Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

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Gronk, The Meathead: White Privilege NFL/ESPN-Style

Like another revered white sports legend associated with Boston, Larry Bird, Rob Gronkowski has announced an athletic career cut short by a body battered from the sport that brought him fame.

Bird acquired early in his career the monicker “the Hick from French Lick” and was noted for not only his all-around basketball skills and clutch shooting but also his trash talking on the court contrasted with his mostly laconic and distant demeanor off it.

The implication about Bird included that he was smart as an athlete, but less than intellectual while in college or in the life outside of sports left mostly un-detailed.

Gronkowski, often called “Gronk,” has never been as reserved as Bird, but instead has reveled in being called out as a meathead. In fact, his retirement announcement prompted an ESPN morning show to put together a montage that highlighted Gronk, the Meathead, bragging that he hasn’t read a book since ninth grade.

For the frat-boy culture and not-so-cloaked toxic masculinity pervading ESPN, the expected responses followed with everyone laughing about Gronk misidentifying that book’s title (garbling To Kill a Mockingbird as A Mockingbird to Remember).

Gronk’s now-former team, the New England Patriots, represents a pretty disturbing mixture of sport excellence against the rust beneath the shine of championships, including very disturbing controversies—worst of which involved Gronks’ fellow tight end, Aaron Hernandez, convicted of murder.

While the talking heads of 24-hour sports find Gronk, the Meathead, hilarious, we must recall about Gronkowski: “Oh, there’s also this video of Gronk basically offering $10,000 to any couple that will have sex in front of the large group of people.”

A story not included along with a talking head sharing that Gronk once pulled a bottle of vodka from his pants at a function when he invited the ESPN host to join him for a drink.

Just good ol’ All-American fun, right?

But I think an even larger and ignored responsibility is that we should be asking if black men who are professional athletes receive the sort of tremendous boundaries Gronk is afforded as The Meathead.

Black athletes are not—as racial minorities are not in the U.S.

A part of white privilege includes the almost limitless pass for any behavior. A part of being a minority, however, is that any perceived or identified mistake is entirely disqualifying.

As I have discussed before, Marshawn Lynch, for example, always received a much different media framing, often as a thug, from the chuckles accompanying stories of Gronk, the Meathead. See also Richard Sherman, Thug.

I am not particularly concerned about arguments around whether or not Gronkowski is the best tight end ever in the NFL. I am, however, interested in how the white male elites of ESPN and the NFL see a bit of themselves in Gronk.

The same way Joe Biden refuses to criticize Mike Pence or Donald Trump as people.

People who look like me, white men believe, are always essentially good guys. It is the people who don’t look like me who have the fatal flaws of character.

Despite the tremendous labor provided overwhelmingly by black men to the success of professional sports and ESPN in the U.S., both the NFL and ESPN flourish on the magic carpet ride of white male privilege—see the owners, most of the coaches, and much of the fanbase who sees themselves in the sea of white male faces and their dominant perspectives on ESPN.

For the NFL, Gronk, the Meathead, is the poster boy, but the Grand Wizard is his now-former team’s owner, Robert Kraft—billionaire who is using his obscene wealth to battle video evidence he frequented a business practicing human sex trafficking.

While the Dallas Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones, are quite a disturbing circus as well, the real “America’s Team” during the Trump era is the New England Patriots.

And now they have lost their Meathead.

And while the 24-hour sports frat parties are going to spend a few days laughing about good ol’ Gronk, the Meathead, there is an owners meeting of the NFL. And in all likelihood, Kraft will ride his magic carpet to the other side of his being sorry for hurting and disappointing others.

In the most tone deaf moment of the brief apology, Kraft offers what can only be seen as the inverse of his real beliefs: “I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions.”

That is not the world in which Kraft or Gronk, the Meathead, live.

That is a world for other people, other people who do not look like them.

 

Operation Varsity Blues: One Corrupt Tree in the Forest of White Wealth Privilege

It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.

George Carlin

Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts, made a nearly laughable opening claim in his press conference about a college admissions scandal named “Operation Varsity Blues”:

“This case is about the widening corruption of elite college admissions through the steady application of wealth combined with fraud,” Lelling said. “There can be no separate college admission system for the wealthy, and I’ll add that there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

He added, “For every student admitted through fraud, an honest, genuinely talented student was rejected.”

Nearly laughable, in part, because this grandstanding of justice wants to proceed from the position that discovering the wealthy gaming a system they already control is somehow shocking (it isn’t), and nearly laughable as well because Lelling offered as context and with a straight face the following:

We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school’s more likely to take your son or daughter.

We’re talking about deception and fraud – fake test scores, fake athletic credentials, fake photographs, bribed college officials.

The layers of bullshit in what is being called a “massive admissions scandal” are nearly as complicated as the story itself, an intricate web of complicit parents, college and athletics officials, SAT/ACT shenanigans, and a charlatan mastermind at the controls—as reported by Kirk Carapezza:

Here’s how Lelling says it worked. Between 2011 and 2018, wealthy parents paid Rick Singer, the head of a foundation and a for-profit admissions consulting service, more than $25 million. Singer would then use that money to pay a ringer to take the SAT or ACT for children or correct their answers. He’d also bribe Division 1 coaches.

Here’s one layer: Despite the very serious tone and facial expressions at the Department of Justice’s press conference, Lelling’s rhetoric remains complete bullshit. In the U.S., these has always been and continues to be two distinct admissions processes for college and two distinct justice systems.

In fact, in every way possible there are two Americas [1], neatly divided by wealth and race. Being wealthy and being white provide significant privileges and then those who enjoy those privileges routinely and without consequence leverage that privilege for even more advantages at the expense of everyone else.

The great irony of the so-called college admission scandal is that the wealthy in the U.S. promote false narratives about merit and rugged individualism while actively perpetuating their own privilege, which buoys mediocrity, at best, and a complete absence of merit or effort at worst.

The wealthy are driven to maintain the veneer of “well-educated” because it provides cover for that mediocrity and privilege.

To be white and wealthy allows them to skip college and still thrive while people of color and the poor scramble to gain more and more eduction even as the rewards remain beneath the truly lazy and undeserving rich:

[F]amilies headed by white high school dropouts have higher net worths than families headed by black college graduates.

…First, understand that blacks and Hispanics have lower incomes than whites up and down the educational spectrum.

On average, black families at a given level of educational attainment receive incomes that are just 66% of what white families at the same level of educational attainment receive. For Hispanic families, that figure is 79%. Naturally, when education-controlled income disparities like this exist, education-controlled wealth disparities will exist.

Second, understand that even blacks, Hispanics, and whites with the same incomes have dramatically different net worths.

On average, black wealth is 26% of white wealth, even controlling for income. For Hispanics, the figure is 31%. Peruse the studies above to try to tease out why. Note here though that, according to Gittelman and Wolff, this is not because blacks have lower savings rates. Inheritance and in-life wealth transfers also appear, in all of the studies, to play a non-trivial role. (Bruenig, 2014)

Lori Loughlin and her social media star daughter are not some sort of outlier evil geniuses who found a loop-hole in the system; they are the faces of the system.

This is how America works.

Ivanka Trump, also, is no evil genius, no outlier, and also not a deeply delusional woman. She believes the narrative that she has been taught even as her life completely contradicts those myths of meritocracy and bootstrapping.

I imagine those parents implicated—and the many more who will skirt by this time as wealthy people most often do—have convinced themselves they used their means for the good of their own children, as anyone would do if having those same means.

And this is the myopia of white wealth privilege in the U.S., the blindness of rugged individualism that allows some to believe they are either above or somehow disconnected from everyone else.

As reported by Cydney Henderson, Loughlin’s daughter used her celebrity and a dorm room someone else more deserving did not have to promote her brand, and make money of course:

Olivia Jade moved into her college dorm in September 2018, documenting the milestone on Instagram through a paid partnership with Amazon’s Prime Student. It’s a standard practice for social media influencers to earn money from companies by advertising products to their followers.

“Officially a college student! It’s been a few weeks since I moved into my dorm and I absolutely love it,” she captioned the post. “I got everything I needed from Amazon with @primestudent and had it all shipped to me in just two-days.”

This is America, at least one of the Americas, the one we worship despite it being a gigantic lie, as Carlin says, the club we will not be allowed to join.

“Operation Varsity Blues” is not a surprise, then, but we must guard against it being yet another gear in the privilege machine, a distraction.

This so-called college admissions scandal is but one tree in the much larger and more powerful forest of white wealth privilege.

As we become fixated on Aunt Becky, we continue to ignore legacy admissions, a criminal justice system best understood as the New Jim Crow, the lingering racism and sexism in high-stakes standardized testing, the school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons, and a list far too long to include here.

Like whiteness itself, wealth must remain invisible in the ways it perpetuates privilege and inequity.

This college admissions scandal is an opportunity to pull back and take a long and critical look at the whole forest, a much uglier reality than we have been led to believe.


[1] See the following:

Mything Truth

A confrontation in Washington DC this past weekend has introduced yet another image certain to join a disturbing history of white America:

About a year and a half ago, we were asked to confront this:

As the Covington Catholic student controversy has been unfolding, I felt compelled to add this warning on social media:

Don’t be distracted. Regardless of exact details of the controversy around the private school students and the Native American veteran, stay focused on how this PROVES the ugly power of white/wealth privilege. Every. Time. White/wealthy insures a calvary will rush to protect you, to lie if necessary, but in the end, you will be insulated from your behavior regardless of your innocence or guilt.

And then the predictable occurred: White men inserting themselves into the comments, attacking me and offered the standard “white male privilege is a myth” response.

As a white man with a great deal of social capital and economic slack, I am a first-hand witness to what people say and do when only whites are around, when only men are around. I am not speaking about hypotheticals, but about how this world absolutely functions.

Few lies are more flimsy or toxic than denying white male privilege (skim the evidence). But we must note how it is always white men who rush to deny, and attack.

Simultaneous with the shifting and expanding narrative around the Covington Catholic student confrontation, I watched the newest Coen brothers film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

the-ballad-of-buster-scruggs-final-poster

I have long been an admirer of the craft of the Coen films, but their work also presents a disturbing problem: While there is a high-level of art and craft in the work, we must also acknowledge that the work is very white, and possibly too often uncritically white.

Ballad has received the usual critical praise the Coens enjoy. Richard Brody is effusive:

The Western is the most inherently political genre, and, with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” their two-hour-plus anthology of six short Westerns, Joel and Ethan Coen have made an exemplary political film. (It’s already in limited theatrical release and will launch on Netflix this Friday.) It is a movie put together from bits and pieces of cinematic tropes, conventions, and clichés, including ones borrowed from a range of genres, from ingenious physical comedy to romantic lyricism to Gothic horror. But all are united by a giddy Western revisionism centering upon a common theme: the relentless cruelty, wanton violence, deadly recklessness, and cavalier abuses of unchecked power that prevailed in the thinly and casually governed Wild West. Whether with outrageous antics or metaphysical mysteries, the Coen brothers fill the film with a subtle nose-thumbing; they’re laughing up their sleeve at the long-standing exaltation of the West as a primordial realm of titanic heroes, and at a society that even now consumes Western legends and spits them back in the form of historical verities and political pieties.

Brody gives the Coens one of the usual passes, in fact: “The movie sets up its action with the droll framework of an old, illustrated book of Western stories, further emphasizing that this movie is—like the Western stories that it parodies—a batch of back-constructed tall tales.”

Parody is among the safest refuge for those artists with privilege. “We are just depicting the world as it is, in all its flaws,” they shrug, “so that the audience can draw their own conclusions.”

And Matt Goldberg offers the ultimate stamp of approval by suggesting that this film rises to the level of universal in the final story, “The Mortal Remains,” a tour de force of Coenesque dark humor: excellent acting driven by loquacious characters, each representing a different philosophy:

What these kinds of conversations point out is that we struggle to put everything together, but we can only do the best through our own point of view. We’re extremely confident in that point of view, and as the Englishman notes, “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” We’re all guilty of confirmation bias, and yet that will not save us. The Lady is just as dead as the Frenchman who is just as dead as the Trapper.

It is another story, however, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” that fits best into the real-world controversy involving private school boys, Black Israelites, and a Native American veteran.

“The Gal” involves some of the most enduring, and problematic, elements of the Western film: a wagon train and the ever-present threat of attacking Indians.

The climax of this story finds one of the wagon train leaders, Mr. Arthur, and the central woman, Alice Longabaugh, trapped in a gun fight with the standard image of Indians appearing menacingly atop a ridge.

Aided by prairie dog holes, the rugged (white male) individual, Mr. Arthur, poises himself against several waves of Indians on horseback; in the balance is Alice’s womanhood-as-assumed-virginity.

Among those of us with at least a modicum of experiences with Western films (John Wayne, spaghetti Westerns/Clint Eastwood), this story triggers thoughts of “circling the wagons” (used uncritically, this is packed with racist stereotypes and erases imbalances of power and Westward expansion as genocide)*  and the calvary.

This brings me back to the confrontation in Washington DC, a confrontation among two marginalized groups—blacks and Native Americans—and the privileged white male students from an expensive private school.

Of those three groups, only one has hired a PR firm, and despite the apologists for the Covington Catholic students shouting that the whole picture absolves, somehow, these young men and the culture that spawned them, that whole story now includes video of the boys in their red MAGA hats taunting a young woman and truly incriminating evidence that the school has at least allowed a deeply antagonistic culture of white arrogance:

I suspect the apologists do not really want the whole story, no more so that America wants the whole and ugly story of our so-called Wild West.

Regardless of all the details, as I cautioned, we must be willing to see that the Covington Catholic students are examples of the power of privilege, the guarantee that privilege insures a white calvary will come.

For those interested in the truth and not mything truth, I offer here at the end some of the best full pictures of the confrontation:


* This post and blog title have been revised to addressed racially insensitive use of language.

The Meek

When I read this thread on Twitter, I cried:

I read this the day after I walked across campus from my parking lot to my office. Two students approached, holding hands while laughing and smiling as they talked.

They both made eye contact with me, smiling, and spoke.

I thought about my granddaughter, who snuggles still against me. She is four now, and the first thing she does when she walks into our house is take off her shoes and socks.

When we sit together, I hold her bare feet. It is our holding hands.

How any of us treat our own children, and other children, how a people view and treat all children—this reveals a great deal about character that we tend to ignore in the U.S.

In short, we are an awful people, a disturbing antithesis of the so-called Christian values many want to wave like a tattered American flag in the face of the world.

When Barbara Kingsolver wrote about being in Spain with her daughter, she concluded: “This is not the United States.”

Kingsolver explains:

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.

The U.S. is a culture of rugged individualism, no sense of community, as Kingsolver adds:

In the United States, where people like to think that anyone can grow up to be President, we parents are left very much on our own when it comes to the little Presidents-in-training. Our social programs for children are the hands-down worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want. In an Arizona newspaper, I remember seeing a letter from a reader incensed by the possibility of a school budget override. “I don’t have kids,” he declared, “so why should I have to pay to educate other people’s offspring?” The budget increase was voted down, the school district progressed from deficient to dismal and one is inclined to ask that smug nonfather just whose offspring he expects to doctor the maladies of his old age.

Our nation has a proud history of lone heroes and solo flights, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we think of child-rearing as an individual job, not a collective responsibility.

And our calloused disregard for children is not our only sin against the meek in the U.S. We are a violent and abusive people for girls and women as well.

Responding to conservative and evangelical support for Brett Kavanaugh (and Trump), Carly Gelsinger offers a disturbing analysis based on her own experiences growing up in “purity culture” driven by the evangelical church:

There exists a generation of women who were never taught consent ― and I’m not talking about Boomers. I’m talking about the hundreds of thousands of us who were raised in church and came of age at the turn of the millennium.

In our world, we were taught that our bodies didn’t belong to ourselves. God owned them, they said, but really, that meant that men owned them. Our fathers. Our pastors. Our husbands. Our politicians. Never ourselves.

Gelsinger recognizes that “[p]urity culture taught young girls to bear responsibility for men’s lust.” And then she catalogues her own experiences as a victim of men because of that culture.

Through her story we must recognize that the U.S. is a large and perverse frat culture in which the meek are initiated through the gauntlet of toxic masculinity and toxic privilege.

If the meek will inherit the earth, the cost of that initiation is far too high and a scar on a people who want to pretend, like Kavanaugh, that we are good and decent folk.

The Slowly Approaching Rumble of the “White Noise” of Privilege

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

Meditation XVII, John Donne

although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

“Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes

For my first-year writing students, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits” serves as a powerful mentor text and an effective entry point into a difficult topic, privilege.

“Privilege is a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor,” Gay explains, adding:

There is racial privilege, gender (and identity) privilege, heterosexual privilege, economic privilege, able-bodied privilege, educational privilege, religious privilege and the list goes on and on. At some point, you have to surrender to the kinds of privilege you hold because everyone has something someone else doesn’t.

While her essay demonstrates the effectiveness of grounding an argument in personal narrative—her own Haitian heritage and trips to Haiti that confronted her with that country in contrast to the US—Gay also acknowledges the inherent struggle to address privilege in meaningful ways:

The problem is, we talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning. When people wield the word privilege it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word it has become white noise.

From #BlackLIvesMatter to #MeToo, I have begun to wonder if a growing rumble approaches, a rising toll that will someday no longer be only “white noise.”

Many in the US strongly resist discussions of or acknowledging privilege, as Gay notes, and part of that resistance is grounded, I think, in the cultural narrative created and perpetuated by the power elites—mostly white men: Political and economic status in the US has been earned through merit, and not privilege.

That cultural narrative is mostly a lie since the original power grabs were almost all at the expense of others (slavery and denying women equal status with men, for examples) and then those advantages—privilege—have been accumulated over many, many generations. That historical expanse has helped reduce privilege to “white noise,” it seems.

The recently stalled appointment of Brett Kavanaugh represents both the entrenched refusal of privilege and the potential eroding of the merit-cloak shrouding the truly disturbing underbelly of life-long privilege.

Kavanaugh’s interview to defend himself and proclaim both his innocence and determination to continue the appointment process has some telling features:

“I’ve always treated women with dignity and respect,” Kavanaugh insisted. “Listen to the people who’ve known me best my whole life.” Did he commit sexual assault? He “never saw any such thing.” Did he engage in lurid sexual encounters? He “never participated in any such thing.” Rather, he was focused on “trying to be No. 1 in my class” and “captain of the varsity basketball team” while working on “service projects” and “going to church.” Also, he did not have “anything close to sexual intercourse in high school or for many years thereafter.”

The denial extends beyond claiming not to have committed sexual assault to never hearing of misconduct at his school or by classmates, punctuated with his own choir-boy self-description.

This picture is the merit-veneer narrative common among the privileged who have created and maintained a network of privilege. Kavanaugh’s appointment is a blueprint for circling the wagons among the connected to protect each other regardless of who or why.

Kavanaugh’s assertions stretch credibility, however, not just for those attending elite private school but for anyone who has ever attended any high school in the US. Teens drinking and sexual misbehavior are all too common parts of adolescence, but even more damning are artifacts from Kavanaugh’s own high school experience and published accounts by his peers and friends, notably Mark Judge:

Judge, 54, has chronicled the debauchery of his 1980s high school years as a student at Georgetown Prep, where he and Kavanaugh were self-proclaimed members of the “100 Kegs or Bust” club.

In his 1997 memoir, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk,” he wrote of high school “masturbation class,” said he “lusted after girls” at Catholic schools and referenced a passed-out “Bart O’Kavanaugh,” who drank too much and once threw up in a car.

This Kavanaugh debacle is a slightly more polished but perfectly aligned part of the larger Trump phenomenon grounded in lies and denying evidence. While Trump plays the cartoonish buffoon, Kavanaugh is sprung from the refined elites who, as this unmasking is exposing, have very ugly lives under the cover of privilege—the ruling vampire class of the US.

As the perverse and contradictory claims reveal about the cavalry forming to defend Kavanaugh—including women—somehow Kavanaugh is both innocent of sexual assault (because he was a virgin and attended church) and the poster boy for “all boys have sexual assault in their pasts” and “we cannot allow boyhood indiscretions to ruin the promising futures of some men.”

And beyond the specific Kavanaugh controversy and the subsequent defenses, even more disturbing is the rise of concerns about all men now being afraid of #MeToo consequences joined by garbled memes about mothers fretting over their sons’ futures (see this Twitter thread dismantling that narrative).

Ultimately, the US is now poised to make an important decision about continuing to ignore the white noise of privilege or hearing the rising rumble that tolls for the abusive and corrupt privileged elites.

The Kavanaugh accusations sit against the merit-veneer narrative orchestrated by Kavanaugh (and echoed by Trump and his ilk) as well as the often-ignored weight of evidence:

“Sexual assault is likely the most under-reported crime in the United States. About two-thirds of female sexual assault victims do not report to the police, and many victims do not tell anyone. Sexual assault is a terrifying and humiliating experience. Women choose not to report for a variety of reasons — fear for their safety, being in shock, fear of not being believed, feeling embarrassed or ashamed, or expecting to be blamed.

“A lack of reporting does not mean an assault or attempted assault did not happen or is exaggerated. Research demonstrates that false claims of sexual assault are very low — between 2 and 7 percent. This tells us that far more women are assaulted and don’t report than women who make false claims.” (Statement of APA President Regarding the Science Behind Why Women May Not Report Sexual Assault)

A people disgusted by the sordid underbelly of privilege must reject the merit-veneer narrative and choose the greater path to not only truth but also equity.

#MeToo is a reckoning about sexual assault and the silencing of women.

Everything about the Kavanaugh narrative rings false, and we are far past time to silence the lies of privilege.

Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Mix all the colors of light and we see white; the absence of light is black.

Mix all the colors of pigment and we see black; the absence of pigment is white.

This paradox of how we see color often is the source of debate; I’ve heard students complain about being taught different facts in art and physics classes. But it also serves as a useful metaphor for the problem of color as a foundation of race and racism.

When I was young and still discovering and shaping who I am (and necessarily coming to terms with race in the deep South), I was profoundly influenced by stand-up comedians—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin among the most influential.

Martin’s 1979 comedy album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, is a prescient title for two contemporary stand-up comedians whose routines, viewed together, capture nearly perfectly everything that is wrong with contemporary understanding about race and racism: Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney.

Having recently watched Chappelle’s and Mulaney’s newest specials, I was struck by how many of their bits were similar—both used their wives’ minority status to tread on dangerous material, both depended on meta-jokes based on reactions to their routines, both weaved in political humor with the autobiographical, both worked blue, and each addressed race.

However, these two men and their routines are also profoundly different—Chappelle is very much a black comedian (think Pryor), and Mulaney is very much white (think Jerry Seinfeld).

And I imagine anyone knowing these comedians finds this distinction a bit simplistic, even bordering on crass, but I want to argue here that race becomes the defining element of their work, and as such, exposes a central problem in public discourse about race and racism: Many whites are apt to resist discussions of race and racism with “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “I don’t see color.”

Let’s start with a few clips, a shortened version of Mulvaney’s Trump skit (here on TV, but expanded in his new special) and a couple clips from Chappelle on Netflix:

Mulaney’s political humor is indirect; it is metaphor—in a similar way his profanity is rare and his special includes one direct reference to being white.

Chappelle’s political humor, profanity, and race, by comparison, are direct, even blunt, and pervasive. Consider especially the second clip above.

Because of his whiteness, his privilege, Mulaney is afforded the space of being indirect while Chappelle, even as he acknowledges his wealth privilege, cannot risk these subtleties.

The paradox of race/racism in human behavior is parallel to the paradox of color in light/pigment: For whites, race seems always invisible because white is the norm of U.S. culture (the absence of race is white), but for blacks, race is a constant reality, something always visible (the presence of race is black).

The media rarely identify race for whites, but nearly always do for black and brown people—especially in criminal situations.

Whites, then, watching Mulaney are apt to see the routines as not about race (even though the entire routine is imbued with whiteness) and mostly not political (although, again, his entire routine is a political commentary); those same whites, we can guarantee, would see Chappelle as racial (if not, to misuse the term, racist) and strongly political.

The problem with race/racial/racism as that intersects with political is that everything in human behavior includes both, but the norms make one invisible to the dominant race (white) and omnipresent to the marginalized race (black). And thus, all human behavior is political either by omission (maintaining those norms) or by confrontation (changing the norms).

Mulaney, in his whiteness and the primary state of omission, becomes a seemingly less radical comedian; Chappelle, in his blackness and confrontation, becomes a seemingly more radical comedian.

I include “seemingly” because, as Chappelle acknowledges, both comedians work with wealth privilege—even as Chappelle is not afforded through that to rise about his being black (see his skit about being pulled over by the police while a friend is driving for him).

Almost 40 years past Martin’s visual gag (and he too may seem less political in his whiteness), Chappelle and Mulaney offer by comparison comedy that is not pretty, but is pretty sharp in terms of modeling the lingering problems with race and racism in the U.S.