Tag Archives: progress

Watching Mel Brooks in 2016

On November 9, I sent myself an email. The world breaks, again and again, read the subject line. Maya Angelou supplied the body of the message with her poem “Still I Rise.” I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

Yesterday I wrote myself a note: “The culture comes into consciousness and is repeatedly repressed. Constant vigilance!”

The dangerous myth of progress is that it’s cumulative and linear. But progress isn’t set-it-and-forget-it. Progress toward social justice, toward a world in which everyone has access to basic resources and can exercise their human rights, requires constant maintenance. People in power are loath to cede any of it, never more so when their positions have become reified to the point that they believe any questioning of who occupies positions of power is an encroachment upon their occupation of said positions. One group’s gain is another’s loss in the zero-sum paradigm that governs our society.

Backlash is never not a possibility. People are never not at risk.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with my family to an enjoy a diversion: Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part I. We chuckled a few times, but it was not as funny as I remembered. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that we’re living in the aftermath of November 8.

Somehow, the sequence where a caveman assaults a cavewoman with a stone club, thereby enacting the first marriage, did not inspire laughter, nor did bearing witness to a monarch’s serial sexual assault of his ladies in waiting. Watching an enslaved black man repeatedly argue for his life, never mind his freedom, was distinctly uncomfortable. The abuse of power was rampant, and played for laughs.

The movie, which came out in 1981, had a particular temporal relationship to tragedy. A perceived–discursive, at least–distance from assault on marginalized bodies. Times were relatively good; collective suffering was a distant memory. There was space to skewer that which had plagued previous generations.

Today, we’ve come too close to these realities, too near the precipice of the possibility that our material circumstances are about to get worse, our rights may be called into question, our environment–and by extension, humanity’s future–may be laid waste in sacrifice to the altar of extraction capitalism.

The discomfort that came from watching History of the World, Part I made me think of Brook’s other comedies that wouldn’t play as well today, chiefly To Be or Not to Be and The Producers. Both rely heavily on lampooning Hitler for their comedy. “Springtime for Hitler” was a hilarious showstopper in 1968–and again in the late 1990’s. But today, in a country where we can no longer agree that Nazis are bad, that premise becomes less humorous and more tone-deaf. Sinister, even.

“Never again,” we keep declaring. Except it’s already happened.

When I was a teenager, I thought there was nothing left to fight for. Then the U.S. declared war in Iraq. The more years that pass, the more intractable achieving social justice seems to become. There is always something to fight for. And that means that sometimes, laughter has to wait.
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Filed under Beginning of the Body, Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Historical, Power, Racism, Television and Movies

Fear Briefing: Lawn Sign Signals

It wasn’t the first time I encountered the “Hillary for Prison” lawn sign, but the second. In the first instance, I was walking a friend’s dog around their neighborhood. In the second, I was walking around my own.

It’s no mystery to me that I live in an area populated with people who hold largely different political views than I do, but it’s a peculiar sensation to feel attacked by those with whom I’m otherwise on polite, if distant, terms.

I am usually able to dismiss bumper sticker discourse as inflammatory trollspeak, but these lawn signs struck a chord of fear inside me as I passed. It was the deep discomfort that comes from knowing you’re in enemy territory–or that the people occupying the territory alongside you would consider you an enemy if they only knew your beliefs. Those of us in the minority are often silent.

I’m lucky that this type of discomfort is a rare sensation. For me, that sensation inspires a blog post. For many in this country, that sensation inspires at best steeled resignation, but more often indicates it’s time to be on guard. For many, that sensation is uncomfortably familiar, and the stakes are impossibly high. That sensation could mean death.

Clinton’s candidacy, like Obama’s before her, incites the endemic hatred of the Other that underlines our country’s patriarchal, racist social structure. There’s a reason Clinton faces so much push-back, such odd media coverage. We, as a country, remain deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of a leader who is not straight, white, and male.

A lawn sign that implies the female presidential candidate might be a criminal springs from this discomfort. There are no “Trump for Prison” signs, after all. When you’re faced with the most qualified candidate in history, what’s left to attack but the aspect of her identity that sets her apart–albeit in veiled ways. An 11-hour hearing there, a rumor about a health crisis here, and a dig at her ambition (so unbecoming on a woman!) for good measure. Chip, chip, chip. And every so often, a thunk rings out, resonating in the hearts of those who share her gender. Putting us on alert.

Just as racism became more blatant after Obama became president, forcing our country to reckon with our shameful legacy of slavery and discrimination, I worry that a female president will inspire the misogynists to pour forth with their hatred more publicly than they already do. It’s painful to realize that this is how progress is forged–with a representative from a marginalized group coming forward, only to be pushed back by those so invested in the status quo that grants them a higher status that they can’t see there’s room for more people on the pedestal. And everyone who shares that marginalized identity is at risk.

People who display these lawn signs are angry that someone who isn’t like them might gain influence. They worry that it means the power they consider their birthright is being taken from them. These people have forgotten the important Kindergarten lesson about sharing, because our society teaches white men that their place is at the top, and there’s only so much room. So push those with the audacity to reach for the top back down. Defend the hierarchy at all costs! Try to elect the most under-qualified candidate you can find, as long as he is a he and pays lip service to your (fragile) identity and (very real) economic concerns. But for the love of a tradition that conveniently privileges you, don’t expend energy fact-checking or looking beyond your prejudices. That would be too much.

“Masculinity is always in crisis,” my history professor reminded us in 2006. Sitting in the safety of that classroom, I never imagined how viscerally gender trouble would manifest in the real world. Having come to consensus in class, I naively assumed the issue had been similarly resolved in the real world. And now we’re ten years in the future, and look what’s happening. Progress is not an arrow. Change swings every which-way. Those with power are loathe to relinquish it. So we work and work and work. We give up. We try again.

It’s those who are first to step forward who bear the brunt in public of what they incite in those who never imagined they’d dare to stand up. The scarcely concealed hatred underlying the hierarchy is forced to the surface, in full view. The bravery of those who go first triggers a fierce backlash, and the rest of us also bear the brunt, but in private. In conversation. In passing. Until we (hopefully) survive and count ourselves among those who comprised the catalyst for social change.

For now, I walk, and live, among people who can’t stomach the thought of a woman at the helm of our national government. And I am a woman. So maybe they can’t stomach me, either. I increase my pace as I walk past these signs, hoping their owners don’t notice me.

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Filed under Contemporary