On Hurtful Words

It’s been a crazy fucking week.

Left Forum happened last weekend. I helped organize four panels and was asked to give a little wrap-up at the very start of the closing plenary on Sunday. About half an hour before the plenary, I got a text from the conference coordinator asking if I could emcee the whole shebang. Amy Goodman was scheduled to be the moderator and interlocutor when the second speaker, Slavoj Zizek, gave his talk, but she’d apparently told the organizers last minute that instead, she was going to give a speech and then leave. So I thought I’d be a good sport and help out, even though I’d never really read any Zizek.

I had looked at some material sent by an anti-Zizek activist to the Left Forum board. It contained a couple of obviously taken out of context quotes that he’d either written or said, and I did know that folks were already angry about what they thought he’d said about refugees. When I investigated, I disagreed with the critics. Looking at his stuff on refugees, my sense was that Zizek was making the exact opposite point than what he was being criticized for. I honestly did not think his work was anti-refugee, and I still don’t.

Zizek says that refugees need open borders and an end to the imperialist wars that drive them from their homes; they need our solidarity, and we need theirs,  but they don’t need us to think that everything about them is perfect. In fact, seeing them as outside “normal” humanity, with its, you know, both bad and good people, is an obstacle to real material solidarity, to actually struggling side by side to forge a less horrifying world.

Other quotes in the materials sent to the Left Forum board included Zizek recounting a time he’d tried to connect with a black male acquaintance by telling a dirty joke about a black sexual stereotype, and, according to Zizek, his new friend started cracking up laughing and said, “now you are my n*” or something. I did not read the telling of this story as anti-black racism. I still do not. It seemed like an idea you might disagree with — that solidarity flows not from treating people with kid gloves but from mutual transgressive bawdy-ass laughter and the subverting of moralisms about what it’s ok to say and what it’s not ok to say — but not one that necessarily has to be stopped. So I wasn’t sure what to say when a questioner asked me to account for why Zizek had been invited to Left Forum given the fact that he’d used the N word publicly in the past. I thought it was part of his performance. He was using it to make a case, and a case against not only bourgeois liberal white piety but also against racial oppression. It seemed like the opposite of an epithet in that context.

And now a whole online discussion has emerged to challenge this idea, and to excoriate my response to Zizek’s critics. My own work is not well-known, but to my chagrin, now I am known to some strangers as Zizek’s defender rather than for any of my own interventions. Or as moderator of a panel in which I criticized Bernie Sanders for not coming out for reparations for black people, or another panel dedicated largely to discussing Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Now there are people who know me as a defender of the right of white men to use the N word publicly. Oh, and folks are making fun of my surfing book a little bit.

Two wealthy white women are leading the charge against me on twitter. To me, this actually reinforces Zizek’s notion that all this kid glove correctness is just bourgeois discomfort with what they see as the slobby incivility of the working class. These women challenged Zizek and me at the end of the Q and A, and there is without question a prurient Puritan sick kind of relish with which they read and then tweet all these “shocking” things that he says. It’s classic repression rage fascination stuff. And it’s funny, they keep calling me a suburban Valley Girl on twitter. But I’m actually from Philly, where, when we are being harassed by insane people, we say things like YOUSE ARE FUCKING CRAZY.

But the wealthy white saviors are not the end of the story. Because when I tried to move past my own defensiveness after a full week of relentless assault on me on twitter, I had to rethink a couple of things. Even if I did think that the witch-hunter language police types were nutty and were misinterpreting Zizek, policing his language without engaging or opposing his actual ideas, there is another issue.

Elijah Anderson gave a speech recently in which he addressed all the pc language safe-space stuff on campuses and came out on the side of the students. In his words, what black students are protesting when they talk about Halloween costumes and building names and all the rest, are “acts of acute disrespect reminiscent of America’s racial past. Among themselves black people call such incidents “n* moments,” and generally interpret them as deeply racist attempts to put them back in their place.”

The idea that I might have caused a moment like this for anyone is profoundly mortifying to me. I did not mean any disrespect. So this apology goes out to anyone who might have been offended in any way by words I said. I still think that what Zizek was saying on Sunday night was true, and I think the rich white savior types are impeding the progress of interracial side by side struggles for justice for black and brown folks, and for freedom and a better world for all of us. Bourgeois piety is an obstacle to real solidarity. And I do think that there is a difference between using a racial slur as an epithet — which is a tool of race oppression — and uttering it in order to mount a challenge to a new, politically correct form of the segregationist ideology without which capitalism and imperialism couldn’t survive.

The thing is, in regular life, if I make someone feel shitty, whether I meant to or not, I tell them I’m sorry. I do know that words can hurt. God knows the cesspool that is twitter has taught me that this week. So if you are a person of color and what I said or did offended you, please accept my apology. Somehow, though, I suspect you’re not nearly as concerned about all this as the Grey Gardens squad would have us believe.

***For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here are two clips. The first is Zizek’s speech, and a lot of the question and answer session. The second clip finishes the session and has the part where the N word controversy comes up.

And last, here is one article that references the twitter insanity: http://chronicle.su/2016/05/27/controversy-as-slavoj-zizek-talks-at-left-forum/


wow, I never used to understand the big deal about Zizek, pro or con. But last night at Left Forum, I got it. He’s brilliant and funny and his energy is actually really fun to be around. He gave a well-argued and super smart defense of coarse language as part of what solidarity looks like. (Then of course dumb people said, how dare you use coarse language!) He talked about not fetishizing the oppressed and their roots or their “essential goodness” but struggling in solidarity with them for the commons of humanity.

For instance, refugees — it’s not because they are perfect humans that we demand open borders, but because mobility is everybody’s right. And when everybody can go everywhere, then we talk about the cultural issues and clashes that are real and that come up when we treat people like our fellow human beings and not like fetishized objects of our white savior complexes.

I disagreed with plenty that he said, but Zizek is provocative and funny and I am surprised how much I enjoyed his talk. It could have been called “against paternalism, for solidarity.” Or “against bourgeois middle-class bullshit moralism and for laughter.” I highly recommend your watching it on youtube and the Left Forum website when it goes up in a day or two.


the patron saint of slacker politics

nice interview with my all time film idol, Richard Linklater. a couple of highlights:

“After Slacker, he was regarded as a spokesman for Generation X, but Linklater never saw the slacker generation the same way as the establishment did. “Slacker means two different things to me and the rest of the world,” he says. “The slacker world was the world I found myself living in. The 1980s underground was pretty interesting. Everyone I met was an artist of some kind, a musician or writer or painter; lovers of life, appreciators, and punk rocker-type people, who you didn’t know what they did but you could tell they sure liked their music. Nobody talked about their jobs, what they had to do to pay their rent. It was no surprise that mainstream culture decided these were a bunch of lazy do-nothings, because, by their judgment, they were not productive. They weren’t fitting into the free-market society…”
“I’ve waited for a candidate like Bernie Sanders my whole adult life, so when there’s a guy there who’s actually professing it, you have to support him. I’m a natural socialist.”


Scary Indeed

I guess I must have a number of Facebook friends, acquaintances from high school, who are stay at home moms. Because I constantly see posts about the hellish everyday life of these frazzled ladies, and all of them, without fail, frame the issue as though the sadomasochistic nightmare they describe is the only possible way that Americans in the twenty-first century could go about the business of raising and loving our little ones. Consider the blogger “Scary Mommy,” just one representative of a cry for help from every desperate corner of the internet:


What a goddamn nightmare. And the really scary thing is, in neighborhoods all over this country, the very same thing is happening (read the comments section if you don’t believe me). Which is crazy, because without a doubt the kids would be so much happier in a group setting with lots of other kids and the mom would be so much happier doing something more fulfilling than cutting plums and trying not to yell. This is a structural problem in our society, and until we all figure out together that the old immigrant urban extended family had something right — with a bunch of mixed age kids hanging out pretty independently, playing together and learning from one another, with parents, grandparents, and neighbors nearby to mellowly supervise and also enjoy each other’s company — these little hells will be all too common. It’s such a bad scene, for the moms and the kids. In the meantime, perhaps this unfortunate person could think about getting a co-op going with other parents, and trade off so that a couple of the parents take all the kids one day and the other parents can do something else on their “off” days. And then there’s always the demand for free high-quality European-style subsidized day care, which would solve this lady’s problem straight out.

What these bloggers and their commenters never seem to acknowledge is that the isolation of the nuclear family, especially in its super privatized suburban iteration, is a stupid way to raise children and a waste of (largely) female energy. They ought to be reminded that in the 1970s, women realized that this was a fucked up situation for all involved, and they fought to transform it. Not successfully enough, since what most women got instead of liberation was the chance to be doubly stressed at home and now at some stupid job too. So lots of (mostly upper) middle class women decided just to stay home and here many of them are, back in the 1950s. But this is a retreat from women’s liberation that is bad for everyone.

All of us need to take up the fight for a domestic life that breeds happiness rather than neurotic people — cuz if you think these kids aren’t internalizing your repressed resentment, Scary Mommy, you’re dreaming — and the first thing we have to do is to stop pretending that this state of affairs is anything but a defeat of liberatory feminist political struggle. Mommy bloggers, like so many today, are incredibly good at articulating the minutiae of the personal. Sadly, far too many seem to have missed the memo that the personal is political.

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