If you haven’t been paying attention, then you might assume that everything is the same as it has always been, and you might think that the sameness of your circumstances is a reward for your patriotism. If you have been paying attention, then you know that this assumption is founded on privilege, and you would recognize that people around the country are being oppressed, deported, and murdered. Now, what is the difference between one perspective and another, you might ask. How do two very different groups of Americans find themselves at such odds, at such different conclusions, and with such different responses to the same sociopolitical reality? The answer lies in the narratives we tell ourselves, which shape our perception, sometimes expanding it and sometimes limiting it, resulting in either the inability to see from other vantage points or the ability to do just that.
There is a constant characteristic among the politically conservative that causes them to revise history, to re-contextualize their actions, and reinvent their morality, and all to suit whatever their party’s agenda might be. That said, it is important to recognize that part of this need for revision and reinvention is the fact that their party has not been a constant itself, the conservative oscillating from the Democrats to the Republicans, Dixiecrats to the Tea Party, Libertarianism to Fascism. The one thing that all of these groups have had in common is being motivated by self-interest, being united Eurocentric masculinity, and a general lack of accountability. For this reason we see conservative Republicans praising US Presidents Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln within the same breath, regardless of the fact that they held strikingly different views on slavery, and that one was a conservative Democrat while the other was a liberal Republican.
The core characteristic of the conservative is to adhere to a romanticized past that never existed, and in so doing re-contextualizing the historical and cultural figures and events of that past, and essentially hijacking them to serve their ideology. We see this in the Libertarian Flag, the very name of the Tea Party, and in the way that the Christian-Right claims victimhood constantly crying wolf about their religious rights are being oppressed all the while pushing Christianity as the state religion. Since the Bush Years, these characteristics have become more and more blatantly obvious, and they are reflected in our popular culture. Often in strange ways. Three pop culture icons that have been or appropriated, or misappropriated, in recent years are from the comic books The Punisher, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. But I’ll touch up those latter two in another installment of this ongoing cultural commentary. And yes, I know what you’re probably thinking, and indeed it is strange. Comic book characters as mascots for political parties and extremist ideologies? Yeah, that is the level of immaturity our society has devolved to, and it’s an adequate expression of how misappropriation works.
The character of Frank Castle, The Punisher, was created by writer Gerry Conway and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andru in 1974. Within the comics, Frank Castle’s family was gunned down by the mob, and Frank, a veteran, decides to take it upon himself to wage war on crime. Unlike Spider-Man or Superman, Frank Castle doesn’t have superpowers, wear a mask, or a cape, and he doesn’t dress in a colourful spandex outfit. Frank Castle shares more in common with Batman, whose own family was gunned down by criminals, in that Frank has no superpowers and he is all about symbolic vengeance. He is different from Batman, however, because when Frank dons the title of The Punisher, he does not hesitate to use guns and to kill. In fact, this is one of his defining characteristics, what makes him unique, and what makes him dangerous as a revered pop culture icon. Frank Castle, The Punisher, is a brutally violent vigilante, a self-appointed authority who takes the law into his own hands and in doing so takes many, many lives. He wasn’t designed to be a superhero. He isn’t super. Arguably, he isn’t even really a hero, but an outlaw with a twisted sense of justice. The Punisher operates outside the law in order to do what he saw as serving the law. This is, of course, meant to be ironic. That he was created during the end of the Vietnam War and the end of the Nixon presidency is no coincidence. This was a time when America was questioning its identity, its heroism, its fascination with violent entertainment, and its admiration for self-righteous authority.
When The Punisher debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man, issue #129 in February of 1974, during the Nixon Years, he seemed to be too violent, too brutal, and too dark. Maybe he was too much of a reminder of the horrific violence that soldiers witnessed, experienced, and committed during the Vietnam War, or maybe Americans just weren’t ready to see such a grim portrayal of their own fantasies brought to life. Whatever the reason, he just didn’t seem to fit into the world of the “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man“, and the character faded into the background, but this would change within the span of a decade.
By the time of the Reagan Years, The Punisher was the perfect embodiment of the ’80s grim and gritty hero, the muscle-bound, gun-toting, macho man who would take it to the bad guys as viciously as they would take it to you. Frank Castle is consumed with an icy rage and a desire to see criminals punished for their crimes while he punishes himself for his own crimes by suppressing his humanity. He is single-minded, obsessive, and selfish in his pursuits. He fit in perfectly with the likes of Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone. America was engaged in a futile Cold War, locked into a standstill with the Soviets, and many Americans wanted immediate action. They wanted a clear-cut victory and a good guy versus bad guy narrative. They wanted to see their “enemies” dealt with expeditiously and permanently. That meant not relying on diplomacy, on foreign relations, or on criminal trials. It meant dealing out death to those who you see deserving it. When you can deliver on those things, when your very symbol is an icon of a skull, you represent death, and you endear yourself to people who crave that kind of self-appointed power. This is the kind of thinking that The Punisher was criticizing, but much like Archie Bunker in All in the Family, this is also what made The Punisher appealing to many of his fans who agreed with this school of thought. People have a funny way of taking an ironic criticism of themselves and adopting it as a hallmark of their own flawed value systems.
While The Punisher was created as more of a critique for a certain attitude that was popular in the ’70s and ’80s, he hasn’t been written or illustrated by one person or even one team, so throughout the different incarnations there have been fundamental differences in approach. Just as the character appeals to a widely varying group of fans, he has also been written and drawn by a widely varying group of comic book writers and artists. Not all of them share the same perspective on the character and some even portray him in a way that is in stark contrast to his creators’ intentions. Gerry Conway once acknowledged that he had created a kind of monster with a strange and enduring legacy, saying, “Everybody brings to it their interpretation, and I have no problem of any of those, so long as there’s a fundamental understanding that this is not a good guy.“
The skull emblem worn by The Punisher became a kind of calling card for people who thought of violence as the be-all, end-all solution to crime and terrorism. Never mind that The Punisher is himself a criminal and uses terrorist tactics to achieve his ends. It was taken up by police who were weary of inner city violence and gang-related crimes and liked seeing The Punisher shoot up the Italian Mafia, the Russian Bratva, the Chinese Triads, and the Japanese Yakuza. It was taken up by punks on the Left who saw The Punisher as a product of a corrupt statist society and as rebelling against authority by killing corrupt cops and politicians. It was taken up by racists on the Right who saw The Punisher as someone who was cleaning house of immigrant criminals and gangs comprised of young black men and Latinos. It was taken up by soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who saw The Punisher fighting against terrorists and foreign enemies. It was taken up by American sniper Chris Kyle who simply thought that the skull looked cool and that he shared a common living with Frank Castle: killing people. The Punisher became many things to many people (and most of those things weren’t good) and each of them saw his skull as symbolic of their own beliefs and worldview. They misunderstood that it simply represented death and that The Punisher was just a product of violence. He isn’t good. He isn’t bad. He isn’t a hero. And he isn’t quite a villain. He does some good things. He does more bad things. That is why he’s considered an anti-hero. When you identify with him, you should feel discomfort, you should feel conflicted about it. The skull isn’t an emblem of any philosophy or ideology. It’s not a call to action. It’s an admission of failure, a failure to serve and protect, and a failure to recognize oneself. The whole point of the character is to question vigilantism and authority, not to embrace them, and the people who know the character best want you to know that.
“I’ve talked about this in other interviews. To me, it’s disturbing whenever I see authority figures embracing Punisher iconography because the Punisher represents a failure of the Justice system. He’s supposed to indict the collapse of social moral authority and the reality some people can’t depend on institutions like the police or the military to act in a just and capable way. The vigilante anti-hero is fundamentally a critique of the justice system, an example of social failure, so when cops put Punisher skulls on their cars or members of the military wear Punisher skull patches, they’ve basically sided with an enemy of the system. They are embracing an outlaw mentality. Whether you think the Punisher is justified or not, whether you admire his code of ethics, he is an outlaw. He is a criminal. Police should not be embracing a criminal as their symbol. It goes without saying. In a way, it’s as offensive as putting a Confederate flag on a government building. My point of view is, the Punisher is an anti-hero, someone we might root for while remembering he’s also an outlaw and criminal. If an officer of the law, representing the justice system puts a criminal’s symbol on his police car, or shares challenge coins honoring a criminal he or she is making a very ill-advised statement about their understanding of the law.“
– Gerry Conway, writer and co-creator of The Punisher, on the use of the skull logo by American law enforcement and the military
The Punisher skull logo has also been adopted by Blue Lives Matter, a counter-protest movement, which sprung up on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement. Blue Lives Matter is a group that holds to the notion that lives of police also matter and therefore we should be siding with law enforcement. Along with All Lives Matter, it operates under the assumption that Black Lives Matter is somehow an isolationist or supremacist movement. What it fails to recognize is that while, yes, all lives matter, not all lives are being systematically targeted by racist agendas. Worse it operates under the misapprehension that there are “blue lives”. People are born black, born brown, born red. These ethnic groups have been targeted time and again by white ethnic groups. Nobody is born blue. Blue skin doesn’t exist. People aren’t born into the profession of police officers. That is a choice that a person deliberately makes. You don’t get to choose your race or ethnicity. What is odd is that if police lives matter isn’t opposed to black lives simply existing, then why did their movement rise up in response to Black Lives Matter, and why did they choose as their symbol for support for law enforcement a skull; an emblem of death? That doesn’t seem to equate “to protect and serve”. It’s intimidation of a minority group disguised as support for police. It’s no different than racism aimed at one ethnicity disguised as national pride in another.
Black Lives Matter sought to show the world how American police have perpetuated a long history of brutality, violence, and suppression on black Americans. Historically, this is true, and it’s almost impossible to argue against. There is a long and undeniable history of police violence against people of colour (I have covered that in a previous entry). Yet, rather than actually acknowledge that and look for possible solutions, many white reactionaries have pointed out that there is even more “black on black violence“, referring to the percentage of black men killed by other black men. But the reality is that one could also say that there has been an even greater problem of “white on white violence“. Most violent acts are perpetrated by people within the same community, ethnically and geographically, and that is not surprising for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here. Then there is the other reactionary argument that if people of colour weren’t committing crimes then they wouldn’t be getting shot by the police. Well, there is some truth to that, but that response generally overlooks decades of institutionalized racism, segregation, and socioeconomic conditions, and it also overlooks the important statistics about who commits crimes and where. Violence is violence and it is all negative. But that doesn’t take away the issue of police brutality visited upon black communities. Period.
This is where we get into false narratives. We live in an age of “Fake News” and “False Narratives“. These are terms that have been popularized by fringe groups and political commentators on both the far-Right and the far-Left. There are indeed false narratives, but more often than not, the term is applied without much thought or analysis as a knee-jerk reaction to a statement that someone disagrees with. No further explanation is given to back up the claim or provide a justification for the term being used to begin with. I am going to try to explore that. Holocaust deniers call Anne Frank‘s diary a false narrative, despite the fact that the diary itself is supported by numerous other documents verified to be authentic, and by the fact that a vast majority of historians acknowledge that the Holocaust, which left behind thousands of bodies and thousands of first-hand accounts from survivors, did happen. Many white supremacists claim that the South will rise again, despite a nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments, a surge of African-Americans entering into significant positions within the government, including but not limited to President Barack Obama, and a strong backlash to every single White Pride demonstration for decades. A false narrative persists in its folly despite all identifiable facts pointing toward the contrary. Both the false narrative and the terms “Fake News” and “False Narratives” have been part of the alt-Right movement.
The skull logo of The Punisher has been used by many of these groups. A simplified version of the skull has even become a symbol for the White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis that marched in Charlottesville. And what does The Punisher say to that?
– Jon Bernthal, actor who plays Frank Castle/The Punisher on the Netflix series, on the appropriation of the skull logo by white supremacists and the alt-Right
Really, it’s no secret at all that in Hollywood, profits will trump ethics almost every single time. So, when a scandal occurs involving one celebrity or another, you can assume that how a studio responds to that scandal will be more dependent upon how much capital that celebrity generates than upon some moral decision, which is problematic for a number of reasons. There are writers, directors, producers, and actors who are thriving in Tinseltown despite being involved in some very shady goings-on. Others find their careers ended due to mere associations and rumours. Then there are those who are cut off from the entertainment community with good reason. Just this week Allison Mack, a leading actor from the hit WB/CW series Smallville, confessed to being involved with a sex cult/human trafficking group. This comes after the recent sex scandals surrounding Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, and Harvey Weinstein. (Hollywood clearly has a real problem with sexual exploitation and abuse that needs to be addressed.) In almost all of these cases, the exception being Jackson, the people caught up in these scandals have had their careers virtually wiped out by their misdeeds. And rightfully so. But in all of these instances, the people involved had multiple accusations of actual abuse made against them, and that is simply not always the case. So, what is the right course of discipline for people who may have overstepped the boundaries of propriety, of what is currently socially acceptable, but have not outright harmed anyone beyond the initial controversy of their words and actions? These are important questions in an ongoing discussion about freedom of speech and accountability in the free market world of American entertainment.
Enter Walt Disney Pictures… and Marvel Studios. When Disney bought Marvel back in 2009, around a year after the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it was supposed early on that the family-friendly corporation might hold the reins to the comic book company a little too tightly. There were fears that they might even censor the more adult content of earlier comics and comic book-inspired films. So far, that has not been the case, and it’s largely been a pleasant surprise for fans. The MCU films have been a huge success. By “a huge success”, I mean a titanic, phenomenal, cosmic success. Since 2008, the MCU raked in a massive total of $19 billion, which is astonishing by any metric. No film franchise has come close to this level of financial success within a ten year period. It’s unprecedented. The films are making so much money that it puts Disney in an interesting and somewhat dualistic position. On the one hand, that level of success means that these films are highly visible, that there’s a built-in audience, and that they will pull a massive profit no matter what, and so there’s a certain freedom there to take risks and hire filmmakers to helm franchises that may not be immediately obvious. Or even safe choices. On the other hand, it also means that they may be overprotective of their investments, of what projects go forward, and how to ensure that those projects match up with the lucrative business of their previous films, which means that studio interference and control could be a potential problem. Either way it’s a lot of pressure for a studio president or executive to deal with.
So, what happens when a filmmaker, or even an actor, does something that doesn’t line up with the almighty studio’s plan, either in their personal life or in the process of making a film for Marvel? Well, the MCU‘s success might be unprecedented, but shakeups behind the scenes are not, and this is evident in who has been let go in those ten years. One might forget that both Disney and Marvel have a history of severing ties with talent when they feel that the studios’ overall vision doesn’t line up with the individual’s. Iron Man star Terence Howard‘s character James Rhodes/War Machine was recast with Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2. The original director of Ant-Man, Edgar Wright, was let go and replaced by Peyton Reed, who wound up directing both that film and its sequel. In the former situation, the actor was reportedly difficult to work with and made too many demands, and in the latter situation, the director’s creative vision didn’t align with that of the studio, so they were let go. But then there’s James Gunn. Gunn was apparently a charm to work with and he has been highly regarded by his cast and crew. Gunn’s vision for the Guardians of the Galaxy not only aligned with the studio’s vision, it surpassed it and enhanced it, and creatively he was responsible for two of Marvel‘s biggest hits. Marvel Studios‘ president Kevin Feige made it no secret that Gunn would be heavily involved with the future of the MCU, helping to spearhead it’s forward momentum and trajectory, much in the same way that Joss Whedon and brothers, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have. When Gunn was fired last Summer for some highly inappropriate tweets from almost a decade ago, it sent shock waves through the industry, not least of all because professionally he had done nothing wrong.
James Gunn brought so much to the tone, aesthetics, and scope of that first Guardians of the Galaxy film. It would be hard to imagine anyone else stepping into that corner of the sandbox and creating anything comparable with what are essentially his toys. After his firing, the principal cast sent an open letter to the studio, respectfully asking that the studio let Gunn return as director. Tens of thousands of fans signed petitions. However, it looked unlikely that the director would be returning for the third (and final?) installment in the GotG trilogy. The one bright light in this whole dark drama was that Gunn’s recently completed screenplay for the film would still be used. For a while rumours circulated online of possible replacement directors who could step in to replace Gunn. At the top of the list were Nicole Pearlman and Taika Waititi. Nicole Pearlman was the original writer on the first Guardians of the Galaxy film before it was rewritten by James Gunn. The other choice, and the one that most fans seemed to flock to, was Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi. In response to these rumours, Waititi made a statement, saying, “For me, those are James’ films. Going into something like that with his stamp all over his films, would be like going into someone’s house and saying ‘Hey, I’m your new dad, and this is how we make peanut butter sandwiches now. It feels kind of awkward. However, I’m still hanging out with those guys [at Marvel] and talking about new stuff. I want to do another movie with them.” Apparently Disney and Marvel ultimately agreed, because now Gunn has been reinstated as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but what does that say about the ethics of the companies?
That question isn’t easy to answer. If I had to sum it up, I would say that the bottom line is profit, and perhaps if there were two bottom lines, just above that would be prestige. Almost all decisions in Hollywood are determined by how much of a profit you can pull in and how much prestige your work can acquire in terms of critical appraisal and awards. Because of that, studios and the talents hired by them are often placed above certain moral expectations, and this is why Hollywood is often criticized for its lack of morality. The problem is that generalization really only applies to a select few people who have been highly visible due to the scandals that they’ve been involved. Hollywood scandals aren’t always, or even often, based upon a genuine interest in ethics. Many times scandals are concocted in order to bring down talented people. The motivations vary and range from professional jealousy to sexism and racism, from resentment over contracts to creative disputes, from personal grudges to political retaliation. And these Hollywood scandals are in no way new. They are just more widespread and quickly disseminated in the digital age.
When the silent film era was at its strongest in the late 1910s and into the early 1920s, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was falsely accused of raping Virginia Rappe. One of Rappe’s friends spread rumours about him raping her with an icicle and that her death was the result of Arbuckle’s weight on top of her. The doctor performing the autopsy denied there being any truth to these claims. Numerous witnesses countered the claims with their version of events where Arbuckle applied ice to her stomach while she was in pain. We know now that Rappe was suffering from medical complications arising from her alcohol consumption and peritonitis and that Arbuckle was trying to help her. The blatant lies that Rappe told were planned in an attempt extort money from Arbuckle. It ruined his career. Clara Bow also suffered similar treatment by the press. They were all fabricated for the sake of ruining her career. Some things don’t change.
Disney and Marvel came under a lot of fire when they severed ties with Gunn. This was because they knew about Gunn’s controversial tweets before they hired and then only fired him after they became well-known. That did nothing to give them any claims of taking the moral higher ground. Now they are receiving criticism from some people, most notable among them conservative actor James Woods, for having hired Gunn back. In my last write-up on this issue, I pointed out that Gunn probably should never have been hired based on his earlier social media presence and Disney‘s self-proclaimed values system, but given that the studios knew about his past and what he had said, firing him after the fact to save face was just hypocritical and facile. Now it appears all the more so since they have hired him back after Gunn’s six-month absence on social media. Interestingly, it’s been suggested by a number of sources that Marvel never really considered any other directors to replace Gunn, which may indicate that his firing to begin with was just a PR move. Whether it was always intended that he direct the film, even in the face of the backlash, it’s hard to say because the decision process has not been very transparent. What we do know is that James Gunn virtually disappeared from social media, ceasing to post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, until March 15, 2019. Then on that day, he posted a statement, one which sent fans into a frenzy, announcing that the decision had been reversed and that he would indeed be returning to direct the third GotG film.
Music + Visuals = Potency
At this point, one would be hard-pressed to find a person who hasn’t ever seen a music video or a portion of one during the course of their lives. Almost without exception we have all seen music videos, at some time or another, whether on MTV, VH1, BET, or YouTube. They have become not only an accepted part of the music industry but an almost mandatory staple of it. If you want to succeed commercially in music today, you have to adapt to this, and in 1981 with the launch of MTV, the music industry was introduced to one of its greatest assets as well as one of its greatest liabilities.
If one goes all the way back to Walt Disney‘s 1940 film, Fantasia, or even further back to the Silly Symphony cartoon series which began in 1929, it becomes immediately apparent that the marriage of visual imagery with music has proven to be a most formidable combination. Music can either be enhanced or diminished by an accompanying visual presentation. Some songs and some visuals mesh so spectacularly that one can barely hear the song without imagining its video counterpart. Take Star Wars for example, it’s almost impossible not to see the scrolling titles and prologue for the films in your mind’s eye whenever you hear John Williams‘ legendary theme, or to see an iconic character like Darth Vader without imagining the ominous theme of the Imperial March. Go on, give it a try. That’s just one obvious way that musical language and visual language can complement each other and create a link between one medium and another.
Now, take a look at music videos today, and most of them seem to have a singular purpose: to sell singles and albums. In this digital age, especially with the dwindling sales of physical music (since we’re on the subject I’ll take vinyl and CD over MP3 files any day), having a popular music video can make or break a career, even to the extent of a terrible song finding widespread fame and commercial success because the music video was so memorable. There are singers and musicians whose entire careers can be chalked up to the artwork and photographs on their albums or their music videos rather than on the quality of their music. Having grown up in the late ’80s and ’90s, I’ve seen this happen with bubblegum pop, teenybopper, boyband, and dance pop stars. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not living under the naïve delusion that once there was this grand past of substantive and enriching music videos, because no, there wasn’t. There are occasionally performers whose music videos elevate the medium from crass commercialism to high entertainment or even true art. Michael Jackson‘s Thriller, Kate Bush‘s Running Up That Hill, Peter Gabriel‘s Sledgehammer, Madonna‘s Like a Prayer, Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nine Inch Nails‘ Closer, TLC‘s Waterfalls, and The White Stripes‘ Fell in Love with a Girl are all examples of music videos whose visual aesthetics and narratives are more than just sales gimmickry. These are videos that attain artistry and relevance. They obtain renown, acclaim, and even controversy. They achieve immortality through the purity of their innovation.
Nine months ago, actor and musician Donald Glover, under his performing name of Childish Gambino, released a video for his latest single This Is America. The video immediately earned the same level of distinction as those aforementioned videos, because it is a singularly unique vision, as well as being a provocative, controversial, and riveting experience. Opening on an image of a black guitarist performing in a warehouse, the appearance of Glover dancing, and the shooting of the guitarist, whose face is now covered in a bag, in the head at point blank range, the video is openly confrontational in its effort to address racial violence. It continues and shows an all-black church chorus, singing and dancing in joyous and faithful celebration, before being gunned down, again by Glover, and then having their bodies unceremoniously dragged away and discarded. Forcing viewers to confront the harsh realities faced by black Americans every day and challenging long-held stereotypes, Glover’s song and its video present scenarios and raise questions, but intentionally leave the interpretation and the answers up to bewildered viewers.
Within 24 hours, the video for This Is America had received almost 13 million views, and at the time of writing this, the video has received over 484,500,000 views, with over 7.4 million viewers responding that they liked the video and 564 thousand expressing their dislike of it. Steeped in symbolism and allusions to current social crises, the video has become a lightning rod for controversy, and a hot topic among critics and commentators, most of whom praised its audacious visuals and metaphors. That said, the video has also received its share of reservations and critiques, with many of the criticisms focused on the abrupt and disturbing violence. Some viewers have seen it as a revolutionary statement on race relations and gun violence in the United States while others have accused it of reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Some viewers have decried it as a pretentious mess of disjointed lyrical and visual content while others have hailed it as a masterpiece of Trap (a term for a form of hip-hop popular in the South and characterized by electronic beats, a dark or ominous energy, and scathing social commentary).
In terms of visibility, Donald Glover, as an actor, a writer, a producer, and a director, has been rising in prominence for some time now with his roles in 30 Rock, Community, Atlanta, The Martian, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Likewise his musical persona as Childish Gambino has risen as well, beginning with the melodic and confident rap of his first album Camp, continuing with his startlingly original follow-up album Because the Internet, and culminating in the brilliantly funky and psychedelic album “Awaken, My Love!”. And though it is true that singles like Bonfire, Crawl, and the Grammy-winning Redbone certainly stood out from anything else that was coming out of contemporary hip-hop or R&B at the time, the video for This Is America has managed to overshadow most of his other creative output as a hip-hop artist. Depending on how you look at it, this could be viewed as either a good or a bad thing, but it remains a fact. Topping the power of a strong single with an unforgettable music video will be a challenge for Gambino, but one that I think he is more than up for, and the result could be equally spectacular.
You know, I have to question the ethical well-being of any society where someone comes forth with claims of having been violated, where the immediate response is anger, doubt, and suspicion. When a person undergoes trauma that trauma is real and substantial, regardless of whether their claims are, and that person should be heard and listened to. This is true regardless of the specifics. If a person, of any age, gender, or race, has the courage and the conviction to stand before another person and say, “This is my story. This is what I experienced. This happened to me,” we should pay attention and we should pay respect. There is nothing easy about lowering your defenses after being violated. Trauma has a way of rooting itself deep within the psyché and restricting an individual’s ability to be vulnerable. The strength and the determination required to approach someone else, without knowing if you will be heard, if you will be believed, and if you will be seen differently, is tremendous. To expose yourself in that moment of vulnerable confession and acknowledge what happened to you is one of the most courageous things that a survivor of trauma can do. You’re opening up psychological wounds each time you share your story. It hurts. A lot. Whether those wounds heal or not is largely dependent upon the support system you have around you and whether people, in general, are able to offer their trust and confidence in your experience. Knowing that you are heard and believed is in no small part the first step in rebuilding your life and finding empowerment.
When the trauma that you’ve experienced is of a sexual nature, the wounds are all the more deep, and the emotional consequences all the more complex. The reason for this is that you not only experienced hell, but someone intentionally inflicted that hell upon you, because they were either oblivious to the consequences that it would have for you (as well as for themselves), or worse, they did not care. It’s impossible to say with certainty what goes on in the mind of an abusive personality when they violate another person, how they justify themselves, how they invalidate an entire other person’s consciousness, denying their right to physical and emotional security. Do the ramifications of their violence occur to them? Are they so insular and egocentric that they are only aware of their perception and their feelings throughout the whole act? What do they think and feel afterward? Is there guilt, regret, or remorse? These thoughts may not go through the mind of every sexual predator, but they are a constant for every survivor, which is partly why it is so challenging to confront your abuser and tell your story. Something has already been taken away from you and you have been held in very little regard. The fear of coming forward and sharing that with someone who might take more away and hold you in equally low or even lower regard is terrifying. It brings back the sense of being probed, violated, and having your power stripped away.
It astounds me, truly astounds me, the insensitivity and cruelty that survivors are forced to endure when their trauma is played out in the media for all to see. The way that women, in particular, have been scrutinized and made to relive their trauma just so that they can seek justice is itself unjust. Despite the outrage that such proceedings elicit, the same unfolding events happen again and again, the pattern persists, and people go about their business; news as usual. Interestingly, because of the role that patriarchy plays in society, when men come forth with claims of having experienced sexual abuse, the response is almost without exception to believe them. The horrific logic seems to go something along the lines of, “That’s such a shameful secret for a man to keep, so if he’s willing to admit to such an unmanly shame, then it must be true.” Yet because we do live in a society where women are seen as less-than, we somehow find it, if not less unacceptable, at least less surprising when a woman experiences sexual abuse. “It’s a pity, and we feel bad about it, but that’s just a thing that sometimes happens when you’re a woman.” What’s infuriating is that this double standard of belief/disbelief and empowerment/disenfranchisement is perpetuated by both men and women. Accountability for the creation and perpetuation of this rape culture must be shared… by all who live in it. When someone states that they have been violated, in any manner, it is our civic duty to take that statement seriously, to extend our empathy and sympathy, and to help them.
Recently we saw a terrible drama play out on the stage of our national media, wherein a woman claimed that she had been sexually violated by a man, by an incumbent Supreme Court Justice no less, and while many poured out their support for her and her profound testimony, others fell right into the predictable pattern of victim-blaming. Then, of course, there was the usual propping of the alleged perpetrator. So often is the case that we see the accuser torn down, their testimony all but ignored, and their intentions questioned. They are forced to walk through a relentless gauntlet of scrutiny, mockery, and character assassination. “She likes rough sex. She wouldn’t dress like that if she didn’t want it. Everyone knows she slept around. She drank and did drugs. She set herself up for that kind of thing. It’s no great secret.” Meanwhile we hear the opposite treatment of the accused. “Yeah, I knew him, and he’s a good guy. I never saw any behaviour like that in our time together. We joked around and stuff, but everyone knew that was it; they were just jokes. Guys say stuff like that all the time. It doesn’t mean anything.” This is the very foundation of rape culture, and regardless of a person’s politics or their sex, it has to be stopped.
This is why I cannot accept Brett Kavanaugh as a nominee to Supreme Court Justice and why I fully support a thorough and impartial investigation into his behaviours and his past. It’s not because I know one way or another of his innocence or guilt. It’s because accountability must be taken. Justice must be served. We cannot ignore allegations like these, especially when they pertain to an individual who is being placed into a position of significant power within our nation, and we cannot ignore or dismiss the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.
One way or another, something has happened, and either an accuser is not speaking factually or the accused isn’t, but the very fact that an accusation was made, the very fact that someone came forth must be treated with the utmost severity and magnitude. This takes courage. This takes strength. And it must be taken most seriously. It must be taken seriously, not just because someone may be at fault, but because someone may have been horribly wronged. An allegation of this kind has merit, whether they allegation is true or not, because it brings attention to the fact that someone needs help. Either someone has survived a terrible, traumatic assault, and that person needs the support of the community in their emotional recovery, as well as in seeking justice, or someone has spoken falsely, either knowingly lying or unknowingly shared a delusion that they have experienced, and that person needs to be taken just as seriously and still given the support and help of the community. Nowhere within a healthy society should a person who has experienced trauma, the cause of it be real or imagined, find themselves reliving that trauma or humiliated furthermore by being mocked and disbelieved. This is not how you treat a person in pain, whether the cause of that pain is internal or external, and the lack of empathy extended to that person is the very same lack of empathy that enables one person to victimize another. Whenever someone victim-blames, they become an accessory in their trauma, and that accountability must be acknowledged too. If you mock or disbelieve a survivor, you are an accessory to their abuse, and you help to perpetuate rape culture.
Personally, and regardless of my own political affiliations, of Ford’s political affiliations, and of Kavanaugh’s political affiliations, I found his carriage to be less than worthy of a judge. While I can rightfully understand the full emotional spectrum that a person would experience under false accusations, I still found Kavanaugh’s responses to be incredibly dismissive and disrespectful towards Ford, and the egregious lack of acknowledgement and accountability of his own immature behaviour to be disconcerting. Confusion and frustration are normal responses to being falsely accused. Heck, even anger is a normal and healthy response, but what I saw from Kavanaugh was more than any of that. It was entitlement, it was false indignation, and it was maliciousness and spite. Whether or not he raped Ford, his testimony showed him to be a poor choice for a judge, and a very poor choice for a Supreme Court Justice.
Below is a poem I wrote that expresses how I feel on the matter, specifically in the case of Ford and Kavanaugh, but also generally about the dilemma of whom to believe, and why listening and remaining open-minded is so important in stopping assault.
Why does she seem to be so serious?
This is just a game, he says to himself
But that notion’s so antiquated
And his whole view is so egocentric
How can he be so distant from the world
I don’t understand all the confusion
How could you even draw a parallel
This is not a cry for retribution
Holding him accountable is not revenge
The world is a safer place without men like him
You worry about his future
But she lost hers to the past
You say this will ruin his life
But hers was in pieces
If this was all about getting attention
Why is he the one who’s crying now
It seems like a role reversal
The aggressor puts on a mask of victimhood
And the jury sighs and turns away
While the judge proclaims there’s not enough evidence
So both parties will disperse, but I wonder
Whose reputation is the worse for wear after this
And if a woman’s rights
Are just the rights of a man
Then who decides what’s happening?
And just as Kavanaugh
Became Justice Kavanaugh
And a woman’s rights
Are just the same as the Rights of Man
Would this keep on happening?
Now this is injustice, Kavanaugh
Why would anyone trust someone so angry?
And look how she’s dressed, I think it’s obvious
But these statements aren’t validation
And there’s no excuse for such violence
How can you defend the indefensible?!
I don’t understand your curt dismissal
Or how you fail to feel their conviction
I’m not asking for an execution
But I don’t want to see that man walking free
Still you empower him and place her under scrutiny
You say his career is on the line
But what she had can’t be regained
You say that this is cruel and unfair
But equality was overruled that day
Shut her up, shut her up, shut her up
She’s lying like they all do when they want power
Does anyone really think along those lines
As if power is something we should be limiting
As if men should be the only bearers of autonomy
And women should remain dutiful, submissive, subservients?
How could this really even be happening
Questioning the survivor and assuming nothing happened?
And if a woman’s rights
Are just the rights of a man
Then who decides what’s happening?
And just as Kavanaugh
Became Justice Kavanaugh
And a woman’s rights
Are just the same as the Rights of Man
Would this keep on happening?
Now this is injustice, Kavanaugh
Over the years a number of songs and poems have grown out of my experiences with poverty and homelessness, both from the sides of having lived on the streets and from working with/for different organizations to aid the homeless, and this song is merely one of them. All too often, especially for people living on the margins, simply knowing you’ve been seen and acknowledged can be the beginning of healing and empowerment. The lyrics describe and invoke not only my own personal thoughts and feelings as I had them during those hard times, but they also I think sum up the thoughts and feelings of others who have lived in similar circumstances, and so I hope will provide some sense of camaraderie and even catharsis to those living it as a reality right now wherever they may be. If this song can at the very least raise awareness or empathy or give a voice to the voiceless then that is more than enough.
Can’t Go Up
In a melancholy urgency
I crawl out of my cocoon
Pick myself up out of the ooze
Take a gaze up at the moon
Grizzled in appearance
Unshaven and eyes faded
Got change to spare he asks
I say, ‘Change is complicated’
The melody of the night
Does nothing to soothe my mood
My senses are assaulted by the street
This awakening’s so rude
The broken sound of sirens
The tempo of marching feet
Copter blades flashing in the sky
Cops lined up and down the side of the street
I slide into these holy jeans
My pockets full of nothing
Barefoot on broken glass and concrete
Already I can feel my soul is chafing
Newspaper rolls in clusters
Crumpled pages from a bum’s diary
Littered rolled papers with buds of weed
Tumbleweeds and crumbling daydreams
Sky up above full of smoke
The stale scent of urine and feces
Heaviness in the cold city air
The state of things so hard to breathe
All these sickly sensations
And all these sounds and sights
Recycled and regurgitated
Just so I can have four more lines
And what am if not a failure
When you come down to it
This is my empire of the homeless
This is my kingdom of unwanted, broken shit
So, how am I supposed to rise up
How am I supposed to thrive
When social mobility is downward
And it takes everything I have just to survive
The lines to the shelter are growing
The benefits are being cut
The doors to all the churches are locked
And for us all doors of opportunity are shut
So, who am I supposed to be
My education’s going to waste
And of success I’ve no experience
Because life’s got a bitter taste
Fairness is illusion, okay
Justice protects the crime
Victims go to prison, baby
And I don’t have the time
The roof overhead’s collapsing
The walls are all closing in
The economy’s rebounding, they say
But where did that begin
I’m rolling on the sour carpet
Made of nails and dust and cum
Of leaves and rust and old blankets
And what have I become
I am nothing but invisible
To all you yuppie fucks
I am past my breaking point
So goodbye, farewell, good luck
Dear Humans, I know you care deep down
All of your anger and all your protests
Tell me just how far you have come around
Dear Humans, I know you need some relief
All of the troubles and all your problems
Stem from the same misplaced, ill-begotten belief
Dear Humans, I know you want to belong
Even though you shit all over yourselves
You still have the chance to right this wrong
Dear Humans, I know you have the will to do
Even as the bodies add up in piles
You still cling to a lie and you claim that it’s true
Thoughts and prayers
So sick and tired
Of the same refrain
The clichéd platitudes
Send my condolences
But does it change anything
Hugs and kisses
So sick and tired
Of the same old words
The dishonest well-wishers
And all of their crocodile tears
Are no better than gems on swords
There’s no problem
You just want freedom
The right to carry
And the right to choose
But the death toll
Only grows greater
And it’s not like it’s up to you
To bury the bodies
Or say the farewells
You just play the game
And you roll the dice
Sign your name
Propose the measure
What it reaps
Well, oh come now, never mind
Dear Humans, I know you don’t want to die
But I’ve watched you from above now
In my kingdom of the clouds up in the sky
Dear Humans, I know that you are all sorry
For all the wicked things that you do
Now the time has come for your apology
Dear Humans, I know that redemption is here
So say your farewells, your “I love yous”
Because I am going to shed this, my final tear
Then comes judgement
Death is my mercy
I forgive you all for this
For your murders, your policies
Broken promises, drones of death
Burnt forests without life left
This is your legacy
Then comes annihilation
Pain is your purity
I can absolve you of your sins
For your selfishness, your greed
Rebuilt palaces, banks overflowing
Homeless bodies litter the street
This is your litany
There’s no problem
You just want money
The right to earn
And the right to take
What you deserve
Is always growing
And it’s not as if you don’t
Ever give a little back
Or smile for the camera
You just play the game
And you roll the dice
Put your name up
In big, bold letters
What you build
Will come to ruin; all falls apart in time
With these words, I condemn
With these words, I liberate
All of you Humans
From the Earth
The stain that I made
My greatest folly
My greatest mistake
I now correct with annihilation
For you there is no time left
There is no need for worry
No need for panic or dread
I will reset the whole world
I’ll wipe the slate clean
Sincerely, your God
Isn’t it funny how the people that cling to apocalyptic faith fulfill their own prophecies right up until the point of the great disappointment? It becomes tiresome seeing the same adherents to so-called Christianity commit the same sins of greed and judgement that their Christ had warned them about. They speak of all these dangers to the mortal soul and then embrace them. I often wonder, with my characteristic pessimism, if it’s not all some innate predisposition towards self-destruction. I truly am beginning to accept that the same people who hold high this prophet of peace, love, and understanding, that they ultimately do so only to hold themselves up in his celebrated company and to feel chosen, to feel special and sanctified despite their own sins and their own guilt. When I look at our president, and by “our president” I claim no ownership of his presidency and no allegiance to his constituents, all I see is a man so in awe of himself that he will destroy the country and then use its blood and ashes to polish his golden palace. How anyone who rejects worldliness, greed, lust, or ambition can place that man on a pedestal, coming from a religion that also reject idolatry, is beyond comprehension; it’s appalling and repugnant.