burglars. Allyson Collins writes in her book Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States that LAPD Captain Dennis Conte defended the extraordinarily high kill-rate for a unit specializing in robbers and burglars by saying: Public safety is a concern, but we have to look beyond that because if we arrest someone for attempt [sic], the likelihood of a conviction is not great.” Surveillance units routinely transformed potential non-violent crimes—like robberies—into violent ones, by surprising perpetrators with their guns already raised. They also neglected to inform local police departments about their investigations, which, as Hills writes, added “to the danger and confusion at the scene of crimes.” In a 1988 expose on the SIS written by David Freed of the LA Times, Freed writes:

The Times found that in 17 of the 32 cases examined, SIS detectives had apparent justification to arrest the criminals they were following before serious crimes were committed. Instead, the detectives watched robberies or burglaries occur even though the criminals were already wanted on arrest warrants.” suit claims that the SIS is a “death squad” whose officers routinely allow criminal suspects that they follow to commit crimes and then open fire on them while making arrests.

In 1989, a six-year-old boy whose father was shot by police in an attempted bank robbery claimed that officers follow and observe criminal suspects, then allow them to commit crimes and open fire on them. In 1991, Gates publicly defended officers from the SIS for shooting and killing three robbers and wounding another one. More than one lawsuit was filed against the SIS for the violation of civil liberties. In 1992, four men alleged to have robbed a McDonald’s while the SIS observed without intervening. As they were leaving, the SIS blocked their car, claimed to see a gun, and opened fire, killing three and injuring a fourth. In a subsequent lawsuit, Collins writes, the families of the deceased were awarded a $44,000 settlement to be paid the SIS officers and Daryl Gates himself. In the end, the city footed the bill. In 1996, a suit was filed by Robert Cunningham against the LAPD’s SIS unit. The suit alleged that the officers followed Cunningham and Daniel Soly after they robbed a convenience store, and, without announcing themselves, fired 15 times with shotguns into the automobile in which the two robbers were sitting. The SIS has since been disbanded. The suit claimed that the officers would have shot Cunningham “in their unbridled lust,” had it not been for the intervention of a fire captain.

These proactive police forces — like the SIS and the red squads and PDID officers who busted down doors and attacked political rabble-rousers for the potential violence they presented, a threat of “chaos,” as is labeled any possible alteration to the state — makes the Police Department into a machine that craves crime, feeds on it, and inevitably would be nothing without it. Would be bored without it. Finally, it creates in officers a personal, moral vendetta on crime, believing themselves the “thin blue line” between order and chaos. In a 1992 exit-interview following the disaster of the LA riots, Daryl Gates reflected: “If I’d used deadly force, the spin would have been, ‘There goes Gates again — old Rambo.’ It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”  The solution, as Boyarsky wrote, is to don’t. To be willing, and able to be damned, judged and tried for its mistakes? Is that not the responsibility of the state? To feel and accomodate the will of the people, oblige it, rather than fighting to maintain dominance over the populace it is meant to represent and protect? Yet any deviance from the status quo is seen as a presage of chaos, and is met with bullets and cudgels. “But if we don’t support our system of justice in this nation, we have sown the seeds of anarchy.”

Every abuse of power committed by the SIS and the LAPD was justified by Gates by his ardent commitment to law and order; the interpretation of all groups of societal upheaval as threats to peace, despite their often peaceful methods. There’s a major difference between promoting peace and “keeping the peace,” the mission of police officers (or peace officers, as they’re sometimes called). Keeping the peace implies that there is peace already, as things are. Yet inequality and suffering are everywhere. The presumption it takes to view all groups dedicated to political movement is to define anything slightly deviant as potentially criminal.

The culture that Gates had fostered in the Los Angeles Police Department ultimately incited an explosive reaction, after the four officers arrested for savagely beating Rodney King were acquitted of all charges. The riot that subsequently took place in Los Angeles county in April and May of 1992 saw 63 people killed and 2,383 people injured. Gates had not conceded that there was a culture of violent repression in the LAPD, but called the incident an “aberration.”

Inevitably, Gates was forced to turn in his badge. He later wrote in his autobiography that “Not speaking boldly of the horror I felt [at the tape] proved to be . . . a significant error on my part — in dealing with a crisis that would only grow worse.” Whether or not he truly regretted it, or really felt the “horror” he claims after the fact, it was undeniable that Gates had created a culture within the LAPD of racist, paramilitary, and “any means necessary” tactics to deal with crime.  And yet his legacy continues, three decades later. It’s a legacy of simplification, of addressing symptoms—aggressively, brutally—rather than even considering systemic cause. An unsympathetic approach to policing that views potential criminals as “bad guys,” and non-player characters. Hillary Clinton called them “superpredators” in 1996: “They’re not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called superpredators. No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”

When you don’t critically or humanely consider criminals from minority, underprivileged backgrounds, your insight deadens at the skin. You start to associate criminality with blackness or brownness. All black or brown men become thugs, hoodlums; irredeemable, inhuman. That’s how black and brown people were often viewed by LAPD officers. Killings or crimes involving only minority victims and perps were often referred to as “NHI” crimes—No humans involved. Psychologist Abraham Maslau wrote: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

A culture that believes in an absolute, objective, immutable state can exist at a local level through a subset of absolutist ideas that pervade the populace. Complacency is not a hypnotic, trance-like state; it is a fervent, tight grip on absolutist beliefs. There must be both a threat and threatened-party. Oppressed parties seeking equality or demanding a shift in the class hierarchy threaten the status quo, and threaten the identity of an individual member of the dominant party. Thus, these domestic “enemies of the state” are demonized in order to make stomping them out morally palatable. It isn’t just the process of using media to label black gang members thugs, mindless, animalistic, killers. It’s the confluence of systems of oppression that do the media’s work for them, by producing characters whose only options to fight the oppressor is violence.

Durrel DeWitt Collins, a 19-year-old member of the Rolling 60s Crips, was the young man who shot Karen Toshima.  During Collins’ trial, a letter penned by Karen Toshima’s younger brother Kevin was read in court: “Durrel Collins has a long history of violence, which his criminal record shows, but even more disdaining is his attitude of total disregard for other people and his disregard for another’s life. He doesn’t have any respect for human life and that makes him dangerous.”

When Collins was found guilty, Santa Monica Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht had the option to sentence Collins to two consecutive life terms for the crime. Albracht admitted that he felt a “human desire” for vengeance against Collins. But justice, he said, was not retributive or wantonly punitive. He had to consider the context of Collins’s act, and the factors that had influenced Collins to become involved in the gang life. “It happens again and again,” Albracht said. “He didn’t burst on the scene in Westwood. These young people are no secret to us. They are walking time bombs. We failed the Durrell Collinses of the world. We failed ourselves as a society.”  Collins was sentenced to 27-years to life for the murder of Karen Toshima.

An anonymous opinion piece submitted to the LA Times in 1989 lamented the “weak” sentence and offered an opposite view: “The warm and caring judge feels that society failed the poor and neglected Collins. In reality, Collins failed himself, and society has no responsibility to help such sub-humans.” The writer adds that Collins should have been sentenced to death. 

The idea that someone’s crimes can be attributed to systemic causes rather than personal backwardness is anathema to a certain crowd. It’s viewed as an excuse. Exemplary of this reductionist logic are the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) that Daryl Gates founded, which sought to discourage drug use and gang-membership and the famous “Just Say No,” campaign created by Nancy Reagan. Both prevention platforms place the onus on the individual—it’s your responsibility to just say no, it’s your decision to dare to resist drugs and violence—without acknowledging the societal ills that produce drugs and violence. Thus, those involved in drug use and violence are personally responsible for their decisions. After all, white people aren’t joining gangs and shooting each other; white people aren’t smoking crack. It’s all nature over nurture. So the logic went.

Recall in 1989, when First-lady Nancy Reagan participated in a Los Angeles Police SWAT team raid on a house in South Central (by participate, I mean she sat in a motor home parked outside the house while the team battered down the door, chatting with Daryl Gates, who had invited her on the drug-bust). When the raid was finished, 14 people had been arrested. Nancy told reporters: “These people in here are beyond the point of teaching and rehabilitating. There’s no life, and that’s very discouraging.” No life. Beyond rehabilitation. Irredeemable. Animals. The crack that circulated in South Central came from cocaine trafficked by the contra guerrillas of Nicaragua, an operation run by the CIA to fund their covert paramilitary ops to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. President Ronald Reagan had approved the operations.

It comes down to the dehumanization of black and brown people—into criminals, thugs, hoodlums, NPCs, non-humans, dirtbags, creeps and losers, etc. For this system to continue—to feed—there must be innocent victims, bystanders, valuable humans to oppose the cretins. As Allen Feldman writes in On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King: “Beyond and below state formalism, legal codes, and official police procedures, there lies a symbolic logic of the state, animated by empowering micropractices of depersonalization, that is readily fed by and articulated with culturally.” For the state to maintain rigid, definite lines—as more and more people begin to roil against their chains—a heavily militarized police force is needed. To protect the state, as if it is a monolith, immutable entity, and not an organism that ought to constantly be changing. And the state is one that favors the rich and therefore benefits from the division and distraction of the poor, the working class, and requires a squad of brutal enforcers to maintain it.

The phrase “status quo” originates from the Latin phrase Status quo ante bellum, meaning the state of things before the war. In America we know Antebellum days refer to the languid, idyllic southern epoch before the war of northern aggression robbed them of their sovereignty (and simultaneously, though putatively unrelatedly, did away with slavery). The “status quo,” the “peace,” civility and non-violence means a state of changelessness, a calcified, statuesque, inertial condition. Things stay the same – if aynthing, they go backwards. They tend toward a bygone era; they become “great again.” For those who want change, who believe it is necessary, just, overdue – science and history – or the science of history – tell us that state changes occur through pressure, raising the temperature. Water only becomes gas when it reaches a boiling point.

Like it did in Los Angeles in 1992.

Like it did in Ferguson in 2014.

Like it’s doing in Minneapolis in 2020.

And yet, does change last? Not when the “liberals” align with the conservatives in their fearful longing for stasis, a peace that favors them, a separate peace, an insular peace. A comprehensible condition, a human condition if not simply cultivated – but one that must be beaten back and aggressively nonetheless.

Trump has called the protestors, or rioters “thugs,” which I imagine has caused a lot of pearl-clutching among liberals who recognize the racial connotation of the word. But I’m reminded of when President Barack Obama said the same thing of rioters in Baltimore. Baltimore City Councilman Carl Stokes responded to President Obama thusly: why not “just call them n****s.”

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Of Martin Luther King’s commitment to non-violence as a means to fight white supremacy, organizer and civil rights leader Kwame Ture said: “he only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent has to have a conscience. The United States has no conscience.” Whether or not you think ACAB, or that individuals all have moral consciences, the state, the United States, has none. It is an entity, a faceless, soulless monolith, a business, an industry, and it cannot be moved by non-violence. It cannot be swayed by action taken within the laws it has prescribed. Cliché as it might sound, the revolution must begin within ourselves, who have been taught that violence is not the answer. In a sense, we – and I’m speaking to the white population here – fear change to the state as we fear change thrust upon ourselves. But we must embrace both, unless you truly believe that the state of things in America today is just as it should be.

      

 

 

Journal of a Plague Year On My 26th Birthday

Today is March 16, my birthday. I’m in Bali, still vacillating between staying out here and heading home before the borders get locked down indefinitely. I’ve been traveling around since I left Vietnam in mid February, first to South Korea, then to New Zealand, a roadie on COVID-19’s world tour.

It’s my dreaded 26th, a particularly American milestone that means I get kicked off my parents’ healthcare plan. This, I think, more than your 18th birthday or your 21st or your 25th, when you can finally hit up your local Hertz and rent a car, is the true point of entry to adulthood. No more living in blissful suspension above the comforting safety net of your parents’ care, no more trusting that you can simply go to a doctor when you’re sick and not have to worry about co-pays and deductibles and all that.

Of course, mine is a privileged experience. Many people have to reckon with these facts of life long before they’re 26. I’m very lucky compared to the average American. Still, navigating the online healthcare portals and comparing plans and trying to make some real decisions and judge the accuracy of my supposed mortality is a rather glum experience, and one that does feel like a turning point, an ingress into a kind of independence that is unwanted and unsettling.

There’s nothing ceremonious about this rite. In fact, that’s a key part of the ritual: the absence of ceremony, the mythless and mirthless nature of it. You are now on your own, no longer ramparted from the cruel world by your mommy and daddy. Pushed out of the nest to either learn to fly in mid air, or fledgle and hit the floor.

Welcome to the real world.

Welcome to life in the big city.

As I sit in my villa trying to decide if I have a sore throat because of the sudden shift in humidity from NZ to Bali, I read obsessively about the Coronavirus and envisage global doom from the strangely paradisiacal island, where grass is green, the girls are pretty, and the yoga stores are starting to close and coughs garner glares. No matter where I go these days, I find myself unable to remove myself fully from America. That was the case the whole time I was in Vietnam.  I battled with feelings of guilt about leaving the country, I think because it seems like such a pivotal time. So I read incessantly about the politics and happenings there, a concerned citizen removed from his land.

While in Vietnam and Korea, the effort to contain Coronavirus has very obviously been taken seriously by the government, America seems woefully unwilling to view COVID as a genuine threat, and frighteningly unprepared for the consequences of that nonchalance. I have seen people on Facebook and Twitter boldly declaring: “We will not be scared by a virus. We will not give in,” as if the virus is ISIS, or something. If we allow the virus to scare us into staying home, then we let it win. (That’s not how viruses work). In reality, this is selfishness masquerading as some kind of national zeitmotif, a patriotic rallying cry. Land of the brave, and all that.

I have read articles about people in New York and Chicago continuing to go to bars and party in the streets of Chicago, not caring if they infect others, not understanding that they could be a vector for someone somewhere getting the virus, someone more vulnerable than you. This recklessness and entitlement is bizarre and disturbing. It’s part of what makes people hate Americans, and consider us to be boorish and stupid. But the root of this indifference is not, at its core, a shallow sense of entitlement or basic stupidity – I think it goes deeper than that.

I have read about workers having to continue going to work as if nothing is going on, even if they might be carrying the virus, because the boss hasn’t shut things down and frankly they still need the cash,  as the realities of life in the big city are still in effect. I have read about people who are losing their jobs because of Corona virus, but still have to make rent. No reprieve is imminent.

In a country where toughness is the national virtue, and rugged individualism the ethos – where nothing is freely given, everything must be taken, and so rapacity and avarice are celebrated – there is little room for community, or empathy, or consideration for others. And that works out just fine for the companies that run the country, for whom unity is a threat to profits (see: unionization).

The US government is doing its part to ensure the safety of corporate profits, as usual, at the expense of workers. This week, the House of Representatives passed the Families First CoronaVirus Response Act. The bill calls for companies to provide two weeks of paid sick leave for employees, and up to three months of paid family and medical leave for those who contract COVID-19 or have to take care of a family member who has.

But that only applies to companies of fewer than 500 employees, which represents 46% of companies.  According to The New York Times, 59 million workers in America are excepted from these modest offerings. In addition, the Labor Department can choose to exempt some companies with fewer than 500 employees if it determines that these measures “would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” The bill offers three months off only to those who are sick or are taking care of a sick loved one –  it does nothing to keep workers who might carry the virus at home. It isn’t designed to contain the spread of the virus at all – it’s designed to make sure the machine keeps running.

Nancy Pelosi, the blue-no-matter-who crowd’s queen, tweeted: “I don’t support U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing corporations to provide benefits to workers that they should already be providing. House Democrats will continue to prioritize strong emergency leave policies as we fight to put #FamiliesFirst.”

She followed that up with:

“Large employers and corporations must step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family & medical leave to their workers. Both now as we fight the #coronavirus and in the years to come. #COVIDー19″

This idea that the government stepping in to provide aid to its citizens is stealing from U.S. taxpayer money – a pool that is routinely siphoned from to fund illegitimate wars and tax breaks for the rich – is nothing less than a right-wing talking point. It’s the same point used to critique Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All platform (bUt It WiLl RaIsE tAxEs). Pelosi says she doesn’t support it because corporations “should already be providing” these benefits, and that they must “step up to the plate and offer paid sick leave and paid family leave to their workers.”

That’s some real tough talk. I’m sure CEOs of health insurance companies are quaking in their boots at the suggestion that they should do better.  A mighty finger wag indeed. Walmart and Target, in their beneficence, have offered two weeks of paid sick leave. A BBC headline – “Coronavirus: Amazon offers unlimited sick days to halt spread” – doesn’t tell the whole story; these unlimited paid sick days only apply to those who contract the virus, and so does nothing to reduce contagion. That comes after Whole Foods, owned by Amazon oligarch and the richest man on the planet Jeff Bezos, encouraged those of its employees with extra days of PTO to donate them to other employees in need.

I, for one, am not satisfied by this meager admonition. I don’t imagine that demanding that these corporations ought to gain a conscience overnight and offer some PTO out of the kindness of their hearts will be a particularly effective gambit on Frau Speaker’s part. Isn’t it time that the government subsidizes taxpayer money for something that would benefit taxpayers? Isn’t it time that we have a government that is for us and not the corporations? Isn’t it time that we stop relying on the munificence of billionaires, and realize that we have the power – that without workers, the machine will grind to a halt? To recognize that the forces compelling us to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and go to work – student debt, mortgages, threats of eviction, need for food and Internet and health care – are illusory?

That’s what this strange period represents, the opportunity to understand that we have the power, that we always have had the power, and if only we could see through the obfuscations of the machine, we could seize that power, and take back our lives. That if we came together, we could right the ship in a moment and do away with the imaginary forces that make our lives brutal and despairing.

But the machine is sophisticated, and it is equipped for catastrophe. It’s greatest weapon is ideology. Louis Althusser wrote: “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence.” The ideology of American-ness is rugged individualism, toughness, a masculine obstinacy that rejects community and compatriotism. The American mantra is that we’re all on our own, and it’s better that way.

 

In America we are doers. We are earners, entrepreneurs and go-getters, risers and grinders – not whiners, deservers, querulous entitled welps as the media calls us. We work hard and we play hard, too. And if they’re going to make me work, if they’re going to throw me into the water at age 26, or 20, or 18 and tell me sink or swim, then I’m damn well going to do what I want ; if the show must go on, then I will continue to play. Those people who call me selfish for carousing in the streets don’t know me. They aren’t my friends – what do I owe them? They’re just triggered that I’m living my best life.

I read a tweet a few days ago from Roseanne Cash that said: “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”  This tweet unnerved me deeply. It pissed me off and made me more anxious than other Corona-related tweets, even the much direr ones. Because it resonated with that voice in my head that told me I was never doing enough to achieve greatness, to become someone worthwhile, someone “successful.”

That fear of failure is both caused by the precarity that austerity causes, and the feeling that motivates those who continue to champion austerity. If I get sick or hurt, no one ‘s going to help me. If I can only rely on myself, I must constantly work to accumulate enough capital to have security – and if I had to work for everything I get, so should everyone else. This totally ignores specific circumstances and the disproportionate resources that certain people have. Dr. Emily Friedman (@friede) tweeted:

“Please stop. I’m a literary historian who specialized for a time in scented objects (used during plague). Dudes who got a ton done got stuff done ALL THE TIME, because they had massive amounts of domestic staff (up to but not always including a wife).”

That’s the ideology that encourages us to isolate, to focus solipsistically on ourselves and ascribe our value to our individual achievements, not our contribution to a collective – not just in an economic sense, but as a unique person, the ways that we contribute to our friend groups and enrich each others lives.

There are bright spots. Stories of people giving to others, strangers, when they don’t have to, of taking care of each other. Those are the stories that I cling to.

Like Mrotzie’s tweet: “Friends canceled their son’s Bar Mitzvah this weekend but decided to keep the contract with their caterer, a tiny Hmong-owned business. They delivered the food to friends in quarantine & sent pans home with others. Grateful for stories like this and for community in a bleak time.” Or the viral video of Italian people on their balconies, singing Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” together. I’m sure there are more examples of people doing the things that they don’t have to do, that they, themselves, likely felt ambivalent about doing because it meant losing money, risking their own security, making their lives that much more precarious.

Isolation is important right now. But how much better would it be if we knew that we had each other’s backs? How much safer would you feel if you weren’t accused of entitlement for wanting to avoid contracting or spreading a deadly virus? That you are lazy for not writing Fucking King Lear? And that if you happen to get sick and have to be hospitalized, you won’t be left with a hospital bill that could potentially ruin your life?

We’ve got two candidates for President, one of whom said “the younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break… I have no empathy for it, give me a break,” and one who wants to eliminate all student debt, make college free and give free health insurance to everyone in the country – things that Coronavirus is revealing to be very possible, and not, as Joe Biden said, “pie in the sky.” Coronavirus should make this an easy decision. But we will still probably flub that, and things probably won’t go the way that they should. It’s not entirely that we’re stupid. The ideological apparatus of capitalism that has sought to isolate us for so long – it’s tough to beat. As a result, this plague will probably be much worse than it could have been. Still, every second of every hour of every day, the power to change the future is in our hands. It never leaves, that potentiality; a better future is always just a moment away, if only we would reach out and grab it.

Well, I had better get to work on King Lear 2: the Shrekkening. Wash your hands and don’t touch your face. We are the many, they are the few. A better world is always possible.

Impeachment: Who Cares

About a week ago, Nancy Pelosi said in a town hall that back when she was speaker of the house while George W. Bush was in office, and he and his cronies were publicly claiming that Saddam Hussein had uranium, chemical weapons, and a veritable stockpile of WMDs, she knew he was lying.

Full quote:

“When I became speaker the first time there was overwhelming call for me to impeach President Bush on the strength of the war in Iraq which I vehemently opposed…That was my wheel house, I was in intelligence, I was a ranking member in the intelligence committee… so I knew there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq, it just wasn’t there… the intelligence did not show that was the case.

“So I knew it was a misrepresentation to the public…”

But, she said, she didn’t pursue impeachment because she “did not want to go down that path because of what it would mean for the American people.”

What did that war mean to the American people? It meant almost 4,500 American soldiers dead between 2003 and 2019. Of course, not to mention the number of Iraqi people who have been killed during the longest war America has ever waged, estimated from the hundreds of thousands to nearly a million. Rarely is that number mentioned.

We know they don’t care about brown people in faraway countries, but do any of these people actually give a shit about the American people like they claim to?

If Pelosi truly gave a shit about the American people, then she might have considered the gross mishandling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, in which government aid came far too little too late, and 1800+ people died – mostly people from poor communities, mostly black people (Kanye West was right – George Bush doesn’t care about black people) many elderly and disabled people died – because they didn’t have the resources to evacuate, something that could have been avoided if the government had reacted with haste, or like it was an emergency. But they didn’t. They acted like it had taken them by surprise, like it wasn’t well known that the levees were structurally deficient, and that the funding once allotted to bolstering these safeguards hadn’t been shifted elsewhere – namely, to fund a war that was waged entirely to enrich the members of the ruling class. Then, there’s the fact that the rebuilding of Katrina was a privatization playground for the rich, who lined their pockets with government contracts, tearing down public housing and building charter school after charter school.

But Bush was endearing, and if given to malapropisms and the occasional blooper-reel gaffe, he was at least charming and self-aware. A guy you could have a beer with. Now, look – the doddering old Texan is back at his ranch painting pictures of dogs! How adorable! He’s holding events for the injured veterans of the illegitimate war that he started! And he’s friends with Ellen DeGeneres!

After Bush, there was Obama, that cheeky, handsome, oratorically gifted guy that we all loved. He gave the go-ahead for some 500+ drone strikes in the Middle East and Somalia, which killed between 1200 – 7500 civilians (the numbers are quite murky, and the US decided to consider all military-age males as enemy combatants rather than civilians in their death toll unless explicit evidence said otherwise).

How about that beloved, fatherly icon, still revered on both sides of the political aisle, Ronald Reagan? The Gipper, the great communicator, the handsome and urbane former movie star who, whether you agreed with his politics or not, you had to admit was darn handsome and an affable fellow. What about the CIA-led coup in Nicaragua that he countenanced? What about the fact that the CIA funded this operation, as Gary Webb of the Sacramento Bee later proved, by trafficking cocaine from South America into South Central Los Angeles, effectively inciting the crack epidemic that ravaged the black community there?

What about Trump’s fellow impeachee, Richard M. Nixon? His administration carried out a series of covert (i.e. illegal) bombings in Cambodia from ’69 – ’70 that killed an estimable 100,000 people, after explicitly saying he would not touch Cambodia. He waged a “War on Drugs” that was really a war on black people and leftists. Earlier this year, one of Nixon’s top aides from his presidency, John Ehrlichman, told CNN: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.”

Was he impeached for that? Or for the then-provable war crime in Cambodia (which resulted in four American college students being killed by the National Guard in a protest at Kent State)? No, he was ultimately impeached for stealing from the DNC. The so called “Saturday Night Massacre,” was a bloodless, paltry reason to impeach Tricky Dick in comparison to the war crimes he had authored in southeast Asia, and the domestic campaign against the black community. Why was this the crime that couldn’t go unpunished?

Because it was an indiscretion within the elite. Trump’s mistake was that he committed an impropriety within the ranks of the politico-capital class, which threatened another faction of the ruling class. It wasn’t that he locked children up away from their parents in concentration camps with woeful, inhumane conditions, it was that he abused his power as president to mess with a political opponent.

Why wouldn’t Nancy Pelosi try hard to impeach Bush for waging a war that she knew was premised on lies? Why wasn’t Nixon impeached for his extralegal strafing of Cambodia, which had terrible repercussions for that country for decades? Why wasn’t Reagan impeached for the coup in Nicaragua?

Why was John F. Kennedy murdered for challenging the system, for threatening to break up the CIA, for going after the mob, for planning to withdraw troops from Vietnam and refusing to give air coverage to the CIA-led Bay of Pigs Invasion? And why did no one, Republican or Democrat, press too hard when, against all evidence, the Warren Commission determined that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone? (But don’t get me started on this….)

The answer is: because the rising tide of imperialism and military industry buoys all ships, regardless of party affiliation. Because Democrats and Republicans alike are all members of the ruling class, equally invested in America’s overseas campaigns and domestic austerity. The truth is: THEY. DON’T. CARE. ABOUT. YOU. And Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party are complicit just as much as the Republican Party.

So when you talk with misty-eyed reverie about the days of Bush, Obama, that incorrigible Clinton, and basically every other President before Trump, miss me with that “miss me yet?” tripe. Don’t tell me that Nancy Pelosi is a badass, a queen, a savior. Crooked systems are run by crooks, and most of them have been more nefarious than Trump. They’ve just been more adroit, more skillful at pretending noble intentions when they really want the oiiiilllll.

In that way, Trump has been kind of hilariously candid, telling the media that he wouldn’t cut off diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia or sanction them in any way after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder because there was a huge arms sale that was about to go down. He hasn’t said much about the obviously American-funded coup in Bolivia, conducted in order to install a pro-US regime in there that will sell us that sweet sweet lithium at a bargain rate, but I’m sure that we’ll find out all about that later. Maybe it will seem like an aberrant level of corruption given the guy’s legacy, but it’s hardly an anomaly. It’s par for the course.

But we can’t in good conscience abide this guy anymore. Because Trump is a clown, a national embarrassment, a dog-whistling white supremacist, an obvious sexist, and an amoral bastard. He’s downright offensive! Didn’t his parents ever teach him manners? This guy’s a bully! We’ve never had anyone this bad! Forget about Reagan’s crack epidemic and militarized crackdown on black communities in the ’80s, or the anti-welfare rhetoric – an obvious cipher for anti-black speak – that wasn’t racist in the way Trump has been. Bush basically ignoring the poor black communities in New Orleans during Katrina – that’s not racist. Trump, though, that guy’s explicitly racist. We can’t have that. Our basic problem with Trump is that he’s impolite. That he doesn’t – can’t – affect a veneer of grace and decorum like his politically-groomed predecessors. That this is our primary complaint with Trump is the real problem.

Ousting the big orange won’t do much besides assuage our consciences and help us to not be so sheepish when confessing our nationality to the Canadian couple we meet while on holiday somewhere in Europe. The fact is that it’s the policies of the United States, domestic and international, that are really in need of impeachment. And that won’t happen, because the people who benefit most from them also happen to be the ones in charge of the votes.

Do not get me wrong – I do think Trump should be impeached. He is a racist, misogynistic asshole. More importantly, his concentration camps at the border are destroying families and killing people. But the crime for which he he is being tried is that he messed with other members of the ruling class, and most people want him out of office simply because he doesn’t project that pretty-face that allows the United States’ brutal interventionism and suffocation of the working classes to continue under the guise of noble intentions. This is by-and-large political theatre to give the Dems a moral high ground, when in reality, they’re one half of the same sick system. So don’t celebrate too hard, because no matter what the outcome of this here impeachment thing is, the smart money’s on nothing changing at all.

We NEED to change things. Let me change that emphasis – WE need to change things. And that means not relying on politicians to save us, even when they’re handsome and witty and cordial and charismatic.

Hologramming The Dead

For the Super Bowl LII halftime show in 2018 hosted in Minnesota, it was reported that Justin Timberlake and his team wanted to bring hometown hero Prince back to life in hologram to sing alongside the former NYSYNC star. In the past, holograms of Tupac Shakur (Coachella 2012) and Michael Jackson (Billboard Music Awards 2014) have performed alongside physically present stars at shows. The hologram was, for awhile, all the rage in the pop music industry.

Hologram comes from the union of the Greek words holos, meaning whole, and gram, which means recording (e.g. Instagram, or gramaphone). Thus, a hologram is meant to be a recording of a whole person. The images of the performers are projected in such a way that they appear three dimensional if slightly pellucid, able to be seen panoramically and not just from a frontward-facing angle.

The world was amazed in 2012, when the company Digital Domain created a hologram of the late rapper Tupac Shakur—whose death has long been the subject of conspiracy theories that claim he’s still alive, maybe living somewhere in Africa—to perform alongside Snoop Dogg at the Coachella music festival in California. The technology was undeniably cool, reminiscent of the futuristic tech from Star Wars or Back To The Future II. Hologram technology has long been anticipated as the medium of the future. Now, it was here, signaling that we were living in the arcadian technological future we had always imagined.

Hologram technology is undeniably cool. Its pure commercial use—like the luminescent shark that we see frighten Marty McFly in Back To The Future, only to be revealed as an advertisement for Jaws 19—is mostly innocuous, and would be pretty neat. But there is an undeniable eeriness to resurrecting these icons, a creepy overstep that demonstrates our feelings of entitlement to celebrities, living or dead, especially considering the real purpose of bringing them back to the stage, which is much less to honor their musical legacy than it is to make money (I’ve been to the Coachella music festival—there are few events more consumerist and capitalistic than that). While bringing an artist back to life is superficially rationalized as a tribute, underneath, it’s a more insidious practice. When this trick of technology is used to dredge up the dead from their dreamless sleep and put them back to work, it loses its benignity.

Many celebrities have expressed trepidation at the idea of being posthumously reincarnated as a virtual, hologrammic version of themselves. Timberlake’s attempt to use a hologram of Prince for his show was foiled when an interview with Prince in Guitar World magazine from 1998 came to light.

 

Guitar World: With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?

 

Prince: Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [Free As a Bird], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.

 

Though Prince hated the idea of his being posthumously used to turn a profit, the truth is, his hologramification was complete long before he died in 2016. Because the media industry synthesizes seemingly complete, panoramic virtualizations of celebrities—and makes that virtualization omnipresent in advertisements and media—celebrities can be said to be overtaken by their media ghosts while they’re still alive. We think we know a celebrity because we watch their television shows and listen to their music, read about them in tabloids and follow them on Instagram—yet all we know is an image, a body double, and often one that been carefully cultivated by marketing executives. From Rupert Till’s book Pop Cult: Religion and Popular Music:

 

Prince initially created an onstage character and developed a myth to surround him, to aid in the marketing of his music, and help overcome his shy personality. This has developed so that the semi-fictional character of Prince is now the main focus of his artwork. Prince’s self, or that perceived as such by the public, is his primary text, his body is the principal instrument he uses…

 

Celebrities in the music industry often begin as artists firmly committed to their artforms, only to wake up to find that they have become icons in a consumerist industry with little artistic control. By signing over their rights in order to gain the platform they to share their art on a large scale, they lose a crucial dimension of their humanity: their autonomy. The music industry is formed by “agents” and “agencies,” who work on behalf of an artist to create a recognizable brand, a platform, and ultimately financial success. In signing to an agency, an artist or movie star can find they’ve ceded their own agency to a system incentivized by capital, not motivated by a desire to help an artist fulfill their creative ambitions. It’s the closest thing to a deal with the devil that you find in the real world. Like Robert Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist who, as the story goes, went down to the crossroads in the Mississippi delta and signed over his soul in exchange for worldly fame and talent, celebrities sign a social contract that gives them fame and fortune, as well as amplification for their art—but it costs them their free will.

Celebrities live to see themselves replaced by a media doppelganger that is not really them. The dead, soulless image of them replaces them, even before they’ve physically died. They trade in their vitality, their reality as a human being, for immortality. As Bernard Dicky wrote in his biography of actor Billy Wilder: “Movie making is the transformation of living beings into dead images that are then given life by being projected on a screen… Since the stars have ‘died’ by giving up their image to celluloid, they can be immortal both in their lifetime and after their death.” Yet, this immortality comes on the condition of being commoditized. If you are valuable as a commodity, you can exist indefinitely, and beyond physical death.

When he was still alive, Prince was well aware of his commoditization by mass culture, his subsumption and replacement by a “persona.” Persona is the Latin word for a theatrical mask that was used to amplify an actor or singer’s voice (per = for, sona = sound). The persona gives the singer a bigger platform, but often the persona overshadows the person. As Till writes, the body becomes the instrument for the image, and not the other way around. Prince Rogers Nelson becomes secondary to the public image of “Prince.”

Prince found himself uncomfortably beholden to the image created to market him. In the early ‘90s, Prince battled with his record label, Warner Bros., over control of the release of his single “My Name is Prince,” which begins “My name is Prince and I am funky/ My name is Prince the one and only.” In 1993 he appeared in concert with the word “slave” written on his face. He lamented losing creative control to Warner Bros. “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1996. “But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.” Prince railed against his enslavement by changing his name to a symbol that couldn’t be uttered, an act of reclaiming his identity. He didn’t simply change his name, he became something unpronounceable, which in itself is a pronouncement of inexpressible, inimitable individuality.

The simplification of an artist into an icon, a celebrity, cannot happen without the aid of a corporate entity, and, of course, we the consumers. By framing the status of celebrity as ultimate realization of the American dream, corporations entice us to believe that in achieving ultimate success, celebrities become ours to use, to deify or demonize, worship and abhor blankly, as if they aren’t real human beings. We don’t puzzle over our strange willingness to be hyper-critical toward celebrities. We shrug it off; it comes with the territory of being a star, we say. For many artists who become icons, the nightmare is the loss of not just creative control, but identity.

 

Entertainment Or Enslavement

 

There is something distressingly unnatural about our willingness to revive people after death, especially our readiness to wield and consume them as commercial products. Something undeniably Faustian. In this metaphor, who is the devil?

In a Wired magazine article from May, 2018, journalist Jimi Famurewa interviewed members of two companies that specialize in the creation of holograms for entertainment purposes: Pulse Evolution and Hologram USA.

Pulse Evolution made its name by bringing the king of pop, Michael Jackson, back to life at the Billboard music awards in 2014.  The hologram of the late singer, illumined on stage, danced and sung (or at least moved its luminous lips) to a track, previously unreleased, called “Slave To The Rhythm” (song choice was a bit on the nose if you ask me).

The fact that they chose an unreleased track, rather than an old standby like “Billie Jean” or “Thriller” was a very deliberate decision. Writes Famurewa in his article: “It’s not difficult to give yourself over to it. To believe that the King of Pop is really, truly back.” John Textor said regarding the Tupac Shakur apparition that his company, Digital Domain, conjured in 2012: “What made that [Coachella performance] unique was Tupac saying, ‘What the fuck is up, Coachella?’ That moment told everybody this was something different.” What made it different was that this performance was not a recording, an homage, nor even a resurrection. It was a replacement.

 

The Unwilling

 

In a YouTube video from WiredUK, Textor and David Alvi, the founder of another hologram company, Hologram USA, talk about the problems of the industry, but no mention is made to the potentially distortive effects to the way we perceive human beings, the moral questions that the practice raises, or the just plain strangeness of the burgeoning industry. It’s all spoken of as if all of this was simply logical. As if that which is imaginable is therefore inevitable. That the coverage of the industry all follow the competition between various companies highlights the rationale for each company’s founders and executives: if we don’t do it, someone else will.

The exhumation or rejuvenation of celebrities for their posthumous labor is especially grotesque when, like Prince, the celebrity in question had a distaste for their fame while they were still alive. Few celebrities have been more harassed and dehumanized during their careers than Amy Winehouse. In February, 2019 it was reported that the planned Amy Winehouse Hologram Tour, which was to be put on by hologram technology company Base Hologram would be postponed, due to “some unique challenges and sensitivities” of “remembering Amy Winehouse and her legacy in the most celebratory and respectful way possible.”

It is well documented that Amy Winehouse struggled greatly with fame throughout her career, and many believe that it ultimately contributed to her death of alcohol poisoning in 2011. In dying at the age of 27, she joined the famed “27 club,” full of famous musicians who died at the same year, earning her an even more compelling mythos. Perhaps it’s a testament to the hard-living lifestyle of the rock star, or perhaps it says something about the insidious nature of a culture that idealizes fame and arrogates the famous, ruthlessly criticizes them and drives them down dark paths, then imbues them with a mystical quality when they die young, and continues to exploit them even after death.

Amy Winehouse’s former manager said in a 2015 interview: “Fame came like a huge tidal wave…She got depressed, she got lost, she got into a bad crowd, started trying heavy drugs…” As her troubles with drink and drugs worsened, so did the tabloid’s lurid objectification of her. The public humiliation the media used to sell magazines was unmitigated and cruel.

In 2015 documentary Amy, in a tragically portentous interview clip shows Winehouse saying: “I’m not a girl trying to be a star or trying to be anything besides a musician… I don’t think I’m gonna be at all famous. I don’t think I could handle it. I’d probably go mad.” Journalist Paul MacInnes writes in his review of the film: “The idea of Amy as the object of our attention is central to the film. It’s difficult to watch without feeling in some way guilty, responsible in however small a way, for helping to push a vulnerable person into a spiral that ultimately claimed her life.” His choice of words—the object of our attention—emphasizes the objectifying, dehumanizing way that we consider celebrities in our culture. In 2009, Winehouse won an anti-harassment legal injunction to bar the paparazzi agency Big Pictures from following her, and all paparazzi from waiting outside her house to take pictures when she emerged. By all accounts, the cameras and public scrutiny that came with her fame terrorized her, driving her down a dark path and further seizing on the spinouts they instigated along the way. The culture of fame drove her to her death, then had the audacity to try to use her image posthumously to continue to make money.

It’s apropos to mention that Diana, the patron saint of “Dianification,” died in a car crash as she fled from a swarm of French paparazzi. Daniel Harris writes in his article “Celebrity Deaths,” from 2008: “It is a truism of celebrity worship that we end up murdering our stars, that our affection for them is so smothering that we kill them with kindness, hound them to death by siccing the paparazzi who drive them to suicide or send their limos careening into concrete.” Since her death in 1987, Princess Diana’s image has been commoditized to its utmost. Jill R. Chancey writes in her 1999 paper Diana Doubled: The Fairytale Princess and the Photographer: “The Diana memorabilia industry is still in high gear long after her death. Commodities such as porcelain Diana dolls, commemorative stamps and plates, picture books from a number of publishers, and memorial cassette tapes and CDs trade on the image of Diana…the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund has copyrighted a Diana logo for use on officially approved merchandise, a percentage of whose profits go to a philanthropic trust set up in her name.” (Anyone else have that purple Princess Diana-themed beanie baby?)

 

The Common Language Of Iconography

 

So why do we obsess over celebrities? Why do we need them in our culture? What do they do for us as individuals? Celebrities show and tell us who to be, by showing us what to buy: which shirts and underwear to wear, which brand of cigarettes to smoke and which colas to drink. We identify with their perfect, flawless images, blown up on the big screen, and seek to attain that same perfection. As Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin quote Bing Crosby in their book On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word: “every man who likes me sees in me the image of himself.”

Till writes that, like religious icons, which we have long viewed as “hollow vessels inhabited by god,” celebrities are also divine vessels which we fill with ourselves. By imagining ourselves as the celebrities, we deify and reify ourselves. In a sense, we are envious—we seem these celebrities onstage or on the gigantic screen, and we seek to be as actualized as they are, as certain and definite as they are, and so we consume them voraciously and collect them obsessively, wishing to embody them ourselves. The consumption of human images appears to serve us by giving us identity as it does the celebrities it simplifies, who achieve the fame and notoriety that we all desire.

The presence of icons in our culture simplifies things for us, allowing us to feel security in our identity by equating ourselves with god-like figures that we see on movies or TV. In some senses, it seems like a natural result of the ever-growing world, the apparent movement toward Lovecraft’s “terrifying vistas of reality.”

But while it seems to appeal to a part of human nature, the truly ravenous rate at which our culture consumes celebrities is not a natural consequence of observing talented or good looking people. It is a neurosis that’s been nurtured by the controllers of consumer capitalism. A world of media bombardment doesn’t merely permit us to pick and choose different celebrities to embody like products to brand ourselves, to integrate into our outward aesthetic—it demands it.

 

Negation

 

That doesn’t just mean self-definition by equation or embodiment, but also identification through negation. Not only do our fandoms become personality traits, but our revilement of certain celebrities allows us to define ourselves in contradistinction. Distinguishing ourselves by disgust is just as effective if not more so than defining ourselves by who we adulate.

Celebrities are the nodes of a mass culture that is built to fasten a huge, heterogeneous, urbanized country. This national iconography isn’t meant to unify us; far from it. It means to placate us with internecine conflict, to insulate our dissatisfactions and have us aim them at each other. Consumerism pacifies us by allowing us to define ourselves by the things we consume to elevate ourselves, but it also encourages us to self-define in relation, and contradistinction, to an “other.”

 

Black Bodies, Virtualized

 

Because of the emptiness that abstention from consumerism implies in comparison to the excessive fullness it seems to offer, the cogency of our beings appears to depend on our belief in the simplicity of others, to love or hate. That can mean hating certain celebrities, or certain groups of people. We covet the feeling of being certain, that is, certainly good, and for us to be certainly good, someone else has to be certainly bad.

Definition by negation is the basic psychological “benefit” that racism offers our psyche. Racism is sustained by the simplified belief in the “other,” a binary opposition to our own primary status. One of the most obvious forms of racism is stereotyping. A “stereotype” is the flattening of a human being into an iteration of a kind, or “type.” Stereotype combines the Greek stereós, meaning solid or three-dimensional, with type, meaning kind, category, classification. A stereotype takes a three-dimensional subject and converts it into a onefold symbol, devoid of depth or humanity. Like a celebrity, a stereotype is a simplified idea of a person—except it serves to embody an entire group of people.

No one has been stereotyped more in American history than black people. The National Museum of African American History and Culture lists the “Popular and Pervasive Stereotypes of African Americans” on its website. They are polar in their valences; either tranquil and placid or bellicose and violent. The “Mammy” stereotype was a matronly, peaceable woman, while the “Sapphire” caricature was a boisterous and quarrelsome female. The “Uncle Tom” was an docile and avuncular black man, while the “Mandingo” was a brute, aggressive and prodigiously sexual.  The website explains: “many of these stereotypes developed during the height of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and were used to reinforce the commoditization of Black bodies and particularly aspects of enslavement.”

The question we should ask is whether or not this is by design, or natural? We are all unafraid of the unknown, of being nobody—but why has this particular way of self-security by hatred toward black people been so prevalent in white America? Is it because the dark skin of the black person is frightful and strange to them? The only way racism could be a conclusion naturally arrived at and not a useful tool for somebody’s benefit is if we believe that those cosmetic differences were enough to inspire 300 years of brutality and enslavement, and not the more reasonable alternative: that it justified profiting off of another person’s immense suffering.

Historian Howard Zinn writes in his work The People’s History of the United States about the two factors that distinguished American slavery from other historical examples of slavery as the cruelest form in human history. First was “the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture,” and second was “the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on color, where white was master, black was slave.”

Zinn discredits racism as a natural impulse that arose in the white mind upon first setting eyes on African skin. He explains how the white ruling class of the early colonies encouraged the growth of ideological racism with the legislative powers at their disposal, in order to secure their own unquestionable economic and social power. Zinn writes instead that racism originated in “that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.” Racism is one of consumer capitalism’s most useful tools, and it’s incentivized by the primary profiteers of its system. Zinn writes that “only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.”

In a system of consumer capitalism, our identity is our value, and that value is constituted by our worth in comparison to another. All it takes is a little economic incentive—“small gifts of status”—to ingrain a deep need for racism in order to secure one’s identity. Racism diverts the attention of the white consumerist masses from the system itself, and keeps it focused on self-definition.

Capitalism, while perhaps not “run” by a cabal of oligarchs who meet annual at a secret pedophilic island (though it doesn’t seem so farfetched) has knowingly inculcated racism in the lower classes for centuries. Our simplification—of ourselves and of each other—directly benefits the system of capitalism, and the result is worse for some than it is for others.

 Black Museum

The Netflix television show “Black Mirror,” often features characters who have committed moral indiscretions, and the disturbing, technological punishment. Often, characters wind up trapped in a virtual purgatory. Their consciousnesses, digitally rendered and everlasting, are trapped in objects or in virtual worlds, where they live forever. In the Season 2 premier episode “Be Right Back,” a young woman brings her boyfriend back to life by uploading a coded approximation of his personality into an android.

The episodes also showcase another universal nightmare—having an audience witness your unending penitence for a terrible crime. In Season 2’s “White Bear,” a woman repeatedly has her memory wiped and is placed inside a park, where attendees can record her as she fumbles around in a terrifying world, only to discover that it’s a ruse; a punishment designed for her, after she was convicted of brutally murdering a small child (she doesn’t remember). The 2014 special episode “White Christmas” features a man whose digital consciousness is trapped in a cabin, snowed-in alone, for millions of years for a terrible crime he committed.

Of course, none of those personalities are truly the offenders, save perhaps the woman from “White Bear,” although she has no memory of her crime. The entity being punished is an exact copy, so close that it has leapt the uncanny valley and except for not having a physical body is indiscernible from a full human being.

In Season 4’s “Black Museum,” a young woman named Nish who is driving cross-country stops to recharge her solar car sometime in the not-too-distant future. She sees a building with a sign on top: “Rolo Haynes’ Black Museum.” She wanders in, meeting the proprietor, a smooth-talking, middle-aged white man. He introduces himself as Rolo Haynes in the flesh, and proceeds to show her the technological artifacts that constitute the museum, sharing the chilling tales that accompany each item. He tells her that he was in med-tech. He worked at San Juniper hospital in the R & D department—as he puts it, the perfect balance of business and healthcare. Juniper/Junipero is a recurring title used in Black Mirror, likely a reference to the juniper tree, an evergreen, like the amber-encased virtual person, which stems from the Latin junio, for youth, a la rejuvenate, and parere for producing. Junipero refers to the permanent youth of digital consciousness. Most of the items were experimental devices with monkey’s paw vibes. He explains that they were beta-tested on unwitting patients (and doctors), using human beings as guinea-pigs for potentially lucrative medical technology.

Eventually, he leads Nish to his best exhibit. Crouching in a simulated prison cell with a glass wall is a virtualized version of Clayton Leigh, a black man who, some years back was convicted of murdering a white television news reporter named Denise Stockley. Rolo explains how he obtained Leigh’s consciousness. Back when Leigh was on death row, Haynes approached him with a proposition: if Leigh licensed out a copy of his consciousness to Haynes as a public attraction, Haynes would give the lion’s share of the profits to his family. Leigh, wanting to take care of his family after he’s gone, agrees. His wife pleads with him not to do it. “Jesus Christ, Clay, it’s your soul,” she weeps from behind the glass window. “Ain’t no such thing,” Clayton says. “It’s just a computer simulation or somethin.’” “Then why does he need your permission?” She asks.

Haynes uploads Clayton’s copy into the cell, virtualizing him in ghostly form. Clayton’s consciousness, suddenly re-animated, is wide-eyed and confused. Haynes presses a button, and suddenly Clayton is strapped in a virtual electric chair. “See, I knew just seeing the guy walking around captive, that was good, but that wasn’t much of a draw,” Haynes tells Nish. “But pulling the lever yourself? Now, that’s an attraction.” He even sadistically simulates for Clay’s proxy the pain of the electric chair, which is anachronistically present in the near-future world, an indication of the inverse correlation between technology and empathy. “A perfect re-creation of exactly how the agony of electrocution feels,” Haynes proudly says. “Every volt simulated for real.”

Nish asks: “But wasn’t there some doubt? You know, that documentary?” To which Haynes responds with an undisguised allusion: “Fake news!” He nods with satisfaction. “There’s no doubt about it. The day he got the chair was a great day for justice.” With his set-up, Clayton would experience the real agony of the electric chair hundreds of times a day. The creepy montage shows small white children pulling the lever on the pleading prisoner. What’s even worse is that with each pull of the lever, Clayton’s consciousness is replicated again, but trapped in the peak moment of his electrocution. “Every time you finished juicing him, out pops a conscious sentient snapshot of Clayton, not a recording, a true copy of his mind perpetually experiencing that beautiful pain. Stuck forever in that one perfect moment of agony. Always on. Always suffering.” It’s reminiscent of the belief held by various indigenous tribes like the Kayapo people of Brazil, and apocryphally Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse, that a having your photograph taken steals your soul.

It’s explained that an online campaign publicizing the posthumous executions destroyed the Black Museum’s attendance, leading Haynes to seek other ways to make money. This meant allowing rich white supremacists to fry Clayton’s consciousness for excessive periods of time, ultimately turning him into a lobotomized, slack-jawed creature. In the end, Nish, who is secretly Clayton’s daughter, kills Haynes, but just before his death, transfers his consciousness into the virtual electric chair and informs him that he is about to become a keychain souvenir. Always on. Always suffering. He screams and pleads, despite the fact that it won’t actually be his consciousness trapped in the plastic amulet, but another replica.

It’s all very blurry, as to the question of originality of consciousness, the humanity of that which is approximately human—about as proximal to a resurrection as you can get—and to whom that commodified, codified consciousness belongs. It’s a metaphor for the mediated, objectified black man. Clayton Leigh, a southern black man wrongfully accused of murdering a pure, helpless white woman and executed for it, is a composite of all the black men who were murdered by the state for crimes they didn’t commit, or killed in extrajudicial lynch-mobs. He is George Stinney Jr., the 14-year-old boy who was wrongfully convicted and executed in 1944 for the murders of two young white girls in Alcolu, South Carolina. He is Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy lynched and thrown into a river in Mississippi for nothing at all. He is the 405 black men executed out of 455 total executions (89%) for the crime of rape that took place in America between 1930 and 1972. He was the Scottsboro boys, 9 black teens in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. He represents countless more—wrongfully executed, incarcerated, or otherwise swindled out of their own identity by white proprietors. He also represents the rightfully accused, whose lives and images were pilfered and profited from, whose humanity was stolen from them—whether before they ever committed a crime, or after.

White people have always used black people. Flattened them, turned them into objects to preserve authority. They’ve used media of all kinds to virtualize them as criminals and miscreants, rapers and robbers, languorous and stupid and depraved. They’ve caricaturized them in drawings, played them in minstrel shows, put them on display in human zoos euphemized as “ethnological exhibitions.” Clayton Lee recalls Willie Horton, whose ragged, bearded and afroed-image was used in a campaign ad for George H.W. Bush in 1988. The ad, which helped swing the election for Bush, states: “Bush supports the death penalty for first-degree murderers. Dukakis not only opposes the death penalty; he allowed first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison. One was Willie Horton who murdered a boy in a robbery, stabbing him 19 times. Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison. Horton fled, kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend. Weekend prison passes. Dukakis on crime.” For millions of people, Willie Horton the man did not exist. But Willie Horton’s image, his evil, vicious face entered their living room, more real than real.

Shut Up And Dribble

The same way we imagine ourselves onstage, rocking out, moonwalking and commanding the crowd, we do the same to the athlete, whose movements are more elegant and superhuman than our comparative clumsiness. In David Foster Wallace’s ode to tennis player Roger Federer written in his essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” written for the New York Times in 2006, he writes in a footnote:

“There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits  — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities… great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”

Athletes literally embody how we wish to move. They’re the closest thing to real life superheroes. We celebrate them for their superhuman physical abilities. We fantasize about inhabiting their bodies, soaring above the rim or spinning away from defenders, or slicing a forehand so it glides down the baseline past the opposing player. We literally embody them in virtual facsimile in video games. Because we revere them so, we cling to them, and eventually feel so attached to their image that we feel we own them. When they speak up, and deviate from poster-childishness, they cease to be hollow, neuter objects onto which we can project ourselves. We feel that our fanatic worship of these athletes gives us a partial-stake in their existence. Thus, their demonstrations of free will are often met with hatred and fury.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant have both been the subjects of heavy criticism for their decisions made to leave one team for another after their contracts have lapsed, and they became what is known in the sports world as “free agents.” In 2010, LeBron left his home-state team the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, and in 2016 Durant departed the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors. Both of their decisions were widely criticized. But also, both men were assailed with harsh criticisms of their characters. They were called cowards and “soft.”

The term “free agent” is awkwardly antithetical to what we want our athletes to be; we want them to be dogged but mindless competitors, heroes mastered by the masses, champions willing to sacrifice everything for us. We can’t simply allow them to do what they want to do. When an athlete deviates from our social tenets in his or her personal life, the public can sometimes be forgiving. We can tolerate certain indiscretions that indicate human imperfection, should they undergo the ritual of public apology and penance – a la Tiger Woods, who confessed to having extramarital affairs in 2010. Other men can still look at Tiger Woods post-scandal and be enraptured by the fantasy of being him (perhaps even more so).

The gravest sin an athlete can commit is not to cheat on his wife, or take steroids, or even to operate an illegal dog-fighting ring, as NFL QB Michael Vick was convicted of doing in 2007 yet resumed his career in 2011.  The worst thing an athlete can do is to make a political statement. In their representation of the peak of bodily, kinesthetic intelligence, athletes are valued purely for this variety of intelligence, and no other kind.

After LeBron James and Kevin Durant criticized President Donald Trump on James’ HBO show “Uninterrupted,” Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham said on her show that “someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball” has no right to talk politics. “Must they run their mouths like that?” she says. “Keep the political commentary to yourself, or as someone once said: shut up and dribble.”

Kevin Durant, the other player in the car with LeBron James in the “Uninterrupted” segment, later said of Ingraham’s remarks: “To me, it was racist… Ignorance is something I try to ignore. That was definitely an ignorant comment. I do play basketball, but I am a civilian and I am a citizen of the United States, so my voice is just as loud as hers, I think—or even louder.”

To many white fans, the black basketball player who gets paid millions of dollars to bounce or throw or bat a ball has nothing to complain about. By becoming rich and famous, athletes seem to relinquish their right to make political statements—especially statements about the mistreatment of black people in America—because of their transcendence of race, their admittance to the white world. The implication is they should consider themselves lucky, and leave it at that.

The fact that athletes “make the big bucks” makes unrelenting criticism of them fair game for many fans. That’s especially true when the athlete is black, and the fan—who fancies himself “part owner” of the athlete—is white. He feels that the political-racial statement from the athlete—whose salary they “pay” by purchasing a ticket—is a direct criticism of him, which therefore makes the athlete “ungrateful” for the fan’s years of patronage. He feels that he has done well to forgive their blackness and revere their talent objectively. How could these athletes therefore imply that he is racist?

In Spike Lee’s 1994 movie Do The Right Thing, Lee’s character Mookie says to the racist Pino, played by John Turturro: “sounds funny to me. As much as you say n*gger this and n*gger-that, all your favorite people are ‘n*ggers.’” To which Dino replies “It’s different. Magic [Johnson], Eddie [Murphy], and Prince are not n*ggers. I mean, are not Black. I mean they’re Black, but not really Black. They’re more than Black. It’s different.” O.J. Simpson once told New York Times sports reporter Robert Lipsyte: “I was at a wedding, my wife and a few friends were the only Negroes there, and I overheard a lady say, ‘Look, there’s O.J. Simpson and some n*ggers.’” Lipsyte reported that Simpson beamed with pride, recalling the deracialized distinction he had received. “I knew right then he was fucked,” Lipsyte says in the documentary O.J.: Made In America.

The unbeatable standard to which great NBA players are held—Michael Jordan’s ghost—was everything these players aren’t. Jordan was loyal to his first team, psychotically hard-working and dedicated to his craft, and, perhaps most of all, he was totally apolitical as a basketball player and a businessman. A famous, though apocryphal quote often attributed to MJ explaining his unwillingness to take a strong political stance throughout his career: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Jordan’s abstention from social, racial or political commentary made him the perfect athletic icon. Everyone wanted to be “like Mike,” and as Spike Lee and MJ’s commercials told us with their cute reverse-psychology – “it’s gotta be the shoes.” No political statements ever got in the way of MJ’s value as an icon.

The sense of ownership over celebrities, a result of our vicarious embodiment of them, is especially hideous when applied to black sports stars, beloved almost solely for their physical qualities. As Durant mentioned, there is an unavoidable racist implication in telling prominent black athletes to “shut up and dribble,” when being a black person in America is an unavoidably political existence.  Since the days of slavery it has been good business to keep black men and women docile.

No basketball player has been more criticized, and with more rancor, than has LeBron James since he came into the NBA directly from high school in 2003. James was called a quitter, a choker, a whiner, a cry-baby in his days playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He was vilified after his move to Miami in 2010. Some cavaliers fans burned his jersey. The owner of the Cavaliers wrote an open letter to Cavaliers fans, saying: “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal… This shocking act of disloyalty from our home grown ‘chosen one’ sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

Before, he was a vessel that we could use to contain our hopeful adoration—we want our kids to be like him. One misstep, however, and we use him in the exact opposite fashion: god forbid our children ever turn out like him. Their sense of entitlement cannot be extricated from his race. A black athlete’s appropriation by a fanbase is that much easier, because the feeling is that the successful black person owes a debt to white society. The insinuation of entitlement to these athletes is also inherently scarier when the athlete is black, because historically when a black man has deviated from societal expectations in such an incendiary way, mob hatred like the kind LeBron experienced has ended with real violence, real lynching. White people didn’t just burn the jerseys of black men.

Mark Johnson, who wrote Basketball Slave: The Andy Johnson Harlem Globetrotter/NBA Story, told Ebony.com: “While they were all upset, I was jumping up and down. Not because he was going to Miami, but because after 50 years, a Black player not only had a choice of playing in the league but was now able to choose the team he was going to. What he did was unheard of.”

When the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals in 2011, many people rejoiced at his failure. When he was asked if this bothered him. He responded: “Absolutely not, cause at the end of the day, all the people who are rooting for me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today, they got the same personal problems they had, today…they gotta get back to the real world at some point.” James points out that the world in which thousands if not millions of people were flinging criticism at someone they don’t know personally at all is a fantasy—that they’re scorning an image of a real human being in order to make themselves feel better. It’s that much more satisfying when you feel taller than a guy who’s 6-foot-8.

To fail to acknowledge the racial component of all that is simply to ignore context. It is true that we simplify and criticize both black and white athletes profligately and without empathy. But only with black athletes do we demand that they be stripped of the racial component of their identities in order to make us comfortable. That they de-racialize themselves.

Of course, to suggest that all the media attention that players receive hurts them is wrong. Players receive benefits from their status as an image; shoe deals, advertisements and endorsements (LeBron James made $52 million from endorsements in 2018). Michael Jordan smartly rode his social simplification all the way to the bank. For black athletes in America—a country in which the median white family owns 10 times more wealth than the median black family (Pew Research), it’s quite understandable to avoid being political. Just look at how Colin Kaepernick’s career has been impacted by his act of protest.

In 2017, Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, made a bit of a gaffe during a meeting between NFL players and owners to discuss the kneel-down protests in 2017. McNair said that we: “can’t have the inmates running the prison.” McNair sounded not a small amount like a slave owner afraid that his property might revolt. NBA player Draymond Green responded, suggesting a few different ways to change the dynamic between the front office of an organization and its players.

“For starters, let’s stop using the word owner and maybe use the word Chairman,” Green wrote in an Instagram post. “To be owned by someone just sets a bad precedent to start. It sets the wrong tone. It gives one the wrong mindset.”

Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, responded to Green’s comments in an ESPN interview: “We own equity. We don’t own people… And there’s a big difference. This is a country where we have corporations, and you put up your money and buy equity. E-Q-U-I-T-Y…don’t try to suggest that because we have a team and the nomenclature is ‘owners’ because we own shares of stock, own equity, that it’s analogous to slavery. That’s just as bad [as McNair’s comment]. It’s just as bad.”

In a final self-defensive sweep, Cuban says: “Ask anybody who’s ever played for me. Ask anybody who’s ever worked for me. I’m far from perfect, but that’s certainly not a connotation that you’re going to hear from anybody that I’ve ever been associated with…”

In the end, Cuban’s argument is rooted in defensiveness, and it’s surprising how incapable he is to cast aside his feelings of personal offense to listen to a valid criticism. His self-defense keeps him from trying to understand Green’s perspective as a black person in American society, instead fighting to delegitimize a gripe which is based in Green’s subjective experience as a black American, something that’s pretty inarguable.

Green responded to the paternalistic spiel from Cuban, when he was a keynote speaker at Harvard University. “When you look at Mark Cuban, for instance, with the whole equity thing, we all can own equity and that’s fine. But Mark Cuban will never know or understand how it feels for me, a young black African-American, to turn on the TV and see what happened in Charlottesville. He’ll never have that feeling… So, when I say, ‘Hey maybe we shouldn’t use that word,’ to be honest, I really don’t expect him to understand…”

Perhaps it’s a big ask—given the system that encourages us at every end to invest fully in fanaticism for athletes, celebrities, icons—but we, as individuals, should strive to approach public figures as image rather than actuality. In a hyper-mediated world, in which people in the public eye are constantly thing-ified, turned into products for public consumption, being able to maintain our critical distance is vitally important, so that we can remember that athletes are human beings, with real lives that are not duty-bound to what we want. We need that critical distance, not just so we don’t hurt their feelings, but so we don’t become so absorbed in our idolatry and masochism that we wake up one morning and find that we don’t have a real self, or that our identities are based on loving—or hating—someone we’ve never met.

 

Disneyfying The Dead

 

While our entertainment figures are ostracized for making political statements, our real political figures—political in the sense of dissenting, countercultural and often (and especially) anti-capitalist—are transformed into simple, inoffensive entertainment figures. In its sophistication, capitalism has found a way to whisk away those who would encourage criticality in the consumer masses, giving them the old Vaudeville Hook and replacing them with a dancing, smiling marionettes.

Most nefariously, they even monetize them. Just look at Che Guevara—an anti-capitalist revolutionary figure if ever there was one—whose visage has been reproduced ad-infinitum on T-shirts and coffee mugs and iPhone cases sold at tourist shops across the world. While it’s up for debate as to who has historically been silenced by an actual assassination by powerful puppeteers, it’s an indisputable fact that many figures of revolution have successfully been silenced by a smiley simplification, replacing them with dopey, depoliticized likenesses. Instead of trying to suppress them, our culture comes to falsely-celebrate these figures for their admirable buy apolitical qualities—courage, fortitude, wisdom, perseverance, blah blah blah—affixing these platitudinous qualities to their mechanistically reproduced image they’re simply meaningless icons.

This process has been sometimes referred to as the “Disneyfication” or “Disneyisation.” One of the first uses of the term comes from Andre Kehoe’s book from 1991, Christian Contradictions and the World Revolution: “This bogus culture imposed hour after hour on the people by the media is a serious interference with free thinking and therefore free action. It is part of what Peter K. Fallon of New York University, in an admirable phrase, calls the Disneyisation of society.”

The Disney Company has a history of using racist caricatures in its cartoons. Their most famous and regrettable racist character is probably the infamous Uncle Remus from the 1946 film Song of the South. Remus was a simple and contentedly subjugated “Uncle Tom” figure who lived in a romanticized version of the Antebellum south. When it was initially released, the NAACP criticized the film for “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”

The whistling, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dahing Uncle Remus, played by James Baskett, was kindly and docile. He was the original Disneyfied black man. To Disneyfy black people is to pigeonhole them into roles of docility in order to preserve the status quo. After all, the term “status quo” is a shortening of the Latin “in statu quo res erant ante bellum,” meaning “the state of things before the war.”

No major revolutionary figure in America has been more Disneyfied than the civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In popular mass culture, Martin Luther King has been transformed from a fiercely political figure, into an image of passive “anti-racist” figure, an advocate of pacifism and love. The “anti-racism” with which he is now associated invokes a understanding of racism as being pure heuristic, superficial, surface level, which does not implicate the “system.” He represents the push to eradicate the sort of racism that kept black people in the back of the bus or outside of white swimming pools, bathrooms and schools—surely a good fight, but one more related to the manifestation of racism than its real causes.

In reality, King was a radical thinker who recognized the evils of capitalism and militarism and their relationship to the situation of black people in America. While the pseudo-liberal disposition of the US public in the 21st century permits something as obvious as literal segregation to be abjured, it cannot oblige criticism of systemic racism and capitalism, which King spoke against more and more in the years leading up to his death.

“We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and [we] must put [our] own house in order,” King wrote in a Report to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Staff in 1967. In a 1967 speech to the SCLC in Atlanta, King said “[O]ne day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society…” He concluded: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing‐ oriented’ society to a ‘person‐oriented’ society.”

In tragic irony, Dr. King himself has since been “thing-ified,” virtualized, capitalized upon and incorporated by a racist system as a token black character in its lexicon. Disneyfied.

The Disneyfication of Martin Luther King, Jr. can be witnessed in its full effect each year on January 21—Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America—as conservative politicians and the Twitter accounts for various monolithic government agencies issue PR statements declaring their respect for the Reverend. In 2018, The US Marine Corps Twitter account tweeted: “Today, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — a man whose fight for equality strengthened our nation.” They tweeted a picture of King gesticulating onstage, with the quotation: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.” The USAF tweeted another quote from King, a vague statement denouncing injustice (who isn’t against injustice, right?). King spoke against America’s militarism frequently. The NRA tweeted “Today, the men and women of the @NRA honor the profound life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King applied for a concealed carry permit in a ‘may issue’ state and was denied. We will never stop fighting for every law-abiding citizen’s right to self-defense. #MLKDay.”

The NFL, who has been criticized for essentially blackballing former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick from the league because of his famous national anthem-kneeldown in protest of shootings of unarmed black people in America—a non-violent political protest reminiscent of, hmm, someone—tweeted: “Today we join players around the league in celebrating the life, legacy and lasting impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. #MLKDay.”

The Twitter account for Yum! Brands, the conglomerate that owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, WingStreet and more, tweeted another MLK quote, devoid of context so as to become insipidly inspirational: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve,” ostensibly equating its restaurant’s servers, the exploited underlings that allowed the massive corporation to accrue $5.68 billion in 2018, with Dr. King. That one was pretty shameless.

But arguably the worst tweet came on MLK day 2017, the F.B.I. tweeted: “Today, the F.B.I. honors the Rev. Martin L. King Jr. and his incredible career fighting for civil rights. #MLKDAY,” and a picture of the quotation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Coming from the same F.B.I. that had wiretapped him, blackmailed him, and even wrote him a letter urging him to kill himself, the sentiment seems a little disingenuous.

The Disneyfication of Martin Luther King Jr. has been an act of deliberate pushback to black progress in America. As opposed to the radical change he really preached in his lifetime, he has become an icon of slow change, a path which white people prefer, and which MLK perceived as the greatest impediment to black progress, as he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell in 1963:

 

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

 

Disneyfication allows us to accept Martin Luther King Jr. for his banal, universalized qualities, but not for his truly hortatory message. Members of a “liberal” society in the 21st century can almost all agree to oppose the simple, standalone form of racism, whereby people are judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. The Disneyfied Reverend Doctor has been mechanistically reproduced as a defense mechanism for white people to wield, a figure whom they can purport to revere (a proverbial, perennial “black friend”) and thereby avoid confronting the systemic racism that might actually implicate or require something of them—or take away the modicum of superiority over black people that the system appears to offer them, the identification by contradistinction that feels threatened when a black man suggests that the wealth of the powerful white men ought to be redistributed.

So has been simplified and posthumously defanged one of America’s greatest revolutionary figures, used to perpetuate the same system he fought against.

 

Disneyland

 

Disneyfication is a process that not only posthumously strips revolutionary icons, but an all-encompassing process that befogs American life, estranges it from reality by cartoonizing it, depoliticizing and therefore de-realizing, i.e. simplifying it. Whereas the Internet is the truly perfect amorphous representation of Baudrillard’s concept of “hyperreality,” Disneyland is its perfect physical embodiment. It is a place of characters and caricatures, a world that condenses complicated truth into something not only simpler, but far sweeter, richer and more satisfying. It is the land of ageless, changeless, immortality. The status quo physicalized; a world preserved in sweet, treacly amber.

Baudrillard writes of the happiest place on Earth in his book Simulacra and Simulation: “[E]verywhere in Disneyland the objective profile of America, down to the morphology of individuals and of the crowd, is drawn. All its values are exalted by the miniature and the comic strip. Embalmed and pacified.” Baudrillard calls the Magic Kingdom the objective profile of America; the perception of America, fabricated and realized in a world of simple, objective logic. It is an embalmed, meaning dead but preserved, nostalgic retrospection embodied—the time before the world. The people are all characters, with broader smiles, smoother skin, eternal lives. Disneyland is the dead, yet hyper-alive version of reality, where everything is cherub-cheeked and doe-eyed (except for those swarthy, Orientalized villains that stalk in the background, who are vile but ultimately harmless). It is immortal, manicheistic and downright euphoric.

Baudrillard writes of the horrific experience of leaving Disneyland and walking through the parking lot, a shocking return to the barrenness of the real world. “The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total… Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland.”

We prefer to remain pretend-denizens of the magic king. If we could sign our souls away to Michael Eisner and the cryogenized ghost of Walt Disney to simply become one of the animatronic automatons chanting “it’s a small world after all,” or one of the characters—not just the actors playing them, but the characters themselves—and stay forever young, forever simple, we would. The very fullness of that world of make-believe inspires a hatred for the “real” world. The fear of returning to that bleak world away from the glittering pretend arcadia keeps us coming back.

Disneyland is the ultimate—or most literal—purveyor of the “magical” effect consumer capitalism has on us, the one that overwhelms us and swathes us like a warm blanket. Once we’ve been admitted, we never want to leave. Consumerism and media have us convinced that Disneyland is an accurate representation of the real world, and that the boring, empty wasteland outside its friendly confines is the real fraud. When the park closes and we’re forced to leave, we have to return to the horrors of the “real” world. Sparser, colder, vaster and emptier. So we spend our time in constant, covetous pursuit of the Disneyfied world. A place out of time, a land of immortality.

 

Rerun, Reboot, Recycle

 

Our addiction to emotional comfort, and its identification with pop cultural images, is great for producers. Recycling images with prefabricated clout is easy, and we eat it up because we already know it and love it. Like Coca-Cola’s ancient slogan from the 1950’s says, the images of the past are “dependable as sunshine.” What better emotional comfort to vest ourselves in than nostalgia? What’s more comforting than our old favorites? The songs and movies that we loved as kids, that remind us of “simpler times.” The state of things before the war.

When Robin Williams died in 2015, he bequeathed the rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness to a charitable organization that his legal representatives created. Some have speculated that it was a decision made to avoid legal disputes with IRS regarding the posthumous evaluation of his name and rights to his image, similar to the suit in which Michael Jackson’s estate is currently involved. As the New York Post explains, the provision in Williams’ will protects his family “from incurring estate penalties due to his posthumous earnings.” But he might also have been thinking of the possibility of being capitalized on after death, becoming another trapped spirit in the haunted mansion.

It also might go back to a feud between Williams and Disney from the early ‘90s. following the release of the acclaimed animated film Aladdin in 1992. In a 1993 interview, Williams spoke on his disagreement with entertainment titan. “The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything–as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff… Then all of a sudden, they release an advertisement–one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff. Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”

Perhaps Williams took the grudge to his grave. In 2015, with the concept of an Aladdin reboot being discussed, an anonymous Disney executive told the New York Post that Disney owned enough excess material from Williams’ original recordings as the genie to furnish a whole new movie. But, thanks to the clause in his will, Disney was legally not allowed to use the recordings. “When he was on form, the hyperactive motormouth we love from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ and ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ was making 30 jokes a minute,” the unnamed executive told the NY Post. “Now, because he insisted on a final say on such material, [the jokes] will remain in the vaults.”

The reboot of Aladdin, officially announced in 2016 and released in 2019, features Will Smith as the genie character that Williams once played. Throughout the 2010s, the culture of reboots, revamps and remakes has grown stronger as Hollywood has begun to re-capitalize on film franchises whose bodies are barely cold. The benefit of reanimation is that there is no need to familiarize people with new characters and plots, better to simply use those tried and true stories of yesteryear.

Movie reboots and remakes have been rampant in Hollywood in the last 10 years. These uncreative, recycled storylines represent the blatant, artless consumerism of today—the ultimate, pure patronization of consumers. That we still patronize the studios by buying tickets demonstrates either our obliviousness or our indifference. In the last decade, Hollywood has rebooted popular films and film franchises, from Star Wars, to Halloween, Tron, Blade Runner, Top Gun, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Mad Max, to Mary Poppins, Aladdin, Lion King, Dumbo, and a host of other Disney Films which have been reshot as live-action films.

The same willingness of tech companies to dredge up the dead in holography allows Hollywood execs to revive film series’ that have run their course, shoot unnecessary sequels, shot-for-shot recreations, or exhume the images of deceased movie stars to be pasted into films and commercials, as has been done to Paul Walker, Oliver Reed, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Bruce Lee, Louis Armstrong, James Cagney, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and more.

It shows the flagrant capitalism of the entertainment industry, their allegiance to the dollar and little else. There are no qualms had in dredging up the dead to make money—whether it’s a dead story, or a dead person. It’s no wonder that Marty McFly, in the far-flung year of 2015, was attacked by a holographic advertisement for “Jaws 19” (now, how long until we reprise Back To The Future?)

The creepiest thing about these these uncreative, recycled products, is that there is death, literally and figuratively, built into them, and that their mordancy passes through the screen and into us. The immortality with which we associate celebrities, and crave for ourselves, is the death of vital experience. Without the perspective that we are not absolute, that we are not objects, but subjects, our lived experience is dead.

When we consume the same things over and over, we identify with those immortal, infinite images, and if they cannot die, we reckon that neither can we. We become slaves to the deathless, juvenescent icons of Marilyn, Audrey, Sinatra and Crosby. If we admire them, we embody them, and so we dream that we too can live in on in eternal celluloid, even as our physical shells age and disintegrate. Ernest Becker writes in The Denial of Death that through the identification with symbols, “man’s natural yearning for organismic activity, the pleasures of incorporation and expansion, can be fed limitlessly in the domain of symbols and so into immortality. The single organism can expand into dimensions of worlds and times without moving a physical limb; it can take eternity into itself even as it gaspingly dies.” To truly live is to be aware of death, to know that you are just a human being. It is a humbler existence, and it is deeply personal; cherishable because it is perishable. I believe that our mortal salience is a gift, not a curse. The ageless celebrity represents the opposite of the memento mori, the reminder of death—it obviates our mortal salience.

 

Michael Jackson

 

The HBO documentary Leaving Neverland made major waves in 2019, when it explicitly detailed the allegations of two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck who both claimed that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children. The documentary, by nature, compels the viewer to form an opinion on whether you believe these two men—whose stories are shocking and disturbing and tragic—or you believe that Michael Jackson was really the harmless, gentle creature that he portrayed himself to be, cartoonish and strange but harmless. Either way, the viewer is forced to confront the idea that, whether he was a predator or purely a victim, Michael Jackson was deeply warped, and quite possibly very dangerous.

In Leaving Neverland, the viewer comes face to face with these two men, each telling their stories of how Michael Jackson manipulated them into performing sexual acts at very young ages. We’ve known about these allegations, or allegations like them, for years. In a 2004 Comedy Central special called “For What It’s Worth,” Dave Chappelle spoke on the allegations against Michael Jackson:

“Maybe he did it. Who knows? Who knows?! That’s the thing, that’s what I wanted to say, who knows? Who the fuck knows? Mike, God, and this little boy know… And the only reason I can talk about Mike is because… he is a freak…That’s why people let you talk about him. Because if I brought up Catholic priests fucking kids, it’d get quiet as shit.” At this, the room falls silent, and Chappelle offers a knowing look. The crowd laughs uncomfortably. “But when Michael Jackson does it, it’s okay, because he’s a freak. His face is all… cut up. And just remember, when you look at that thing that he calls his face, that he did that for YOU somehow.”

Chappelle points to the fact that a systemic, or deep-seated institutional evil—especially something as sacred as the Catholic Church—is taboo to talk about. Institutional evil is frighteningly unassailable, and its persistence makes us complicit. But an individual is much simpler to denounce and dismiss as a lone aberration, a “freak.” One can criticize Michael Jackson because he’s a freak, without having to say anything critical about where that freakishness comes from.

Yet, we’ve long known that Jackson was a product wrought by a brutal consumerist machine that had exploited him since his youth, an institute that we patronize consistently. We knew that he had been distorted by a machinery that was designed to entertain us.

If there was anyone truly emblematic of “the American dream,” it was Michael Jackson. He came from a poor black family in Gary, Indiana, and made it to superstardom. He achieved the ultimate dream—and as the result, became an icon in pure distillation. He didn’t just lose his agency or a dimension of identity; he was, from the start, deprived of the chance to organically form one. Everything Jackson became was molded by the machine that capitalized on him.

Jackson’s idealized grasp for a childhood in his adult years—alleged and proven—is an attempt to replenish this impoverishment. “People wonder why I always have children around,” Michael said in a 1993 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “It’s because I find the thing that I never had through them. Disneyland, amusement parks, arcade games — I adore all that stuff because when I was little, it was always work, work, work.”

But it’s also an attempt to hold onto the eternality with which he’s been associated his entire life. As a pure icon, he’s meant to be inhuman, ageless, immortal—forever young, like his self-claimed animated analog Peter Pan. His whole identity is rooted in the image, rather than the reality, and his life represents a desperate attempt to live up to the immortality that defines him. To be the imperishable image that he believes himself to be.

Michael Jackson was the purest human result of a mechanized, exploitative machine, one that had its claws into him since the age of six. His commoditization has been the most thorough and continuous of any celebrity we can think of. Everything about Michael Jackson was influenced by the interests of the consumerist machine. All things conventionally human about Jackson passed through the sieve of celebrity and came out warped and deviant on the other side, from his aesthetic tastes to his alleged sexual proclivities.

In a 2003 TV-documentary called “Living with Michael Jackson,” Martin Bashir interviewed Jackson over the course of 8 months, traveling with Jackson and gaining insight into Jackson’s every day life. In one scene from the documentary, Jackson and Bashir ride in a limousine in Las Vegas. Bashir asks Michael Jackson what he thinks he’s worth. Michael demurs and says “c’mon Martin,” but when Bashir suggests a billion dollars, Jackson nods, seemingly pleased, and says “it’s over there.”

Forbes magazine estimated that Jackson earned nearly $2 billion during his solo career, from 1979 until his death in 2009. Even dead—perhaps especially dead—Jackson is a source of tremendous revenue. As of 2014, Forbes estimated that Jackson had earned over $700 million since his death in 2009. In 2012, Jackson’s silhouette appeared on a billion Pepsi cans. From 2011-2014, Cirque du Soleil produced “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour,” selling 3.7 million tickets in 27 countries and earning $371 million in revenue. Michael Jackson is consumer capitalism’s gift that keeps on giving, a well that never runs dry. He, like Prince, saw his public perception as commodity, an image, but his distillation was altogether purer. Whereas Prince suffered the confusion of which ego was the alter—Prince the artist, or Prince Rogers Nelson the person—Michael’s iconization was too intractable. There was no Michael Jackson underneath. He was hollow.

When Pulse Evolution conjured the hologram of Jackson for the performance at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, more than a few articles were written re: the eeriness of the conjuring. Sarah L. Kaufman wrote for the Washington Post: “Is it bad to be reminded of a great entertainer after his death? Well, no. Is it creepy to project a known perfectionist as a hologram, in a performance before millions, enshrined in Internet eternity, and over which he had no control? Um, yes.” Creepy? Perhaps. But desecrative? Not when it comes to MJ. While it could rightly be suggested that some celebrities—perhaps even most—would detest the thought of their posthumous hologramification, Jackson would likely not be among them. Unlike Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, or Prince, to be immortalized thusly was perfectly in line with Jackson’s greatest dreams. A perfectionist—perfected. Forever and ever.

In one scene from “Living with Michael Jackson,” Jackson’s limo ferries Jackson and Bashir to the Venetian shopping mall, one of Michael’s favorites places (along with Disneyland, which he recreated in microcosm with his Neverland Ranch). As they climb in the escalators—fans swarming below—Jackson talks about how he loves the mall’s decor, which is wall-papered with Renaissance paintings and trimmed in gold, a Faux-Sistine chapel in the middle of the desert. Bashir asks him if he doesn’t think it’s a bit tacky, and Michael laughs. Tackiness, gaudiness, elaborate, over-the-top opulence is Michael’s taste. He loves the ornate, the Aurelian, the overdressed, because it’s regal, timeless, ancient but preserved: ageless.

MJ steers Bashir and the cameras toward an Egyptian-themed store where Michael says he has purchased a “tomb.” He points to a brilliant gold sarcophagus, a replica of “the anthropod coffin of King Tutankhamun. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” MJ says. “Look at the face.” Bashir asks: “would you like to be buried in something like this?” Michael giggles and says “No.” Then: “I don’t ever want to be buried.” Bashir asks: “what would you like to happen to you?” Michael answers earnestly: “I would like to live forever.”

According to many, Michael Jackson was obsessed with immortality. In a 2007 interview with Ebony magazine, Jackson talks about his desire to live forever:

 

Everyone wants immortality. Everyone wants what you create to live on, whether it be sculpture or painting, music or composition. Like Michelangelo said: “I know the creator will go but his works survives. That is why to escape death I attempt to bind my soul to my work” and that’s how I feel.

 

Fine, a poetic sentiment about his art living on past his body. But Jackson’s fixation is on transcending death is more literal. In “The Michael Jackson Tapes,” Jackson tells Rabbi Schmuley Boteach: “I think growing old is the ugliest, the most, the ugliest thing. When the body breaks down and you start to wrinkle, I think it’s so bad…that’s something I don’t understand, Schmuley. And I never want to look in the mirror and see that.” There have also been reports that Jackson was obsessed with the idea of cloning himself in order to preserve his body.

The sort of immortality that Jackson sought—and avidly, surgically pursued while still alive—is a self-Disneyfication. He wanted to live on as a perfect, innocent cartoon image. Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulations: “By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.” Like the progenitor of the characters that Jackson loved and clung to, even sought to embody, Michael Jackson wanted to live on, non-biodegradably, for eternity.

Michael Jackson died in 2009. He was buried at the Holly Terrace Grand Mausoleum at Glendale Forest Lawn Memorial Park, nearby the graves of Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable. He was reportedly buried in full concert-regalia and several items from his performing career. The casket chosen as his final resting place is a gold-plated caskey made by the Batesville Casket Company called “The Promethean,” an appropriate name for Jackson’s sarcophagus.  Like the demigod Prometheus who molded the first human beings clay, Michael Jackson created himself from scratch, self-chiseling an inorganic face so bizarre that it hardly resembled a human being. He was a pure product of the consumerist engine, which uses dead images for profit and mass-pacification. Psychologist Erich Fromm writes in The Sane Society:

 

Conceptually the instruments of mechanization five thousand years ago were already detached from other human functions and purposes than the constant increase of order, power, predictability, and above all, control. With this protoscientific ideology went a corresponding regimentation and degradation of once autonomous human activities: “mass culture” and “mass control” made their first appearance. With mordant symbolism, the ultimate products of the megamachine in Egypt were colossal tombs, inhabited by mummified corpses…

 

Jackson’s love for all things Egyptian, his desire for immortality, his pursuit of a smooth, unwrinkled, plastic and perennially juvenescent face, even his alleged sexual fetishization of young males – they all can be seen as the results of a system that used him from birth to death, commoditizing him so thoroughly that his own self-image was inseparable from his public one.

When Michael Jackson died in 2009, fans began to pour into The Field Museum in Chicago to gaze at a bust of an Egyptian that appeared to resemble the deceased pop star, which was complete with a nose that had been so eroded through the centuries that it looked strikingly similar to the King of Pop’s. While the image he left behind resembled the Egyptian masks that persist to this day, Michael Jackson’s life less favors his pharoahic character from “Remember the Time,” and more like the zombie from “Thriller.”

After Leaving Neverland came out, social media roiled with stark opinionated takes. For those who had ever considered themselves fans of Michael Jackson, it became necessary to form a strong, definite opinion about Michael Jackson. I felt compelled, too. Actress Amber Tamblyn tweeted this: “As a former child actress, I can’t help but watch this documentary and think about how wrong it is for children to be put in the position of performing for the soul purpose of pleasing adults. It’s such a slippery, dangerous, often abusive slope.” Her tweet could be in reference to Robson and Safechuck, both dancers whose careers Jackson promised to help. But it could also be in reference to Jackson himself.

When I was younger, I often defended Michael Jackson against his allegations. I think it was an exercise in demonstrative empathy, a stand made against collective persecution. Here was someone who was, since a young age, exploited by people who should have known better. He was our fault; the least we could do is sympathize with him.

After watching the documentary, I realized that, perhaps while absolutely vilifying Michael Jackson was wrong, I shouldn’t defend him absolutely, either. That isn’t to say that Michael Jackson shouldn’t have to answer for his crimes, if he is a sexual abuser of children. Nor am I suggesting I would turn a blind eye, or not sympathize with these men—who I believe. But perhaps my criticism would more importantly be directed at the system that allowed such a thing to happen, and my own participation in it.

A 2009 study from Pelin Kesebir and Chi-Yue Chiu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that obsession with celebrities helps reduce our fears of death. “What we found is that the universal fascination with celebrities can be explained by this desire for immortality,” Kesebir said in an interview with the New York Daily News. “Famous people are perceived as immortal in the symbolic sense, and their perceived imperishability serves as a buffer against our fear of the nothingness that comes after death.” Psychology Today explained how the study showed that people even believed that a plane was less likely to crash if a celebrity was aboard. “It can make us believe in the possibility of a meaningful existence in the face of death,” Kesebir said to Psychology Today. “We all need these buffers,” Kesebir says. “Famous people can serve as inspirational figures. They can provide the kind of existential stamina. They can show that you yourself can become immortal. So they’re in a way what’s best about a culture. They can serve as compasses. I don’t think that’s unhealthy.”

I disagree. I think there is a precariousness to celebrity worship and identification with icons that, in the context of capitalism, induce us to close ourselves off, to shut our personal borders, to self-celebrate and dig ourselves in, subconsciously believing that our lives depend on that certainty. It’s bad for us, sure, but worse for those that are victimized to our intractability. The process by which we identify ourselves with immortal icons leaves us lacking a critical capacity for empathy, and that can be dangerous. Just ask Wade Robson and James Safechuck.

 

The Danger

 

The most salient truth of simplification is that the more we view human beings as simple objects, the more we see ourselves the same way. Whether by identification with or contradistinction to, we objectify ourselves—harden ourselves—by the consumption of human icons.

Some people might suggest that celebrity totems are materials as good as any in building a self. As Kesebir suggested, we all need buffers, inspirational figures, heroes. If we don’t need them, they’re still inevitable—after all, icons and symbols are everywhere, and we’re consistently coaxed into consuming them. That can be OK, so long as it’s viewed as something silly, and there is a healthy amount of critical distance between the subject and object of affection.

The truth is, if you found your church on images of the dead, you will soon find yourself inhabiting a haunted mansion. The ghosts will never leave you alone. Invariably it will become their house. Investing in the dead icons of consumerism ensures that your life does not belong to you. The specters of dead icons will cling to you so tightly that you cannot distinguish between yourself and them. They will haunt you, prohibit you from having your own dreams. And as Prince said: when you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.

The integration of media into the everyday American’s life—especially through social media—has breached the televisual Great Wall that made children ask their parents what planet the TV-people lived on. We have difficulty resisting the seductive certification that media offers us—especially social media, which puts us onscreen, alongside the real celebs. Seeing ourselves up there in perfect, plastic pixilation appeals to our desire in immortality. We invest in our avatars, our online analogs, curating content for our “personal brand,” emulating an “aesthetic” rather than understanding ourselves as complex, constantly changing human beings.  We abandon our depth, our own agency, because our reification in the virtual landscape seems to offer something sweeter than subjectivity, it grants us objectivity, a belief in our immortality. Social media allows us to verify ourselves, to more fully embody the images of the celebrity that we idolize. As Ari Stillman writes:

 

More than a public sphere experienced as private, Facebook’s affordance might better be understood as potentially rendering its users into public figures through the publication, circulation, and discussion of private information…everyone now can attain celebrity status through the internet and Facebook especially.

 

As we understand the big others that, like omnipresent ghosts, show up on our televisions, movie screens, radios, computer screens and phones as objects and entities, so we understand ourselves. And our simple little selves propagate the same objectifying gaze that consumerism has cultivated in us—which presents a greater danger than our own simple calcification. Because going forth into life with this perspective threatens to exploit or literally harm others.

 

As It Should Be

 

The hologram is the ultimate manifestation of the technological capitalization on a human being. It is the highest form of slavery; highest, not in the sense of its abjectness and cruelty, for in that sense it doesn’t compare to the original form of slavery. It is highest in that it is the most remote, the most putatively harmless, the ultimate manifestation of an inhuman conception of human beings, something that can be recreated and therefore should be. Fans were surely thrilled to see Tupac onstage, as they likely were to witness Michael Jackson reborn. Where’s the harm in all this, one might ask?

The harm is that we don’t question the morality of a technology simply because it produces an entertaining and cool effect. As Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park: “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We lose the critical capacity to wonder whether things ought to be simply because they can. We simply consider them inevitable.

We become complacent in a capitalist society in which every avenue is explored and ultimately exhausted in pursuit of profit. But much of the technologies that result far from benign. We praise ourselves for our own industriousness, our great works, without stopping to consider if these works are really for the betterment of the world and not potentially hazardous for our health. Prince told Guitar World “everything is as it is, and it should be,” especially where death is concerned. “If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age.” Hologram technology represents the unmitigated belief that there is no “should be,” no sense of morality that ought to temper our pursuit of profit. Why accept absence when we can have beautiful, uninterrupted presence?

That sense of fatalistic entitlement does not trifle with the scruples of real interactions with other human beings. And therein lies the danger.

Because it’s the same attitude that sanctioned chattel slavery, and the conquest of the Indians: manifest destiny, the idea that if we can do something, it’s our right, and in fact our destiny. As a result of this attitude, there is no accountability on human beings to think about the real impact on human lives. It is uncriticality, plain and simple. If it makes us feel better, if it appears to serve us emotionally in some way—even if it’s a cheap, insalubrious, ultimately sadistic pleasure that it offers—we see no good reason to resist.

To paraphrase Marquis de Sade, the eponymous hero of sadism: “my ability to do a thing confirms my right to do it.” By swallowing this idea, we become complacent as a culture and unsympathetic. We too readily accept the oppression and cruelties visited upon other people as coming with the territory; we too easily swallow the narratives that require the least of us.

The new human image synthesis technique known as the deepfake makes it possible to paste people’s faces onto other people’s bodies convincingly on videos. Already, fake porno films with celebrity’s faces have hit the Internet. We readily accept this creepy new technology because it creates a perfect storm of pleasure, an irresistible chemical confluence, by combining sexual pleasure with the pure consumption of the cheap, holy image of female celebrities.  But we forget how deepfakes leave us vulnerable to a similar fate; how, in a world of overabundant information, a world of fake news and photoshopped images, the bastions of truth are quickly depleting, and soon, nihilism will be our cultural disposition.

While it might not sound terribly unpleasant to concede to meaninglessness and consent to be opiated by media, to become objects unto ourselves and therefore evade the difficulties of moral decision-making, without this individual resistance, not only do we lose a crucial part of our existence, but we become complicit in the endangerment of those groups of people whose existences are not particularly valuable to the machine. When we start to see things as inevitable and look at them uncritically, entire groups of “other people” become dispensable. That’s the danger.

 

 

What Mr. Rogers Would Say About The World Today

I was recently on a plane from San Diego to New York City – a 5.5 hour flight – armed with nothing more than a book. I settled in, and was pleased to see a documentary on the offered docket of in-flight entertainment, one that I had been wanting to watch but never gotten around to it. It was about Fred Rogers, better known as Mr. Rogers, called Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I didn’t watch Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood growing up, I don’t think. What I mostly recall from my RGB cathode-irradiated youth was Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokémon and other Japanese shows of the convulsion-inducing ilk. Slightly before that – or perhaps concurrently with, it’s all a hippocampal haze – were the Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network shows like Hey Arnold!, Animaniacs, Dexter’s Lab, Johnny Bravo, et. al. Foggier still are recollections of Nick Jr. (short for Nickelodeon Jr.), a set of programming that was hosted by that disembodied proto-emoji, the definitive little brother to Orwell’s Big, known simply as Face. That era of my televisual upbringing was stocked by Rugrats and Blues Clues, and more (my apologies to those programs who lent a hand in raising me that I am forgetting to thank).

But my childhood did not feature Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. PBS, in large, I remember being pretty averse to. I never watched Sesame Street. Where was the action? I only remember ever watching The Magic School Bus while at school, particularly when the teacher wanted to demonstrate the concept of friction(?) and human biology – I’m sure you remember that age-old episode where they shrink the bus and go inside poor young Arnold—the stuff of legends. Never Arthur, nor that insufferable cue-ball Caillou, or the cringey kids of ZOOM. Between the Lions bored me. Zoboomafoo admittedly had its moments. I vaguely recall watching a little Wishbone in my day. But Dragon Tales? Blechh. I remember thinking myself too cool for those semi-educational, moralizing kiddie shows, even when I myself was a kiddie. The world of fast-paced, flashy and amoral entertainment had already seduced me by the time I was five or six.

I feel that I am worse for it. While we all acknowledge how formative those years are, we as a nation, or as a people, perhaps do not consider enough media’s early role in forming children’s characters and psyches later in life. I would guess that for many parents—and I’m not on my high horse here, I don’t even begin to fathom the difficulties of child-rearing, and hopefully won’t have to anytime soon—the goal of children’s media is to keep their attention occupied for chunks of time. Not to educate them.

Watching  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I learned about the father of kids educational TV, and his philosophy. For Fred Rogers, a child was not just a pre-person, a cog yet to turn out in its function, but a full human being already, albeit with yet unformed concepts of the world (and smaller limbs). His program gave that full person the respect it was due. In its three decades on the air, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was always fighting an uphill battle to compete with the fast-paced, irreverent kids shows featured on major networks, Yet it managed to last for 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. It stood tall through fraught cultural periods, times of factionalization and division in America, and various national disasters and tragedies, not only moving through them but confronting them, addressing them and explaining what they meant to children watching at home. The show took on concepts like death and addressed segregation. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, it told children about the word “assassination,” and explained why it happened. The program respected kids’ full humanity enough not to leave them in the dark.

Human beings, as a rule, I think are more attracted to brighter lights, bolder headlines, and flashier graphics, just as I was as a kid. We also want things simplified and narrowed. It’s understandable – looking at the whole world with a constant, open-mind is not only exhausting, it’s terrifying. It can feel like open water.

As a result, much of our television programming today caters to that fear. Though the program Fred Rogers created for children was vastly more sophisticated than the crap being propagated for adults on stations like Fox News, it’s certainly of a much less popular kind. In 2007, Fox and Friends did a segment on Mr. Rogers. In the bit, the hosts suggest that Rogers—who died in 2003—was responsible for “ruining an entire generation.” They blamed him for the putative entitlement of the millennial generation, saying that he told children that they were special “even if they didn’t deserve it.” They vapidly sermonize: “He didn’t say, ‘If you wanna be special you gotta work hard.’ The world owes you nothing and you gotta prove it!” One of them avers: “This evil, evil man has now ruined a generation of kids.”

To me, the “millennial entitlement” narrative is complete tripe. Moreover, to suggest that telling a child they are special is coddling them is ridiculous. Perhaps we should repeal child labor laws while we’re at it. What’s particularly disgusting about the segment is that it’s so careless. The concept behind it is so thin, yet it was rolled out willy-nilly—an approach that was completely antithetical to Mr. Rogers,’ who was gentle and considerate of how everything he said could leave a profound impact.

The Murdoch-ian program merely found a crease in the skin, an angle, and pursued it to its utmost, either unaware or apathetic to who it might impact, and how. They created a trashy, paltry narrative because they could, and because it was flashy and polar and bold. They did this, likely, despite knowing that it didn’t hold more than a sip of water. They knew it was incomplete, and rather vicious. They knew it would sell. Because a partial narrative is far more comprehensible, and digestible, than the whole truth—and a lot more conclusive, and comforting. That’s something universal—the desire for narrative satisfaction, drawn out of a story that is too mysterious to wrap our heads around completely.

To many, Mr. Rogers was a soft-spoken old codger who wore cardigans and was a little too interested in children. Making such an offhand and derisive assumption about him—dismissing him, calling him a coddler or weirdo or, in the parlance of our time, a “snowflake” (made ironic by the fact that Rogers was a registered Republican his entire voting life) – that’s exactly the sort of thoughtlessness he fought and taught against. Because it’s self-protective; a partial, societally-approved line that keeps one from trying to see the whole picture, and moreover, inside themselves.

Though from afar he seemed a paragon of virtues like kindness, empathy, patience and especially perseverance through love—the closest thing to an American saint I can think of— Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does not portray him as flawless. Just as someone who tried his damnedest. That’s one of the documentary’s salient points: no one is the whole package, no one is perfect, not even Mr. Rogers. He embodied hope, yet when the documentary reveals that when PBS asked him to do a series of PSAs to address the tragedy of 9/11, he doubted himself, struggling to see how it would make any difference. At times, even he could be cyncical. Mr. Rogers was not the second coming of Christ—as his son jokingly refers to him onscreen—he is not someone prohibitively pure and therefore not worth the effort to emulate. The only solution he could ever offer us was to try: to do “whatever we can to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own -by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves.”

He didn’t know all the answers, and never purported to. The only belief he ever espoused was that life, in all its mystery, in all its uncertainty and even scariness, was always worth it. In 1997, Rogers accepted an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In his acceptance speech, he told this story:

“Last month a 13-year-old boy abducted an eight-year-old girl; and when people asked him why, he said he learned about it on TV. ‘Something different to try,’ he said. ‘Life’s cheap; what does it matter?’

Well, life isn’t cheap. It’s the greatest mystery of any millennium, and television needs to do all it can to broadcast that – to show and tell what the good in life is all about.”

The word “wholesome” is a sort of derisive or at least dismissive term, used to describe campy sitcoms and families with golden retrievers featured in their Christmas cards. Ironically, the term is used to describe that which tells a partial story, one that excludes the tragedies and terrors of reality. But real wholesomeness describes that which never shies away from truth, and never takes an easy way out—like hatred, or anger, or fear—but looks at everything as being part of the same lovely thing, and responds in kind. Wholly. When you regard the avatars of its antonym—partiality, telling half the story—like Tucker Carlson and other manipulators, benders and fracturers of truth (i.e. liars)—one can see that wholesomeness, or the pursuit of it, is the truest and best way a human being can aspire to see, and act. Even if it’s not always comfortable.

It can be terrifying, trying to see everything as it is, and Rogers was not immune those fears and doubts. Nor was he immune to hopelessness and despair, and even anger, the documentary shows. He simply tried to respond with love, and never stopped. He fought the good fight. Rogers kept a quotation by his desk that he frequently referenced in the speeches he gave. It’s from The Little Prince, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret;
it is only with the heart that one can see rightly,
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

It’s hard to communicate the message that he tried to – that there is a truth, a beauty, a love that you cannot see. The big, underlying thing that can’t be talked about adequately. It’s easier to gravitate to the easily identifiable messages that are beamed at you constantly from every medium. But that underlying thing is the real truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. You may not discover it in a pure, distilled form that you can mainline like a tincture of Tucker Carlson’s poncey face. But you’ll probably be better for trying, and you won’t be deluding yourself. As for me, I’ll never join them. So I might as well try to beat ‘em.

One of the most famous songs from Mr. Roger’s neighborhood goes like this:

“It’s you I like, it’s not the things you wear. It’s not the way you do your hair, but it’s you I like. The way you are right now, the way down deep inside you. Not the things that hide you. Not your caps and gowns, they’re just beside you. But it’s you I like. Every part of you. Your skin, your eyes, your feelings. Whether old or new, I hope that you remember, even when you’re feeling blue, that it’s you I like. It’s you, yourself, it’s you. It’s you I like.” Today, lots of people would dismiss that as “liberal snowflake” blather.

 

But me?

I think it’s wonderful.

 

 

The Impossibility Of The Chimera

Fittingly, the word “chimera” has various meanings. The first, historically speaking, refers to a beast from Greek mythology. Like other Greek monsters – the Centaur, the Minotaur, the three headed dog Cerberus, Medusa, the Sphinx, some amphibious versions of sirens, the harpy, the hydra, etc. – the chimera is a biological union between different things, grafted together (rather haphazardly). The resultant union is discordant and strange, producing a bestial creature that often serves as the antagonist to the Greek hero. See: the Minotaur to Theseus, Medusa to Perseus, the sirens to Odysseus. Specifically, the OG chimera of Greek mythology is fire-breathing hybrid creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. From the mythological meaning comes a second one for the term “chimera”: a medical term for organisms carrying two genotypes for the same trait, causing a muddling or gynandromorphic effect that manifests in things like heterochromia (having two differently colored eyes) or the possession of both sex organs.

While genetic chimerism is real, the monstrous chimeras of our mythologies are definitively not. Moreover, they seem purposefully outlandish. Garish creatures with Frankenstein(…’s monster)-esque exposed seams and of Turducken grotesquery, impossibility feels to be tied inextricably to their incongruous multiplicity. They cannot exist, especially since the disparate animals that anatomize them already stand alone elsewhere. The amalgams are therefore perverse. Unnatural. It makes sense, then, that the second definition of “chimera” offered by Merriam-Webster is this: “an illusion or fabrication of the mind; especiallyan unrealizable dream.” The chimera is often judged horrid and generally evil. But what its concoction invokes foremost is power. Divine potency. Certainly there is a devilishness to the sirens and harpies, a hellish ferocity in Cerberus, and yes, a terrifying, rabid aggression in the hydra, the minotaur, the namesake chimera (all of which might be interpreted as an agitation for such a sordid existence). But there is also an arch beauty in the seraphic Sphinx. A pure majesty to the horse-bird Pegasus. And let us not forget that angels, too, are hybrid creatures, and they are glorious harbingers of the divine. Hindu and Egyptian gods with animal heads were celebrated and praised, not reviled as orcs and used purely to blame worldly pitfalls (as the Scylla and Hydra were blamed for treacherous vortexes that ensnared Greek ships). The point being that the chimerism that pervades various mythologies does not necessarily carry a monstrous or evil valence with it – it only suggests power.

The chimera is many things at once. It wears many hats – or, more aptly, it has many heads. But its duality – or triality, or quaternality, etc – is inharmonious. Sometimes monstrously so, but always remarkably – anyone can see the incongruency, and the more obvious or garish, the more monstrous the creature is likely to be. The subtler combos – man and winged creature, horse and winged creature, woman and fish – are less jarring. To be sure, those transmogrifications in which the human head is conserved are certainly more savory, because even if the combo is inelegant – as one might aver about the centaur, or even the mermaid – at least it doesn’t forsake human sensibility and intellect for snarling bullishness, or the replacement of a pretty face with vegetal fish-eyed countenance. In the case of human-animal hybrids, distance from humanity is connected to repugnance. In the case of those creature collages that don’t have any human parts, it’s the sheer number of ill-matched pieces that quantify their abominability. A hydra – while scary by nature – is less off putting than the original, Iliadian chimera, which looks like something cooked up in a mad geneticist’s lab.

The thing about the chimera – and what I speculate is its point, if I can use such a word – is that they are purely impossible except in a world of fantasy. Whether or not the monsters of Greek mythology or Frankenstein might have ever been fully believed as fact I can’t truly claim to know (Frankenstein was written in 1823, and people were fooled by Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938). Yet, when you consider the modern, non-academic definition of chimera – an “unrealizable dream” – we can take these mythic figures as having at least transformed into symbols emblematic of impossibility, purposely unbelievable. If that is the case, what is the meaning of their apocrypha?

I think that the chimera symbolically exists to demonstrate that being many things at once is an impossible dream, one that causes much suffering. It’s as futile an effort  as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men trying to reassemble humpty dumpty. Unlike in Frankenstein, stitching together a collection of dead things will never make a live one.

Such is the endeavor of fighting against a life in conflict. Living too many ideas of a correct life at once – dividing our allotted attention among the fantasies of who we ought to be, dispersing our focus among our daydreams like the ambulatory functions distributed among the multiple heads of the lion-snake-goat hybri –  leads not to erudition, though it can, or a polygluttonous appetite for learning and a Renaissance-range of skills, though it might. It leads to a variety of lives halfway-, or third-of-the-way, or quarter-of-the-way-lived. Fractious, conflicted, and ultimately confused. As someone important says in the Bible in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

I quote the Bible not because I am Christian, but because this idea of living a muddled, multiplicitous and therefore uneven life – and the response to the problem of chimerism – exists in so many religions, within that metaphoric Zen nougat at their bases, which Aldous Huxley, in his book The Perennial Philosophy, called “the unitive knowledge of the divine ground of all being.” The key word being unitive: unifying, self-coalescing. Anti-chimeric. Many of these religions have come to suggest that the achievement of our reconstitution requires abnegation; charity; penitence. And surely it does, at least in a sense. Yet we circle back to the metaphoric interpretations of the wisdom in religion that “Perennialism” favors. Though charity and abnegation are certainly vital, for them to be prerequisites to self-actualization is illogical, even impossible. Pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps cannot be the way. Solving a conflicted mind with a conflicted mind is like paddling against a river to pacify the current, stirring a spinning cup of tea backwards to neutralize its whirls. If charity – enacted charity, for true charity is not offered as a deliberate act but a natural one, springing forth from an anonymous and empty consciousness – but if charity practiced is a requirement and not a symptom of the aforementioned enlightenment, then it is because it demonstrates to the practicer the joy of being momentarily outside of oneself, offering a sample of the pure ecstasy of being outside of a fraught and conflicted consciousness (which is probably the same as a burst of dopamine in your head, but lets not split hairs, and I’m no scientist). Still, the Buddha eschewed asceticism, and Zen monks do not subscribe to nor prescribe any stringent meditative or charitable practices, because they know that right-thinking does not come necessarily from right-doing. Not to say that exercise can’t help clear a muddied mind, but that a mind that is fundamentally split cannot be “solved” by contradictive action. And trying and trying to conquer, to polish, to scrub away the conflicts and imperfections of the mind is a bit like trying to scrub off a leopard’s spots.

Is our conflicted nature really our nature? Is it inherent? Probably. It could be that we picked it up, accumulated tension from a world built to make us split at the neck. But in my assessment (and other, more educated opinions from more educated folks) our status as chimera is more likely attributable to our existence at a liminal evolutionary stage. As the late Terry Pratchett wrote poetically that human beings exist at the “place where falling angel meets rising ape.” So we’re caught between unfettered, ethereal, transcedent life and unfettered, corporeal, unthinking bliss. In the meantime, we dither about in the middle. Fettered.

The argument can be made that it is precisely because of our predicament, our fascination in vacillation, our ability and proclivity to serve two, three, four or more masters that a perfectly, ecstatically imperfect life is possible. And its not after self-abnegation, abstemious practices, self-flagellation and demonstrative charity. It’s simply with the acceptance that our life will always be conflicted that the conflict resolves. Because when you realize you will always be multiple, you cease to be so. When multiplicity is the only option, then optionality dissolves (it’s only an option when there’s another, isn’t it?)

I­­t’s possible that this particular age of existence is a bit stuffier and overcrowded and in your face with an overabundance of windows into other, seemingly “better” alternatives to your life than any previous generation. It’s certainly the case that we have access to more idealized imagery than ever before. Does it make us more dissatisfied and anxious to see these images, thanks to TV and movies and now social media? It certainly does something to us. I reckon that it does make things worse. Yet I can’t help but feel that the difference is negligible. After all, the dread of comparing oneself to others is nothing new. It’s a human foible as old as the ten commandments (read: thou shalt not covet), and though Instagram is essentially a delivery service of food for envy, it is not the reason human beings think in should/would/could hypotheticals more than they, well, should. Do you really think that if you finally manage to delete Instagram once and for all, you’ll suddenly be rid of envy, covetousness, anxiety? I’m willing to guess that you’ve probably deleted the app in a vain effort before, a gesture that you likely knew in your little pixelated heart of hearts was empty. It’s OK. This stuff, this uncomfort, this so-derided need for “instant gratification” from jackass condescending boomers, it’s all too deep, now. We’re steeped. We were bound to be, and it’s still OK that we are. But roiling against mal-tendency to imagine what we ought to do, to try to unchimera-ize ourselves is a self-surgery for which we are not equipped.

What is better – and indeed truer – is a simple acknowledgment: that we were never such a creature of conflict, such a grotesque mistake of nature as we shamefully imagine. The standard to which we are comparing ourselves – that’s the unrealizable dream. We, on the other hand, are the “perfect” reality. The platypus is no chimera – only through a lens of our querulous imagination does it all appear “unnatural.” Probably, gene-splicing and all that (see: I’m not a scientist) can and has created something unnatural, like the sterile mule, but the consciousness that the creature itself expresses cannot be “unnatural.” Even if a creature is born flawed; blind, deaf, dumb – it is still just as it should be, simply because that’s just how it is. Our proclivity to abstract, to envision other ways we could or should have been, it’s a gift, it’s a massive part of what make us human.  We can’t reject that. We cannot abnegate, purge ourselves of our oft-lamentable hypothesizing ways, for a neuter, purgatorial paradise. We can only accept the vicissitudes of our constant conflict as features as necessary to our sight as the rods and cones in our eyes.

An Indian parable describes a group of blind men who hear that a new sort of animal has come to town. They go to check it out. Because they are blind, they must discern its shape by touch. One feels its trunk and says: “the creature is like a thick snake”. Another rubs its ear and say it is like a fan. Another its leg and determines it is more wall-like. Another feels its tusk and says it is like a spear. Which is it? It’s all of those things, and none of them. Nothing, and everything is a chimera. Perhaps more accurately, being a chimera – a strange admixture if uncomplimentary and clashing things, which can grind and scrape and hurt a bit – is not only natural, it is vital. Subjectivity mandates that all things are irreducible, infinitely interpretable. Nothing is one thing, only an incoherable collection of angles, points of view that are anything but absolute. The same goes for us. We are a mish-mash, and it is the friction between heads that actually illuminates our worlds, lets us see and examine the cracks between things. In essence, our conflict makes the world subjective. The solution to the wholehearted, anti-solipsistic belief that other beings are real, and therefore worthy of empathy, charity, is to fuse the objective and subjective, to make the distinction between them specious, illusory. It takes no shortage of whimsy, but mostly it takes love. Self-love foremost, which becomes love for the “other” (as the sense of otherness fades when the division between the external and internal world does). The mental habit of comparison is hard if not impossible to be scrubbed off our minds, but it can be realized and understood, and then it cannot harm you. This solution has so many different words and terms, and like the Perennial philosophy’s universal definition of self-actualization, the way to that end is similarly pervasive.

What it takes is loving one’s conflict by understanding it not as discord, but as a natural state of being. This is the lesson of the perennial philosophy, expressed in so many different platitudes, yet all espousing the same thing. It is to live in the present, by recognizing that the disharmony created by comparison – whether comparing your own woebegone circumstances to someone else’s experience, or to your own, previous state where you were happy(er), or even a future/hypothetical state that could be better – is part of the only existence that there is, and loveable for its intricacy if not for its particular social currency (that is, its own instagrammability/lackthereof). To love the negative, the neutral and the positive equally is to erase their distinction. It is amor fati, to love fate – and that means all fate. It is the love of whatever circumstances have befallen you. As Joseph Campbell would say,  it is to mythologize your life – to turn your life into a story of incomparable mystery – by accepting the particular peculiarities, the idiosyncratic anatomy of your personal chimera. Let it be your spirit animal, strangely shaped but not misshapen, warped in form but not deformed, utterly unique – without a referential model to which it may be compared, and therefore always exceptionally beautiful.

Out Of Bounds

The world—my Amerocentric ass says, the world, immediately presuming that America equals the entire world, well, let me take responsibility—my world, through the lens of a twenty-something white guy from Indiana, has reached a level of absurdity for which even my comic books did not prepare me. Over the last year, bearing witness to the utter inanity that is the Trump administration and the state of America at-large has changed a lot about what I thought I knew.

Boundaries were always the reason for our comfort, I guess. And perhaps that is the problem that Trump’s election is indicting. Boundaries that made things black and white, good and evil, Jesus and Satan. Politicians were bred from the start to become those banal, symbolic figures who are clean and rigidly-defined if incessantly demure. There was a gap between us, and them. But somewhere along the line, the integration of media into the everyday-American’s life breached the boundary, that televisual Great Wall that made children ask their parents what planet the TV-people lived on. It could have been social media, putting our own faces up on a screen with Myspace, then Facebook and the rest; or it might have been reality TV and the more obscure parts of our heterogeneous culture making it on mainstream television. Either way, the dam has been knocked down. And the era of segregating truth from fiction has gone the way of the dinosaur.

I think we are still in the stage of looking at one another and asking “is this really happening?” And who can blame us? The surreality of the world we have sewn is definitely hard to accept. It defies all that we been raised to expect (perhaps my generation [b. 1994] is the cutoff]) Yet we cannot turn to any other planet for find company in our misery. We have no context to know whether or not this is atypical for the evolution of a species angling toward some kind of transcendence—we think.

And so, the idealism that inspired us as young children—noble, but still part and parcel of the binary-thinking that has led to our breakdown—must also be traded in, for a new—and though it may feel inappropriate, light-hearted—pragmatism, that accepts the limitations of our yet transient individual existences. Meaning, we must accept, even embrace the absurd, and take advantage of the malleability that this newfound post-truth culture has given us. And that is why I am asking you to consider a seemingly ridiculous possibility for the 2020 United States Presidential Election: NBA coaches Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich.

The use of words like “segregation” and phrases such as “black and white” in reference to the American Platonism of the last 50 years was not accidental. I believe that race relations, especially between black and white people in the United States, are the biggest reason for the violent energy that has befogged our country. I think that, despite dissolving the lines between pedigreed politicians and cultural figureheads, the current administration has sought to sustain itself by denying the primary reason behind its own path to power, by saying: things are simply what they are, tautologically. By reducing things to a singular physical version of themselves, they oversimplify and thereby attribute cause to the most superficial dimension of any issue. Crime in black communities is therefore attributed to physical blackness, rather than any underlying cause that you can name (poverty, social inequality, etc.) The ease with which proponents of this physical reductivism are able to dismiss this “underlying cause” theory as lunacy—in a national, gaslighting trend—is enough to infuriate those who are committed to a spectrum-based (or what some might call an “open minded”) approach. It’s enough to make the most anti-second amendment “liberal” want to buy a gun, and I believe it is at least in part the inspiration behind radical leftist movements that harken back to Che and Fidel—also icons, also idealists.

Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps history will forever be motivated by clashes between extremes. Bloody revolutions and the like. But aren’t we all adults here? At least, we thought we were, pre-2016. And adults, real human beings that have made that leap—or, at least stuck our chins over the cusp—compromise. They adapt, and at some point if we are going to win the grand cosmic marathon and transcend our fleshly entombments, we are going to have to start acting without being motivated by instincts masquerading as ideals.

And that, my friends, is why Kerr and Poppovich are the perfect choices for 2020. One boundary that rapidly dissipated in the last year was the one that existed between sports and politics. National Anthem Protests, White House Visits rejected and rescinded; we have seen the icons of disparate realms rub shoulders, and cold ones.

Gone are the days when politicians held their tongues, lest they say something misinterpretable. Donald Trump tweets violent, incendiary and hateful messages out on the daily. There can be no return to the time of Camelot, when the great orator and clean-cut American idealist John F. Kennedy helmed the “greatest country in the world.” The only effective response must be to kneel, deign to the level of the Manacheist American, and approach the problem sans emotion (as much as one can be asked to, obviously as a white male I speak from a place that more simply facilitates a dispassionate, unaffected philosophy).

And the most pragmatic solution, which both embraces the absurd new world and accounts for the realities of the binary thinking that is still so prevalent, is to vote for two white guys who have lived and worked in a community that is predominantly black—and moreover, two men who have used their platform in privilege for the better, by consistently speaking out against the oft-denied but all too thinly-veiled white supremacy of the current administration.

It is not that they simply have “worked with the black community.” More importantly, they have worked with and spoken out for men who have transcended the social shackles that hamper the average black person in America. Men who are in that sense, larger than life, and worthy of tons of respect—but still, far too easily dismissed by a large population of Americans, with platitudinous disparagements like “stick to sports,” and the suggestion that “we pay your salary.” You don’t hear anyone telling Donald Trump that he should stick to shitty reality TV and going bankrupt. Instead, it is far too easy for the white population to ignore the protests of these black men, who seemed only to demonstrate any societal worth by sheer luck, being 6’8” and “freakishly athletic,” to dismiss their accomplishments in a manner that is totally racist, but covertly enough to be denied.

Michelle Obama used to say “when they go low, we go high,” and in a way, I’m still championing that mentality. Just, in a subversive, and probably harder to swallow way. I am suggesting that “we,” whatever faction we may be, go low—get on the same level, digress for the sake of progress. LeBron James, probably the best player in the NBA and one of the greatest of all time, rose up from an impoverished life in Akron, Ohio to become not only a tremendous athlete, but a tremendous man and role-model for young people everywhere. But I am simply not sure that our nation will vote for LeBron James, despite how deserving he might be. Trump, in a large sense, is a backlash reaction to the election of Barack Obama. This dramatic shift has all the violent feeling of a revolution, and some of the blood. I fear that electing another black man as president would only increase the philosophical divide. Moreover, the responsibility of bringing us up, of delivering us from this muck, does not fall on the black community. It falls on the white community, namely the white man, whose desperate desire to stave off obsolescence has been the origin of much of the violence in our country for the last 300 years.

Popovich and Kerr are potentially the perfect intermediaries for a peaceful transition. Popovich is virulent in his criticism of Trump. In October, he said: “This man in the Oval Office is a soulless coward who thinks that he can only become large by belittling others. This has of course been a common practice of his, but to do it in this manner– and to lie about how previous presidents responded to the deaths of soldiers – is as low as it gets.” He went on: “We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day.”

Kerr wrote in Sports Illustrated in September: “Instead, we get Trump’s comments over the weekend about NFL players, calling them ‘sons of bitches’ for kneeling during the anthem. Those just crushed me. Crushed me. Just think about what those players are protesting. They’re protesting excessive police violence and racial inequality. Those are really good things to fight against. And they’re doing it in a nonviolent way. Which is everything that Martin Luther King preached, right? A lot of American military members will tell you that the right to free speech is exactly what they fight for. And it’s just really, really upsetting that the leader of our country is calling for these players to be ‘fired.’”

Kerr is the main seat on the ticket, because of his cool-headedness—his nickname in college was “ice”—and Pop the VP, for his passionate fire. Joseph Campbell once wrote that a good coach sees a player’s personal abilities and encourages his natural tendencies, rather than trying to put him in a box and make him play a certain way. These men are successful coaches because they do just that—they treat their players as people, as partners, not as cogs to be put into boxes. Trump has garnered support by appealing to simpleton logic that categorizes people and things, uncritically—and that appeal, sadly, is something to be taken into consideration. Its popularity in our country today is the reason why we just can’t see eye to eye, why people can’t comprehend why saying something like “it’s OK to be white” is racist. That is the point of what I’m saying here. I don’t know if Kerr or Popovich are actually fit for the office. They probably don’t want the job either—but I would argue that it might very well be a duty owed. Nor am I trying to say that a black man who is deserving of the position should not be considered. I guess, what I’m saying is that it’s not as simple as choosing between turning the other cheek or fighting fire with fire. I admit, it could just be that we are in a really, terribly shitty time and riding it out is the only choice. And, and I mean this sincerely, it might just be that I am being a coward. That I am too afraid of a collision that I fear is imminent, that I am being a real Neville Chamberlain and adapting a policy of appeasement to a bully. I suppose you can never underestimate your own tendency toward self-preservation, especially when you’re a white dude whose personal experience of racially-motivated violence is almost always mediated by a computer screen. After all, I wrote this without much exogenous research, telling myself it was purposeful, to express my authentic feelings minus the pretensions of statistics and citations. But I’m forced to admit to myself that it might just be that I’m inhibited by the knowledge of my own irrelevancy. It could be that I am totally out of bounds here. But I can’t help but feel that if we approach the conflicts of our country today with the same mentality as we always have, without remembering that this is just a game, then we may be in danger of losing—big.

 

 

 

They Stole My Idea

In 2012 when I was almost exclusively a science fiction writer (cough cough, this) and trying to be the next Vonnegut, I wrote a short story called “The Family Giant.” Obviously I did nothing with it, and it has been gathering dust in my docket for 5 years until recently, when I saw a trailer for a new Matt Damon/Kristen Wiig movie called “Downsizing.” Apparently somehow, these hollywood pervs managed to hack my computer and stole my idea.

Now, read my story below and tell me what you think! That’s really all I got, just a repost.

 

The Family Giant

By John S Mannheimer

 

George tenderly clenched the square of paper between his nails and slipped it under the microscope. It was the grocery list. Papa wanted more Gouda, his favorite cheese. Emily wanted steak. And Mama wanted wine, specifically a bottle of Brunello d’Orcia 2004. George glanced to his right, at the bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet 2003 sitting next to the microscope. He had drunk most of it. Only a few measures formed a small black-red lagoon at the bottle’s bottom. That ought to last a few more days, anyway, he thought. At the list’s finish was a postscript, scrawled in his mother’s sacchariferous cursive: “We are so grateful for you, George,” punctuated by a heart. He rolled his eyes. Sure they were. George’s mother left a similar note each time he headed to the grocery, or painstakingly built a doghouse like he had last month—father’s injury precluded him from any heavy lifting, so the task fell to the able-fingered son. George had been sad to see Rocko go. The black spotted mutt was the last bit of company George had in the vacuous house. Oh, the sacrifices he made in the name of family.

George left the empty house and slumped into his cheap car. A large man would have been cramped in the small, cage-like chassis. But George was small framed and thin, among the reasons his family had decided that he was the obvious choice for Giant. He didn’t eat too much and he was quite responsible. Besides that, he was never all that involved in the family dynamic. At the dinner table, he was quiet and aloof, stirring the contents of his plate judiciously until dismissed. The car’s modest engine switched on with a rev that sounded like a remote control car. George turned the wheel and zipped onto the road.

The grocery store was nearly empty when he arrived. The aisles, once emptied of food by ravenous patrons during the shortage were vibrantly filled with verdant greens and juicy red meats at purportedly low, low prices. George recalled the gnashing chaos of supermarkets on television as a child. Every time Papa put on his coat to head to the store, George would hold onto his leg to weigh him down, until his mother pried him off and Papa disappeared out the doorway. George feared for his father’s life. It was not uncommon back then for people to get trampled in the fracas.

Now, the same aisles that were once inundated with wild shoppers were empty, save for endless shelves of produce, milk, and meat. George picked up a steak, hefting it in his hand, figuring he could take about half of it for himself. The other half ought to appease Emily and the rest of the family for a good month. Next, he picked up a bottle of wine—the best money could buy, why not? It was a rarity for him to buy wine, whiskey, or any other spirit—only about once per month and a half—so when he did, he chose top shelf. It was in no danger of being depleted quickly. Usually he simply had to count on himself not to drink the majority, which could be difficult sometimes in the lonesome, empty house. If George continued to take it for himself, though, he would have no choice but to switch to a cheaper brand, and that wouldn’t be fair to his mother. She was a connoisseur, and already suffering enough from having to drink the same, albeit high-end wine for months at a time. Who was George to deny the little lady’s simple pleasure?

George reached for the last, red wheel of Gouda cheese. The grocery store was so empty that he hadn’t noticed a figure in the corner of his eye, and neither had the figure, so as it happened, two hands met on the red wheel of Gouda. The figure drew hers back sharply.

“Oh, I’m sorry! I hadn’t noticed you,” she blushed.

“No, it’s all right,” George said, the forgotten ecstasy of human contact tingling on his hand. “It’s my fault, I’m not used to their being anyone in here,” he admitted. The store’s cooling system clanged hollowly, echoing through the store. He seized the Gouda wheel, the last one, and handed it to the girl, a pretty brunette. She smiled shyly and accepted the offering with a “thank you” and placed the cheese in her cart.

George had never seen the girl before. It seemed strange, as the small town had only been made smaller by the Shrink. She might have been the last girl in town that was his age.

“Are you shopping for yourself?” George asked, strolling alongside as she rolled her cart down the chilly aisle. She picked up a gallon of milk with an appraising look, then set it down in favor of a half-gallon.

“No,” she said. She looked up at George with big brown eyes. Why was she dressed so cutely? George at once felt naked in his unwashed white t-shirt and mesh black shorts. “I’m a Giant,” she admitted.

“Really?” George asked excitedly. “Me too.”

“Oh?” She asked, continuing to peruse.

“Yep,” George said, for once proud of his Gigantism. “My mother and father and sister all live with me at home,” George said. “…And dog,” he added grimly, remembering Rocko.

“They do dogs now?” She asked.

“Unfortunately,” he sighed. “I lost my only bit of company because of it. To be fair, it was my sister’s dog. But now the house is all the more lonely.” This was his first social interaction in months, maybe even a year. He felt rusty.

“I have a cat,” said the girl. “I won’t let them have him. He’s all mine,” she smiled and made penetrative eye contact with George, and he was too shocked to demure.

“That’s smart,” George picked back up. “Say, what’s your family like?” He asked. “If you don’t mind my asking.” She half-smiled, but did not look up from the dairy products. George remembered the game. He was never very good.

“There’s Mom, Dad and Tony, my little brother.”

“How old is he?” George asked.

“Eighteen.”

“Emily’s eighteen,” George mentioned offhandedly.

“Hm.”

George felt he should grab something off the shelf, selected some peanut butter.

“Would you like to meet them?” she asked suddenly.

“Really?” George said, dropping the peanut butter loudly into his basket. “Sure, I’d love to.” Not wanting to seem eager, he added: “It can get pretty boring at home.”

She nodded understandingly. “How’s tomorrow? I get off work at six. Why don’t you come by?” She wrote down her address on a piece of paper and handed it to George. “My name’s Evie.”

“George,” he said.

“Well George, I’ve got to finish shopping.”

“Oh, of course,” he said. She turned to a different aisle, actually the one he had planned to go next, but he decided to wait for her to finish. “It was nice to meet you,” he called after her.

For the first time in a year, George had a reason to spruce up. He doled out a ration of the groceries to the family, picked up a new note Mama had left: “Need more toothpicks for kindling” and headed off in his diminutive automobile.

She answered the door to the modest house, accepted the flowers that George had brought and on which he had contemplated circularly for hours deciding whether or not they were too much. Evie had dressed up, too, which eased George’s mind. She, too, had apparently been looking forward to human contact, so few and far between for giants. She showed him around her home—it was illusorily large, full of empty space like his own.

The dinner Evie had prepared, however, was quite immodest—roasted duck and cranberry sauce, served with buttery asparagus and milk, a meal that George didn’t take lightly, cleaning his plate in conscientious appreciation of how expensive a Giant-sized portion of duck went for. He told her what there was to tell her about his job, which was basically that he drilled holes in metal sheets all day long. Evie worked as a clerk at the hobby shop.

“Do you like that sort of thing?” George asked with a mouthful of duck. “Crafts and what-not?”

“MmHm.” She nodded vigorously, raising both eyebrows as if incredulous that George hadn’t already known this about her. “It’s sort of my passion.”

“Well, you’ve got to have one of those,” George agreed. “Otherwise, life can get to be pretty burdensome, and you can stop really living. For yourself, that is.”

She smiled at that, seemed to understand what George was saying perfectly, though she cocked her head in a way that made it feel to George as though she pitied him. George pushed the thought aside as he swallowed the last spear of asparagus.

“Would you like to see?” she asked.

“See what?” George said.

“Where they live,” she said.

“I’d love to,” he said. “Would you like some help?” He pointed to the dishes.

“Just leave them,” she said, getting up. “It’ll give me something to do later,” she explained. George knew the feeling well. His home was perpetually clean as a whistle, not as a result of a propensity for cleanliness, but boredom.

He followed Evie upstairs to the attic. What he saw made his own family’s home look like a motel. It was a regular Garden of Eden. Immaculately constructed hills and valleys, a phosphorescent sun that doubled as a moon, dangling from the ceiling by invisible fish wire. The walls were painted sky blue. Distant picturesque mountains were painted on the backdrop. At the top of the highest hill was a beautiful green house, like the emerald palace somewhere over a rainbow. There was a quixotic windmill spinning slowly, pushed along by a gentle, oscillating fan mounted to the wall, painted blue to blend with the skyline.

“It’s—it’s wonderful,” George gasped. Evie folded her hands together proudly.

This was her hobby.

George walked carefully along the path that cut through the mock-hilly terrain and Evie followed. The land was elevated to about his waist, and the path divided it in half like a foreboding canyon.

“Hold on,” said Evie. She squeezed past George, who had forgotten what it was like to feel a woman’s soft body squeeze by you—he had taken those movie theatre brush-bys for granted—and unscrewed a plastic bridge which connected the two lands over the chasm. “Bridge out,” she called toward the house, which made no response. “Dinner time,” she noted to George, looking at her watch. “We’ll have to wait.”

While they waited, Evie gave George a tour of the remarkably crafted meadowland. A tiny speaker system simulated family rainy days once or twice a week. (Evie’s mother loved the sound of distant thunderstorms as she went to sleep).

There were trees with waxy aesthetic apples hanging down, a pool table and a pool, a home gym where hilarious hundred-gram weights were hefted. George felt a twinge of shame for the world he had bought in-store for his own family, colorless in comparison to this paradise. Their nights and days relied on George’s switching on and off a reading lamp. Their chairs and tables and doghouses were made of toothpicks and woodchips jointed by gobs of Elmer’s glue.

Evie tapped her watch. “They should be about finished now. Would you like to talk to them?” She asked.

“Talk to them? But how could I do that?”

“Simply,” Evie said nonchalantly. Like a goddess, she reached out into the phony sky and plucked from it a tiny brown and white and yellow broach, shaped like a soaring bald eagle. It had hung just below a cloud. Affixing the eagle to her collar, she tapped it three times. Feedback bounced around the attic walls, buffeting George’s eardrums. Evie peered searchingly over the land she had created and with a dainty pluck, uprooted a plastic bush. Beneath it was a black pole, roughly two centimeters long, standing straight up. George squinted hard and realized the pole was a microphone stand, the eagle broach’s companion.

“Watch,” Evie smiled enchantingly. She bent over, and with a gentle but effective flicking of her finger, rapped on the little green house’s door three times. Evie pulled her collar up to her mouth. “Mother, Father, Tony,” she whispered. “There’s somebody here I’d like you to meet.” Her voice came through the sound system gently like the simulated wind. It must have sounded like a loudspeaker to them, because the tiny wooden door that George could have crushed between his fingers swung open, and three little figurines shuffled out to meet the giants.

Squinting down on the hill, which looked like a shrunken set from The Sound of Music, George could barely discern the three tiny faces. He could, however, tell what they were wearing. Mother wore a fluffy pink dress, crafted from a billowing inch of fabric. Father wore suspenders and a loosened tie, and penny loafers, though he himself might have been crushed by a piece of loose change. Tony wore a white t-shirt and jeans, and his indistinct face was framed by shoulder length hair. The father figure trotted down the hill, taking his place at the microphone stand.

“Guys,” Evie spoke into her broach. “This is George. He’s a family giant, too.”

“Hiya,” the father said. His voice, like Evie’s, filled the room. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Paul.”

George was in awe of this carefully crafted world. It made him feel like a lousy son. “Nice to meet you, sir,” he said. “I’m George.” Paul shrugged and cupped his hand to his ear.

“Oh, you’ve got to use this,” Evie said. In the excitement of things, he had forgotten something he knew quite well, that shrunken people couldn’t hear his voice. He had been unable to communicate to his own family, only receive their microscopic messages, never deliver his own. He could attempt to write smallishly, but rarely did, taking the size barrier as an excuse to not have to communicate.

 

George took the microphone and repeated himself. Paul nodded, hearing George’s voice through the loudspeaker system.

“So, George,” he continued. “What are your intentions with my daughter?”  George was startled. He looked at Evie, then at Paul. Paul made a grand gesture, indicating that it was a joke.

“I’m just kidding you, Georgey. It’s fine to meet you. We don’t get many visitors besides our Evie. It’s tough the way things have worked out for people like us.”

George nodded. It was tough from his side of things, he knew that much. He hadn’t much considered how tough it would be for those who shrunk.

“What’s your family like?”

George scratched his head. “Well, there’s Papa and Mama, and Emily,” he said.

“Oh! You’ve a sister!” Evie’s mother had chassed down the hill to join. “Mary,” she introduced herself. Tony remained at the doorstep looking bored. “How old is she? What’s she like?”

“Eighteen,” said George.”

“Oh my, Paul,” Evie’s mother said, nudging her husband.

Paul’s father said: “Our Tony is eighteen as well.”

“It can get pretty boring up here for an eighteen year old boy with no girls around. Evie’s mother whispered scandalously into the mic, but the sibilant secret spilled across the entire valley. Tony had apparently had enough of this soiree and returned inside. George saw him through the house’s window, slump onto his bed, picking up a book.

George remembered how boring it indeed could get as an eighteen year old boy with no girls around. He also remembered how boring it could get as an eighteen year old with no one around. This miniature paradise that Evie had so lovingly constructed for her family was ideal for the two parents. It made for a perfect retirement home. But it was no proper place for the pent up energy of a young man. When Tony grew up, then what? He would never be able to “grow up” enough—not to take on the world alone. The Shrink was irreversible. If their was a growth process, they could just enlarge the food itself. Instead, they had to shrink the people. George stretched his arms, brushing his knuckles against the attic’s wood ceiling, suddenly thankful for his lean, gangly limbs.

Evie and George returned downstairs to the living room. George nearly mistook the amorphous fuzz that occupied the couch as a cushion to sit on. Before he could, the cat leapt out of the way, into Evie’s lap.

“They’re wonderful people,” George said.

Evie smiled sadly. “Yes, they are. I’ve tried to give them the best for their situation. It’s really not fair how it all turned out.”

“No,” George agreed. “Why did you get chosen? It’s not every day that I meet a fellow family giant my own age,” he said.  “Most of them are the fathers. We’re a more unique species. Untraditional providers.”

“We are, aren’t we?” She looked to the attic in reverie. “As you can guess, we were too poor to get by—Tony was so thin—things had just started to get bad by the time I got out of high school. I worked two jobs, Mother did too, and so did Dad, but it was still barely enough. That’s when we opted for the Shrink.” George nodded. He knew the formula—poor, working class family in no way equipped to accommodate the massive food shortage. In his case, Papa’s bum-knee made George the obvious choice for Giant. George obliged, not keen on the idea of being reduced to centimetric stature, not overly sentimental about being separated from his family.

But Evie had done it out of love (for she so loved her family that she gave them up). George was simply a black sheep. He gave up his three relatives willingly, secretly blaming them for his own resultant loneliness.

“It’s amazing, what you’ve created for them,” George said.

Evie shook her head quickly emphatically, her face reddening. She looked as if she urgently needed to defend herself against the compliment. “No, no, it’s the least I can do. Really. There isn’t much for them in the way of niceties.” Yeah, thought George. Besides three extravagant, full meals a day delivered on the doorstep without having to lift a finger. “After all,” she said, “Family is the most important thing, don’t you think?”

George nodded, though the thought had never once crossed his mind. Surviving had always been the most important thing for his family.

“I just feel the worst for him, though,” said Evie.

“Who?” George asked. “Paul?”

“No—Tony. I’ve tried to provide the best I can, but he’s growing up. It really crushes me to think what kind of a life he’s been born into,” Evie went on. “He was just a boy when they did the Shrink. You know, it was a very tough decision on my parents, allowing me to be the Giant,” she reminded George, as if certain he were judging their irresponsibility and blaming them for Tony’s prospectively terrible life.

“No, of course—I understand fully,” George assured her. “We all had to make sacrifices back then,” he said somberly. “It was a hard time, for people like us, Evie.” Evie nodded sadly. Then, she leant forward and gave George a warm kiss on his freshly shaven cheek, just a sheepish peck—but nonetheless it surged warmly through his whole body, causing a happy grin to break out on George’s red face. Evie smiled shyly, just barely grazing his finger with her own, as if by accident. George was suddenly mitten by this auburn haired girl who thought that family was the most important thing.

They said goodbye and agreed to see each other again in two days time. They both knew it was a silly protocol in a town with a population density below 1—but that was the point. The reason you play the game, George thought, is that it’s fun. Besides, George had work to do.

The next day, when he returned from his career as a professional screwdriver, George brought with him an array of tools, purchased at the hobby shop in town. He had sneaked in when Evie wasn’t working, afraid he might frighten her off. Now, he emptied the plastic bag onto his dimly lit kitchen table, and made better use of his capable hands than he had using the simplistic power-drill allowed.

The next morning, he had produced a new table—he had dug into his savings to buy faux-oak, the finest and most expensive form of plywood the shop offered. Along with the table came four handcrafted chairs and a ready-made full desk (his mother had wanted to start writing her autobiography, so he thought it would make a perfect workspace. He left the fragile pieces of furniture in front of the house. Bleary-eyed, he looked at the house that had come with the shrink—it was simple, cheap, plastic. His mother had written a note, he recalled, suggesting perhaps a change was in order—not now, but whenever he could find the time. But that was more than a year ago, and the suggestion hadn’t been raised since, and George had already forgotten about it.

He leaned forward and carefully felt the siding of the small, foundationless country home, which sat in the center of a waist high table. It was located far away from the television room, far from George’s private dwelling. The hobby shop offered all sorts of house models—Victorian, Colonial Georgians, Barbadian chattel houses—but his own family was stuck with the “Sears Catalog Home”—plucked directly from a Levittown somewhere. The plastic screeched as he rubbed his fingers on its false vinyl exterior. It certainly wasn’t like the verdurous mansion that sat high on Evie’s hill. Perhaps he would buy them a new place. He blinked and committed the idea to memory, before going upstairs to rest up for his date.

He greeted Evie at her door with a bouquet of flowers that he could not really afford. She accepted them, but a deathly pallor had come over her face. She held out her hands. “Don’t come in!” She warned.

“What is it?” He asked, taking an instinctive step forward.

“Stop!” She admonished tearfully. “Oh, George. It’s terrible—Tony’s run away!” She collapsed limply onto George’s slight figure, nearly knocking him backwards. But he caught her, and gently brought her eyes up to his.

“Why would he do that?” George asked.

“I don’t know,” She wailed. “Mom says he’s been fighting with her and Dad, and that he was threatening to do something drastic. Oh, George, I don’t know what to do, he could be anywhere.” She grew frantic. “What if he’s fallen through a crack? What if he’s found a way outside? The birds—George, he’s so small he might look like a rice to them. Quick, we’ve got to shut the door.”

“Wait.” George furrowed his brow. “I’ll find him,” he said. Evie looked up.

“But George—” she began.

“I’ve got sharp eyes, Evie,” George said. “And better hands. And I’ve got another advantage—I know the mind of an 18-year-old boy.” Evie dried her face and sniffled once. Then, she nodded her assent. George nodded, taking off his shoes, and entering the house deftly, one paw at a time.

If I were an eighteen-year-old boy, where would I go? He thought. Scratch that. If I were a half-inch tall eighteen-year-old boy, where would I go? Swimming in the toilet? No. Why would that be appealing to anyone of any age? Come on, George—think. Win the game, right here, right now.

Three hours later, Evie inside from the front step. “How’s it going, George?”

“Swell,” he hollered back. But it was not going swell. He had made very little progress since his heroic vow to locate Tony, as the act of scanning the porous carpet with each footstep, then when finally sure that there were no Lilliputian virgin boys hidden inside, suddenly remembering that squishing the brother of the love of your life and the possibly the last marriageable woman in fifty miles is not the way to win the game, and painstakingly checking again had hampered his purported eagle eyes and dexterous fingers from plucking the long-haired little bastard from the clear blue sky.

George carefully tiptoed into the television room, and after investigating each fiber on the couch cushion, plopped down, dog-tired. Where could this little asshole be? Anywhere, really. Between the goddamn quarks in the atmosphere. No taller than a penny, nearly inaudible—it was like trying to track down in ant in a haystack—something like that, at least.

George reached for the remote control, then thought better. Reruns in perpetuity. TV had lost its appeal since the shrink’s introduction. Cable companies didn’t try to entertain the few giants that were left to roam the Earth. Instead, he looked to the bookcase affixed to the wall. There were great, old tomes—Paul and Mary must have been great readers, pity the books, too couldn’t be shrunk down. There was Tolstoy and his compatriot Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the gang, a load of Encyclopedia Brittanicas…George squinted at volume S…it seemed to be inching itself out of the bookcase, slowly but surely, until…

The book crashed violently to the ground. George stood up suddenly, vigilantly, certain that the heavy leather-bound volume had squished Tony and George’s chance with the flattened Stanley’s sister along with him. But when he peeked under the book, there were no cute, infinitesimal intestines splattered across the cover, no miniature brains exploded like the tiniest of watermelons on the carpet below.

George stood. The shelf on which the book had rested stood at eye-level. How the hell did that thing fall? He squinted hard at the now yawning chasm between R and T. Sure enough, there was the little bastard. Tony, attempting futilely to scale the spine of volume T, slipping and sliding off with each grab. “Tony,” George said.

Tony wheeled around, petrified. The gust of George’s voice seemed to knock him down, where he remained in a scared stupor. George remembered that Tony could not respond—at least not audibly. With his reputedly dexterous fingers, George plucked the tiny creature by his collar and hefted him from the bookshelf. He dropped Tony carefully onto the palm of his hand, and jaunted up the staircase, bearing good news.

Tony curled nervously into a ball, bouncing up and down with each gigantic step George took, desperately grabbing handfuls of palmy flesh. Just as George reached forward to grasp the attic door, he felt a small sting. And another. He looked down to find Tony biting George’s skin with all his might. George prodded him tenderly with his finger. “Stop that, you little jerk,” George said. Tony wouldn’t let go until George managed to shake him free with a small earthquake.

When the aftershock had gone away, Tony stood on wobbly legs. George bent down to within inches of the scrawny Micro sapiens. “What is it?” George asked. Tony pointed to his ear, then to George. “I’m aware,” George said. “I can’t hear you.” Tony shook his head. He pointed to George then mimed him plucking something from his palm, and placing it in his ear. “If you think I’m going to put you in my ear, forget it,” he said, cupping his other hand to make it so Tony could distinguish his response. “Not after that biting display you put on.”

Tony slumped desperately. George wasn’t sure, but he thought tears were coming from his shrunken eyes. He pointed to his mouth, then to George, indicating that he wanted to talk. Sighing, George thought how the boy must feel. “OK,” he nodded. But how?

George swung open the attic door. He snaked through the canyon and unlatched the bridge that barred him from the house perched on the lush, plasticine hill. Reaching forward, he rapped on the great, faux-oak door three times. A little, matronly face peeked out. George pointed to the microphone at the hill’s base, and as Mary scurried down the hill, holding the bunches of her dress, George plucked from the wall the broach that would allow him to communicate with her.

“George?” she asked excitedly. “Have you found him? Have you found our boy?” George nodded, extending his hand to show Tony, who seemed less than eager to return to the house from which he had escaped only hours before.

“Oh, thank god!” she cried. “Thank you, George,” she smiled with great relief. “Paul!” She turned and shouted back to the house. “George found our boy!” She turned and whispered into the microphone: “He’s napping. He has no trouble sleeping, even when our boy is missing!” Paul poked his head out from his upstairs window like a groundhog, looking around bleary eyes. “George has Tony!” Mary called up to him. Seeming only pleasantly surprised, Paul rubbed his eyes and descended the stairs to come meet Mary.

“Hold on,” George said, looking at Tony, who looked back to him. “I’ve got to have a talk with Tony.”

Mary cocked her head. “Oh? A talk?” Then she smiled. “But of course, by all means—talk away. We’ll be inside the house.”

“Um,” George began, looking momentarily at Tony, who stood on the uncertain earth of George’s trembling hand. “Actually, I think we should talk alone,” George said. “And seeing as the loudspeakers ring throughout the room…” George said. “Would you mind?” he asked. The parents looked at one another confusedly as George offered his hand on the phony green turf. Nervously, the old couple crawled onto George’s palm. They embraced their found son momentarily. Then, as Tony crawled off onto the hill, they found themselves flying on the nimbus of George’s massive hand, out of the attic and onto a hallway table. George held up a finger to indicate that he would just be a moment, then pointed to the table, mouthing the words: “Stay right here.” The parents nodded powerlessly.

Back in the attic, Tony had taken his place at the microphone. George tapped the broach to test it, making Tony cringe.

“Sorry,” George said. “So…why did you leave?” George asked.

Tony shrugged. “There’s nothing for me, here.” George was somewhat shocked at how deep this little creature’s voice was.

“No,” George said. “I suppose not. But where were you headed?” George asked. “What were you doing at the bookshelf?”

“Well,” Tony admitted. “I remembered that Dad had a collection of…magazines hidden in between the encyclopedias…”

“Oh,” George nodded. “But those would be too big for you to enjoy anyway,” George said.

Tony shrugged. “Well, I figured I could stand over the good parts, you know…” he looked at the ground ashamedly.  “Put yourself in my shoes,” he went on. George imagined putting himself in those incredibly small shoes. “There’s no girls up here,” Tony said. “Never will be. I’m never going to go hungry, sure—but in another way, I’ll always be starved.” He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked down. “What kind of life is that?”

“No kind,” George agreed.

“I’m going to die—a virgin,” Tony said. George nodded vaguely, suddenly understanding this little hero’s tragic dilemma. That’s what the shrink was—survival. It didn’t allow families to keep living, just keep surviving.

George sighed. Then, and idea.

“Listen buddy,” he said. “There may be something I can do.”

 

The next day, Tony woke up around one o’ clock. The sun beamed through his window. A single flake of dust about the size of his finger tip drifted by his the light. He stretched his body out and scratched his head. He wondered what the hell this George character thought he could to make his doomed existence any better, let alone worth while. Hurling himself off the canyon was still at top of the list as far as Tony could see. He walked downstairs and ate a few chicken fibers and pancakes. Nothing to do, like always.

Some fresh air, perhaps. Tony’s parents were nowhere to be found. His dad liked to hike around the attic and his mother enjoyed gardening. All the windows were open, making it feel like the house itself was breathing in and out the perpetual spring that his sister had so lovingly created for them. He loved her and thanked her for how she had provided for them, but envied her and wished he had the foresight as a twelve-year-old to demand not to be shrunk. But he had been frightened, and naturally clung to his parents.

He pushed open the door, squinting at the pseudo-sun above him. “No clouds today,” he mocked the world with no one in earshot. He sat shirtless on the stoop of his house. Everything the same, every day and night. Nothing much happens around here, he thought. Same trees, same trees, same windmill spinning the same direction. Suddenly, Tony jolted, not believing his eyes. In the distance stood a new, pink house. A realtor’s sign was posted in the front yard, with the big red word “SOLD.” He squinted hard. In the front yard was a long chair, and on that long chair was a thin, brown-haired girl basking in the sunlight, catching a tan.

 

FIN

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