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Zunguzungu
Zunguzungu
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Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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Buffalo Skulls

buff-skulls

When Raphael Lemkin first coined the term “genocide,” it was a word for what he was against. But the direct, programmatic, and industrial murder of an ethnic group—as has come to be exemplified by the Holocaust’s trains, gas chambers, and crematoriums—was not the only, or even the primary meaning of the term; it was not the only thing he was against. Today, for better or for worse, most people understand a genocide to be mass killing, organized and state-sponsored, with the Holocaust the original for all the other holocausts which must Never Again. Genocide is mass-killing, full stop. But Lemkin had begun thinking about legal protections for sub-national groups well before the second world war—starting with the Armenian genocide—and the crime to which he would eventually give a name was something more broad and expansive: any systematic and organized destruction of a collectivity’s ability to exist as a collective.

A people’s plurality could be destroyed in many different ways, and Lemkin’s great unfinished work was to be a general history of world genocide, with dozens of different and variant examples. For Lemkin, then, settler colonialism was clearly genocide: his general world history would have included chapters on “the indigenous people of North and South America, the Aboriginal Tasmanians, and the Herero of German Southwest Africa.” Organized mass-killing was only one way to end a people, and far from the only one: individuals could survive a genocide, for example, but if the basis for their collective life had been destroyed, then a genocide had still occurred. When settler colonialism makes it impossible for survivors to live indigenous life-ways—as when the Australian government removed Aboriginal children from their parents, for example, or when US policy towards natives was to “Kill the Indian, save the man”—then assimilation becomes a vector of annihilation. The survival of bloodlines is precisely not the point; with the possibility of living in a native sovereignty destroyed—the impossibility of living the collectivity that had made them as such—genocide was only the word for what had happened.

Settlers always know what they are doing, of course; it was why they worked so hard to slaughter the buffalo: they wanted to kill indigeneity, not just individual indigenous people. A people who marked time and history by the buffalo could not survive in their collectivity without it. And so, as “Plenty Coups” of the Crow nation put it,

“When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

His point was that without the buffalo—the object on and through which his people existed and made collective meaning—their history could not continue. Individuals could survive, as he had, but the people had (arguably) come to an end.

“White genocide” is the phrase that white nationalists use to describe racial integration. When white nationalists began targeting George Ciccariello-Maher for a pair of tweets—and for living the life that he lives—they didn’t accuse him of advocating “racial integration,” though that is, of course, what they object to. But even Drexel University would not have found a reason to call his opinion “reprehensible” if that was what he had called for. Instead, they accused him of advocating the mass killing of white people. They were able to do this because his first tweet—“All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide”—was followed up by “To clarify: when the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a very good thing indeed.” If you combine these tweets–and accept their framing–it becomes possible to hear only the more limited sense of genocide in the phrase “white genocide,” to hear a call for the mass-killing of white people. This is how the public relations officer that crafted Drexel’s proclamation seems to have (mis)understood the two tweets: a leftist professor comparing white people, today, to Haitian slave owners, and advocating their mass-murder. But this is, of course, not what Ciccariello-Maher meant, just as it is not what white nationalists really mean when they use the phrase (which is why they carefully use it that way). The entire “controversy” is stupid, by the design of those who cannot bear the reality of an America that is already multi-racial: “white genocide” is a trap, designed to blur the incredibly important distinction between racial integration and mass-killing. These are not similar things. And yet, because university public relations is where thought goes to die, white nationalists like Richard Spencer see it as a major victory.

Words are powerful. Lemkin’s word, genocide, made it possible to look at what the 19th century sometimes called “manifest destiny” and see a crime. To the white settlers flooding the American west, their destiny to rule the Americas was “manifested” in the fact that their populations were growing and the native populations diminishing; the phrase “manifest destiny” is a way of looking at a genocide manifestly in progress and naturalizing it, of seeing a people fading from existence and making destiny the author of their misfortune. To call it “genocide” is to observe that it was planned and put into effect. The settlers who killed the buffalo did so because they knew what they wanted and how to achieve it.

Is “white genocide” a thing in this sense? Ciccariello-Maher’s response to being targeted was to observe that white genocide is “an imaginary concept” and “a figment of the racist imagination,” and, of course, he is right. The birth of a mixed-race child is nothing like the mass-killing of white people; to argue that they are similar is nonsense. But does the mixing of America threaten “white culture”? Does immigration and diversity threaten the possibility of living a collective life as white people in America? In David Lane’s “White Genocide Manifesto,” for example—a bastardized version of Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 The Rising Tide of Color—Lane opens by asserting that “the term ‘racial integration’ is a euphemism for genocide”; because whiteness is a recessive gene that needs to be carefully protected from any competition (“The inevitable result of racial integration is a percentage of inter-racial matings each year, leading to extinction”), it cannot survive its dilution. The one-drop rule was once a Southern strategy for maximizing its unfree labor force; today, it poisons the groundwater of white nationalism.

In this sense, “white genocide” is exactly as real as “whiteness” itself. Whiteness is also an imaginary concept and a figment of the racist imagination, of  course, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or deadly; whiteness is a thing because people insist that it is, and use force and violence to make it so. Whiteness is a thing because white supremacists needed a name for their violent subjugation of others, and so they gave it one. In this way, whiteness is a uniquely virulent and pathological form of social identity. It cannot survive its loss of supremacy; it cannot abide competition or mixture or “impurity.” Created by racial slavery and given a second wind by European imperialism, whiteness depends on the violent subordination of all others. Celebrate your Irish heritage if you must, or your Pennsylvania Dutch grandparents; that has nothing to do with the whiteness that names me, now, but which (partially) excluded my Irish and German ancestors when they came to this nation. Irish and Pennsylvania Dutch can and will survive incorporation into a multi-ethnic nation, but it is the sine qua non of whiteness that it cannot and will not. Inextricable from racial subordination, whiteness has no other content at all: whiteness is what’s left in the melting pot after everything else has been burned away. Without that xenophobic fire, it has no meaning, no substance, no fundamental.

This is why “white genocide” actually does have a meaning beyond “racial integration.” If you take away a white person’s ability to live as the undisputed master of the universe—to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence—then you take away his whiteness. His heart will fall to the ground and he will not be able to lift it up again. After that, nothing will happen: whiteness will be dead.

We should welcome this manifest destiny. White people will not be systematically murdered, after all; non-white people mainly want to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, and they don’t need to kill white people to do it. In the 18th century, they did: if enslaved Haitians wanted to live as full human beings in the societies in which they were born, they did have to kill white people to do it; the only thing to regret is that enslavers laid the seeds of their own misfortune.

We do not live in the 18th or 19th or even the 20th century. Donald Trump’s generation can remember America before the civil rights movement, before California and Texas—and so many of our cities—became majority-minority, before their cause became a lost one. In a generation, Donald Trump’s generation will all be dead, and they’ll be replaced by the least white generation in American history. The arc of demographics is long, though: we’ll live the rest of our lives in a world where whiteness is backed in a corner, wounded and angry. We’ll live in a world where it has never been harder for a white person to live as the undisputed master of the universe, to take his own experience as normal and privileged, and to presume all others to be debased copies of his own primary existence, where whiteness is a plurality, still, but not a majority, where white people have dominance but no longer have hegemony. Because hegemony is dominance that doesn’t need violence to maintain itself, this is a dangerous world to live in: post-hegemonic white supremacy is organizing for war, and we will not be free of it for a long time. Because white supremacists see their morbid collectivity vanishing, they are willing to die for it, and to kill.

We can live for it, I hope. My children, if I have them, will speak Spanish, and in their life they will assimilate me into the new world we can all dream of creating together. Whiteness needs to die, because it was only ever about death in the first place. We can dream of something better, and more to the point, we can live it. A term like “white genocide” will not help us do that. But it’s good to look at what they are against, what they fear, what they hate, and remember what it is that we can be unironically for. There is probably a word for it, and I hope we all live long enough to learn what it is.

None of You

nineveh-s

Doing the impossible in the Anthropocene: Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh.

Katya, an ethical pest removal specialist, has an impossible job. Rich people hire her to remove pests from their homes, as they once hired her father, Len, a more conventional (and less subtle) exterminator. But Katya has introduced a wrinkle into the family business: she extracts the range of “unloved and unlovely” creatures that hide and survive in the nooks and crannies—the “caterpillars, snakes, frogs, slugs, cockroaches, baboons, rats, mice, snails, pigeons, ticks, geckos, flies, fleas, cockroaches, bats, and spiders,” as she enumerates for a client—but she does it without actually killing them. She moves them and dumps them in parks or in the wilderness outside the city limits; she coaxes them out of wherever they are, and transports them to new hiding places, as gently and humanely as she can.

She is a liberal exterminator; we might even call her a specialist in pest gentrification.

On the surface, Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh is a realist novel, but an air of unreality enters the narrative with this exterminator who does not exterminate. The novel takes place in a recognizable Cape Town, South Africa, in the present, in a luxury housing complex—called Nineveh, infested with creatures she has been hired to remove—which is not quite fantastical or futuristic enough to make this a work of fantasy or science fiction. In the first scene, we see Katya demonstrate her craft, expertly and painlessly removing a swarm of caterpillars from a tree and transporting it elsewhere. But the prose seethes and shimmers with the uncanny and unsettled, a garden haunted by matter-out-of-place:

“It’s a strange sight, this writhing tree: a tree in mortification. Particularly here, where the perfect lawn slopes down to the grand white house below between clipped flowerbeds flecked with pink and blue. Off to the side, just in the corner of her vision, a gardener is trimming the edge of the lawn… It’s a lovely afternoon for a garden party. But at the center of this picture, an abomination: a single tree sleeved with a rind of invertebrate matter, with plump, spiked bodies the color of burnt sugar. It’s possible to imagine that the whole tree has been eaten away, replaced by a crude facsimile made of caterpillar flesh.”

And yet this sense of strangeness, this surreal image of a tree-shaped pillar of caterpillars, is met with hard-headed practical expertise: with skillful care, Katya encourages the insects on the tree to re-swarm, gently directing the swarm into a specially constructed box, and carrying them off (to be deposited in a nearby forest). There’s a trick to it, or a set of techniques that use the tendencies of the caterpillars against themselves: they follow a leader, so get the leader moving, and off they all go. Put them in a container for transport, close it up, carry them off, and there you are. Done. What is left behind is just a normal tree.

It’s utterly plausible. What do you do, then, with the creepy-crawling feeling left over? If bugs make you itch, then so will descriptions of Katya’s caterpillars (even if she removes them with clinical precision), and so does the reality she excavates. Bugs are everywhere. And even though it isn’t, this novel feels like science fiction; it itches like the dystopian, the speculative, and the post-apocalyptic, even as it’s realistically set in the present. But what is realistic about realism? Cut open a wall, and you’ll find it buzzing with insects; chop open the floor, and there are pests; do a survey of the air in your bedroom, and count the flies—or eat them in the night, without ever knowing it. Our stomachs are filled with bugs, as we know without knowing; nothing is more real than the pests we learn not to see, taste, smell, and know.

On one level, the novel is obviously allegorical, directly political. An ethical pest removal specialist is a perfect figure of liberal gentrification, the well-meaning city-planner who use capitalism to solve capitalism’s problems.As Engels once observed, bourgeois reformers never solve the problems created by capitalism, because they cannot address the root causes; since you can’t just kill the poor, the next best thing is to move “blighted” populations elsewhere, out of sight and out of mind. To “revitalize” a city center, therefore, is to make room for capital development by moving unwanted and unproductive (and uncapitalized) people elsewhere. Gentrification is ethical pest removal. (Indeed, the parallel is made very precisely when Katya returns home to her next-door park being bulldozed for development: the clan of homeless people living in the park have moved into the alley next to her house.)

If the allegory is clear, however, the novel muddies it by placing symbolism and reality side-by-side: if an ethical pest removal specialist is a figure for gentrification, then what is she doing working for actual gentrifiers? What is fantasy doing in the realist novel? What is realism doing in fantasy?

Katya’s job is impossible: that she does it, anyway, is the problem the novel sets itself to work out. It’s messy, and this is the point. If we dig a little deeper, we find that “realism” is composed of erasure and removal. There are always bugs in the picture, especially when they’re not pictured; without insects and parasites and critters and creepy crawlies, the rest of the world dies. That which is out of sight and mind is never out of reach. And so, the real and unreal live side by side, symbol and object, fantasy and real. What is one without the other? Matter is always in place; wherever it is, that’s where it is. And no one understands dirt like the people who clean it up.

 

 

 

Thanksgiving is Bullshit

bounty-social

But you already knew that.

Thanksgiving might be the most intuitive holiday, the least strange, the least alienating. A non-ecumenical holiday, all are welcome; though it isn’t not religious, there is no religious content to disagree with, or be excluded by; if Thanksgiving were to intersect with another holiday—say, a Jewish Holiday like Hanukkah—it will consume it, gladly, absorbing potato pancakes into its bloodstream as easily as it absorbs everything else. There is really not any ritual content at all to Thanksgiving, in fact, which is precisely what makes it so unstoppable: you eat turkey (or don’t), but not for any particular reason. You can watch the football if you want, but not doing so wouldn’t even signify as a lack; there are parades, but there don’t have to be. There’s a story about the first Thanksgiving, which most people ignore. Basically, it’s just families and friends getting together and eating a meal, which is about the most transparent, empty un-ritualistic ritual there could be.

Thanksgiving is therefore the most ideological holiday. There is no “war on Thanksgiving,” not really, but not because the holiday has no ideological content—to be asserted, attacked, and defended—but rather  because the ideology is buried so deeply, so firmly, as not to signify as such. It is so established, so settled, so natural, that it doesn’t need to speak itself; you can totally ignore it, and it lives on, undisturbed. Who could object to a family getting together to break bread? Who could possibly find fault with a ritual of togetherness sealed by food, or by the humble expression of gratitude for all that we might thank the universe for providing? I mean, yeah, that pilgrim stuff. But that’s not what it means to me, etc. Anyone can eat food and enjoy it; that’s the point of it.

Also, obviously, the holiday is a racist and nationalist celebration of American manifest destiny, an expression of gratitude for God’s gift of “America” to the (white) people who arrived and took it by force from the (non-white) people who were living there. There are always debunkers, who point out that the original Thanksgiving never really took place—and they’re partly right, in that the “first thanksgiving” narrative is total bullshit—but the truly damning thing about the holiday is that it actually does go all the way back to John Winthrop’s corn-stealing and grave-robbing shenanigans in 1624 (albeit by way of a protracted editorial campaign by Sarah Josepha Hale, of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Abraham Lincoln’s canny deployment of this nationalist myth in the middle of the civil war). It was in the 19th century that the ritual practice took shape, and the holiday was created, but the events which it sanctifies not only symbolically happened, but they kind of actually really happened. The darker and more grisly version of the story—as David Murray tells it in Indian Giving: Economies of Power in Indian-white Exchanges—is of starving and traumatized Englishmen wandering through a unsettled and uncanny ghostly landscape, digging up graves for food: some of the objects they grave-robbed, they put back—realizing that it would be an abomination to keep them—and others they ate, though they pledged they would make some kind of recompense to the Indians if they could ever find any living ones. They didn’t, of course. In the end, they decided that that it wasn’t to the Indians that they owed their salvation: it was to God they gave their thanks for the Indian death they had found.

But this history doesn’t really matter. I mean, obviously, the beginning of white settlement was the beginning of the end of native sovereignty. And just as obviously, when we celebrate the success of the “pilgrims” at eating native foods—turkey, yams, corn, etc—we are celebrating the beginning of a genocidal holocaust, our ability to “eat” this land, which meant that they were to be deprived of it. But the power of it is both that we make ourselves as a “we” by positioning ourselves within that story, and also that we don’t even have to. It’s already done. We even make jokes about it, a genocide which is a constant and painless source of amusement in the many comics and cartoons which observe that maybe Thanksgiving didn’t work out real well for the Indians (HAHA).

The genius of Thanksgiving is that it’s not only a specifically American holiday, and not only a ritual making of American-ness, but even we cynics who see through the bullshit, are no less American for doing so. For this reason, Sarah Josepha Hale’s editorials make interesting reading (albeit repetitive), because she is quite clear on her intention to make it a second Independence Day. While the Fourth of July commemorates American independence from Great Britain—on the field of battle and print culture, with the publication of the Declaration of Independence—her vision of a national Thanksgiving is an interestingly feminine counterpart to these masculine expressions of national patriotism, a national unity produced and consecrated through hearth and home, domestic plenty and consumption, and the bonds of love. In a turn of expression that will gladden the hearts of people who have read Imagined Communities, it is particularly important to her that every state (and Americans overseas) celebrate the holiday simultaneously, and know that they are, such that “From the St. Johns to the Rio Grande, from the Atlantic to the Pacific border, the telegraph of human happiness would move every heart to gladness simultaneously, and to render thanks to God for the blessings showered on our beloved country.” The medium is the message; the form is the content.

If the Fourth of July celebrates the moment in which “we” Americans stopped being British—the patricidal violence by which the United States broke away—Hale and Lincoln created a second ritual commemoration of American-making, the union of many different domestic states into a single Federal nation, all eating together in imagined simultaneity: “though the members of the same family might be too far separated to meet around one festive board, they would have the gratification of knowing that all were enjoying the feast.” In this sense, if the Eagle is the national symbol for a masculine Fourth of July, enshrining the Turkey in a feminized Thanksgiving would make it a different kind of national bird, but no less important: if the Eagle is the violence by which we stopped being British, the Turkey is the love by which “we” become a singular “we,” the love of a bird that we kill and eat, who makes the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The violence of it, then, is that it isn’t violent, in part because the victim gives its death willingly. But we also just don’t know, or care. As a celebration of the first hearth, the first ritual communion of togetherness—the first moment in which “we” were a “we” together—it establishes “white settlement” as the moment when we became a we, the first moment of Americans, and not only erases the previous “Americans”—and the fact that the word “American” meant “those savage red people” until it stopped meaning that, and started meaning the “we” which meant “not them”—but it lays claim to an origin story that, because it is the original, the first, wipes the slate clean of everything else that came before. If Plymouth Rock is the beginning, then the thing which was begun requires the absence of anything that preceded it, which is not only forgotten, but as it is eliminated, disappears even as the thing requiring the work of erasing.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. In the same way that the fiction of “Santa Claus” is actually a fiction to adults—which is to say, we need the children to think it’s real so that we can know that it’s not, thereby establishing the difference between adults and children—the fiction of “the first Thanksgiving” is not even surface-deep. Of course it’s bullshit. That some people believe it, or pretend to—children, grandparents, the television, right-wing culture warriors—is necessary to the establishment of the story as bullshit, as a story whose truth is literally irrelevant. But no one cares, and even they only pretend to. This is, in fact, Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, which he gives in his scholarly monograph, On Bullshit; the essence of bullshit, he writes, is “lack of connection to a concern with truth…indifference to how things really are.” In fact, when Frankfurt goes on at some length about the bullshit/humbug that is the Fourth of July, he could be talking about Thanksgiving:

Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.” This is surely humbug…the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather…the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on…it is short of lying and [yet] those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way.

Ideology is another word for bullshit. It’s wrong, or not wrong, but who cares? It literally does not matter what you say, because it’s what you do, the structure of your actions, that retroactively determines the structures of what it is you need to believe. And because it’s true for you—and because you are true as you through it—it doesn’t matter what “really” happened, and who is to say anyway? And no one is really asking, anyway, because the answers don’t matter. We who aren’t descendants of the original people who died so we could live as Americans, we eat the fruits of that conquest every day and it makes us who we are. It doesn’t matter if we want to, or choose to, or like it, or don’t. We still live in houses built on graves, and we rob them again every day. It’s bullshit to pretend we don’t, whether by forgetting it happened, or by remembering; bullshit doesn’t stink any less when we call it “untrue.”