The unironic hypocrisies of Trumpism have taught us little, except for a final truth we’ve long avoided: we cannot rely on government—or its agents—to seek or secure justice. We would become hypocrites ourselves if we believed that a government so historically unconcerned with sociopolitical justice would suddenly sprout a conscience and save us.
Not really anarchists or utopians, we still pretend to believe in representative democracy. Let us call this pretense a “hopeful hypocrisy”. It’s a fairly pathetic paradox, but when we’ve become terrified of our fellow citizens, we must cling to even the most corrupt forms of hope. That hope dissipated considerably on 29 May 2019, when former Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice, Robert Mueller, in a nine-minute address, gave a veritable masterclass in political coyness. With infuriating stoicism, he told us that he couldn’t be complicit in an impeachment and wouldn’t deign to provide information he hadn’t already published. In respectable legal argot, he informed us that we, the taxpayers, have no right to ask anything further.
The Mueller Report, a self-contained two-volume novel, was already fully manifested, vulnerable to simple exegesis and close reading. Like any careful work of literature, it answers all its own questions. Except when it doesn’t.
On 25 June 2019, news broke that Democrats finally subpoenaed Mueller for an open hearing. On 24 July, he—once the cynosure of all media and cautious optimists—arrived silently kicking and screaming. If the maddening lacunae in his testimony constituted a crushing anticlimax, we can only blame ourselves for misunderstanding the facts from the beginning. If Mueller could have indicted Trump, he likely would have, except that someone in 1973 wrote a little memo saying presidents couldn’t be indicted. If that hadn’t been the case, he certainly would have refrained from
not probing what he was disallowed to explore. The mounting double negatives of Mueller’s logic became a sign of his unimpeachable professionalism.
Mueller’s initial admonition to not ask him anything further—because we have no
right to do so—was just another part of the heroically stone-faced farce. What right have to we to demand knowledge? Direct inquiry would be impolitic and impolite. Don’t dare to ask: remember, you’re more putz than Prufrock.
In the time of Trump, the legitimacy of language—
of logos— has been tarred and feathered.
Mueller’s report, already the quaint relic of a hopeless age, was never a magical totem. It was a carefully parsed chronicle written in an era when the legitimacy of language—of logos—has been tarred and feathered. Paradoxically, it is now quixotic to believe in the power of dry prose. In an age of witless propaganda and factual “alternativity”, we might as well revert to fantasy, much as Quixote buried his head in Orlando Furioso.
Yet quixoticism is antithetical to the stolid American character. Numbed by technocracy and stoned on religion, the American no longer comprehends the possibility of revolution. To the homespun American, those who deviate even slightly from centrism transgress into pagan poetics, and skeptics of crony capitalism’s essential rightness might as well be drunken Surrealists.
America has always prided itself on its prosaicness. An earthier genus than the domesticated American is difficult to imagine. Our greatest poet, Whitman, was great precisely because he turned verse into prose. Our Manifest myths are filled with soil and mold, and our state religion (Christianity) prides itself on a grandiose lack of irony. Always breathless, we haven’t time for poetry, except to scorn it. Even our basest, most gratuitous luxuries, like Trump’s gilded commode, overflow with the offal of free enterprise.
When it transcends merely aesthetic concerns, the disease of excess prose achieves its true purpose: the language of legislation. In witless times such as ours, dryly honest journalism and legalese are the only literatures that command public attention. Journalistic and autobiographical exposés now occupy the position once held by novels. Above the exposé towers the truly desiccated genre: legislation, the vehicle of idealists bereft of ideas.
Has there even been a piece of written law that could pass as a work of literature? The question is not so preposterous. On the surface, literary ambiguity has no place in self-evident jurisprudence—until judges, most of whom don’t spend their leisure hours poring over Stanley Fish, are called upon to interpret the letter of the law. Woe unto those who rely on the hermeneutics of a jurist. The mix of ideological bias and elementary historicism found in the rulings of the average (or even above-average) American judge wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate seminar in literary theory. And yet it is literary theory—and not jurisprudence—that earns the revulsion and contempt of the decent masses.
Numbed by technocracy and stoned on religion, the American
no longer comprehends the possibility of revolution.
As our laws become more reactionary, they necessarily inch further away from the literary, or at least from the introspection a literary consciousness demands. No longer pretending to truth-seeking or even virtue, our bills have become bullying diatribes; not aspiring to originality, they even resurrect canards of the pre-civil rights era. Let’s be specific. Consider the antiabortion laws recently proposed in Alabama and Georgia, laws that would punish abortionists but (in an act of Christian “magnanimity”) not the women employing them. If women are exempted from punishment, they logically must not be responsible for their actions—a legal standing afforded only to children (putting aside the insane or mentally deranged). If we understand such laws as intentionally infantilizing, they conflate pregnant women with their own embryos, both equal in their victimhood.
While such laws revive that treasured conservative mix of religious dogma and governmentally-mandated sexual attack (e.g., the needless vaginal probe), they do have an ancillary benefit, as their nonsensically punitive language illuminates what had been rhetorically buried. These laws see abortion-seeking women as misguided lambs to be spared any and all punishment. Abortionists, meanwhile, are hook-wielding Mengeles who seduce and abandon pure women who couldn’t possibly grasp the medical procedures they procure.
If abortion were truly murder, a woman seeking one should be guilty of murder-for-hire or, at very least, manslaughter or negligent homicide (and not merely “assault on an unborn child”, which is already a crime in certain states). Implicit in these laws is a Christian division between sinful body (the medicalized world of the abortionist) and virginal soul (the blameless body of the woman). Never imagining a synthesis between body and soul, Southern lawmakers ignore the obvious possibility that a woman would abort her own fetus. One imagines a feminist activist doing precisely that in a town square, just to see how such a law would reconcile its internal contradiction.
In her 16 May 2019 New Republic article “Arrest Me, You Alabama Cowards“, Emily Atkin rightly challenges conservative ideologues to show some consistency and punish women for hiring abortionists. Though the article rightly addresses women’s agency (or perceived lack thereof), Atkin doesn’t use the word “infantilization”, which would cut to the heart of the matter. The notion that abortion-seeking women are absolved of legal or moral responsibility reflects not a romantic view of femininity but a medieval one. If American fundamentalist politics are stuck somewhere in the late 17th century, marginally after Hobbes but well before Rousseau, fundamentalist sexuality is marooned somewhere in the 11th century, when femaleness constituted a flaw in the human species rather than a discrete gender. An inherently flawed creature—woman—obviously cannot rise to the vaunted and inherently masculine level of moral cum criminal responsibility. It wasn’t Eve’s fault or the snake’s, it turns out—it was the apple’s.
Discourse has come to mean politely listening to the “other side”,
feigning mild interest, attempting to suppress your condescension,
and getting on with your business. This is a low bar indeed.
The fundamentalist’s cognitive and historical dissonances, straddling seven or eight centuries, produce not only absurd rationalizations but esoteric, pre-Enlightenment phenomena. Consider the pronouncements of Missouri Republican state legislator Barry Hovis, who enriched our political vocabulary with “consensual rape”, an oxymoron that neatly dovetails with ex-congressman Todd Akin’s belief in “legitimate rape”. Almost immediately, Hovis issued the requisite Republican apology: “I misspoke.” But “rape” and “consensual sex” are phrases too distant for Freudian slippage or hapless synthesis. One can only imagine what kind of brain could make such a conscious error.
If we listen to mass media’s talking heads, we should blame Trumpism for obliterating our vaunted cultural tradition of civil discourse. This claim surely reeks of manufactured nostalgia. I cannot remember when discourse was ever civil—certainly not in the 1980s, when the effluvia of Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell fermented the dirt of American politics. The real problem is that well-mannered dialogues have about as much to do with “discourse” as dueling monologues do.
Properly understood, discourse is not simply talking to, with, or at one another (the preposition makes little difference). Etymologically, discourse meant “to travel widely and quickly” (the Latin discursus) long before it meant to expound or converse. In its root connotations, discourse entails the unclosed exploration of wide and multiple courses, not a Platonic groping toward a cumulative synthesis — and obviously not rhetorical games in which chessmen spout prearranged talking points or deploy self-satisfied zingers. Linked to a lifestyle of itinerancy and continual inquest, discourse is anathematic to the predeterminations inherent in a two-party system, which entertains what could only be called a “bi-course”.
In the popular imagination, discourse isn’t tantamount to open-ended inquisition or even a non-Marxist dialecticism. As far as I can tell, discourse has come to mean politely listening to the “other side”, feigning mild interest, attempting to suppress your condescension, and getting on with your business. This is a low bar indeed, but inevitably so when the “other side” has nothing new to say—just the same evangelical bullshit, repackaged with revised legal strategies and gauzy 21st century PR. Now clothed in the euphemistic garb of “religious liberty” legislation, unapologetic Christian apologetics are still self-selective, revolving mainly around how homo sapiens should or shouldn’t use their bodily orifices and cavities.
Even in an allegedly posthuman era, the logics of sanction and offense—of politics—spring from the most archaic taboos. Nietzsche recognized that aesthetics and self-indulgent pleasure are really the motivating forces in what we call morality. For the fundamentalist, it is no different: the virgin purity of the body is tantamount to (and symbolic of) the beauty of his nation and race, and vice versa. He would rather liquefy his country rather than see his body politic punctured, tainted, deflowered, or blackened.
As a queer person, I am more or less finished with our underdetermined American bi-course, or quasi-pseudo-discourse, or whatever you wish to call it. There is no point in “listening to the other side”, because the other side is blinded by unreconstructed religious nationalism. Given that people on the other side will never surrender their religious nationalism—it’s all they have left—the virtue of patience has become obsolete.
The attempt to “reach out” to those who hold obscene or ignorant worldviews assumes a precious naiveté I can no longer afford. I have no desire to share my narrative. I do not want to find ersatz succor in digital storytelling or reconciliation podcasts. I do not want to attend insincerely diplomatic town-hall meetings. I do not want to engage in “productive dialogue” because there is nothing to produce, save for retrogressive compromises.
If you are a Christian fundamentalist, I do not want to interact with you even as a legal adversary. If anything, “listening encounters” in which both sides (pretend to) entertain one another only legitimize rightists’ unreconstructed nationalism as something worth entertaining. I have no interest in hearing why I, an elitist and alienated creature of the utopian left, woefully misconstrue your salt-of-the-earth devotion to Donald Trump, because as early as 2011 we knew that he was a lying, racist, misogynist birther, and you, not caring, voted for him anyway. You should be explaining yourself to your children, not to me.
In an age of hijacked judgeships and judicially sanctioned gerrymandering, the legal system readily admits that it no longer serves, represents, or answers to the people. In interviews, justices both conservative and liberal—including Ginsburg—have held up Bush v. Gore as a sterling example of how the rule of law retains its legitimacy and safeguards not only civility but civilization itself. After the ruling was passed down, there were neither organized rebellions nor panicked bloodbaths in the streets. Rather, people obeyed the partisan decision and facilitated the smooth transition of executive authority.
In this formulation, smoothness signifies the people’s faith in government, even when smoothness masks and suppresses their radical discontent. In truth, the acquiescent transition of power following Bush v. Gore represents more a demoralized, disenfranchised polis than the logic of popular representation—unless the inculcation of mass obedience is what “legitimacy” was supposed to mean all along.
I don’t need someone freighted with a Georgetown law degree and a fetish for federalism to determine whether or not my humanity is legitimate.
The courts rarely represent us, and when they do, their just decisions are embarrassingly overdue, tacit admissions that injustice was (and is) tethered to precedent. I don’t really care if the Supreme Court—two of whose members are credibly accused sexual predators—provide tortured interpretations of “strict scrutiny” to ensure my wholeness. I don’t need someone freighted with a Georgetown law degree and a fetish for federalism to determine whether or not my humanity is legitimate.
The so-called victory of Obergefell v. Hodges was far too little and too late—too late indeed for those long buried and unable to reap these bittersweet legal fruits. TV news cameras love to showcase gay and lesbian citizens jubilantly bouncing on courthouse steps whenever a meek legal victory is won, but jubilant public bouncing seems unjustifiably sanguine—and historically forgiving. A jaded eyeroll, if not a clenched fist, would be more appropriate.
Presently, the courts seriously entertain so-called “religious freedom” bills—we should call them “refusal of service” laws—pursued by fanatics who believe their supernatural delusions exempt them from 14th Amendment mandates. The premise is simple: proprietors of public accommodations can refuse to serve a patron perceived as heretical or who offends antediluvian belief systems. The courts already admit that the validity of the proprietor’s beliefs is irrelevant—beliefs only need to be “sincerely held”, not rational or reasonable.
Just as smoothness indicates democratic reality, so does sincerity, in the eyes of a quasi-theocratic legal system, denote philosophical validity. One need only wield a tremulous adverb (“sincerely”) when the quantity—and not the quality—of one’s belief is the relevant stake.
The courts do not care if religious beliefs, whether held sincerely, tolerably, or casually, adhere to the internal consistency required of secular beliefs. Here, it is religious fanatics, not unruly queers, who have always enjoyed “special” rights. We know fundamentalists don’t refuse service to adulterers, harlots, shrimp-eaters, idol-worshippers, or women who fail to air their sanitary napkins for a minimum of seven days (as Leviticus commands). One wonders if discriminatory shopkeepers would refuse service to a murderer or notorious rapist just released from jail (presumably, they wouldn’t ask to see every prospective customer’s criminal record). Beneath fundamentalists’ protestations of democratic “freedom” lies the infantile calculus of Nietzsche’s herd, as they extract righteous, sadomasochistic pleasures from their collective sense of erotic (and hypocritical) disgust.
But let’s not drown in abstraction. Let’s imagine a practical scenario in which you are a fundamentalist shopkeeper and I the queer subaltern entering your shop to purchase goods or negotiate services. Upon entering your establishment, I’d prefer to know of your discriminatory attitudes
in advance (I have experienced commercial discrimination before) so that I can take my business and my money elsewhere. I have little desire to sue you, for a lawsuit implies that I’d want the courts to allow me to pay for your services. But I do not want to subsidize your business, whether or not you’ve been legally coerced into serving me. I confess that the various court cases about queerly iced wedding cakes and so forth seem counterintuitive to me—if one wins such a case, wouldn’t one then be obliged to pay bigots for their begrudgingly offered, law-mandated services?
In any case, I never quite understood how discriminatory proprietors would identity—with 100% success—those who should be denied service. Presumably, a same-sex couple jointly requesting marital services would be easy to spot. An unaccompanied person asking for a cake inscribed with “Enjoy Your Nuptials, Sodomites” in hot pink icing likewise would give the game away.
But in subtler cases, how would shopkeepers act on their biases without fear of misapplication? How would you successfully discriminate against me if you could not identify me? Visually, I do not conform to queer stereotypes. I am slovenly of dress, ill-groomed, and generally schlumpy in appearance. I am unlikely to enter your establishment clad in suede chaps, a rainbow jockstrap, and a cap topped with a spring-mounted dildo. My lack of visible markers of difference needn’t cause you any worry, however. You don’t have to recognize me. I will recognize you.
I will recognize you because in the window of your establishment you will have posted, at eye-level, a sign enumerating all the categories of people you refuse to serve. I will leave the sign’s size, color, font style, and aesthetic design to your wise discretion. The sign’s exact phraseology, too, will reflect your own tasteful diction. Rather than sue you, I would appreciate your forthrightness and willingness to expose your malice. Simply, you will warn me to keep away, and I will recognize you as clearly as you would like to recognize me. Not only would I avoid unintentionally subsidizing your homophobic business, but we would forestall the embarrassing pretense of empathetic “discourse”.
This should be an uncontroversial solution—and indeed a conservative one, as it assumes that the marketplace will justly sort things out. Advertising your wares and taste in human beings thusly, you will, I’d argue, repel more patrons than you would potentially attract—perhaps not immediately and everywhere, but eventually and nearly everywhere. Assuming ultraconservative shopkeepers adhere to Ayn Rand’s pseudo-philosophical marketplace dogma, they should all applaud my solution. Economically, they would ultimately suffer, but it would be a genuinely capitalistic suffering to which conservatives should be amenable.
My solution—call it “two-way visibility”—
is a moral one, not a legal one.
I am no fan of marketplace ideology—which typically presumes a nonexistent rationality—but I see no other way ahead. The proposed program of self-selection is doubtless preferable to the present—and exploitative—epidemic of rainbow capitalism, in which progressive corporations are supposed to take up the slack, advancing civil rights that immobile governments ignore.
You could call my proposal (perhaps oxymoronically) “queer capitalism”, insofar as it engages and demands action from autonomous individuals, not profiteering institutions or corporate bodies. Simply, it is a challenge by individuals to individuals. My proposal does not defer to a timid, phlegmatic legal system enslaved to 18th century precepts, nor does it solicit corporate sponsorship or approval.
It shouldn’t be controversial to claim that rainbow capitalism, suddenly an embarrassing ubiquity, offends homophobes and queers in equal measure (if for contrary reasons). This year, 2019, will probably go down as the first year in which LGBT (as opposed to queer) product placements made a triumphant showing not only in malls and drug stores but on roadside awnings, bus shelters, and wherever corporate advertising looms.
The results are nauseating and absurd—nauseating because corporations have supported LGBT rights only belatedly, when it’s become convenient and profitable, and absurd because the same corporations think I care if and when their marketing strategists endorse my orgasms. What can one think about bottles of Tooth Defense Listerine emblazoned with erotically liberated rainbows? Let 2019 mark the glorious year in which Listerine’s Executive Vice President (or his secretary) affirmed and proclaimed all the permutations of human sexuality! This is not bittersweet—it is simply bitter.
My solution—call it “two-way visibility”—is a moral one, not a legal one. As a manifestation of nonviolent direct action, it admittedly represents a rather pathetic compromise, but such are the pitiful times in which we live. Legal victories are attractive because they conform to an easily intelligible three-act structure of oppression, struggle, and ultimate victory. In truth, the law offers no ultimate, unaudited victories, just as there is no finite revolution.
If a tail-chasing legal system tethered to institutional archaisms can offer no respite, we have little choice but to take matters into our own hands. Let this be a call for new significations. Shopkeepers, hang your signs proudly, and ready yourselves for the largely foreseen consequences.
Rest assured that I will see your posted signs as gestures of honesty, not violence. Your signs will not deepen the cracks in the social fabric because the cracks had always been terribly deep, yet cloaked by a façade that Trumpism has clumsily eroded. Your public signs of proud, all-American bigotry will pull the façade cleanly off, once and for all. And then I can rest assured that I won’t unwittingly patronize your establishment and give you my money, which can be redirected to those more deserving.
But understand that we do not need a confrontation. We will not learn anything from one another. I do not want to teach you anything. I just want you to follow through on your own principles—unselectively and every time. Only then can we understand one another.
Though cynical, my proposal is not unduly cruel. The position of true cruelty is assumed and endured by Trumpists, who suffer a sadomasochistic predicament—sadomasochistic because they delight in torturing ethnic subalterns but gain no real social or economic benefit from Trump’s failed bargains, paranoid propaganda, and self-indulgent preening. At this point, I can only assume that Trumpists suspect their pleasures are impotent, especially as those pleasures are limited to a two-sided spectatorship: a sadistic gaze aimed at suffering migrants and a masochistic one that fawns over a wealthy man who promises everything and delivers nothing. Whether or not Trump voters knowingly delight in their own impotence is another matter, but the end result is masochistic nonetheless.
I would recommend that journalists stop using the euphemistic term “populism” to describe Trump’s masochistic appeal, for populism—which is not always malevolent—should at least proffer some rewards for the populist. If the wrathful seed of sadomasochism springs from some hidden insecurity, let us at least begin to relieve ourselves of this insecurity. The relief can be as simple as a sign of things to come.