No One Debating Marjorie

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s major function in Congress is wasting everyone’s time with procedural motions. But yesterday Greene also tried to bully Rep. Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio by yelling at her about supporting Black Lives Matter and Antifa and especially about AOC’s refusal to debate her about the Green New Deal.

Greene’s problem goes beyond her support for QAnon and supporting calls to execute Nancy Pelosi. Since Trump’s election in 2016, leftie/liberal attitudes toward conservative have changed from “condescension” to “contempt” and people on the center-left are no longer willing to debate conservatives on economic policy, abortion rights, trans rights, or any other kind of political or cultural issue.

That represents an enormous shift among white Americans. Political debate used to form a common ground between liberals and conservatives.

But that common ground disappeared.

A Note on Blackness, Democrats, and American Identity

For all the discourse around Black Americans, there is not much of a sense of the part played by Black people in American politics and society. Social and political discourse is overburdened by dichotomies like conservative vs liberal, moderate vs progressive, identity vs class that don’t fit most Black voters particularly well. The main questions usually posed are whether trends in Black voting help or harm the Democrats. Is Black turnout up or down and what percentage of Blacks are voting for the Democratic candidate? Is that enough for the Democrat to win or lose?

I get it!

On the presidential level, huge Black turnouts and 90% of the Black vote are the only ways for Democrats to win. But the role of Black voters, politicians, and celebrities in shaping contemporary American life and history goes far beyond that and I’d like to briefly suggest ways Black people are the driving force by which the Democrats are defining a new kind of national political culture.

Most of the social movements informing the Democratic Party values and policy are permutations of the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. That includes feminism, disability rights activism, LGBT rights movement, and immigrant movements all of which have long been dominated by the civil rights principles and language. As a result, Democratic Party and American discourse is permeated with a language of diversity, inclusion, anti-discrimination, social justice, equity, abortion rights, contraception rights, and salary disparity. There is also a continuous stream of Black, women’s, LGBT, Native, and Hispanic “firsts” which represent civil rights milestones for each group as well as individual achievements. The discourse of “firsts” is one way but an important way in which Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Pete Buttigieg, and Deb Haaland have broad historical significance. The language and the values embedded in civil rights discourse are also personified by the most iconic figures of the last 60 years. A short list includes Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, and John Lewis but also reaches back to W.E.B DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others. Likewise, works like the #1619Project are indications that the conditions and perspectives of Black Americans are becoming central to the historical sense of American identity.

Blackness as a Universal Vulnerability

Going back to this picture of T. D. Rice as “Jim Crow,” a question that needs to be asked is “what does it mean to be black” in the context of early blackface.

There are several answers.

Within early blackface, being black partly meant being understood through physical stereotypes such as dark skin, protruding lips, a particularly large nose, “woolly hair,” African dialect, a large derriere, and extended feet and heels. The primary social stereotype for blackness was the all-encompassing poverty represented in the “Jim Crow” picture through holes in shoes, wrinkled and torn pants, and a worn out hat.

The main connotation of physical and social stereotypes was that blackness was a degraded condition–particularly vulnerable, dependent, enslaved or barely out of slavery, deprived of the necessities of life, targeted by (white) violence, human in a form that can be readily questioned, denied, and laughed at. From the late 1820’s to the 1840’s, white men had an intense fear of falling into the kind of degradation associated with blackness. However, they also sought to distance themselves, master, and adapt the image of “degraded blackness” and T. D. Rice paved the way for doing so by adapting blackface make-up and costuming and performing as “Jim Crow.”

How extensive was the vulnerability involved in the representation of “degraded blackness?” The best analogy would be delirium tremens, a condition that still strikes alcoholics and drug users who suddenly reduce or eliminate their high levels of alcohol and drug consumption. In the first stage of delirium tremens (or mania a potu as it was most often called from the 1820’s-1840’s), men experienced the entire environment as assaulting them and themselves as intensely vulnerable with seemingly their whole bodies exposed to danger.

In representing himself as a black man, Rice was doing the same. It wasn’t just that his skin and hair were black or that he was wearing ragged and torn clothes, or that his shoes had gaping holes. Instead, Rice’s “Jim Crow” conveyed a total or universal vulnerability to the world. In Workingmen’s imagery, men could analogize themselves to vampires or incubuses that were attached to them and attacking them as though they were women. Later in the 1830’s, William Burton put songs about men being killed by mechanical arms and wooden legs that they could not control. More than “attached” these threats were partially occupying men and leading them to painful deaths.

But the figure of Jim Crow anticipated Burton by representing men as fully occupied by blackness and that blackness as an indicator of an extreme kind of vulnerability. For white men in Rice’s audiences, it was like delirium tremens with their whole exposed, almost as if their skin had been torn off and their insides exposed. This “display of degradation” is what gave blackface much of its power with white audiences.

The Democrats and Their Insurrectionist Opponents

Rep. Steve Scalise (White Nationalist-LA), the No. 2 guy in the House GOP, announced today that he supports replacing Liz Cheney as the House No. 3 with Elise Stefanik (Trump Toady-NY).

Jokes aside. The Liz Cheney episode is a founding moment for the Republican Party that confirms the profound changes in the party since 2015.

The Republican Party is now an insurrectionist, white nationalist party with Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election as their founding text.

What of the Democrats? That’s a more complex case because the Democrats are a more complex although also rapidly changing party.

A brief definition:

The Democrats are primarily a civil rights party born of the 1950’s-60’s Civil Rights Movement and its permutations into feminism, disabled rights, gay rights, trans rights, and environmentalism. The Democrats are a party of diversity, equity, and sustainability. They are also a party of anti-racism and opposition to bigotry and the abusive of vulnerable populations.

The Democrats don’t really have a foundational text, but I would think of the work of Martin Luther King, the debate between King and Malcolm X, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 as starting places.

An Assimilation Problem

Josh Hawley (@HawleyMo) has an assimilation problem in that he refuses to assimilate into 21st century multicultural, socially liberal America. In the increasingly insurrectionist Republican Party, the refusal to assimilate is the ticket for admission and Hawley uses the language of “cancel, censor, and silence” to advertise his status as an “outsider.”

Fundamentals of American Instability

The United States became an unstable society the minute Donald Trump caught fire among Republican primary voters in the Fall of 2015.

Or was it when Obama was elected in 2008.

Perhaps both.

The furious right-wing response to Obama’s election as the first black president overshadowed the extent to which an urbanized, multiracial and socially liberal coalition coalesced behind Obama.

By 2015, white conservatives caught on and Trump ran against “Obama’s America” almost as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. Caught up in long-term Clinton grudges and Bernie v Hillary drama, the Democrats were incapable of mounting a unified defense of their emerging culture and Trump as able to squeak by despite losing the popular vote.

After Trump took office, it was a now unified Democratic coalition that mounted a furious reaction and kept the heat on Trump all four years. But that overshadowed the extent to which the GOP voting base and Trump were shaping each other into a fascist movement that is animated by a cult of personality, longing for political violence, and opposed to American democracy.

The Democratic coalition increased its vote by 16 million in the 2020 presidential election and is unified around Biden. But the Trump cult has solidified in the Republican Party and local Republicans have been inspired to pass legislation seeking to rig future elections and put protesters in jail.

At this point, the quickly evolving dynamic of American instability is the opposition between multicultural democracy and Trump-centered fascism.

A Different Kind of Otherness

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With the “Jim Crow” act of T. D. Rice, black people became one of the dominant figures of “otherness” in popular culture. Before 1830, black people in Philadelphia were not acknowledged as having enough status to be defined as the other. Women were defined as a physically weak, vulnerable, and penetrable “other.” Seducers, drunken sots, and immigrants could also be portrayed as the “other,” but black people were portrayed primarily as being outside the “self-other” relationships by which society was constituted.

That changed with Rice and Jim Crow.

In the picture above, Rice’s “Jim Crow” includes many features that whites at the time viewed as “degrading” about black men. That includes their dark skin, the worn hat, “wooly” hair, rumpled jacket and shirt, pants ripped in several places. and shoes so worn that his left foot was sticking out the front. Jim Crow also s+poke in “black dialect” and had the “loose” kind of gait associated with black people.

In the idea of women as the “other,” any association with female qualities was felt to be deeply humiliating and strenuously avoided. The workingmen had felt especially degraded when representing their own bodies as feminine in the sense of being seduced or subject to vampires and incubuses.

Rice’s version of “Jim Crow” was a full figure of black “otherness” to white men. But instead of avoiding association with the “degradations” of blackness, Rice completely “embraced” blackness, eagerly “displayed” himself as a full black man for his performances and sang songs, told jokes, and danced as a “black” man. The performances of Rice were “displays of degradation.”

Black “otherness” in “Jim Crow” was more complex than previous forms of otherness in the popular culture of white laboring men. Otherness in the case of both women and black people was created out of stereotypes, but instead of avoiding “blackness,” Rice internalized the full range of black stereotypes and employed those stereotypes to transform himself into a different kind of man and performer–“Jim Crow.”

Given that Rice built the “Jim Crow” character out of racial stereotypes, he internalized “fantasies of blackness” rather than the diverse reality of black people in cities like Philadelphia and New York. At the same time, blackface fantasies of blackness became important enough to the popular culture and identity of white laboring people that the blackness existing outside the fantasy became a serious threat to white stability.

Beginning Next Week

The picture below is from a performance of “Jim Crow” by T.D. Rice

My goal for next week through May 2 is to write 2000 words mostly on Rice with my main points being that:

  1. Rice engaged in a cannibilistic consumption of folklore, dance, and other elements of 19th century black culture to create “Jim Crow; ”
  2. In the process, Rice re-shaped black culture into a fantasy of blackness that addressed the heightened cultural needs of white laboring men during early industrialization.
  3. Beginning with Rice, fantasies of blackness became a bedrock element in white popular culture and white identity.

Because I’m retired, have health problems, and am obligated to do much of the housework, I have trouble organizing my time. But that’s nothing compared to the mental health problems I experience while writing. Some sort of early trauma is always triggered while I’m writing and I’m not sure what it is because my infants brain surgery, abusive father, and mother going through 5 childbirths in six years provided so much identifiable trauma. I also feel that all my memories of these things are being reconfigured in terms of the traumas being inflicted on black people as the enjoyment of black suffering became crucial to white identity and cultural practice.

More observations on the picture of Rice as “JIm Crow” tomorrow.

The Vulnerability of White Male Bodies in Philadelphia, 1785-1850: An Absurdly Concise History

The core dynamic in the white popular culture of Philadelphia was about the increasing vulnerability of male bodies and how popular culture was transformed in response.

I have book outlines but wanted to capture the dynamic here in short, sharp formulations.

Traditional Culture

1805, “Spanking Jack”: Artisans represent difficulties in terms of attacks on their bodies, i.e. sudden death, dismemberment, and torture.

Failure of Traditional Culture

1792, John Fitch: portrays his own sense of bodily vulnerability in terms of being “burned alive” as he worked on his steamboat project.

1829-1837, Workingmen: shift from treating difficulties as threats to portraying themselves as having vampires and incubuses attached. This is start of laboring men portraying their bodies as “occupied” and “feminized” in the sense of an intensified vulnerability and subjection.

1828-1850, Delirium Tremens: Sense of body being under threat changes to terror of the total environment. Only refuge is hallucination of attacks.

Cultural Transformation

1832-1842, Occupied. The minstrelsy of T.D. Rice counter-acted body anxiety through transgression: i.e, adapting blackness, embracing the degradations associated with blackness, and displaying that degradation. Leveraging these transgressions, Rice represented his “Jim Crow” character as having an enhanced and invulnerable masculinity.

After 1835, minstrel performers still adopted and displayed blackness, but also articulated an idea of black people as “comic substance” whose absurdity and suffering could enjoyed by white audiences. Projecting their sense of their own bodily vulnerability onto black people created some symbolic distance and created a leering, sadistic experience of whiteness.

1841-1842. Feminized Male Bodies. Just as minstrelsy embraced and displayed blackness, the Washingtonian temperance movement created a cultural practice that relied on the embrace of feminized male bodies. But the Washingtonians were not able to generate the collective temperance identity craved by their members and ultimately served as a bridge to the Sons of Temperance and their intense focus on collective identity.

1837-1850. Honored Felons. The volunteer fire companies also represented themselves in terms of displaying vulnerable, feminized, male bodies. But they were more successful because they were able to translate rioting into a strong sense of group identity.

1843-1850. Blackface Bands. The blackface bands continued to embrace the degradations associated with the ideas of black people as “comic substance,” developed songs and entertainment techniques that heightened the white enjoyment of black suffering, and added the sentimental enjoyment of black suffering to the minstrelsy repertoire.