A deplorable year, in context.
It started with cocktails.
It was November 8th—Election night, 2016. My partner and I had dinner (nachos, I think) with a cocktail on the side, to try and wash away the bitter taste of the ugly year leading up to this occasion. We caught up on some pre-recorded programs in the DVR, and switched over to PBS for the occasional play-by-play of electoral returns. Of course, it was still “too early to tell” at this point; though the smugness of certain commentators—a less-than-subtle confidence in the already projected outcome (a Democratic “landslide”)—gave me pause.
In the months preceding this night, I endeavored to raise awareness of the complex and multi-faceted significance of this election—and the devastating ramifications if the Presidential seal were to go to the most corrupt, unqualified, and inexperienced candidate ever to campaign for this office (from foreign policy, to climate policy, to basic civil rights, to corporate privileges, to tax policy, to infrastructure, to cyber-security and net neutrality…) I had cautioned my Bernie-adoring friends that the so-called “lesser of two evils” was, after all, still “less evil.” I encouraged folks to consider the pragmatic perspective that many social workers (myself included) are forced to adopt on a day-to-day basis, as a consequence of living in an imperfect world with imperfect choices: while one can rarely take an action that will result in no harm whatsoever (with the notion of “no harm” being in direct opposition to the human experience), one can gather information and critically evaluate options in order to take the path of least harm.
As I sat in front of the television, sweaty glass of booze in hand, I saw the path opening in front of our nation: suffice it to say, it was not the path of least harm.
I would like to say that, in hindsight, I responded to this awareness with a proportionate level of disappointment. If I were to be perfectly sincere, I would admit that my disappointment and anxiety skyrocketed beyond any proportion I might’ve prepared myself for, and my subsequent display of emotion was probably on par with the most exhibitionist meltdown of a character in a Fassbinder film (think Petra Von Kant screaming at her family, drunk on the carpet; or Elvira recounting her history of trauma from inside a slaughterhouse). After fifteen minutes of incredulously gazing at the incredulity of the commentators on the TV screen, I wandered off to bed in a daze, and sobbed myself through a (seemingly endless) night without sleep.
Some time after, my partner wandered up and lay next to me—our dog Sam sprawled in between us: blissfully blind to the specifics of what was happening around him, but visibly aware that something was off. He rubbed his nose against my side and I scratched behind his ear, periodically reaching for my phone and checking the electoral map for signs of hope; none were forthcoming. At a certain point, I just stop checking—painfully aware of the heightened anxiety provoked by these micro-updates. And then, the indigestion started. And the routine visits to the toilet to try and purge the queasiness swirling around in my stomach. And the hours spent in near-delirium, staring at the ceiling and waiting for the night to end, while simultaneously dreading the thought of having to survive the night and emerge into the reality awaiting me on the other side.
I’m still lying awake when I hear the clicking of a computer—my partner having woken up before me (as per usual), now checking the news feed on his desktop. I counted the seconds between the first few mouse clicks, and the first audible, heaving sobs; I think it took about fifteen seconds. I turned my face into a pillow and cried.
* * *
I find myself reliving this fateful day, as I embark on this effort to put my experience of 2017 in some sort of context (call it self-therapy). I can’t help but feel that the answer to many questions that have arisen out of this disastrous, unsettling, and disorienting year, lies somewhere in the outcome of that night—and the collective reaction to an action taken by the smallest margin of our population ever to select a (proposed) “leader of the free world.” In the months immediately following the election, I was one of many to identify a heightened level of engagement with social media; and while I cannot attest to the motives of others, I will readily concede that my personal engagement was driven by a heightened awareness of the unprecedented impact social media had yielded throughout the course of the election. In reading the near-unbelievable, beyond-dystopian tale of Cambridge Analytica, and the well-documented strategies implemented by several shady figures in favor of a global right-wing coup, it became quite evident to me that we stood on the threshold of a deeper abyss than was projected by the most dour catastrophist during the election itself. I felt a compulsion to be more outspoken than I had been before (since, evidently, reserved compunction, blind faith in objectivity, and trust in the collective conscience of mankind had not yielded any favorable results). Looking back over some of the insights and commentary I shared publicly via social media at the start of the year, I regret none of what I wrote—but I can now recognize the general insignificance of my commentary with a greater degree of intellectual clarity.
This isn’t to say I’ve adopted a defeatist perspective. Today, I can sincerely claim (give or take a little) the same level of investment in the plight of humankind as I claimed last November; and the year before that, and so forth. But as our global village (if McLuhan’s term can even be fairly applied to our present-day climate) advances towards ever-increasing levels of chaos, I’ve become painfully aware of how incompetent and, in many cases, outright detrimental this twenty-first century drive to provide running commentary on the human experience has been to achieving any sort of actual progress. Retrospectively, in fact, one can trace the most recent phase of devolution (and devaluation) of the human species through a comprehensive anthology of our president’s impetuous Tweets—accompanied by the often-comparably impetuous retorts of commentators across the globe. If one were inclined to place these exchanges in context and illuminate the bigger picture for those in need of perspective, one could print this anthology of Tweets and comments and hang it on a wall in a museum; opposite this display, one could hang a display of climate data, pictures of the refugee crisis, profiles of newly-appointed right-wing judiciary representatives, annual hate crime statistics, research on hereditary trauma, world poverty statistics, annual gun violence statistics, opioid overdose statistics, and current nuclear arsenal statistics (with illustrations). The viewer of such an exhibit should be capable of drawing their own conclusions.
Suffice it to say, very little social progress has been achieved during the past year. One could go so far as to argue that we have taken such an enormous step back in our social evolution—the trajectory of social progress has been scrambled to such an extent that we have to redefine the very idea of social progress. For example: prior to the election, one could generally accept that, regardless of one’s economic status or party affiliation, sexual assault was a deplorable action. But something changed, somewhere along the course of the 2016 campaign trail. If one were to examine the Republican party’s response to the excavation of that infamous Access Hollywood tape, and compare it to their response to revelations that then-President-elect Bill Clinton’s had engaged in an extended affair, years before the 1992 election, one would have to resolve that the Right has either lowered their standards for outrage, or only complain when their majority is on the line. In addition to this, we find the emergence of a new Right-wing chorus (which will go on to be adopted by many a libertarian, third-party voters, and Democrats as well): the now familiar refrain of “fake news;” a magic potion for alleviating the symptoms of cognitive dissonance.
In 1992, voters of all stripes wrestled with both the knowledge of Clinton’s affairs and an awareness that this information might be manipulated for partisan gain; in 2016, there appeared to be little-to-no wrestling at all. Polls at the time indicated that, by and large, 45’s base was actually strengthened by the revelation of the tape: casting the objective information of the tape aside, many of 45’s supporters voiced an opinion that their only concern lay with how this information might be skewed for partisan gain—and not with the implications of the information itself. In other words, the information of our then-President-elect’s predatory behavior (in combination with all the other evidence accrued to support the case for his predatory business practices) was as good as irrelevant. And so began the trend of alternative facts, and the convenience of being able to reject information that conflicts with one’s pre-existing belief pattern by merely denying its existence. Viewed along the action-reaction continuum, “fake news” was both a reaction to the leftist obsession with investigative journalism, and a positive action in its own terms (using “positive” in the Skinnerian sense). For by achieving an unspoken consensus among themselves—that information adverse to the advancement of one’s own political goals cannot (and should not) be bothered with in the first place—45’s supporters have succeeded in establishing a level of intellectual disengagement not seen at any other point during the nation’s past century of political discourse.
If we now consider this new right-wing action (“just say “fake news” whenever anything upsets you”), we must consider the subsequent leftist reaction (hyper-dramatically present the severity of upsetting developments, in an attempt to appeal to the emotional-spiritual side of right-wing fact-deniers). The leftist reaction can be seen throughout any number of impassioned Facebook and Twitter rants: that (somewhat-to-absolute) self-righteous outpouring of hysteria and concern, presented with all the pathos and drama of an argument in some generic TV courtroom drama. This brand of emotional reactivity has been, in some cases, strategically channeled to advance social issues (as in, most recently, Tarana Burke’s powerful #MeToo movement); on the flip side, the catharsis of social media engagement presents a stumbling block for individuals who have no conception of follow-through. For instance, the fanaticism of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976), which I see frequently shared (in the form of the “I’m as mad as hell” excerpt) by peers and acquaintances on social media, offers a prescient insight into the risks associated with commercializing outrage—though I fear some folks take the bit out of context and fail to apprehend the way it all falls apart.
In Sidney Lumet’s film of Chayefsky’s acclaimed script, Peter Finch convincingly plays a neurotic newsman who “flips a wig” after being let go from his job, and takes to the air to advertise his on-air suicide a night in advance. Instead of delivering on his promise, he launches into a sermon about how the world is going to shit, then beckons his viewers to run to their windows and yell into the streets with him: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” His viewers comply, and the station executives hear of a boost in ratings: they investigate the situation further, and realize there’s big money to be made selling outrage to the deadened masses. In a relatively short period of time, the mentally unstable Howard Beale has been asked to front his own television variety show—to feature his now-trademark impassioned rant as a sort of nightly act. Beale displays some resistance early in production, but by the end of the movie has been brainwashed to the point of putty in the station’s hands: a once genuine expression of repressed jouissance has become a weird sort of household name, and the television executives profiting from his mental health condition wind up having him killed, because of an eventual decline in ratings.
While extreme and grotesque in its scope, and rendered for largely satirical purposes, Chayefsky’s work does seem to offer a cautionary tale for our time. In order to prevent becoming as pathologically shortsighted as Howard Beale, one must always ask oneself, when contemplating such catharsis: What purpose could this possibly serve? What’s the intended follow-up plan for one’s outrage—or is there one? Is it possible that one is just yelling words into a digitized vacuum, which then captures one’s words and capitalizes upon them, selling them off as part of a metadata package? Is this essay going to become just one more yell into the vacuum? One hopes not, but one never knows.
Since human beings have still failed to learn the lesson the universe endeavored so painfully to instill in us throughout last year’s election (the lesson: social media activity will not fix most things, or even anything; but it can readily make things worse if given the opportunity), we’ve apparently doubled down, and now find ourselves caught in the middle of a surreal and bizarre game of “who has the most sexual predators in their camp?” (As far as what this game is intended to prove or resolve, I suppose anyone’s guess is as adequate as the next person’s.) One by one—day by day—famous celebrities and political pundits continue to drop like flies in the ointment of this “to catch a predator” show; inappropriately enough, this surreal game has been (and continues being) overseen by the predator who set this chain in motion last Fall (don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere anytime soon).
In keeping with the chosen leftist reaction to overstate one’s passion for a given issue—in a vain effort to “wake the deadbeats from their slumber”—we now find the exponential possibility of human folly achieving the highest (or lowest?) levels of stupidity. For starters, we have the borderline-comical leftist insistence on the morally “wrong” connotation of sexual assault: as if by insisting strongly enough, those who believe otherwise might instantaneously be converted. Furthermore, this juvenile proclivity for moral sermonizing has embedded itself as a point of division between proponents of liberal policy. Just as the more die-hard idealists who upheld the “purity” of Bernie Sanders against the “corruption” of Hillary Clinton drove a wedge between the otherwise-united front of liberal voters (aided and abetted by the Russian trolls who targeted third-party and Bernie supporters with strategically placed news stories to reinforce their disdain for Hillary), we now have liberal idealists thinning their own herd (yet again) by singling out anyone who fails to fall in line with the outspoken chants leveled against perpetrators of sexual assault.
I recently stumbled upon an article which provides a textbook illustration of the infantile thought process underlying this leftist penchant for “out-idealist-ing” one another. In an online Stereogum/Spin magazine article (filed under the “News” heading), a writer named Peter Helman takes issue with comments and views put forth by the ever-divisive Steven Morrissey in a recent Der Spiegel interview (yet again, I find myself stumbling upon the commentary before the news itself; which, in and of itself, isn’t news). Here’s a verbatim transcript of the opening paragraph, as printed in the article (whose writer acknowledges openly that he did not bother to pursue a proper translation of the interview, and relied upon Google translator as arbiter of the interviewee’s meaning):
“Hey look, Morrissey said a stupid thing! It’s been a while since Moz has said something truly objectionable and not just, like, ‘Oh, Morrissey is kind of an asshole.’ But now, in an interview with the German news outlet Spiegel Online on the heels of his new solo album Low In High School, he’s come through with some genuinely terrible opinions.”
First, we find the distinctly liberal cocktail of snark and finger-wagging writ large in the opening statement: before we are even offered a glimpse at the musician’s controversial comments (let alone the chance to remind oneself, as hopefully all reasonable and grown adults do in such instances: “what do I care what some music journalist thinks of what some musician thinks of some matter with which he has no direct affiliation?”), we are instructed (seeing as how the reader cannot possibly be intelligent enough to reach their own conclusion) that the comments are objectively “stupid.” Then, we have the reinforcement of this admonishment coupled with an insistence that one ought to consider these “stupid” statements even more offensive than whatever the last thing the writer had admonished the musician about. Then, as if the message had not yet been clearly conveyed (after all, we’re dealing with a reading audience that cannot be trusted with their own thoughts), the writer insists that this latest interview with the Moz reveals “some genuinely terrible opinions.” (Be still, my fluttering outrage odometer!)
I’m disinclined to even bother with an analysis of the article (let alone the comparably over-indignant commentary of those who shared the “story” on social media; excepting for maybe Shirley Manson, who brought up a valid point in suggesting that Morrissey appeared to not have the latest updates on the “plot[s]” of Spacey and Weinstein), but I nevertheless feel compelled to provide some sort of a corrective to the borderline-toxic preachiness of these self-appointed messiahs to moral indignation. Not that Morrissey’s views, as quoted here, are even that noteworthy or idiosyncratic: if anything, they seem to echo the contrarian tone of similarly uneventful remarks delivered by Johnny Rotten earlier this year. But whereas Rotten and Morrissey are merely doing what they’ve been doing all along in their respective careers (namely, being abrasively provocative), Helman’s heavy-handed critique—along with any analysis bearing the imprint of such thoughtless indignation—inflicts the greatest damage of all on the integrity of an intelligent dialogue: for not only does it inherently reject the reader’s intelligence (something that neither Rotten nor the Moz, bluster aside, would ever dare try), it functions primarily as the byproduct of a profit-driven online press: a press which now feeds vampirically on the outrage of the web-surfing public, frequently leaning on the crutch of self-righteous indignation as a shortcut to increase clicks and shares. (Hm… that sounds familiar.)
And since “writers” (at least, the successful ones; the ones whose bread-and-butter is outrage-tinted click-bait) save the most upsetting/eyebrow-raising/scintillating bits for last (in order to maximize the advertisement space between the reader’s first click on the article and the long scroll to its disappointing finish), there must be some build-up to the exhibit of [insert celebrity’s name]’s horrifying remarks. Like an 18th century freak show, in which true horror would have to be instilled in the imagination of the visitor, before being deflated by the banality of the exhibit itself. (Sure enough, cries of “shame!” and “how dare he?” were heaped upon the Moz within minutes of the article’s posting; after all, what’s one more pariah on the fire…) In keeping with every other un-news-worthy observation shared by Morrissey in an interview, a scandalous viewpoint has been tried and condemned for failing to align with the prevalent vernacular and perspective of the times, and persona non grata status has been duly granted to the offending party. From what we know about the artist in question, one ought to suspect this is what he wanted all along, anyway: win-win (I guess?)
My point here isn’t that Morrissey’s statements should be defended: he’s a grown man and should take ownership of whatever non-sense and/or half-sense pours out of his twisted mouth. Rather, my point is to ask: What purpose could this possibly serve? And moreover: What does all this exhibitionistic “journalism” imply about the state of social commentary? Have we truly devolved to the point that an individual needs to preface any commentary on the subject of sexual abuse (and the inherently complex psychology of victims and perpetrators) with an assertion that one does, in fact, disapprove of sexual abuse and predatory behavior? Are there popular articles out there that I’m not seeing, in which individuals go on record saying that they condone sexual abuse, and wish there was more of it? And if so, is the tone of such deplorable articles so unrecognizable from the tone of a level-headed writer’s, that level-headed writers need fear their audience suspecting they might, in fact, be pro-sexual abuse? And if so, wouldn’t the abuser-shamers serve their purported mission more capably by tracking down those pro-abuse folks and chastising them? Regardless of the answers to any of these questions, nothing remotely edifying can come of such conversations, if we cannot bring ourselves to respect (read: allow) the judgment and intellect of our reading audience—sans these forceful and belittling cues to trigger our moral outrage.
Which brings me back to the actual problem at-hand, and the elephant in the room that remains perpetually sheltered from the storm of allegations swirling around him: the President of the United States. For unlike Morrissey (or Johnny Rotten), our president has made it clear time and again that he is pro-sexual abuse, and despite the skepticism of his supporters (who feared that their boy’s well-documented predatory behavior might be yielded by leftist commentators for partisan gain), he has displayed no compunction about turning allegations of abuse into political weapons—so long, of course, as the allegations are directed at individuals outside the Republican umbrella. Which renders it all the messier when individuals on the left allow themselves to get caught up in the hurricane of abuser-shaming (often with noble intentions, at least at the start), since this is exactly what the most powerful person in the country has been relying upon this entire year to advance a truly abusive agenda—not least of all, through his success in appointing an entire slate of unnerving judicial assignments: out-of-touch bigots and bloggers; unqualified lunatics who will shape our country’s legislation for decades following the inevitable demise of this administration. All the while, his White House continues to ignore and deny the allegations of 16 women who have confronted the public with their abuse stories, and the President remains… the President. As of this writing, there have been no formal inquests proposed in Congress to investigate and pursue these claims further.
I suppose I should feel compelled here to state my own disavowal of sexual abuse, and to verbalize my support for the victims who have come forth with their alternately harrowing and unnerving stories. I’ve chosen to refrain from offering any commentary on the subject up until this writing for a combination of reasons; mainly, as someone (and more specifically, as a white man) who has not suffered sexual abuse firsthand, I feel it isn’t really my place to remark on a subject so close to others, yet so distant from my own lived experience. I’ve found that, in such cases, it’s best to just shut up and listen to those who know what they’re talking about.
* * *
The title of this essay is taken from a track on this year’s Sun Kil Moon/Jesu collaboration, 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth. The song takes as its subject the child abuse scandals that haunted Michael Jackson to his early grave: it appears to have been inspired by a conversation on a plane between the song’s writer (Mark Kozelek) and a young woman traveling to Greece to perform in a musical of Michael Jackson’s life. The song paraphrases a conversation between the two, in which Kozelek asserts (rather firmly) that the world is, undoubtedly, a better place without a pedophile R’n’B star living in it. At first listen, the lyrics to the song are more-than-slightly jarring: casual listeners might be inclined to interpret this perspective to be the actual opinion of songwriter Mark Kozelek, whereas those who’ve spent time with Kozelek’s other recordings may recognize the sound of his (often) darkly satirical social commentary.
I can’t say for certain whether the lyrics to “He’s Bad” come from a place of sincere commentary or social satire, but I find it difficult to accept the former interpretation. In fact, the perspective of the song’s narrator is often so wince-inducing in its generalizations, one can only make sense of it when read in quotation marks:
“Is the latest on him true?
Well I don’t fuckin’ know
But if I had a son, would I let him get into a car with Michael Jackson?
I’m sorry for the bad things that his father did to him
But it doesn’t add up to building a Willie Wonka trap for kids
And changin’ the color of your God given skin
He made creepy videos that the popular kids liked back in the eighties
And once over a balcony he dangled a baby
And did the moon walk
And talked like a 9 year old girl
I don’t give a flying fuck what he meant to the mainstream world
Roman Polanski went down in flames and was incarcerated
But this young little kid addict will forever be celebrated
A hundred plastic surgeries and paid two hundred million to shut people up
Took someone’s child like it was nobody’s business and dragged him around on a tour bus
And he’s dead and I’m glad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
And he’s dead and I’m glad
He’s dead and to me it ain’t that fuckin’ sad”
The song has stuck with me all throughout the ups and downs 2017 (and it was, for the most part, a year of downs). A friend of mine, who suggested I check out the record, cautioned me in advance about the song’s “cringe-worthy” quality; at first listen, I shared in his assessment. But upon further listens, a space opened up in the longer instrumental stretches of the track, and I found myself strangely drawn to it. Presently, I find it to be a brilliant piece of songwriting—perhaps even moreso, if these are, in fact, Kozelek’s verbatim opinions. The song capably highlights a common trend of generalization and oversimplification among present-day liberal pundits: one might as well call it the “make sure the baby goes out with the bathwater” syndrome. Because it’s easy (and more precisely, facile) to take a step back from the strange and unsettling case of Michael Jackson, and surmise that he was nothing more than a sick man who preyed on children—that consequently, the world is better off with him dead than alive, and he might as well have gone sooner. But had he never lived, this song (a highlight from the record, I think) would not exist: not just its lyrics, but its arrangement, structure, arpeggiation… all of which pay tribute to the late “King of Pop.” Which begs the question: Is it right for one human to judge the life of another and determine they ought not to exist—or have existed at all? It’s the same question that underlies the debate(s) surrounding the death penalty; war; abortion. Taken at face value, the perspective of Kozelek’s song sides with the affirmative answer to this question. But interpreted satirically, the question remains open-ended. Unlike the above-mentioned Stereogum article, the reader of Kozelek’s song is actually given a space to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions; so that, even if these are the songwriter’s dyed-in-the-wool beliefs, we don’t feel pressured into adopting them as our own (or, conversely, into rejecting them outright).
I refuse here to entertain the idiotic question that somehow goes on being debated in certain circles: can bad people make good art? (I will, however, quickly dissect the idiocy inherent to the question’s phrasing: firstly, there is no such thing as “good” people or “bad people;” and second, what do you think?) However, I do find it noteworthy that a lot of angst appears forthcoming in the public response to revelations that Louis CK, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey—celebrities that, unlike the blowhards who preceded them (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein) were somewhat well-liked—have lived messy lives and done some deplorable things. Each time a new pariah gets added to the fire (all the while, the President shakes hands with Duterte on a visit to the Philippines, and swaths of Puerto Rico remain powerless), I’m reminded of the excellent documentary Happy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev and released in 2014—a year or two following the explosive child abuse scandals involving the once-respected Penn State coaches, Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. In his film, Bar-Lev explores the American (and outright human) proclivity for placing a fallible person on a pedestal, and then shaking one’s head in disbelief when fallibility rears its ugly head. As I watched the reactions pour in on social media (friends who initially felt inclined to defend their heroes against the allegations, and as soon as proof was provided, reluctantly gave in to the evidence, tossing the baby out the window), I had a flashback to the confused street riots that followed the Sandusky trial—in which the townsfolk of Happy Valley alternately mourn and celebrate the dismantling of a statue once proudly erected to Joe Paterno (who was not convicted of perpetrating, but was found to have enabled Sandusky’s behavior after being informed of its existence).
The psychology of the townsfolk, which is smartly and respectfully explored by Bar-Lev in his documentary, can easily be transposed to the public psychology surrounding this irrational debate unfolding on our national stage; the key question in the debate is: Where do we store our dismantled idols? (As opposed to the far more proactive question, which everyone seems too afraid to pose: Why are we obsessed with erecting idols in the first place?) For some (and most specifically, for those employed in talk news) the answer to this question is “straight to hell.” Never in my adult life have I seen such a rabid drive—propelled primarily by pundits who appear to take more than a little schadenfreude in exposing the discovery of (yet another) sexual predator—to excommunicate individuals from their professions (before their employers have even had a chance to evaluate each situation and weigh in on the matter; a scary social precedent, to be sure), and hold their mock-trial in the court of social media (for an especially disturbing case-in-point, see the response of so-called “progressives” to the revelation—forecast eerily by a Roger Stone tweet—that Al Franken did some things in poor taste on his USO tours).
On the one hand, this sort of “cleaning house” could be argued as a corrective to the long-delayed response of Fox News executives to the litany of allegations leveled against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly (et al); on the other, the zealousness of this drive appears to be conspicuously overlooking the most powerful perpetrator in the room. And if we are not making an effort to prioritize the perpetrators who wield (and exploit) the largest amount of power, but gladly chase after those with relatively little power (yielding the digital equivalent of pitchforks and torches), then the only takeaway from this discussion is that humans are increasingly oblivious to their own addiction to the mechanisms of an exploitative society—to the extent that we routinely take private pleasure in exploiting other exploiters, all the while denying our own role in the circle of exploitation.
At the end of the day, it is this recognition of the multi-faceted power deferential involved, which appears to be the biggest stumbling block for most folks to navigate. Setting aside the heavy-handedness and gross over-simplification of Morrissey’s “controversial” remarks, he does appear to be clumsily pointing to a taboo truth that some people refuse to acknowledge: that in some (not all) instances, the prospective “victim” in the abuser-abused equation will find a way to subvert the power deferential for their own gain. And before the reader reaches for their pitchfork, allow me to clarify that I am speaking of these matters in the specific context of exploitative behavior within an exploitative society (one cannot ignore the reality that individuals make desperate decisions under desperate circumstances). One thinks of the psychologically-sound Lolita twist, for instance—in which an older man preys on a “nymphet,” only to find her turning the tables and exploiting his inappropriate adulation to achieve independence. Which isn’t to say that Nabokov lets Humbert Humbert—or his predatory leanings—off the hook; rather, he accepts the obvious element(s) in this equation, before pointing to the more taboo reality lived by more than just a few individuals in this power-driven society: a reality in which the exploited learns how to exploit, for lack of other identifiable options. (In her best-selling memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, author Azar Nafisi provides a feminist interpretation of Nabokov’s text—which she read as a metaphor for the often oppressive experience of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran; further highlighting the on-going significance of discovering fresh social commentary in old texts.)
Alas, such nuanced observations can never see the light of day in our current debate surrounding sexual abuse (or any other issue, for that matter), seeing as how the very idea of truth has already been co-opted and distorted by opportunistic sycophants and sociopaths at Fox News (and elsewhere)—who continue making a killing, selling dumbed-down distortions and good old-fashioned lies as substitutes for insightful commentary. And on the other side of the political fence, a vehement denial of nuance in sex politics frequently appears as a thin disguise for some vaguely misogynistic impulse to deny the emotional, behavioral, and psychological complexity of the feminine experience (for it’s easier to brand every woman a victim for life, even after they’ve made peace with their offenders and politely invited their defenders to piss off). Rather than confront the messy psychology and uncomfortable truths inherent to the dynamic between victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, talk news pundits (few of whom can be considered experts in social psychology) have apparently reached a consensus that the best way to talk about the issue is to: not actually talk about it; shame the perpetrators until they’re out of a job; and run the interviews of the victims being forced to describe (in gritty detail) their abuse to the flashing lights and rolling cameras; over, and over, and over again… Similar to the way most pundits talk about gun violence (except, no one has actually lost their job for enabling mass gun violence through aggressive gun lobbying; not that I’m aware of, at least).
What purpose could this possibly serve?
What strikes me the most about Kozelek’s song (which inspired, at least in part, this meandering diatribe) is how it either intentionally or, perhaps unintentionally highlights the banality of its own perspective. Every time I hear the song, I think to myself “I would never go out of my way to listen to a song that presents such a perspective with utmost sincerity:” it would be like taking Randy Newman’s “Rednecks” at face value. A song that feels so stiltedly obliged to assert moral autonomy, while somewhat sadistically proposing a recommendation of death to criminal offenders… What purpose could this possibly serve? One hopes, the purpose of irony. For in making the listener consider words and deeds of such strict moral outrage—in confronting us with our own respective failures to accept some amount of gray in our black and white lives—one might then feel a little wiser, considering the possibility of something else. Not unlike in the films of Fassbinder, who strove time and again to show the audience the need for change, while never spelling out what that change ought to be (after all, shouldn’t we be smart enough to figure it out on our own?)
In an essay from a book I’ve had my nose in lately, detailing the merits of RWF’s 1971 film masterpiece The Merchant of Four Seasons, author and former acquaintance Christian Braad Thomsen observes:
“Fassbinder […] shows the necessity of vigorous action on the part of the viewer. But he’s not a school teacher, who wants to raise his finger and tell the audience what they have to do, if they want to change the world. He is the Socratic artist, who uncovers how the existing possibilities of living have failed, and points out that change is necessary.”
Throughout his prolific and multi-faceted career, Fassbinder sought to demonstrate the mechanisms of his inherently flawed and power-driven society, clearly enough for any viewer—regardless of their education, intelligence, or station in life—to understand the mechanism and, in turn, recognize the need to rise above it. Three years after releasing The Merchant of Four Seasons, Fassbinder carried his vision of societal deconstruction to an even more poetic and empowered level with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. In an interview given after the film’s release, Fassbinder observed that “I tend to think that if […] depressing circumstances are only reproduced in film, it simply strengthens them. Consequently, the dominant conditions should be presented with such transparency that one understands they can be overcome.” Rather than taking a sadistic pleasure in portraying the misery of those too enslaved by a social mechanism to recognize how breakable their chains might be, Fassbinder sought to show love for these strange creatures called “humans,” by perpetually revealing the existence of the chains—and the absence of a wizard behind the curtain. In film after film and play after play (and without any undue condescension or simplification), he succeeded in demonstrating that all individuals (regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or politics) are capable of breaking the chains of exploitation, if they only choose to live a pure existence—predicated upon the inherent human values that society continually distorts (by claiming them as its own, and often assigning them a capital/nominal value).
Put plainly: one cannot go on playing un-elected judge to man’s folly, and resigning oneself to a vacant culture of reactionary outrage. That would entail rejecting the possibility of finding a different way to live, and to demonstrate, by example, an alternative to such folly. (And if one rejects the need for an alternative to folly, one is simply a fool.)
I’ve returned to Fassbinder many times over the past years, and have always left with an uncanny sense of premonitory relevancy and an inspired momentum. A DVD set of the recently rediscovered (and beautifully restored) TV miniseries, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, has been a close companion these past few months; I’ve rarely seen a film so genuinely positive in its outlook, let alone a film of his. His characters are shown (as usual) to be moving parts in a social machine, but all the parts in this machine move beautifully—and each on their own terms. Instead of falling back on jargon, party slogans, or naïve Marxist sentiment, Fassbinder shows characters from all throughout the power structure as somehow genuine and, just as importantly, capable of empathy (and change). He shows that action will forever speak louder than the most eloquent words—while simultaneously revealing how words and images can be employed to further the awareness of a need for action. Not just social (read: collective) action, but individual action. Presently, fleeting social movements (via trends, hashtags, and viral videos) demand wide-spread attention, and the individual finds himself trapped between a biological drive to engage with one’s own self-actualization, and the socially conditioned response to ignore or reject this drive: to follow the horde or disappear. Hence, the “individual” is celebrated, but only on the terms of the individual’s bond with society; if the individual does anything to sever this bond with society, the individual essentially (and in certain cases, actually) will cease to exist.
Indeed, it would seem as though excommunication has been the only fear to consistently unify individuals, in societies across the world—and throughout the ages. The higher the threat of expulsion, the greater the anxiety in one’s life; the greater the anxiety in one’s life, the greater the relish in the expulsion of another. (Following this train of thought, one shudders to think of all the threats and anxieties our current President must have accrued in his lifetime.) I find it especially concerning that so many straight, white, and self-proclaimed “feminist” men appear to be foaming at the mouth to call out anyone who fails to speak the programmatic lingo they’ve conditioned themselves to communicate with; one wonders if some (or perhaps many) of these individuals might be protesting so loudly, for fear of having their own past improprieties exposed. Either way, I imagine a casual time traveler would have a hard time distinguishing our media’s contemporary treatment of sexual abuse scandals, from the Warren Commission’s treatment of the “Red Scare:” so many people eager to see the lives of others demolished, for fear of being next in line…
In another section of Thomsen’s illuminating text (entitled Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius; quotes taken from the English text, translated by Martin Chalmers), analyzing Fassbinder’s explosively controversial (and for just reasons) play, Garbage, the City, and Death, the author reveals a parallel theme to the circle of exploitation: the corresponding closed circle of oppression—escape from which is a far more complicated matter. Thomsen writes that:
“Throughout Fassbinder’s work we see the oppressed assuming the norms of the oppressors, whether out of a conscious need for revenge or whether they have more or less unconsciously internalized the dominant norms. Fassbinder never has ‘pure’ heroes. Rather, he demonstrates one of the most melancholy consequences of oppression, that the damage to the souls of the victims makes them unable to find alternative norms, so that the only possibility left to them is to recapitulate the norms that have led to their oppression.”
While it sometimes feels as though Fassbinder has artistically resigned himself to a closed box of self-fulfilling prophecies, his work continually reminds the reader/viewer of the complexity of human behavior; a phenomenon which, after decades of misrepresentation (or reductive representation), we appear to have grown somewhat culturally blind to. (So we keep building new idols, only to tear them down after human behavior—yet again—reveals its darker potential.)
As I continue to revisit Kozelek’s song—from one month to the next, and one criminal celebrity exposé to another—I’ve decided that I don’t ever want to catch myself reveling in the demise of another human being. Those words, “He’s bad/He’s dead/and I’m glad,” ring hauntingly hollow; they don’t feel genuine… As a stand-alone thought, without corrective, they feel like a disservice to the vastly complex potential of our human nature. And yet, one is so very often stumped, when confronted with the death of someone who did truly terrible things.
This morning, the headlines read: “Charles Manson Dead at 83.” Later in the day, upon arriving at my office, I was made aware of a death in the immediate family of one of my co-workers. I felt (and still feel) a profound sadness for my friends and their family. I thought of Leslie Van Houten momentarily, and the families of his victims, but apart from that I could muster little in the way of an emotional response to Manson’s death. The words of Kozelek’s song ran through my head again, and they rang false again; seeing as how gladness was an emotion, and I couldn’t bring myself to fit emotion in the equation of Manson’s death. A custodian at the office made small talk with me about the news while changing trash liners, observing that: “Someone who did so many awful murders… If I’d had my way, he would’ve been taken out back and put down. Saved the tax payers some money.” I acknowledged his observation, and respected his right to view the situation in such plain terms; I clarified that the death penalty was (rather controversially) suspended in California around the time of Manson’s sentencing. After our brief exchange, and upon considering Kozelek’s song and the deaths of other infamous criminals (and criminal artists) throughout history, I decided to follow my gut. After all, he was somebody’s child, and somebody loved him. Gladness seems glib, even in the plainest of contexts.
* * *
Where does all this leave us?
And what are we to do with the pieces we have left?
In answer to the first question: we are left alive and awake in the United States of America. We have a Constitution that has up until now guaranteed a fairly open space for independent speech and individual commentary. We have great books written by great minds; illuminating films by directors who see (or at least saw) the potential for the medium to show the possibility of an alternative, and the accompanying need for change. Beautiful records by our favorite musicians; museums and galleries full of artwork to expand our horizons (unlike the talk shows, reality shows, and click-driven online journals that rely upon the shrinking horizons of their viewership, in order to sustain their traffic and ratings). Blank paper, canvas, web outlets (free while they last), on which we can project our visions of an alternative and our private and collective need to change.
As for what we’re supposed to do with all this… well, that’s up to us: individually and collectively. I’m in no position to outline the course for an entire nation of people—each with their own individual views, ideas, convictions, and motives—but I do think we would be better off trying to learn something from the trials and tribulations we’re living through, rather than just repeating these tired tropes of scapegoating, public shaming, and language-policing (among other forms of dictatorial social conduct). As was sorely predicted by many of us, when the results of last year’s election rolled in, this year has been a nightmare on many fronts; and short of an organized revolt or an awakening of Republican consciousness, we’ll have to endure at least one more year of the nightmare. By continuing on the course our society has traversed this past year (a course that has both recycled traditional socio-economic exploitation tropes and invented new ones, thanks to the willingness of millions to surrender their thoughts, ideas, photos, and identities to metadata collectors—free of charge—to be exploited by the highest online bidder), we are sentencing ourselves to an increasingly dystopian future in which individual thought verges on extinction, civil liberties become novelties, sex is reduced to a formal contract, and humor is no longer recognized. Like Godard’s Alphaville, only far less cool to look at.
As far as my own experience of 2017 is concerned, I like to believe that I’m leaving this year older and more tired, but wiser as well; less quick to jump to conclusions, more open to the ambiguity of life and the possibilities for change. I advance into the wilderness of a new year with the knowledge that no socially-imposed chain of exploitation can hijack my freedom to think and act in accordance with a greater wisdom. Unless, of course, I grant this chain the power to do so.
“Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”
– Neil Young
(from the 1977 song, “Campaigner,” recently reissued on his Hitchhiker LP)