Activism or Performative Activism?: Investigating Jimmy Butler’s “No Name” NBA Jersey
Jas L. Moultrie and Ralina L. Joseph / University of Washington, seattle


image description
Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.

The recorded murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020 of 46-year-old  George Floyd generated an unprecedented global response to Black racialized violence. While the sheer grotesqueness of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds are reason enough for widespread condemnation of anti-Black violence, the physical isolation and virtually simulated connection of #quarantinelife compelled more communities to pay attention. Conscientious media users, even those for whom race had not previously registered as “an issue,” had little room for willful ignorance with everyone indoors and attached to our screens. Before long, brands and corporations began to respond as well.

One of the brands to acknowledge such anti-Black violence was the multi-billion dollar industry of the NBA. For the NBA’s 2019-20 season restart, players could choose from an approved list of 29 social justice slogans to place on their jerseys, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Equality,” “Vote,” “Say Her Name,” and “Education Reform.”


image description
NBA social justice jerseys.

Jimmy Butler, thirty-one year old star of the Miami Heat, wanted to go an entirely different route. He petitioned for anonymity.

“I have decided not to [wear a jersey with a social justice slogan]. With that being said, I hope that my last name doesn’t go on there as well. Just because…I love and respect all the messages the league did choose, but for me, I felt like with no message, with no name, it’s going back to like who I was, and if I wasn’t who I was today. I’m no different from anybody else of color, and I want that to be my message, in the sense that just because I’m an NBA player, everybody has the same rights no matter what. That’s how I feel about my people of color.”[ (( Friedell, N. (2020, July 14). Heat’s Jimmy Butler wants no name on back of jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29461561/heat-jimmy-butler-wants-no-name-back-jersey))]

In this conference call with reporters, Butler does his due diligence by giving “love and respect” to the NBA’s version of social justice, but he also resists their version of branding. Butler identifies himself not as an exceptional athlete who might then escape from the forces of anti-Black violence. Instead he firmly names himself as “no name,” “no different from anyone else of color,” and as such, part of a resistance collective who also remains vulnerable to violence. And indeed, Black NBA players have not remained invulnerable to police brutality as the cases of Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks and Thabo Stefolosha of the Houston Rockets demonstrate.

After submitting his petition, 30 additional players requested to perform nameless. All of their requests were denied. Just before tipoff, however, in an early August game against the Denver Nuggets, Butler decided to wear the anonymous jersey anyway. This act of defiance was quickly quelled as he was made to change in order to play.


image description
Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless was denied.

Following the game, Butler posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts a photo of him wearing the “no name” jersey alongside a quote from recently deceased civil rights leader, John Lewis.


image description
Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.

A month later, other NBA players continued to feel the implications of his actions. Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets noted,

“Jimmy Butler did one thing, he took his name off of his jersey. I think that was so powerful. Because if he is just another Black man, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Could be homeless, could be walking on the street, you would never know.”[ (( Youngmisuk, O. (2020, August 29). Nuggets’ Jamal Murray: ‘My skin color should not determine whether I live or die.’ ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29768456/my-skin-color-not-determine-whether-live-die))]

Clearly Butler’s actions have been influential to his fellow players, and a countless number of NBA fans. But were they “activism,” what Cooper et al. conceptualize as the intentional disruption of oppressive systems of power,[ (( Cooper, J.N., Macaulay, C., & Rodriguez, S.H. (2019). Race and resistance: A typology of African American sport activism. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 54(2), 151–181. ))] or “performative activism,” a mere guise of such disruption towards change-making, as defined by critical race scholar and activist, Maia Hoskin?[ (( Hoskin, M.N. (2020, June 10). Performative activism is the new ‘color-blind’ band-aid for white fragility. Zora. Retrieved from https://zora.medium.com/performative-activism-is-the-new-color-blind-band-aid-for-white-fragility-358e2820a4e1 ))] Butler’s identities as a Black man, professional athlete, celebrity influencer, and business owner, among others, speak to his distance from and proximity to power. Such simultaneous distance and proximity complicates our question of “activism” versus “performative activism,” proposing an answer of not either one or the other, but both together, simultaneously.

Minoritized people, or those who are “smaller in power in a racialized economy that systemically denigrates people of color,”[ (( Joseph, R.L. (2017). What’s the difference with “difference”? Equity, communication, and the politics of difference. International Journal of Communication, 11, 3307. ))] challenge opponents through disruption, empowerment, and demands for change. In the sports world, Black athletes resist using raised, black-gloved fists at the podium, linked arms on the field, and dropped knees along the sideline. A legacy of Black athlete activism traces back to the 1900s. Sociologist Harry Edwards locates today’s efforts within a fourth wave of activism that concerns the transference of power.[ (( Edwards, H. (2018). Afterword to the 50th anniversary edition. In The revolt of the Black athlete: 50th anniversary edition (157–175). University of Illinois Press. ))] This wave was preceded by eras in which we strove to gain legitimacy (e.g. Jack Johnson), acquire access (e.g. Althea Gibson), and demand dignity, respect, and equal treatment (Muhammad Ali).

Today’s orchestrated, collaborative efforts between sports leagues and athletes feel different from even the fourth wave in which we are purported to be. For instance, further investigation of Butler’s protest revealed the NBA and Heat organizations’ awareness of his plan beforehand thereby allowing, and appropriating, his dissent. Furthermore, while a discussion of differences between activism versus performative activism in the WNBA compared to the NBA are outside the scope of this short column, we do want to note the ways in which the WNBA’s social justice activism, of individuals in concert with the league, illustrates what sports historian Amira Rose Davis calls the WNBA’s “pattern of commitment to social justice.” Because such a pattern has not been long-established in the NBA, the NBA’s league-managed efforts, backed by corporate interests, overshadow impromptu moments of individual resistance. Butler’s attempt at a “no name” jersey versus the NBA-approved social justice jersey messages are but one example.

The approved list of social justice messages was negotiated by the NBA and the players union (NBPA). Interestingly, players could endorse a message on a jersey without their last name, but only for the first four days in the “Bubble.” Players were also limited to choosing from the list. Several, including LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, opted out of the initiative for this very reason, noting:

“I would have loved to have a say-so on what would have went on the back of my jersey. I had a couple things in mind, but I wasn’t part of that process, which is OK…I don’t need to have something on the back of my jersey for people to understand my mission or know what I’m about and what I’m here to do.”[ (( McMenamin, D. (2020, July 11). Lakers’ LeBron James to go without social justice message on jersey. ESPN. Retrieved from https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29448088/lakers-lebron-james-go-social-justice-message-jersey))]

James’s statements critique the performative activism of wearing jerseys alone, and gesture, instead, to his own activism, including his philanthropy through the LeBron James Family Foundation which, for example, opened the “I Promise School,” and his new nonprofit More Than a Vote which donated to the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition in order to allow formerly incarcerated Floridians the right to vote.

Other players, including Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers, both of the Houston Rockets, wanted to inscribe Trayvon Martin’s name on their jerseys, but were not allowed to. Reportedly, the league and NBPA decided against using the names of victims to forgo the process of obtaining permission from their families and to avoid offending the families of victims not included. Imagine, reading their actual names in place of league-approved “Say Her Name” and “Say Their Names” inscriptions. Explicit, directed attention towards murdered Black people (Trayvon, Tamir, Sandra, Eric, John, Michael, Akai, Walter, Freddie, Atatiana, Korryn) extends their stories and fosters dialogue in a way that would limit the NBA’s control of the narrative.

What also differs in the discursive movement between activism and performative activism is the simultaneous discursive movement from explicit acknowledgement of systemic racism to colorblind and postracial rhetoric. In June 2020, before the season restart, the NBA and NBPA announced their shared goal of addressing systemic racism and racial inequality. Two months later, after the shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent player labor strikes, the organizations revealed their strategy. In a joint statement, the NBA and NBPA detailed three commitments for the 2019-20 playoff games. These included establishing a social justice coalition, converting team facilities into voting locations, and producing advertisements which promote civic engagement and raise awareness surrounding voter accessibility. The strategy communicated here is voting as the challenge to systemic racism. And while voter suppression is a systemic issue, championing voting initiatives fails to imagine a transference of power, and ultimately shifts responsibility to the individual. Those of us watching at home bear the responsibility instead of the organizations of power (NBA, Turner Broadcasting System, The Walt Disney Company).

Instead of the hyper-visibility of the jerseys, we wonder what might have happened had the NBA and NBPA made their own equity negotiations more visible. We wonder, what if, instead, the NBA had bravely and transparently distributed an audit of their own practices of a more casual form of anti-Black violence that happens through Black exclusion in their own organization? What if they provided data investigating racial disproportionality in all levels of the NBA, not just focusing on players’ jerseys but on the hiring and retention of Black coaches, trainers, front office staff, and even owners? What could fans learn of what disproportionality looks like in terms of recruiting, hiring, mentoring, and promoting Black people internally? Do these numbers approach the proportion of Black players (74.2%)? And if the answer is no, could they share out what is their plan to change their structurally anti-Black practices?

But this didn’t happen. A buried press statement about broad “social justice efforts” and a well-publicized performance of social justice jerseys did. The jersey example of corporate and performative activism represents an unsettling trend. Neoliberal capitalist enterprises are subtly co-opting social justice movements in pursuit of social and financial capital. Termed “cooptations of consciousness,”[ (( Moultrie, J.L. (2019). Commodifying consciousness: A visual analysis and discussion on neoliberal multiculturalism in advertising [Master’s thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]. IDEALS, 61, http://hdl.handle.net/2142/105695 ))] the people’s pain, anger, and demands for change materialize the sell. Going nameless prevents Jimmy Buckets and the 30 additional players, the ultimate commodities, the NBA’s Black athletes, from being identified, coded, and packaged. Commodified Blackness must be named and marketed to the masses.

Through the lens of the NBA, Black bodies are accepted and validated by their ability to perform, by their entertainment value. Basketball, however, is not the only space through which we are presented as spectacle. The consumption of Black death is a normalized pastime that has been intensified by digital and social media.[ (( Williams, S. (2016, July 11). Editorial: How does a steady stream of images of Black death affect us. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/editorial-how-does-steady-stream-images-black-death-affect-us-n607221 ))] Through these lenses, unacceptable Black bodies are subject to premature death.[ (( Hong, G. (2015). Death beyond disavowal: The impossible politics of difference. University of Minnesota Press.))] In one context, the male Black body is admired, even fetishized. In the other, the same body is vilified and justified as threatening. The case of Jimmy Butler’s jersey activism makes this very paradox of Black masculinity visible.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks. These are just some of the victims whose murders occured after the NBA announced it would postpone the season in March. In the aftermath of these hypervisible Black murders, it was necessary for basketball to return. For things to go “back to normal.” White supremacist hegemony depends on its resurrection to balance the spectacle of Black death with Black performance. Examples like Jimmy Butler’s demand for a “no name” jersey complicates this spectacle, combining moments of performative activism with activism.



Image Credits:

  1. Butler was not allowed to play in a “no name” jersey.
  2. NBA social justice jerseys.
  3. Butler removes his “no name” jersey after his request to play nameless is denied.
  4. Jimmy Butler’s Twitter post following his jersey demonstration.


References:




Witness Me: How Tiktok Users Broke With the Sociopathic American Gaze in the Wake of George Floyd’s Murder
Alex Hack / University of Southern California

For most of my youth, a fairly strong divide has existed between millennials and those who came before us.[ ((Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. “The Generation Gap in American Politics,” March 1, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/03/01/the-generation-gap-in-american-politics/))] This chasm evidenced by everything from “OK Boomer” memes to the various ‘millennial tests’ on television that sometimes attempt to prove us inept,[ ((Ellen’s New Millennial Challenge After Rotary Phone Fail, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjin8t633pc&t=58s&ab_channel=TheEllenShow; What Does Millennial Late Night Writer Karen Chee Know: MC Hammer, Thigh Masters, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLJplORWMyc.))] in addition to the endless attacks on Millennial character that littered the 2010s.[ ((Ryan Jenkins, “The Top 8 Millennial Weaknesses and How to Overcome Them,” Inc.com, June 15, 2016, https://www.inc.com/ryan-jenkins/top-8-millennial-shortcomings-and-how-to-overcome-them.html.; Frank Chung and News.com.au “Why ‘Lazy’, ‘Entitled’ Millennials Can’t Last 90 Days at Work,” New York Post, March 12, 2019. https://nypost.com/2019/03/12/why-lazy-entitled-millennials-cant-last-90-days-at-work/; Joel Stein, “Millenials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Time, https://time.com/247/millennials-the-me-me-me-generation/))]

It’s been rather lonely, generally unable to connect with the GenXers who somehow managed to, at least ideologically, escape much of the current and impending nightmare that has colonized my thoughts. And so, as Gen Z comes of age, I’m appreciative of the company,[ ((Kim Parker, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, January 17, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/01/17/generation-z-looks-a-lot-like-millennials-on-key-social-and-political-issues/.))] despite the circumstances. In the wake of a global pandemic, my millennial peers and I find ourselves hope(lessly)tethered to the young faces that spend much of their time sounding off against injustice in one minute or less, wielding an attitude that crystallizes a deep disenchantment, and serving deadpan that warms my blackened heart.

I now see power in our collective cynicism, especially as, even if only for a few weeks, many of us were able to escape the White (neo)liberal ideologies and allegiances that monopolize this country’s political discourse. In the time following George Floyd’s murder, the video sharing app TikTok demonstrated the capacity of generations who lack an inherent faith in America as concept, to do what Elizabeth Alexander describes as taking up “the perspective of […] witness rather than […] spectator,”[ ((Elizabeth Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (January 1, 1994): 77–94, https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-7-1-77, 83.))] and in doing so, briefly managed to collectively reject America’s unethical roots.

Slavery, colonial capitalism, western expansion, and the violence needed to maintain them, are the foundation of what today make American racism so prosaic. According to Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, racism’s mundanity and control over American consciousness betrays a “total violation of reason and comprehensibility.”[ ((Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” Social Identities 9, no. 2 (2003): 169–181, https://doi.org/10.1080/1350463032000101542, 173.))] Despite White supremacy’s lack of comprehensible ethical ground, America conforms to its predetermined mold. This absurd moral blindspot, excused as ignorance, being what largely holds this country and its spurious institutions together. As pointed out by Shannon Winnubst, “White culture” seems very much “allergic” to any claims that White supremacy might be located in the individual “and daily habits of White people across the US and the globe.”[ ((Shannon Winnubst, “The Many Lives of Fungibility: Anti-Blackness in Neoliberal Times,” Journal of Gender Studies 29, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 102–12, https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2019.1692193, 103.))] And it is the stagnant banality of Whiteness and its historical weight that overwhelmingly determines what and how we see, often via cultural mechanisms we hardly recognize.

Martinot and Sexton implicate the spectacle, making the claim that the general public’s relationship to police brutality is one of “spectacular events”[ ((Martinot and Sexton. “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy,” 173.))] (like the many horrific recordings released over the years) that work to hide racism’s existence in our everyday lives. As the exception to the rule—because, certainly, such acts of wanton violence must be extraordinary in our ‘civilized’ society—they witness exceptionally bad cops, or fearful cops, or misinformed cops, and of course the implicit guilt of the Black body, but never racism’s everyday, rooted, omnipresent nature.

In many ways, George Floyd’s murder broke with this logic, perhaps it was the murder’s duration, eight minutes and forty-six seconds of a cop unsympathetically suffocating a man to death, or simply the video’s lack of explosive violence. Beyond the boredom of the coronavirus, something won out over White denial. Derek Chauvin’s casual callousness as Floyd begged for his life and called out for his mother, his rejection of the pleas of nearby witnesses, and his contempt when they began to question him as the life drained from Floyd’s body, all somehow laid bare the commonplace nature of this disturbing violence.

The murder demonstrated a savagery, that if ignored, would implicate its viewer. A stance reminiscent of the “Mrs. Flint” Alexander discusses from Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The white mistress of a southern plantation, Mrs Flint’s “nerves were so strong she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash.”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] But obligatory attention, driven by White guilt, the kind that encourages the posting of a resource list and little else, does little to escape American sociopathy.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (Duke University Press, 2014), 181–203, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11319fq.13, 188.))]


Chauvin, looking down at George Floyd
Chauvin, aware he is being recorded, looking down at George Floyd as he casually suffocates him. From The New York Times visual analysis of George Floyd’s murder.

In her visceral depictions of violence, Jacobs urges her readers “to reject Mrs. Flint’s perspective and assume instead her own, the perspective of a witness rather than a spectator,”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 83.))] hoping to make abolitionists of them. But for Alexander, the perspective of witness often involves a kinship that acknowledges the precarity of ones own position, as many of the Black testimonies she cites involve the knowledge that this violence is also meant for, and may very well be experienced by, those narrating. And I’d like to claim that a combination of institutional distrust[ ((John Gramlich, “Young Americans Are Less Trusting of Other People – and Key Institutions – than Their Elders,” Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/06/young-americans-are-less-trusting-of-other-peopleand-key-institutions-than-their-elders/.))] along with TikTok’s format and algorithm, including the idea that those on your “For You” page (TikTok’s home page or “newsfeed”) are also like you—whether that be queer, black, radical, into cottage core, kinky, conservative, etc.—allowed a kind of witnessing and collectivity to take place, that skirted the ubiquitous mundanity of White, capitalist, American logics.

These logics determine the expectation that in viewing anti-Black police violence you accept the assumed criminality and baser nature of those harmed. But this concept has become troubled amongst a group of people that often accept theft, criminality, and sex work as an essential part of their condition under capitalism. In a recent Washington Post article, that declares Millennials “the unluckiest generation in U.S. history” (as if the exploitation of “economic growth” has much to do with chance), we are placed below every generation—in ascending order, The Lost Generation (1883-1900), Gilded (1822-1842), Transendental (1792-1821), Missionary (1860-1882), Gen X (1965-1980), Progressive (1843-1859), Boomers (1946-1964), and Silent (1925-1945)—in economic growth after entering the workforce.[ ((Andrew Van Dam, “Analysis | The Unluckiest Generation in U.S. History, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/27/millennial-recession-covid/.))] This fate, of course, now also befalling Gen Z. And we should be far from surprised that generations forever harmed by American fundamentalism (the same system that has violently abused the non-White for longer than the generational expanse just listed) lack the desire to live and die by its laws.

Rather than being produced for the evening news or as the eye-catching fodder that might populate your Facebook newsfeed, the personal style of the TikTok content posted in response to Floyd’s murder—often handheld, including eye contact, physical proximity, and point of view perspective—avoided what Kimberly Juanita Brown calls “voyeristic distancing,” and in cases of physical harm, foreclosed on the usual visual and aural techniques utilized to allow the viewer to “escape the violation on display,” like obscurity or a reliance on racial stereotype.[ ((Kimberly Juanita Brown, “Entering through the Body’s Frame: Precious and the Subjective Delineations of the Movie Poster,” in Black Female Sexualities, ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Trimiko Melancon (Rutgers University Press, 2015), 13–26, 16.))] By directly addressing their audience, the videos managed to bypass the way Black pain and experience is often “distorted and dehistoricized”[ ((Alexander, “‘Can You Be Black and Look at This?’ 80.))] via the grand American consciousness and the mechanisms that maintain it.


Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below
Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below, recorded in their creators’ cars.

Surprisingly, TikTok instead unearthed a more authentic Black subjectivity and gave it a platform. Some of the most visceral of these videos taking place in automobiles, the enclosed spaces engendering not only a physical closeness, but allowing the user to feel they are in what is normally a private space, creating a momentary intimacy. In these videos we see a dad talk to his child, who is nervous about him participating in the ongoing protests, or a shaken service member worried about Vanessa Guillén, or a young man tearfully ask “why the fuck is white skin still more fucking valuable,” or a family being attacked by a white mob as the young daughter in the backseat cries in fear, or a man pulled out of his car and wrestled to the ground by police. This last perspective echoed by a White twenty-two year old walking home from a protest. The posts’ memetic nature (upsetting movements brought on by police aggression, violently jerking their cell phones around once they hit the ground) demonstrating not an equivalency but a solidarity that surpasses the obligatory social media post.

The videos I mention above, as well as thousands of others, garnered millions of likes, views, and shares. With so many young people already willing to accept the lie of meritocracy, identification with those exploited by the system or with a desire to unsettle it, becomes less of an ideological strain. After Floyd’s murder, videos including demonstrations, police violence and misconduct (much of which has already been removed), oral story telling, protest tips, discussions of White privilege, education, relevant news, indigenous experience and solidarity, and calls for justice and restraint, flooded the “For You” pages of those who already sympathized with the cause. Many of the posts asked something of their viewer, and engendered an incredible amount of action, including the signing of petitions, the creation of websites, the attending of protests, the redistribution of wealth, and eventually the sabotage of a presidential political rally.

TikTok has already slowed the wide circulation of similar posts, actively pulling its users towards a White universalism, one I’d argue is more restrictive than before, the app coming under fire for hiding Black and #blm content.[ ((Megan McCluskey, “These Creators Say They’re Still Being Suppressed for Posting Black Lives Matter Content on TikTok,” Time, https://time.com/5863350/tiktok-black-creators/.))] But for a brief period of time, the users who were ready and willing to amplify and support Black voices became aware of that fact that more is indeed possible, young Americans encouraged to serve as witness and to take up Black orientations[ ((Sara Ahmed, “ORIENTATIONS Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 12, no. 4 (October 2006): 543-74.))] in new and emancipatory ways. TikTok itself (newly acquired by Oracle,[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Oracle Reportedly Wins Race To Acquire TikTok’s U.S. Operations,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2020/09/13/oracle-reportedly-wins-race-to-acquire-tiktoks-us-operations/.))] a company whose billionaire co-founder funds the Trump campaign[ ((Siladitya Ray, “Trump Lends Support To Billionaire Donor Larry Ellison As He Backs Oracle’s Bid For TikTok,” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/siladityaray/2020/08/19/trump-lends-support-to-billionaire-donor-larry-ellison-ashe-backs-oracles-bid-for-tiktok/.))]) and its social media counterparts will likely never lead to sustainable change, but I believe the app allowed for a kind of mutual looking that reoriented our gaze and briefly opened our eyes to the value of Blackness and the possibility in its perspective.



Image Credits:

  1. Chauvin, aware he is being recorded, looking down at George Floyd as he casually suffocates him. (Author’s screenshot from New York Times analysis.)
  2. Screenshots of some of the TikToks mentioned below, recorded in their creators’ cars. (Author’s Screengrab)


References:




Gay Democratic Socialist Disruption on Television in 1971
Finley Freibert / University of Louisville


watching tv
Gay disruption on Chicago TV, 1971

Consider the following quote:

Because capitalism in America is proven to be exploitative on a vast and growing scale (the 1% of American families at the top get twice the income of all 20% at the bottom), I advocate making America socialist and redistributing the national wealth equitably. I advocate democratic socialism.[ (( Tip Hillan, “Letter to the Editor,” Vector, February 1972, 7. ))]

The quote seems contemporary.[ (( That is, aside from the exponential increase in the wealth gap represented by this quote’s percentages, which reflected the 1970s. ))] It sounds like someone talking about current economic inequalities exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continuing to spiral out of control. It uses “the 1%” in the sense that it was employed by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. It identifies and condemns the grotesque consolidation of wealth by the few at the expense of the rest of us. It sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.

The quote is from a gay democratic socialist speaking nearly fifty years ago. It is representative of a gay democratic socialist branch of gay liberation that expanded across the US from 1969 to the mid-1970s. While the nuances of the definition of democratic socialism depend on the contexts of its use, its associated rhetoric and emphasis on egalitarianism—precisely antithetical to authoritarian socialism—remain strikingly constant.

Reverberating the critical sentiment in the quote is the above image, a contemporaneous televised moment of chaos.[ (( The presence of sporadic circular banding, blurred movement, rounded rectangular masking, and slight non-rectilinear perspective typical of a convex screen all suggest the image is not a photograph of the scene, but a still capture of a televisual image and meant to be understood as such. ))] In the image, an alleged gay democratic socialist (the bespectacled youth with a mop top) confronts Dr. David Reuben, an author (the central foreground figure) who grossly misrepresented gay men for monetary gain. Thinking through this gay democratic socialist disruption of televisual flow provides a historical avenue for approaching recent considerations of what constitutes a gay politics.

Dr. David Reuben’s bestselling non-fiction book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) was first published in 1969. The book capitalized on the sexual revolution and was intended for the mass market in the vein of popular texts on sexuality from the time.[ (( The focus on pathology and sensationalism in Reuben’s chapter on homosexuality is more in line with the phobic and conformist position of popular psychology. For a differentiation between the popular psychological and sociological mass market genres see Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 86–93. ))] Feminists criticized the book for the author’s sexist discussions of women’s bodies and sexualities; gay men criticized it for outrageous speculations on gay male sexual experiences.[ (( Representative reviews in the feminist and gay press respectively include “Amazon’s Eye View,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 11; E.L. Sutton, “Mailbag: Reuben Peddles Baloney,” Advocate, February 3, 1971, 23. ))] The book’s popularity and Reuben’s frequent presence on talk shows to promote the book were indicative of an emergent monetizable form of self-help that Elena Gorfinkel calls “a developing literature of sex-help” wherein “the private sphere of sexuality could be accessed and become an object of consumption.”[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 170. ))] Gay liberation activists were not solely outraged by his false claims about gay life but above all the profit-oriented capitalization on those claims.


Howard Miller and Chicago
Howard Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971.

While Reuben was promoting the book during a taping of Howard Miller’s Chicago on February 14, 1971, a group of approximately fifteen gay activists interrupted him to contest his bizarre and bigoted claims about gay men. Gay activist Murray Edelman escalated the confrontation by storming the stage, demanding that Reuben answer. Edelman was intercepted by security, and the show’s host condemned Edelman as a member of the Red Butterfly, “a group of homosexuals with Marxist influence in politics.”[ (( William B. Kelley, “Gays Protest Reuben ‘Book,’” Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, February 1971, 1. The article went on to state, “Miller’s comment was the first hint that one [Red Butterfly group] might exist in Chicago.” In other words, given that the Red Butterfly was based in New York, even the gay press expressed surprise over the possibility that a new group had formed in Chicago. Indeed, by January 1972 the New York Gay Activists Alliance was listing chapters of Red Butterfly in both Chicago and Delray Beach. ))]

It is unclear if Edelman was actually a Red Butterfly, so it is plausible that Miller’s statement was anti-left red-baiting given Miller’s right wing affiliation.[ (( For the quintessential historical account of the lavender scare see, David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). ))] Yet rather than alleging Edelman was simply a gay communist, Miller’s statement displayed a surprising level of specificity and relative accuracy; the Red Butterfly was a gay Marxist group, which also self-identified as democratic socialist.[ (( See Image 3 for one of several places where the Red Butterfly self-identified as democratic socialist. “Red Butterfly,” Come Out, December 1970, 5. ))] Regardless of whether Edelman was a member of the group, the public identification of the disruption with the Red Butterfly and the action’s political and economic purpose align it with a gay democratic socialist imprint.

This protest on Chicago television was part of a tradition of gay liberationist zaps—confrontational direct action toward a public figure or institution with the aim of generating publicity. Gay zaps and other forms of gay media intervention and advocacy have been well-documented.[ (( Some key texts include Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995), 181–245; Stephen Tropiano, The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV (New York: Applause Books, 2002); Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2000); Matt Connolly, “Liberating the Screen: Gay and Lesbian Protests of LGBT Cinematic Representation, 1969–1974,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 66–88. ))] While there has been acknowledgement of the economic interventions of gay zaps with tactics like boycotting, much of the literature centralizes representational concerns as the primary focus of gay media activism of the 1970s. While clearly part of gay liberationists’ quarrel with Reuben was his fabricated claims about gay men, I’d like to adjust the lens on this moment of gay liberation media activism to consider the possibility of socio-economic critique offered by groups like the Red Butterfly.

Rather than read this protest as exclusively a representational quarrel over what constitutes “authentic” gay cultural and sexual practices, what if we view it as a critique of media industries’ collusion with—and embeddedness in—fundamentally inequitable economic infrastructures? A reading of this action as informed by sexuality and political economy is in line with what Heather Berg writes of different yet intersecting contexts of feminist sex-work activism: “the point is not that there is an antipathy between radical sexual and radical anticapitalist politics—the battles are the same: capital despises both workers and sexual minorities who refuse to assimilate to the nuclear family it requires in order to reproduce labor.”[ (( Heather Berg, “Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-Work Activism,” Feminist Studies 40, no. 3 (2014): 711. ))]


gay youth red butterfly pamphlet
A fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R.

Congruent with democratic socialist emphases on collectivity and socio-economic critique, Edelman urged that his action should not be recognized because of the publicity that it garnered—i.e., the newspapers that sold it as a front-page story—but rather because it was a call to solidarity as “an action directly out of our felt oppression.”[ (( Murray Edelman, “The ‘Heavy-Set, Bearded Youth’ Responds,” Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter, February 1971, 11. ))] Edelman later reflected on his motivations for spontaneously storming the stage. During the taping as he silently sat in the studio audience, Edelman envisioned Reuben’s books being sold and with the books’ circulation, he imagined the exposure of millions to Reuben’s ideas.[ (( Ibid. ))]

Edelman’s emphasis on solidarity in opposition to mass market product circulation is key to understanding how the zap was an economic intervention. While there is no doubt that public attention to the gay liberation cause was one objective of zaps, gay direct actions—rooted in the tradition of labor organizing and often themselves referred to as “gay strikes”—were nearly always intended to intervene in the flow of capital.[ (( [1] Examples include the gay strike of May 1969 initiated in the Bay Area to protest the police killing of Frank Bartley in Berkeley, and the National Gay Strike Day planned by the Gay Liberation Front at the 1970 meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. ))] Producers of the talk show invited members of the University of Chicago Gay Liberation group to the show’s taping of the interview with David Reuben because homosexuality was considered a “lucrative topic.”[ (( James Coates, “Miller Talk Show Ends in a Big Flap,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1971, 14. ))] However, upon learning of their invitation, Reuben refused to discuss the subject of homosexuality on the show for fear that it would diminish book sales.[ (( Ibid. ))] Following the confrontation, Reuben walked off the program and cancelled a future guest appearance on WLS. In sum, the Edelman-led zap disrupted both the local promotion of Reuben’s book and threw a wrench in the scheduling of two WLS shows. Further reflecting on the zap, Edelman linked the action to a broader gay liberation campaign in Chicago to prevent all advertising and sale of the book in the area.[ (( Fred Winston, “Gay Lib Member Confronts Sex Book Author on TV,” The Chicago Maroon, January 22, 1971, 4. ))]

Why does this matter?

This column was written during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, wherein popular candidates included a gay man and a democratic socialist. Through his policies as a mayor the gay candidate enacted class war against the homeless and working classes. He has also red-baited the democratic socialist and enthusiastically displayed contempt for postwar activism. Concurrently, everyday people actively confronting their own conditions of impoverishment, such as graduate students in the University of California system, have been fired from their jobs and threatened with deportation. It is also a time when political affiliation with democratic socialism can lead to disciplinary career actions, such as for David Wright of ABC News, or even one’s personal information being cataloged on a public blacklist intended to incite harassment.

While certainly there have been conservative groups across the gay political spectrum, socialism has been a formative component to gay activist cultures and historiography.[ (( Numerous folks have contributed to the progressive historiography of gay politics including John D’Emilio, Lisa Duggan, Jeffrey Escoffier, Jonathan Ned Katz, Gayle Rubin, and Barbara Smith, among numerous others. For a general overview see, Jeffrey Escoffier, “Left-Wing Homosexuality: Emancipation, Sexual Liberation, and Identity Politics,” New Politics, Summer 2008, 38–43. ))] Revisiting televised gay democratic socialist outrage underscores how central socio-economic considerations have been to the gay liberation project.[ (( While liberationists diverged from the conservative ethic of sexual identity privacy generally ascribed to the earlier homophile movement, the dual commitment of both groups to socialist critique provides a throughline from the early communist-inspired homophile cells, into the gay Marxism of the Red Butterfly, and through to the intersectional, anti-racist, and internationalist coalitions expansively documented by Emily K. Hobson. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016). For a key analysis of the radical left tendencies of early homophile groups, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 78–116. ))] Reflecting on where gay politics has been can help us imagine an equitable horizon for its future.



Image Credits:

  1. Gay
    disruption on Chicago TV, 1971 (clipping from Mattachine Midwest Newsletter,
    February 1971, 18.)
  2. Howard
    Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971 (author’s screen
    grabs).
  3. A
    fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key
    liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R. (clipping from Come Out,
    December 1970, 5.)


References:




A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Image 1-column2

Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.

Image2-column2

Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

Please feel free to comment.




Laughter in the Age of Trump
Maggie Hennefeld / University of Minnesota

olivertrump

“It is frankly hard to believe there ever was a time when people thought a Trump candidacy would be funny, but there was such a time.”
–-John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, 11/7/2016.

In response to news reports that the reality TV star Donald Trump is considering a run for the White House: “Do it! Do it! Look at me! Do it!”
–John Oliver, The Daily Show, 6/10/2013. ((VideoFads, “Careful What You Wish For (John Oliver in 2013 on The Daily Show),” Filmed [2013], YouTube video, 00:28, Posted [October 2013]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U10yKDDvIdc.))


John Oliver’s satirical mea culpa on the eve of the 2016 elections has raised many urgent questions about laughter and its effects on American electoral politics. To what extent are comedy and laughter responsible for enabling Trump’s rise amid a pathologically entertaining political media landscape? From the incisive satire of programs like Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, to the sensationalist ridicule fueling Internet “fake news” click-bait and 24-hour cable news talking heads, cultural economies of laughter have become inextricably entangled with the very civic processes that will soon install a self-caricaturing clown and ludicrously unabashed huckster profiteer into the Oval Office.

trump1 trump2

There is nothing wrong with using humor to lighten our burden—it’s going to be a long four years (at least). But now we need it to do more than that: we need to find a way to harness the edge of satire to repoliticize civic discourse in American society. For example, did you hear the one about the Western liberal democracy that democratically elected an unqualified, predatory, authoritarian demagogue and then potentially offered him unimpeded free reign over its eroded institutions and slanted checks and balances?

While liberal democracies enshrine the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, social democracies emphasize the power of collective institutions to protect the people from the ravenous excesses of individualist capitalism—to uphold the public services and civil liberties that we have come to associate with the social safety net. We know that these basic rights and programs are in massive jeopardy, and we do not kid ourselves by denying that this process has been underway for quite a long time. American culture in recent years has suffered from rampant depoliticization. Party politics have become spectator sports, exemplified by the “Super Bowl-sized ratings” ((Tom Huddleston, Jr., “Trump-Clinton Debate Could Get Super Bowl-Sized Ratings,” Fortune, September 25, 2016. http://fortune.com/2016/09/25/trump-clinton-debate-ratings/.)) of the 2016 Presidential Debates.

3 4

Why then, given our national addiction to political spectacle, did so many of us experience the outcome of the election as visceral shock—beyond the rational surprise due to bad polling data or to cultural incomprehension? There is no doubt that the news industry’s sprawling laughter machine helped pave the way for this feeling of collective liberal trauma. Trump’s election was less implausible than vividly unimaginable and unthinkable. This is the function of disavowal: when I say “I know, but all the same…” what I really mean is that I cannot imagine living with the burden of this thing that I profess to know. Laughter is a flourishing mechanism of disavowal. Our shock at the results of the election came not from a lack of belief, but from an excess of disbelief—a disavowal of something plausible but deeply unwanted that took shape through a media landscape fueled by incessant laughter and compulsive mockery.

Comedy, however spiteful, has always possessed a special power to reveal that the emperor has no clothes. Satire defeats fear with laughter. As Jon Stewart put it in a 2010 MSNBC interview with Rachel Maddow—about the destructive impact of news entertainment on journalistic standards—what “satire does best…is articulate an intangible feeling that people are having, bring it into focus, say you’re not alone. It’s a real feeling. It’s maybe even a positive feeling, a hopeful feeling.” ((Will Femia, “The Maddow/Stewart Interview, Uncut,” MSNBC, November 12, 2010. http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/the-maddowstewart-interview-uncut.)) Unlike the smug laughter of cynical disavowal, the stinging laughter of pointed satire can actively participate in transforming our perception of reality. Since reality is a construct—equal parts unknown trauma and Celebrity Apprentice—it is therefore ripe for the molding, and ours for the seizing.

5 7

What, then, is the place of laughter in an era of Trump—a notoriously thin-skinned authoritarian personality who litigiously cannot take a joke: who’s threatened to sue comedians including Bill Maher and Rosie O’Donnell for defamation of character? From his allegations of false reporting against The Onion, to his absurd Twitters wars as President-elect with the writers of Saturday Night Live and the cast of Hamilton, Trump literalizes the powers of satire. He cannot take a joke precisely because he is a joke.

But rather than purify our culture of the ubiquity of jokes (from “fake news,” to late-night satire, to cynical infotainment), let’s be rigorous about how we understand these jokes. It is a truism that humor is serious business: now it is more serious than ever. The Reichstag Fire of 2017 might very well come in the form of a preposterous Tweet or a reality television stunt.

89

Beyond paying scrupulous attention to the politics of comedy, how else can we take back the edge of satire? As Samantha Bee once lampooned the G.O.P. obstructionism against diaper subsidies for poor working-class mothers, “Like it or not, there are a lot of poor babies. And it sounds like all you’ve [G.O.P. congressmen] got for them is the same useless advice you’re giving their mothers: Keep your legs crossed.” ((Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, “Poor Babies Don’t Deserve Diapers | Full Frontal with Samantha Bee | TBS,” Filmed [April 2016], YouTube video, 05:48, Posted [April 2016]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNZwZA06oNs.)) Sometimes a pithy joke is the most expedient language for articulating the complex realities of systemic injustice—and for exposing the crude and self-serving political games that perpetuate such inequalities.

The Trump era heralds a new frontier in the dialectic between subversive humor and authoritarian oppression. Despite Trump’s threats to “open up those libel laws,” satire will remain protected as free speech by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (at least for now). In contrast, the official censorship and forceful monitoring of oppositional laughter is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Serbian grassroots humorist, Srdja Popovic, whose Otpor (i.e. “resistance”) movement helped spur the downfall of the brutal dictator Slobodan Milosevic, described his tactical use of illicit laughter to defeat terror and to incite popular resistance. He wrote in 2015: “Everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome.” ((Srdja Popovic, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).)) Popovic made use of a “smiling barrel,” a rusted tin barrel with Milosevic’s head painted across the front, which he allowed passersby in Belgrade to beat senseless for only 1 dinar per whack.

11 12

Having survived a very different system of institutionalized oppression, Ralph Ellison recounts the American legacy of the “laughing barrel”: both a physical barrel into which Black people unleashed their abjected laughs, and a repository for the history of African-American humor under slavery and Jim Crow. The “laughing barrel” was often placed at the center of the town square in the rural South, and offered one such space for laughing against racial tyranny and systemic injustice. As Ellison writes in “An Extravagance of Laughter,” “For by allowing us to laugh at that which is normally unlaughable, comedy…calms the clammy trembling that ensues when we pierce the veil of conventions that guard us from the basic absurdity of the human condition.” ((Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison: Revised and Updated, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Random House, 1994): 618.))

We need laughter now more than ever, but we need it to do more work than ever. Laughter pokes holes in the stilted orthodoxies, unquestioned dogmas, and overly earnest convictions that can permeate any ideological position—no matter how justified, authentic, or moral its claims. For example, since the election, there has been a troubling tendency to separate cultural issues from economic realities. This was the bait and switch that enabled a corporatist tycoon like Trump to appropriate the very real class anger of the 99% by pinning it on divisive cultural issues of identity, lifestyle and geography. He effectively stirred up the old bigotries to protect the excesses of ruthless capital.

oliver bee

While “class politics” have inexplicably become shorthand for centering the rural or exurban white working-class, allusions to “identity politics” have been rampantly depoliticized. What exactly are the politics of identity politics? The problem is not with identity as such, but with its gradual depoliticization through the neoliberal language of diversity, multiculturalism, and personal responsibility (on the affirmative side) and of exclusion, intolerance, and injury (on the negative side). The urgent rhetoric of identity enfranchisement has effectively lost its grip on the political: the basis of social oppression and cultural discrimination in the erosion of civic rights and the unbridled escalation of class inequality.

15 16

A bad joke come true, a jester-turned-sovereign, and now a clown without laughter, Donald Trump has also revealed a remarkable lack of facility with the language play necessary for wit and humor. Think of his volley of botched one-liners at the Al Smith dinner, which include “Here [Hillary] is tonight pretending not to hate Catholics”; “Hillary has believed that it takes a village…[especially] in places like Haiti where she has taken a number of them”; and “Hillary is so corrupt she got kicked off the Watergate commission.” (Womp womp womp.) As SNL vet and now Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has noted, “Donald Trump never laughs.” ((Mark Leibovich, “Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/magazine/al-franken-faces-donald-trump-and-the-next-four-years.html?_r=0.)) Lack of laughter notwithstanding, Trump does having a remarkable propensity for discrediting his political enemies as “laughable,” “a laughing stock” and “ridiculous,” on topics ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, to Russian election interference, to the status of critical news journalism.

Against Trump’s authoritarian laugh-less laughter, there now remain two possibilities for our counter-laughter: the cynical disavowal that displaces reality (until it comes back to smite us) and the transformative satire that changes the rules of reality. Humor thrives in the realm of ambiguity, multiple meaning, and radical improvisation. Whatever revolution we wage on the ground, in the classroom, through our social media networks, and towards the voting booths, it cannot—it must not—exclude the critical analysis and imaginative practice of comedy.

Image Credits
1. The Daily Beast
2. The Washington Post
3. The English Blog
4. Orlando Sentinel
5. TVLine
6. CNN
7. Vice
8. World Future Fund
9. So Let’s Talk About
10. Slate
11. Black Then
12. Author’s screenshot
13. Author’s screenshot
14. Occupy Democrats
15. Forward