Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Stopping The ‘Muslim Registry’: A Serious Approach

A symbolic act of resistance is being proposed to the Trump administration’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants to the US: right-minded folks should register as Muslims too. This is an essentially well-meaning gesture of solidarity but it is useless. It will accomplish nothing; it will not prevent the registration of Muslims; and worse, it will make many who support Muslims’ right to live free of pernicious discrimination in this land complacent because they will feel they have done enough, shown enough support. If progressive Americans really wish to prevent the registration of Muslims,  then any strategy that does not involve wide scale civil disobedience and direction is not serious. (Currently, the proposed registry aims to register Muslim immigrants from a list of ‘target’ countries deemed ‘risky’¹; other iterations could include registering all Muslim immigrants; and then the most nightmarish scenario of all, the registration of all Muslims, whether immigrants or not, whether citizens or not, whether US-born or not. There is no reason to not guard against these eventualities given a) Trump’s rhetoric in general and b) the views and opinions of those who support him and will be found in his cabinet. The slippery slope is visible, and it declines steeply.)

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The Normalization Of Donald Trump

Before the elections of 2016 we were informed at every step of the way that Donald  Trump was a fascist, one to be stopped by any means necessary; we were urged to stop this greatest danger to the American republic ever by throwing our bodies into the breach, by manning the barricades, by storming them. The skies were falling and we were urged to put down whatever it is we were doing and to run out to hold it up in the company of our fellow citizens. Great crises demanded appropriately pitched responses.

Then the elections happened. Many Americans did not hear the call. Some urged the sky to fall. It did.

Now that a fascist has been elected, magically purified and sanctified by something called an ‘election,’ an ‘expression of the people’s will,’ because ‘the people have spoken,’ fascism is no longer so. Outgoing presidents who spent months mocking and villifying the orange harbinger of doom now welcome him, wish him the best, and make known their willingness to support him at every step; defeated opponents urge gracious acceptance of defeat and future cooperation on joint endeavors; the commentariat and the joint orders of the journalistic pundit class unite in describing any protests at this stage as strategically and tactically misguided, as ungracious failures to accept that democracy is working. (Unsurprisingly, that cabal of gangsters, the Republican Party, has already made nice, and is looking forward to the spoils of power.)

The water grew muddied for a while; it must be bade settle down, calm itself, and cease its restlessness. There is work to be done, money to be made, stock exchanges to be placated. There is talk of ‘coming together’ and being ‘stronger’–all the better to calmly, quietly, quiescently, accept and reconcile ourselves to the presence of Donald Trump as president.

The language used in describing Trump spoke of dark, dangerous, radical thoughts threatening to roll over America; they spoke of how deeply held political convictions were to be laid aside for the sake of rolling them back, back over the dark horizon that had produced them. The language used to describe our supposed interactions with Trump seems animated by entirely disparate sentiments: don’t rock the boat, all hands on board, the ship is sailing onward and we must lend our efforts to Captain Trump of the USS US.

America needs to make up its mind. Is this man a danger to the American republic or not? If he is, then let us not speak of biding our time for protest, or of extending him the usual courtesies extended to this nation’s leaders. Conventions of courtesy are dangerous luxuries when dealing with existential dangers; and my desire to preserve the wild and extend a lending hand to wildlife stewards will take a rapid backward step when confronted with a wild animal threatening my family.

If Donald Trump is truly a racist fascist with his hands on the nuclear button, if he does intend to implement a racist and xenophobic police state, he is going to need to be greeted with more than a protest march at the inauguration, a banner drop at the State of the Union address.

The Supposed Sacral Status Of ‘National’ Symbols

Yesterday, a Facebook friend–in the course of a discussion stemming from my post criticizing David Brooks‘ claim that protests by high school football players a la Colin Kaepernick were ‘counterproductive’–pointed me to the following quote by Saul Alinsky:

Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. (from Rules for Radicals)

Brooks’ original thesis can now piggyback on the ‘authority’ that a respected ‘radical’ organizer like Alinsky provides: respect the ‘sacral status of ‘national’ symbols; protest the establishment, do not make the symbol the focus of your protest, or you risk, ‘counterproductively,’ losing the support of the rest of the social group. (As my friend suggested, the sacralization of the ‘national’ symbol serves a kind of ‘social utility’–protesting in a manner that suggests ‘disrespecting’ this sacral status results in a loss of this ‘social utility’; it is this loss we should be worried about when we choose such a tactic of protest, and not whether the symbol is intrinsically sacred. Indeed, Alinsky does not, above, ascribe any such sacral status to the flag, calling it instead, a ‘glorious symbol.’ That glory is presumably at risk of being tarnished.) So, the current protests and their tactics, their rhetorical stance, stand indicted of poor tactical and strategic sense.

Here is my response, drawn and culled from the various replies and comments I wrote in yesterday’s brief debate:

First, what is truly ‘counterproductive’ about the current situation–the one being protested by Black Lives Matter, Kaepernick, and others–is the following:  Systemic racism; a nationalism which views itself as a religion and therefore, as the issuer of categorical demands; failures of empathy on the part of the dominant class; a lack of moral imagination in those who regulate and police. In the hierarchy of counterproductive actions, these occupy the top-most rung. Protests–in whatever shape or form–by members of a systematically oppressed class are quite distant. Indeed, they are genuinely productive of a new national sensibility precisely because they ask new questions and may cause redefinitions of the supposed national project. Indeed, the more ‘sacred’ the symbol, the greater its vulnerability and susceptibility to the radical protest, to its utilization in activism which seeks to impress upon spectators its seriousness and urgency.

Second, speaking of tactical sense, in the current state of affairs, critiques of the football players’ actions have made a fight over the national anthem’s standing the main event, and in the process not only highlighted the national anthem’s foundational glorification of slavery but also led to a vigorous debate about what the American ideal really is. The diversity of responses to the football players’ protests suggests enough Americans a) support the right of the players to protest this way and b) have welcomed a closer look at the national anthem’s provenance and its possible malignancies.  To suggest that most Americans will despise political gestures like this and that it will have the predicted unhealthily disruptive outcomes is to indulge in a little too much prophecy for my taste. I’m perfectly willing to bide my time and let public discourse about this gesture take us into unexplored domains of political debate.

Third, (here, perhaps I explicitly part with Alinsky): sacrilege is a good thing; smashing idols is a good thing. Erecting temples and false religions is a fool’s game. The original political sin is turning rhetorical symbols into icons beyond human reproach. To place these symbols beyond protest is to concede a political weapon–the language of quasi-theistic categoricity–to the opposition, an act of political surrender. Nice try.

David Brooks Should Take A Knee And Stop Writing Stupid Op-Eds

David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.”  This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and  “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:

We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….

Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”

Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.

The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.

Machiavelli On The Unjust Republic’s Susceptibility To Treason

In Book I, Chapter VII of The Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes:

[N]othing makes a republic so stable and strong as organizing it in such a way that the agitation of the hatreds which excite it has a means of expressing itself provided for by the laws….whenever one finds foreign forces being called in by one faction of men living in a city, it may be taken for granted that the bad ordinances of that city are the cause, for it does not have an institution that provides an outlet for the malignant humors which are born among men to express themselves without their resorting to illegal means.

The laws of the republic are, for Machiavelli, part of its leader’s political toolbox for maintaining its stability and ensuring its longevity and prosperity. A crucial and indeed, essential, function of the laws is the channeling of discontent toward safe and speedy resolution. Where such channeling does not take place, the citizens “have recourse to illegal means, which cause the eventual ruin of the entire republic.”

These passages remain instructive. As I read them, I scribbled the following note in the margins of my copy of The Portable Machiavelli (Penguin Classics, Bondanella and Musa trans., 1979):

Treason is more likely in an unjust state.

Indeed. Where there is no forum for the expression of discontent with the republic, we might come to see, through a Freudian or Nietzschean lens, that this repressed desire or drive for amelioration of injustice will find expression through some other means. If the republic is lucky, this drive will be directed inwards and result only in the destruction of the discontented. If not, that drive will find outward expression, directed against the republic, by any means necessary. Violence and treason will come to seem reasonable alternatives to the oppressed; aid will be sought wherever it may be found, and then pressed rapidly pressed into service. Allegiance to the republic will fall away; redressal of oppression and injustice will come to occupy center stage in their politics of those who protest. The republic will come to stand for something other than its republican ideals; its laws, supposedly its most noble possession, will appear debased and unworthy of commanding obligation.

We should keep this in mind when we rush to criticize those who would dare choose unorthodox means of protest. Merely urging them to legal forms of protest is not enough; it must also be asked whether the legal arrangements of the republic in question would allow their experienced injustice to actually be addressed, or will merely cause their protest to fizzle out. The wise ruler witnesses discontent in his state and wonders the republic law’s may be amended his laws so that future protests find a forum for expression and redressal; the unwise merely ratchets up the repression or becomes defensive, blaming the discontented for having the temerity to speak up and act.

Note: These passages led to a vigorous discussion today in my Political Philosophy seminar, an always gratifying response to an assigned reading.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.