Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Terrible Tragedy of Mark Twain and Gabrielle Giffords

                Mark said there wasn't any other kind of war cause war breeds war like lovebirds.
                                                                 -Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless     

     Could there be a better definition of a non-coincidence than the recent convergence of NewSouths Books's plan to release a "non-offensive" edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the media self-flagellation resulting from the Arizona shooting spree?

     As we all know, not unlike Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly, NewSouth Books plans to sanitize Huck, removing all usage of the n-word from the text.  Because, you know, that makes the text totally tolerant of racial difference.  Like Tom, you can let black dudes linger in jail cells and otherwise use them for your own entertainment as long as you don't call them the n-word.  Hey, come to think of it, isn't that precisely what we do now in our post-racial America?

Jim pleads with Huck to not use the n-word

     On the heels of this soaping of Twain's mouth, Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting spree in a supermarket parking lot in Tuscan where U.S. Representative, Gabrielle Giffords was meeting with her constituency.  Loughner wounded fourteen people, killed six and became something of a political hot potato being thrown back and fourth between liberal and conservative pundits.  As liberals would have it, Loughner was a product of the "violent" political rhetoric being propagated by right wing windbags such as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party.  Always the voice of self-righteous indignation, that shameless simulacra of Edward R. Murrow, Keith Olbermann led the offensive against being offensive:

The right wingers promptly responded by accusing liberals of "politicizing" the shooting, and in the midst of the ensuing dogfight - you know, the usual one that passes for "political" debate - Giffords became one of those blonde, white, female martyrs, beloved by American popular culture.

     So what do these two (non)events have in common?  In both cases, a story of structural and bodily violence enacted upon people of color is overshadowed by a story about mostly-white people saying and doing violent things to each other.  In the case of Huck, the extensive and often quite casual violence enacted upon the character of Jim, not to mention his stereotypical characterization as such, is completely overshadowed by a single word and by concerns over offending readers.  NewSouth censored the book not because of a concern over racism but because they wanted the precious canonical text to be read in schools.  So the real victim in need of saving isn't Jim or any other black subject, fictional or otherwise.  To the contrary, the real victim in need of saving is apparently Twain!  Our precious white male canonical author, god save him from himself!

     In the case of the Arizona shooting and the media (non)event that it has become, the structural and bodily violence enacted upon undocumented workers daily in Arizona becomes overshadowed by the melodramatic narrative of Giffords, the white woman in peril.  The fact is, each month hundreds of undocumented workers are murdered, either directly or indirectly, while attempting to cross the US/Mexico border, and groups like No More Deaths have been told that is illegal to leave water in the desert for these workers due to littering laws!  But, it would seem that some bodies (i.e. the white blonde ones) are visible while others (un-papered brown ones) are not.  The media's self-condemnation regarding an isolated killing spree continues to efface a perpetual, State-sanctioned killing spree.  In related news, playing Call of Duty 4 has been proven to turn kids into terrorists:

     That liberals would lead this movement for censorship is nothing new.  Throughout the 80s, Tipper Gore waged war against heavy metal and any manner of popular music that supposedly turned teens into satanic perverts.  What strikes me as particularly ironic in the present case is that some of the same liberals who are now ever-so-gleeful to deride Sarah Palin's use of crosshairs are the same liberals who jumped for joy when Robert Rodriguez used his trailer for Machete to comment on Arizona's SB1017:

I think it's fairly obvious that this brilliant movie trailer uses violence in order to make a political statement.  Indeed, the entirety of the film, which I'd suggest is Rodrigeuz's masterpiece, deploys hyper-violent imagery to comment upon the subjugation of undocumented workers. 

     This hysteria over "media violence" and the "n-word" is a sort of PTA brand of pseudo-politics which amounts to nothing more than bourgeois navel gazing.  Political discourse has always been, is, and will always be violent, and bully for it.  We should not cede violent rhetoric to liberal narcissists who would censor it anymore than we should cede violent rhetoric to right wing juggalos like Limbaugh and Palin because no substantial political change has ever been properly non-violentAnd, Gandhi and King are not exceptions to this rule.  As Zizek suggests, sometimes the most violent thing one can do is to do nothing apparently violent.  In this sense, the "non-violence" practiced by King and Gandhi was indeed quite violent insofar as it struck at the heart of the State.

     We should read Huckleberry Finn and watch Machete in their original racist and gut-splattered forms because these texts develop complicated arguments about the intersection of race, racism, nation and violence, and if that means letting Palin have her crosshairs, so be it.  The real insidious motherfuckers here, aside from the obvious right wing Juggalos, are the Olbermanns of the mainstream media who reduce the political to some wishy-washy brand of rhetorical etiquette.  Beware of any instance where the media decides that what they have to say about the world is more important than the world itself.  You can be sure that this is also an instance of the West insinuating its own cultural supremacy.     


  1. I wonder what word NewSouth Books wants to use to replace the word 'nigger'. Perhaps the word 'slave' (even though Jim was 'free') or 'negro' (which has made a recent comeback in the latest census). Though neither of these words quite captures the historical violence of the word 'nigger'. In South Africa, blacks were called 'kaffirs', an Arabic word for heathen, that grew to connote all things abject. Perhaps NewSouth Books could adopt 'kaffir' to replace 'nigger'.

  2. I'm almost entirely with you on this. I think you're completely right about the way that stories like the recent shooting strategically over-shadow the more banal horrors enacted upon vulnerable populations. The red herring, though, is hardly exclusive to media discourse about violent rhetoric. The same argument, I believe, could be made about Michael Vick's case. I had written a blog about it before Melissa Harris-Perry said everything I wanted to, only better! Where your argument loses me a little is in how you are mashing together all violent rhetoric into one big ball. Olbermann calling for media pundits and political figures to be conscious of the way their rhetoric can influence those individuals Bill Clinton famously described as "delirious" hardly seems equivalent to the erasure of the word "nigger" from Huck Finn. A call for circumspection is not the same thing as censorship. If Olbermann, in his typically annoying and blustery bombastic "Special Comment," had been demanding legislation to cite or fine media figures and politicians for "violent rhetoric" (or to otherwise codify this kind of rhetorical censorship), I'd be with you.

    I, for one, wish Operation Rescue and their ilk would stop circulating material that "targets" (ala Sarah Palin) abortion providers and gives anti-choice activists all the information they need to find and kill those doctors. Because that kind of violence-as-political-change is working, indeed, as abortions are increasingly difficult to procure for non-wealthy women. I wouldn't argue that those materials should be illegal, but I wish our political climate was such that it wasn't blandly acceptable for them to do so. It shouldn't be controversial to point out the connection between these fliers and the assassinations of their victims.

    Finally, I'm a little confused on your point about the importance of violence to political change, when you then point to King and Ghandi as non-violently violent. Neither figure called for violence, thereby effecting political change, something that is inherently violent (?). So...basically what Olbermann said?

  3. @Marla. I think there is something very dangerous in Olbermann's rant because it is all about isolating which discourses should be included as "American" and which shouldn't. And that's what he's doing. He's not asking nicely for us to be careful what we say. He's demanding that there be a standard by which to de-legitimate certain discourses. Note the absolute idiocy of his assertion that violence has no place in "our democracy." This is both historically and conceptually false as any student of American democracy or the concept of democracy in general already knows. Olbermann basically attacks easy strawmen from the right in order to ultimately support the continuation of the status quo. My point here was that violence is necessary to effect substantial political change whether that violence is aggressive hostility or a strategy of "non-violence" that calls down the violent force of the State. When we start saying all political rhetoric should be non-violent, which is what Olbermann is doing, we basically affirm the current hegemony.

    There will not stop being things like Operation Rescue whether we like them or not, whether Olbermann calls for their censorship or not, and so what the Left needs to do is GET MORE VIOLENT, as in more militant. Screw Operation Rescue, we should be calling for state funding for abortions. Seems to me that's a better way to make abortions a more viable option. This increased militancy is especially the case when we consider a GLOBAL leftist movement. Non-violence is very much a liberal humanist idea that seems laughable when we considered the corporate exploitation of people in the global south where certain strains of Maoism are perhaps a more viable option.

    The connection I'm drawing here between Huck and Giffords then is based on a liberal fantasy that by sanitizing language we somehow mitigate violence. This fantasy does two things: first it tends to elide the actual struggle of oppressed people, suggesting that all we need to do is speak differently to address social inequalities, and secondly it thereby tends to affirm Western narcissism, the idea being that whatever the problem is, it can be solved while maintaining that ideal that is Olbermann's "American democracy." That whatever change is necessary, it will not ultimately effect the supremacy of the liberal democratic subject.

    I simply don't agree and ultimately neither did Twain. Thus, removing the n-word from his rather horrific depiction of the American landscape is precisely like "cooling down" the political rhetoric in the media. It does nothing to speak to the underlying structure of inequality fictionalized by Twain and actualized along the US/Mexico border. The n-word and Sarah Palin's bull's eyes are only symptoms, and very small ones at that.

  4. @Hershini. I'm guessing that "nigger" will be replaced by "buddy" or perhaps "homeboy." This seems in keeping with the smiley-face image NewSouth is trying to project.

  5. @Marla. The whole Olbermann shpeel reminds me of John Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" which I also despised. Both had that "now let's get reasonable" tone to them, and by "reasonable" what these white, bourgeois, male subjects mean is something like a return to Clintonian policies which of course leaves their white, bourgeois, male privilege secure but makes them "feel better," makes them a bit more able to ignore the profound unreasonableness of American democracy.

  6. Ah! Here it is now. Again, I don't see you disagreeing with anything I'm saying, and vice versa. My point about Ghandi and King, which I think mirrors the sort of contradictory way in which you are invoking their legacy, is that even when you call for leftists to get more violent in their political rhetoric, you say we should demand state funding for abortion. However, an equivalent response to what I'm talking about with Operation Rescue, and what you don't seem to be calling for, would be pro-choice activists printing fliers targeting anti-choice leaders and maybe occasionally bombing their headquarters. Basically, leftists would be trying to create a climate in which anti-choice activists feared for their lives. Obviously, this kind of violence (rhetorical and otherwise) is asymmetrical. This is why the false equivalency, which I think you maybe even join Olbermann in making here, doesn't hold up.

  7. @Marla. Two things. By "demand state funding" I mean to demand perhaps at gunpoint or by any means necessary. And, while I don't think targeting anti-choice activists is a very effective way to make abortions more accessible, I do think violent activism for the purpose of doing so is utterly justified. To begin with, I don't think that Roeder, Loughner or other such nutjobs are nearly as much of a threat to abortion or border issues, respectively, then the State itself. These freak cases tend to distract from the larger force of the State and capital in both these issues.

    In theory, however, I think leftists should perhaps "create a climate in which anti-choice activists fear for their lives" or, to put the matter differently, in which anti-choice activists recognize a real militant force that is willing to defend itself. When we talk about the anti-choice movement, we're talking about people who are attempting to control what someone does to her own body. Now, imagine trying to force some other group, who wasn't comprised of women and often economically disenfrancised women, to do certain things with their bodies. What would be the consequence? What should be the consequence?

    Anti-choice advocates should fear for their lives because they are attacking peoples lives not only literally but also with the policies they support. If it sounds like I'm promoting a certain element of leftist terror, that's because I am. The Black Panthers, Mao, Lenin, certain radical feminists, queer activist David Wojnarowicz and yes even the founders of Democracy recognized that in every revolution there is necessarily a dimension of terror.

  8. case in point: