Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

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  • Published: May 29th, 2020
  • Category: Society
  • Comments: 1

Minneapolis

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There’s a Black man who was held in trial for treason in 1781, as he had fled the state of Virginia to fight for the British in the American Revolutionary War. For this he was convicted and sentenced to death. His only recorded name was Billy.

Before the sentence could be carried out, however, he was pardoned by the state of Virginia under the auspices of Thomas Jefferson after it was argued by members of the jury that as a slave, he had not the protections of being a citizen and therefore had no allegiance to the nation where he resided.

What is at heart, here, in these demonstrations, is a similar statement as to the social contract by which we are all bound. It is clear that the state is not affording Black people the due protections and rights of citizens, so why should they abide by the rules and strictures of the state?

Jacksonville

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The man in his sixties, potbelly, slightly stooped, facilities director, repository of institutional memory, who sized me up and only opened up once he had determined that I’m at least half as cynical as he is. Lost 70 lbs biking around the corporate office park rather than driving around it. Short on words, but opened more doors, physically and metaphorically, than anybody else could.

The man in his fifties, potbelly, engineer specializing in security apparatuses, a font of dad jokes, drinks rye whiskey since beer no longer sits with him well, grunts during all physical exertions, torn between being curious enough to solve the problems put before him but mercenary enough to ensure first that they were his problems to solve, polite enough not to make this an issue for at least the first four hours. Native and proudly Floridian, knew a bunch of New York jokes, accepted the responding Florida jokes with good humor.

The woman in her sixties, sucking down margaritas in celebration of being a survivor of cancer of the neck which has been in remission for two years to the day, come down from Michigan to raise a son, was told to set him back a year for public schooling so that he was be larger than the others come time for trial for high school football, so she did and he was, he met and was granted an award by Tim Tebow before suffering a career-ending injury during practice, so he now works as a bouncer at another dive near the beach.

The woman in her twenties, bedazzled bookbag and grey hoodie, who spent her days cold-calling Medicare recipients with long-term ailments on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, informing them that they could get medicine mailed to them every 90 days instead of having to visit a pharmacy every 30 days, spent her nights stripping for extra cash, and made drum and bass riffs on SoundCloud with whatever free time she had left.

The man in his thirties, bushy beard, tow truck driver, former air force pilot, who introduced me to every properly reprehensible reprobate in an equally properly reprehensible dive bar, a number of whom were wearing MAGA hats though oddly enough were on friendly-ish terms with the two Black patrons who appeared to be regulars, took to me because I understood most of his military lingo, habitually exaggerated every statistic he could remember – it wasn’t just an old bar, it was the oldest in the country; it wasn’t just a large city, it was at least five million people (which would make it easily the second largest in the country) – admitted after an extended discussion that the only Democrat he ever respected was Franklin Roosevelt.

The woman in her thirties, six months on the job as an admin for a restricted area, smaller than most with braided hair, delegated what she could and defensive with what she couldn’t likely due to a precarious position and being directly confronted in said restricted area, who could not answer questions directly due to inexperience at the job but insisted on what she had come up with days afterwards was “the way things always were,” rattled off with a straight face to employees who had been there for decades, since as gatekeeper for a restricted area, she was able to.

The woman in her twenties, forgetful as she was attentive, forever distracted blonde pixie with a strained smile on her face behind the counter of a combination cafe/bookstore with Bernie 2020 stickers in the window, as aside from myself and two construction workers in for their morning coffee, as observed for well over an hour the establishment was clearly utilized primarily as a time-share for the prodigious homeless in the area.

The woman in her seventies, spending her retirement bouncing between far-flung children and their households, come in from Texas to visit a daughter in her thirties who worked as a lawyer in insurance, who was very interested in drilling me on my pedigree and while she took my being half-Black in stride she did not take kindly to my argument that Trump’s China policy was ineffective at best due to his gross misunderstanding of China and the Chinese economy (and, let’s face it, America), at which point she declared that she was better informed as she had truer sources than the “mainstream media” (i.e. Fox News) but was too Southern and polite to do anything at that point than wish me a healthy life, a sentiment I returned complete with all applicable overtones.

Rebel Without a Cause

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It’s probably saying something about this day and age that so many top grossing movies that aspire to true drama are based on popular comic book IPs: A medium that aspires to parable but mostly just relegates itself to bombastic navel-gazing, forever worried about gaining relevance with a mass audience without losing relevance to its hard core of aging fans.

It’s in this stead that I’ve mulled over Joker, the new movie that takes on the usual Batman/Joker duality by making its iteration a supervillain origin story. It doesn’t exactly work, either as a drama or as a comic book movie, tho the reasons for each are similar as not. It works, perhaps, as a vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix to contend with Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson for Most Compelling Joker, but sadly he will have to take a distant third, not for his acting – he’s amazing – but for the writing.

The story of Joker remains largely the same throughout all iterations: Gotham, the comic book stand-in for New York (at times described as “New York below 14th Street at night in February,”) is dirty, crime ridden, inhospitable and always dark and cold. Batman is a billionaire industrialist and owner of the largest corporation in the city, who moonlights as a vigilante beating up what he sees as dregs of society. Joker is his foil: Obviously an extremist and psychotically insane but also with compelling arguments as to Batman’s effect on society – not just as a vigilante but as an capitalist. Wayne Enterprises, Batman’s business, is usually shown as a major employer with deep ties to the police and local government. Joker’s argument in most films is that civilization is a thin patina on base human instincts, largely governed by compulsion as anything else – a Hobbesian or Augustinian point of view, perhaps, though not strongly held – and Batman and his ilk are just as responsible if not more so for the sad state of existence as terrorists like Joker. In some cases, the argument is Batman creates Joker.

This is a political argument.

In the narrative of the comic book world, this works because Joker’s origin is deliberately mysterious – because he is nobody, he is everyman. His story as told by himself shifts to fit whatever narrative he hopes to achieve at the time, thereby always positioning himself in the perfect societal counter-argument to Batman’s attempts at what he sees as order. In effect Joker’s not unlike the chameleon nature of the internet forum troll: Arguments invented primarily to confound rather than based on lived sincerity, yet with the insistence and confrontational nature of having lived such lives. This lies at the heart of Nicholson’s Joker throwing away millions in cash during a parade right before releasing nerve gas or Ledger’s Joker pitting a ferry full of convicts against a ferry full of the bourgeois.

Phoenix’s Joker doesn’t really have that consciousness. And yet, it’s painfully clear that the producers of this movie really wanted him to. A version of “Bad Old Days” late 70s/early 80s New York is so lovingly crafted on the screen that the references are clear as day to any resident of the city; the grime and the graffiti are honed to a tee. It’s meant to evoke the New York of Bernie Goetz and Kitty Genovese and indeed this Joker even has a Goetz moment, shooting three finance bros in the subway (…all of whom are white, thereby avoiding any complicated message on race). It remarks on the cutting back of needed social services and indeed all civil servants have a harried, wane look to them, evoking the “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” fiscal crisis. It also references Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy so much one would think this movie is inviting comparison. If so, sadly, the comparison starts and ends with, “…but worse.” Travis Bickle is a disaffected loner who struggles with what he feels is his proper self-sacrifice to save the world. This Joker, named Arthur Fleck, is also a disaffected loner but harbors no such aspirations.

In fact, because in this iteration we know his real name and how he became the Joker, we can see that there is no statement to be made about society at all. Phoenix’s Joker is angry and aggrieved, but all his grievances are personal, not political. His mother is a delusional narcissist and he was abused as a child. He’s jumped by hoods and fired from his job. He pines for people who don’t know he exists or hold him in disdain. From that alone he might be considered a prime candidate for an incel hero, but that’s not entirely accurate. He’s more a character from the social texts of the 50s: An Angry Young Man, a Rebel Without a Cause. He lashes out violently and (somehow) ends up being the clown face of a violent, ostensibly populist movement but doesn’t care about any of that except to soak in the attention towards himself. The fact that the city is being beset by riots and protests is not really drawn on at all as a plot point, nor are the protesters or rioters afforded a communicated message, existing only as backdrop for the Joker’s own emotions. He is not feeding on the city’s energies; the city is feeding on his.

This is the opposite of a political argument.

That this movie is then produced during a time of great urban turmoil worldwide – from the self-dealing corruption threatening to tear our democracy apart, to the populist anti-foreigner rifts forming in the European Union, to extended protests in Hong Kong under China’s increasingly authoritarian thumb – makes it seem like it wants to say something about all that. It certainly carries itself with all the weight of such a dramatic role, and festoons every minute with the iconography of political tumult. That it doesn’t isn’t just odd, it’s at best an opportunity lost. At worst it’s an opportunity deliberately missed. This is likely for fear of offending any of the powers that be – from the corporations that produce this schlock to the governments art is supposed to critique – but a lack of a political statement is itself a political statement: One for the status quo. Indeed, since in this iteration Joker creates Batman and then completely omits a denouement, it must be assumed that the last word of the unease created by this film is intended in a sequel to be a re-establishment of order by… a billionaire industrialist with ties to the police. That’s a fun thought for this day and age.

Alt Fashion

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59th Street.

She wears a striped orange bandana, knotted in the front. She has a silver nose ring.

She wears a brown leather jacket, absolutely, positively, festooned with fleur de lis, once a symbol of French Catholicism, then French Imperialism, then French Republicanism, now just general Frenchitude, yet cut as an American WWII bomber.

He wears a black canvas jacket cut to mimic the shoulder padding of a leather motorcycle jacket except it would certainly not survive such rigors.

She wears jeans covered in German deer hunters’ camouflage.

He wears a navy blue wool peacoat, to ape mariners’ wear, except the collar is cut to promote wearing upwards, which he does, and provisions are made for non-existent epaulets.

He wears tight cotton Chinos, despite this being winter, highwater to show off his burgundy leather not-boots.

She wears wheat Timberlands, hood formal wear, as do her sisters in charcoal and bright fucking red.

Her sisters wear acid wash white and grey jeans, respectively. Both wear grey bubble jackets.

She wears a red bubble jacket and remarkably restrictive grey leggings, accentuating the panty lines below the cut of the coat.

He wears tortoiseshell glasses and a grey scarf done up alike an ascot, presenting the image of an Austrian nobleman down on his luck.

He wears grey sweatpants, baggy in the ass and tight in the ankles, giving the look of never being properly pulled up, yet they most certainly are.

So are hers. And her sisters. And him. Such is the fashion of the time.

She wears faux-leather kneehigh go-go boots. He wears Santeria-level white-on-white Nikes.

She has never bombed anybody.

He doesn’t ride a motorcycle.

She doesn’t streetwalk.

He has never shot a Filipino.

She isn’t a hippie.

He has never captained a ship, and is presumably not a Nazi.

125th Street.

4:44

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My Facebook has been hopping up and down with the track The Story of OJ on Jay-Z’s new album 4:44,  talking about how ‘adult’ he’s become, and now having watched it about half a dozen times, I can’t help but wonder if this is as ‘woke’, politically speaking, as Jay-Z gets. I mean, its message is pretty straight-forward, if a bit disjointed. For starters, these lyrics are as beat-it-into-you as possible:

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga /
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga /
Still nigga, still nigga

This is a great zinger:

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

And the visuals of the music video are a send-up of the racist cartoons that were household comedy for half a century (and themselves animated versions of racist caricatures of a century before that), but then the second half of the piece seems to be a suggestion not for Black people to uplift themselves but for rich Black entertainers to invest their money, leading to possibly the weakest and most controversial lyric in the piece:

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit /
You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it

Forgetting the obvious anti-Semitism of the second line for a moment (as well as the fact that “credit” doesn’t rhyme with “did it”), and forgetting the stereotyping involved for the comparison, it also flies in the face of, well, the message of the first half of the piece. If the first half is saying, “no matter what you do or how you conduct your life, you’re still Black in the eyes of greater society,” then how do Black people go about emulating Jewish people?

Sure, there are similarities in two historically disenfranchised people that has resulted in a surfeit of them falling to certain employment categories – entertainment being a common one – for lack of other options, but an obvious schism of cultural assimilation and the ability to do such is a great part of Jewish-American history: In effect, Jewish people, at least in New York City, have breached that barrier and become white. German Ashkenazi came in and Anglicized their names, inter-married and adopted the habits of the dominant culture, turned around and discriminated against their Eastern European counterparts for being “backwards” and sticking to their Lower East Side and Brooklyn shtetls… basically, what literally every persecuted minority in the United States has ever done, including my own heritage of Irish and Tsalagi peoples.

The difference is how society reacted, and it really helps to have a white face: The Irish became white, the Cherokee did not despite continued protestations that they are, and Blacks never can. The extent to which Americanized Jewish people have become white is clear in the age-old Borscht-belt joke about only being “Jew-ish.” There is no such thing as Black-ish. Hell, in this political climate the DuBois double-consciousness question as to whether one can truly be both Black and American comes back to the fore, as it seems the entire country is aligned in erasing the history of our first and only Black President.

Of course, the second line could also just be a more base reference to the stereotype of Brooklyn Jewish landlords, which is itself a controversy that has flared up many a time when it comes to race relations in New York. It’s certainly a topic that’s been played with at least in passing by other Black artists from Brooklyn, such as Spike Lee, though the lyric may not be a conscious attempt to reference such. That said, this lyric –

I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood /
That your mama rentin’ /
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood /
That’s how you rinse it” 

– suggests this man has never heard of redlining. I know he’s heard of Urban Renewal, for he grew up in the Marcy housing projects, but suffice it to say this shit is systemic.

The first line about strip clubs, by contrast, is pure Chris Rock, which means it’s pure Bill Cosby and plenty of Black comedians before him: The only problem is, yeah, you can save money when you can earn money, and you can’t earn money if you can’t get a good job. One of the major aspects of the disenfranchisement of a people is that merit alone doesn’t land you work: Connections do, and breaking into an industry is hard if you don’t have an introduction – and that’s assuming you have the right skin color – else you’re just likely to see a lot of doors slamming in your face.

Every lyric that follows is about investing,  which when coupled with a rich Black entertainer’s criticism of another rich Black entertainer – and let’s forget the cruel and cynical position that in order for a Black man to get rich he’d better be great at writing lyrics or an even greater athlete – rings hollow.

Cultural Communism

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In her seminal analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes against the Jewish people, Hannah Arendt contrasts the Israeli government’s extrajudicial extraction of Eichmann from Argentina with that of the extrajudicial assassinations of Talaat Bey and Simon Petlyura, by Shalom Schwartzbard and Soghomon Tehlirian respectively, who protested the difficulty of seeking justice over state-sanctioned genocide against their peoples through the most efficacious means suggested (I forget by whom) of disobedience of unjust laws: One must break them and then demand to be punished for said transgression. She argued that the inherent justice in their actions (and subsequent acquittals) was due to the fact that they at the time had no state representative judiciary who could try their case through proper means, and thus put themselves at risk of trial unlike the Israeli agents who kidnapped Eichmann. In this she made a point about the Israeli government’s conduct of the trial – but not its result or their competence to try it – as to the statement however wittingly or otherwise it made about the nature of legal and political representation of a people, as compared to a nation, and the implications therein.

I found that this above other points she made diverged fundamentally from my worldview, for a conceptual reason of jurisdiction. If admission to the international stage of humanity – the existing “comity of nations” – and thus true protection of human rights requires a self-governing homeland, for which all those historically, ethnically, linguistically and culturally linked draw their political representation from – which is to say, the power of ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, for instance, stems from Russia, not their proportion or protection in the Ukrainian polity – then I am, have been, and will always be stateless. Or, rather, I’ve been by circumstance forced to develop a worldview which depends on a different font of support, not unlike traditional Marxist concepts of class consciousness: The rich seek to stay rich, the middle classes seek to become rich, and the proletariat, seeing no means of becoming rich for such a goal is far too distant even to comprehend, seeks equality for all.

This stems from the fact that the Cherokee Nation will never be a nation, for after all it cannot even determine its own citizenry, that power being granted solely from the United States Government’s adherence to their own census, the Dawes Rolls. Indeed, since there is an economic incentive to limit their own numbers in the form of federal subsidy and grants, the leadership of the current beneficiaries of such a system jealously guard induction to preposterously low populations and therefore neuter their own existence. This is also largely the case of Black America, in the sense that the connection with contemporary African societies is quite distant culturally, yet exist as the Ur-minorities in the American polity – a colonized people within the nation’s own homeland. Save for the craziness that was and is Liberia (though unlike us they did elect a female President), the only way forward is to enforce the American Great Experiment of eliminating “minority status” as codified in so many European societies for so long both politically and socially.

By definition, and thanks to being of mixed heritage, I have no choice but to come out against ethno-nationalism in all its forms, for it does not and cannot represent me in any way, and an international stage in which it is dominant is one that will eventually seek to destroy me. Arguably, my very existence is dependent on a system that has already eschewed such a social format and thus is the prime example of, and the largest proponent of, a system that is at least on paper ethnically and culturally neutral. That is to say, I see only one way forward, and that is to continue the Great Experiment because I depend on it, which means not only must I combat any and all administrations that attempt to define the country by ethnic or cultural lines but also must combat any and all who would seek to dismantle the administration for its failure to adhere to any one of a number of economic and political precepts, for this administration is the only one of its kind. Which is to say, I must oppose radical Marxists, even if I am a radical Marxist, for I cannot trust human tribalism not to rear its ugly head during an interregnum.

That presents a philosophical problem, for as Communism is a doctrine that many pundits, like those who would defend modern American Conservatism, argue has never failed because it had never been tried – that Communism has not failed, only that we have failed Communism – so too does this paint me in the corner that radical change is not only bloody and risky – as most radical reform results in disaster, both in the short and long term – and puts me in the direct firing line, thus I oppose it, but that it also means that under any other circumstance my political stance would also by definition be directly reflective of those circumstances and not the position I hold now, which would be a hard thing to argue to others not in my specific position should I seek allies. I am become an anti-tribal tribalist.

But then so too do minorities flock to cities such to the point that cities exist in their own social and political universe apart and distinct from the nation-state as a whole, which only means that, in my personal worldview, I’ve come full circle that my current state of existence – a mixed-blood minority in an ethnically-diverse city in a polyglot nation – is and has always been a mere blip in the long run of humanity, and that the circumstances that led to my existence have only cropped up a few times in history and then only briefly. If history is linear, I have much to fear. If history if cyclical, and it has every indication of being so, present administration included, then all I need to do is eat and die as me.

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