Apocalypse Now, Part 3--"Tell Me Something . . . What Do You Know About Wakanda?"

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."--Barack Obama.

"I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."--Lyndon Johnson.

It seems pretty clear to me now that the beginning of the political apocalypse in the United States can be dated to November 4, 2008, in Chicago's Grant Park.  On that night, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.  It may seem idiotic to have to say, but that evening is significant because Obama was the first non-white person to be elected President, and more specifically the first black person of African descent to become the President.

If you want to understand US history, you have to understand race.  And the first thing to interrogate is the concept of "whiteness."  The mistake people make is to think of white people as a defined group with a set of inherent, ontological characteristics.  White people, defined that way, do not exist.  Instead, "white people" is a functional category referring to those people who are not Scapegoated on the basis of their race and ethnicity.  There is not a genetic lineage of "white people," but instead a morphing circle of inclusion of folks who get to be the racial and ethnic overclass.

If you understand this basic idea, lots of otherwise inscrutable things about racial and ethnic relations in the US become clear.  For example, how do you explain the terrible treatment the Irish immigrants received in the 19th Century in the United States?  Because Irish Catholics were not considered white, as seen from the racist cartoons depicting them as monkeys (a trope, of course, routinely used to degrade people of African descent).  And we know that this has nothing to do with ethnicity, because folks of Irish Protestant descent, who at the end of the day are from the exact same genetic pool, were never depicted this way, and were always considered white.  By the time we get to the middle of the 20th Century, people of Irish descent were fully white.  My ancestors were not white when they came here, but I am.  This is not some radical change in a fixed definition of "white people" so much as it is an expansion of the sphere of protection.

Or, consider a more modern example.  Suppose a person immigrates from Spain to the United States.  The vast majority of people, including those who care deeply about this sort of thing, would consider such a person white.  Now imagine this person leaving Spain, settling in Mexico for a while, and then coming to the US.  While it is true that Latin American countries have their own complicated divisions and taxonomy regarding color and ethnic origin, from the perspective of the overwhelming majority of folks in the US, and again especially the folks who care about this kind of thing, a Mexican immigrant is not white, no matter the precise contours of their genetic heritage.  This is coherent only if you understand that this has to do with who is in and who is out, rather than some objective taxonomy of people.

Whatever the precise contours of "whiteness," one of its defining features is "not black."  The second thing to understand is that US history is defined by the figure of the African-American as the ur-Scapegoat.  During the first 250 years of the settlement of what would become the United States, those of African descent were enslaved, and for the 150 years after that their Scapegoating was perhaps more covert but no less real.  African-Americans have always been there, always at the forefront of the national consciousness, always held down, always the thing that is used to mark the space beyond the protected boundaries of whiteness.

[It should be noted that the other major Scapegoats of US history are Native Americans.  I would say that the Scapegoating of African-Americans is more definitive of the US experience, not because Native Americans were treated better (because they surely were not), but because they were so thoroughly marginalized by the beginning of the 20th Century that they were less relevant to the national consciousness.]

If you look at US history, particularly (though not exclusively) the history of the US South, fomenting resentment toward African-Americans is the preferred technique for addressing and fending off various sorts of white resentment toward established power structures, including economic and class resentment.  Lyndon Johnson understood this dynamic from both sides, having been a deft practitioner of it during his time in the Senate in the 1950s and suffering the blow-back from trying to fight it in the 1960s.  Time and time again, the pattern is that white folks will realize they are being screwed by business interests of various sorts, and then white politicians will gin up animus toward blacks as a way to defuse and redirect those tensions away from them and their supporters.  This is a Scapegoating in its purist form--memetic tensions stemming from acquisitive desire build up, the Sacred narrative of the dark-skinned threat kicks in to identify a Scapegoat, who is then in many cases literally killed in a lynching.  We know the names of some of the victims like Emmet Till, but there are tens of thousands like him that have begun to get their proper remembrance via things like the Lynching Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama.

But there are other, less overt but nevertheless real, forms of Scapegoating of African-Americans in the US.  Like all Sacred narratives, the core idea here is that African-Americans are in an inferior place because they deserve it, as a result of one or more qualities they possess that are responsible for their inferiority.  The precise content tends to morph and shift over time in response to events, forming a kind of "choose your own adventure" version of why black folks deserve what they get.  When I was a kid in the 80s, African-Americans were portrayed as particularly degenerate as a result of and stemming from their use of crack cocaine, perhaps best summed up with the moral panic of the "crack baby"--black women are so perverse that they give birth to these weird, stunted children who are already addicted to crack from the womb!  It's a perfect monster movie set up.  Bare in mind that at this same period of time the use of the same drug by rich white people was romanticized, and that we now have a drug epidemic affecting rural white communities that is by all accounts worse than what happened in the 80s and no one talks about "opioid babies."  None of that matters, because it's not part of the narrative, which is that African-Americans are inferior because they are inferior, and not because of anything the dominant white culture is doing to cause that.

And all of this is done so that those who are not African-American can define themselves as being part of the community who Scapegoats as opposed to those being Scapegoated.  Pushing the narrative of African-American inferiority is a way to armor oneself against the possibility that you will be the victim, especially if you are in a vulnerable place.  This is what LBJ was getting at--poor white people know that there will be at least one less chair than the number of people when the music stops, and so are willing to go along with a story that guarantees that they are not going to be the one left out.  The fear of being Scapegoated is exploitable, and the way to exploit it is to reinforce a narrative that supports someone else being Scapegoated.

I don't think that it is exaggerating or extreme to say that the Sacred narrative of African-American inferiority is the foundational idea of the US.

I'm not sure what the best movie of 2018 was, but I am pretty confident I know the most important one, and that is Black Panther.  Going to see Black Panther in the theaters at the beginning of the year was truly an experience.  When I saw it, I would say the theater was about 40/60 black/non-black.  This is not going to come as big surprise, but the black folks in the audience where fired up to see this movie, and their enthusiasm was infectious to the point that by the end the rest of us were almost as excited.  

It helps, of course, that the movie is great from a technical, "neutral" perspective.  But the thing that jumped out at me about the film was the way provided an thoroughly and authentically black portrayal of the material.  See, if a white person had made Black Panther, they would have gone for the Avatar approach.  In that approach, you show the native society as being good and wholesome, but existentially threatened by evil, white forces, only to have the evil white forces undermined by the good white person who saves the kindly natives.  In an Avatar version of Black Panther, Wakanda would still be awesome and beautiful, but it would be menaced by the outside world, requiring King T'Challa to recruit the Avengers to save the day.  In doing so, the white folks like Iron Man and Captian America would be centered, even if the story is ostensibly about Wakanda and the Black Panther.  Just like in Avatar.  

Black Panther does none of this.  Wakanda is so powerful that it is basically incapable of being meaningfully threatened by the outside, white world.  Instead, the central question of the movie is what obligation Wakanda and its people have to the outside world.  The conflict is an internal-to-Wakanda conflict, in which Wakanda and Wakandans get to decide how things are going to be.  The broader world of white folks is basically a backdrop on which the story is set.  Until seeing Black Panther, I had heard and thought I understood the criticism of movies like Avatar.  But I only really got it upon seeing the alternative on the screen to stories about other cultures but nevertheless center white people.   

I think my favorite scene in the movie is one where Martin Freeman is interrogating Andy Serkis, with King T'Challa watching through a one-way mirror.  During the scene, Serkis utters the line "tell me something . . . what do you know about Wakanda?"  Serkis delivers the line with awe, as if talking about a place that he can barely believe exists.  

The genius of the scene is that it is a total reversal of how these sort of scenes usually go.  Think about how many movies and TV shows you have seen in which a black cop is interrogating a black suspect, with the white protagonist watching from a protected perch.  The film language shows the clear, almost ontological, distinction between the common folks in the room and the really important people in the booth.  And it does so here as well, but with the races reversed.  Serkis and especially Freeman, despite being famous actors, basically have bit parts in the movie.  King T'Challa matters, while Serkis and Freeman are just the people who happen to be around.

I can only imagine how exciting seeing this on the screen must have been for the black folks in the audience.  But it was pretty exciting for the rest of the people in the audience as well.  I came away from the movie thinking "I'd be pretty stoked to have King T'Challa as my leader, to be honest," and I don't think I was alone in that thought.  I'd be just fine to be a bit player alongside Bilbo Baggins, just hanging out in the background.

Obama's election was an existential threat to the US's core Sacred narrative in two important ways.  First, the Sacred narrative says that people like Obama should be impossible.  If the truth claims regarding African-Americans were actually true, then people like Obama should be, at best, unprincipled, amoral hucksters who bamboozle people into thinking they have intelligence and skills (gee, what President does that remind you of?).  Instead, we got a man who was intellectual, sober (perhaps too sober at times), hyper-competent, disciplined, a genuine family man.  Barack Obama was a living negation of all of those long-running narratives about African-Americans; his very existence caused them to become undermined.  That's extremely scary to people who are highly invested in a social structure predicated on the Scapegoating of African-Americans.

But, I don't actually think that's the biggest problem raised by Obama in the minds of his enemies.  You can always portray him as an outlier (after all, Obama's history is meaningfully different from the more common African-American experience), or (and this seems to be the route chosen) just make up a bunch of crap about how bad and shiftless Obama was.  No, the real problem with Obama is that a whole bunch of people, and especially a whole bunch of white people, voted for him.  Twice.  Remember, Scapegoating only works if people believe the Sacred narrative.  If people believed the foundational Sacred narrative of African-American inferiority, then they never would have voted for Obama, no matter who he was or what he said.  The millions of white people who voted for him is a sign that the Sacred narrative is crumbling.

If you understand whiteness to be "those who get to Scapegoat others on the basis of race/ethnicity and not be Scapegoated," then having white people vote for Obama is an enormous violation of the basic idea of whiteness.  The old Sacred narrative was predicated on the idea that, at the end of the day, white people (however defined) would close ranks to ensure that white people would be favored and prioritized over non-white people.  As long as everyone believed that "Team White" would follow the playbook, then you could be confident that the status quo would be maintained.  But the moment that becomes uncertain, the moment folks lose trust in the other members of "Team White" to "act right," then the whole edifice is undermined.  And that makes a whole lot of people very scared.

I think this can also be used to explain the phenomenon of white people who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now die-hard Trump supporters.  If you think back to the tone of the '08 campaign, it was less "racial" then you might have otherwise expected.  In part this was a deliberate choice by the Obama campaign, but some credit should also be given to McCain and the McCain campaign, who had innumerable chances to really play the "race card" and by and large did not.  This allowed, I think, lots of folks to convince themselves this was a normal election, particularly as the idea of black President could be kept as an abstraction.  But the moment it became a reality, the moment people saw those crowds at Grant Park and at the Inauguration, then those same people realized they opened Pandora's Box, and wanted to close it as quickly as possible.  The tone changed immediately and irreversibly once Obama was actually the President.

In hindsight, it was basically inevitable that someone like Trump would be the reaction.  If you define America in terms of this foundational narrative of African-American inferiority (and, as I said, you should), the America is truly under a grave threat as a result of the election of Obama.  Trump's slogan of "Make America Great Again" speaks to a basic truth that something has and did change in the context of the election of Obama.  The "old America" is in an important sense dying; if it were thriving, Obama never would have become President.  

The logic of the Sacred is that this is a prelude to turning the guns on a new, different class of Scapegoats. The fear at the heart of the Trump message is that this new class of Scapegoats will be you, poor white people.  The time to roll back this clock and restore the protective cocoon of either the old Sacred narrative, or a new one that to some degree replaces "African-Americans" with "immigrants, especially brown immigrants" is now.  Better act now, before you are the one without a chair when the music stops.

This also puts into a useful context all of this discourse about "economic anxiety" visa ve Trump voters.  If we go back to the LBJ quote, whiteness functioned as an armor against economic problems, or more accurately it was perceived as an armor against economic problems, and thus was a kind of narcotic that kept poor whites from getting pissed at their economic situation.  I'm poor, but at least I'm higher than the blacks.  If you strip away that armor, then you're just a poor person at the bottom of the heap.  So, this discussion over whether MAGA is "really" about economic conditions or about race is wrongheaded, since it is about both.  MAGA is about people wanting to keep getting their fix of the drug of racial superiority that made their bad economic circumstances tolerable.    

We should also not be surprised that the guns of MAGA are turned on the Enemy Within.  After all, if other members of Team White had done what they were supposed to do and believed in the Sacred narrative of whiteness, then none of this would ever have happened.  White people who voted for Obama, and continue to be unapologetic about it and have moved on to other non-white political leaders (Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, etc.) are literally race traitors from the point of view of people who still believe in whiteness as the defining paradigm.  I think this can in part explain the rise in overt Antisemitism in right-wing discourse, which can be seen part of a program to define Jews out of the category of whiteness (a very old playbook, to be sure), and thus explain away the generally progressive policy positions of US Jews.  But I think it is also part of this amorphous idea of "draining the swamp" and the obsession with "the Deep State" and other conspiracy theories.  It can't be the case that white people voted for Obama because they liked him and his policies and didn't really care all that much about the fact that his dad was from Kenya; it has to be part of some complex Illuminati scheme of evil manipulators.  

All of this goes back to something I mentioned in the last post about theory--it's really hard for people who believe the Sacred narrative to talk to the people who don't believe in the Sacred narrative.  For those who believe in the Sacred narrative, the narrative defines the contours of reality; for those who don't believe it, the narrative is profoundly stupid and obviously nonsense.  The moment you ask the question "why do I care that the President has a different skin tone than I do?" is the moment when it becomes obvious that the answer is "it doesn't."  And, correspondingly, it becomes difficult to talk to the folks who can't or won't ask the same question.  There is a sense in which the two groups are truly existing in different worlds, with different realities, different understood truths.

None of this, of course, is Obama's fault, nor is it the fault of people voting for him.  It is good that fewer people believe the Big Lie of African-American inferiority, because it is a Big Lie.  This Sacred narrative has been the source of almost unimaginable pain and suffering for African-Americans.  And, while this is a secondary point, the Big Lie doesn't even really help the poor white folks from economic oppression--they are still getting their pockets picked.  The death of the Big Lie is a victory for truth and human flourishing.  

But it is to say that the reality embodied in that night in Grant Park had, and continues to have, tangible consequences.  Things are different; it is a bell that cannot be unrung.  A world, and a US, in which whiteness is not central to the self-conception and function of institutions and governments would be a radically different thing than anything we have known thus far.  Such a world opens up space for something like Wakanda, where King T'Challa and Barack Obama are the central actors and Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman and other white folks play background roles.  That's not to say that it would be like this all the time, but the possibility is there in some circumstances.  That night in Grant Park was a fleeting glimpse of that world, a momentary window into Wakanda.  For many, including many white folks, it was exciting.  For other white folks, it was terrifying, a catastrophe, the herald of the end.  

Either way, it was an apocalypse.


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