Saturday, March 31, 2012

There's No Crying At Disneyland

“Disneyland [is] an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter.”
– Baudrillard, Simulacra & Simulations

“There's no crying at Disneyland!”
– Parent/guardian to grizzling toddler in a Disneyland restroom, last Wednesday

I went to Disneyland this week, and I spent the whole time thinking about Baudrillard and marveling at the astonishing racism on display – thoughts that coalesced into a slight obsession with the question: Why do we go to Disneyland?

Baudrillard fingers Disneyland as the quintessential iteration of the simulacrum and the hyperreal: the artificial representation of reality that becomes more real than the real, to the point that reality as such no longer exists. (I had my most dizzyingly simulacrumtastic moment on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, when it occurred to me that I was on a ride based on a movie BASED ON THIS SAME RIDE.) We all know going in that Disneyland is thoroughly artificial, and from this knowledge we (falsely) extrapolate the converse: that what is not Disneyland is not artificial; that reality exists. Is that why we go to Disneyland? For reassurance, however false it may be, that reality is real? But if we know that this reassurance is false, why do we still go there?

Maybe I read too many dystopian novels as a child, but I find something profoundly creepy in the enforced cheerfulness of Disneyland. Enforced cheerfulness is sinister enough when it's enforced in pursuit of explicitly spiritual aims, but when it's undertaken on a massive scale for the sake of commodification, commercialization, and unchecked consumerism, it's flat-out sickening. It's sickening because it tells us to suppress our awareness of the exploitation and oppression that undergirds the Disney-industrial complex. “Don't think about sweatshops and pollution and racism,” it says; “you're in the most magical place on earth!”

How one could fail to think about the racism, at least, is beyond me. The Jungle Cruise is one of the most astonishingly racist things I have ever experienced (and I grew up in a more or less neo-colonialist environment in East Africa). The official website proudly describes it thus:

Depart civilization from a forgotten Victorian loading dock. Crossing continents and oceans, you'll explore exciting rivers around the world — including the Amazon of South America, the Nile of Africa, the Irrawaddy of Southeast Asia and the Ganges of India.”

Cringing yet? There's the conflation of, like, all of Asia and all of Africa in some textbook-Orientalist mashup of ~the exotic~; there's the framing of the West as “civilization”, in implied opposition to the primitive/barbarian/uncultured/wild; there are some truly horrible (neo-colonialist) stereotypical representations of ~the natives~ (including some Unfortunate Implications so breathtaking, I'm flabbergasted no one involved in the design and creation of the ride noticed them). I mean, it's not as though I was unaware of Disney's slight racism problem; but, because most of the really blatant racism has been whitewashed out of Disneyland (which in itself is not unproblematic), the massive unconcealed racefail of the Jungle Cruise was particularly appalling to me.

And yet it's Small World that really encapsulates the Disney ethos, in all its (utterly clueless) obscenity. Once I'd gotten past the giggle fit induced by noting certain similarities, I realized that, at its core, the message of Disney is really: “Diversity lies in the external trappings, beneath which we are all as one [in our relentless desire to purchase Disney products].” That, I think, is the great philosophico-cultural lie of our time – that diversity is skin-deep, and underneath we're all the same. It's not that we don't all share a certain fundamental humanness – to deny that is just as bad – but to insist on (and commodify) the sameness is to reduce the differences, to fail to respect alterity, and ultimately to perpetuate the power differentials of the status quo. It's nothing more than a salve for the oppressor's conscience, a way of empathizing with others just enough so that we can kid ourselves the world isn't in need of radical change.

I'm not convinced that the simulacrum always and necessarily has to function this way, to make perpetuating oppression palatable to the oppressor's conscience. Even if it does, I believe that it is possible to deconstruct it and be aware of what's going on; but that involves always being on your guard, always fighting it. And is your resistance meaningful if it's only ideological? I gave Disney my money. I showed up. Does it matter that I spent the whole day thinking critically about the many awful things going on, if financially and physically I supported them?

This continued failure to put my money where my mouth is – is this just the kind of acceptable compromise with the kyriarchy that we all have to make all the time because we live here, or is it straight-up hypocrisy? Consuming stuff critically is better than consuming it uncritically, but either way I'm consuming, consuming, consuming. And perhaps I go to Disneyland to seek what I know to be a false reassurance that this is okay, because otherwise I couldn't live with myself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stay Angry

I'm obsessed with Trayvon Martin.

I don't understand why everyone isn't obsessed with Trayvon Martin.

This is so fucking fucked up.

I thought maybe, after a day or two, my rage might die down a little. But instead it's increased. And I'm glad of that.

We should all be absolutely furious. We should all be shouting our fury from the goddamn rooftops.

I'm glad of the white-hot anger that burns in me. Anger at Trayvon Martin's murderer, who gunned down a 17-year-old boy for the crime of being black. Anger at the entrenched systemic racism that has thus far kept the murderer from coming to justice. Anger at the entrenched systemic racism that made this murder possible in the first place. Anger at the people making excuses for this travesty of justice, and at the people standing by in silence, and at the people who participate, directly or indirectly, in the systems that perpetuate injustice. Anger at myself.

A common conservative argument against postmodernism is that it leads to moral relativism. Funnily enough, the more deeply I delve into postmodernism – as I deconstruct everything, including myself, to the point that I don't know which way is up any more; as my theology grows ever more convoluted, abstract, and self-contradictory; as I despair of ever finding any meaning in the text other than my own projections – in all this mess, my sense of right and wrong has never been clearer.

This is fucking fucked up.

God, keep us angry. It's all we have.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Religious "Community"

Anyone who is even casually acquainted with me in meat-life will be aware of two facts: (1) Community returned this week, and (2) I was very, very, very, very happy about this.

Community is straight-up my favorite show on TV. Its midseason disappearance from NBC's schedule was devastating to me, and the announcement of its return had me capslock keymashing all over the internet. I celebrated Thursday's episode with friends and champagne: it was glorious and beautiful, and it's not really an exaggeration to say that this show is a religious experience for me. Here's why.

1. The community of television

I tend to be fairly generous with my definition of “the religious”. Like Tillich, I think religion is an orientation toward ultimate concern; like Barthes, I believe we are surrounded by images that signify ideologies – and if popular culture reveals and reflects a society's most deeply held values, then it's not a huge leap to argue that pop culture can be a locus of religious experience. (Tom Beaudoin's Virtual Faith makes this argument very nicely.)

Although TV ownership in the US is apparently declining, television is still the most ubiquitous form of mass media in this country (of that 3.3% of TV-less households, it's a fairly solid bet that many of them still watch shows online). As such, it is the most unifying artifact of American popular culture, and thus television as a whole could be considered a site of religious meaning. Even for a small cult show like Community, several million viewers participate in the weekly ritual of watching it – a shared experience that nonetheless resonates on a personal level for each individual, much like a religious service.

2. The community of the individual

Some people have accused the Community ensemble of being uniformly terrible human beings who evince no character growth and are unlikeable and completely unrelatable. I will not link to the people saying these things, because they are erroneous, incorrect, inaccurate, misguided, mistaken wrong-mongers who are very very wrong.

I see myself in Jeff: his walls of sarcasm and cynicism that try but fail to hide the true depths of his emotional responses.

I see myself in Britta: her enthusiasm for political causes and her morality that stems from a heart in the right place but is often ill-thought-out or hypocritical in practice.

I see myself in Abed: his profound love of pop culture, his social discomfort, his use of pop culture to understand those around him.

I see myself in Shirley: her deep Christian faith and her struggle to overcome her personal failings to live a really loving Christian life.

I see myself in Annie: her neurotic perfectionism and intense fear of failure.

I see myself in Troy: his goofy sense of humor, his deep bromance with his BFF, his quest for a place and purpose in the world.

I see myself in Pierce: his desperate desire for acceptance and inclusion, insecurities often masked by acting like an almighty asshole.

I really, really love these characters. Each one of them speaks to a different part of my own personality, often in ways that illuminate my flaws and weaknesses. They are complicated, imperfect human beings, but they love each other and I love them. They embody the complex, messy reality of being human – of being simultaneously wonderful and terrible, capable of beautiful things and horrific things, worthy of love and of hate.

3. The community of friends

It's called Community because that's what it's ultimately about. This is a show about a group of people who are thrown together in a situation that's for none of them ideal, and who learn to make the best of it. The interpersonal dynamics at play in this show are special because they are bold and because they speak a truth that is rarely spoken in television.

Compare the show Friends. That was also a show about a group of friends, and it was often a sweet show with a good heart, but all the friends came from the same social location: straight, white, young, of a certain socioeconomic bracket. Community dares to portray a very diverse group of people who find common ground without erasing their differences. The relationship between the Self and the Other must involve both the unity of commonality and the space of respecting difference. Friendship is the experience of navigating this Scylla-and-Charybdis – learning to find common ground in your shared humanity while celebrating and benefiting from each other's difference – and Community portrays this wonderful, difficult process better than any other show I've ever seen.

4. The heart of Community

Community is a dizzyingly inventive show, playing with pop-culture history in endlessly fun and creative ways, but it is still a television show, and as such it follows a certain formula. The characters love each other; they learn lessons about the value of friendship; they make missteps and hurt each other, but they ultimately make the right choices and warm our hearts. Like religious truth, Community's heart is both inexhaustibly profound and completely obvious.

So very many religious and philosophical traditions hinge on the Golden Rule. Jesus himself said that everything else was pretty much window-dressing. Love your neighbor as yourself: it really couldn't be simpler. And yet we have to be taught it, over and over again, in different ways and by different people, and we still don't do it. It's childishly simple, but it's also really difficult.

In the same way, Community is a television show. More specifically than that, it's a half-hour network sitcom. It plays by established rules and conveys a simple, feel-good message. At the same time, though, it takes such delight in exploring the limits of those established rules and finding new and awesome ways to express that simple message.

Community is a show about love, it's a show written from a place of love, and I believe it's a manifestation of God's love in the world. I leave you with the moment I first knew this show was something really special and a nugget of pure wisdom: cabeza es nieve, cerveza es bueno.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You Don't Have To Be Perfect

You want to be perfect.

You have the image in your mind of a Justice Warrior who does everything right. Justice Warrior has absolute clarity of moral vision one hundred percent of the time, and invariably acts on this clarity in a way that is unimpeachably perfect: perfectly intersectional, perfectly respectful of the dignity and worth of every human being, perfectly right. Justice Warrior never fucks up. Justice Warrior has fully extirpated all internalized -isms and never perpetuates oppression in any way. Justice Warrior never runs out of spoons.

And Justice Warrior is overflowing with love for all people. Justice Warrior is so sensitive to the needs and feelings of others that Justice Warrior can enact the righteous work of ending oppression without hurting anyone's feelings. Justice Warrior knows that love and justice are not in opposition, and walks a perfect balance of combating systemic issues and educating individuals; of radicalism and meeting people where they're at; of righting wrongs and connecting with people; of justice and love.

You will never be perfect.

You can't do it. You can't be the perfect radical, you can't be the perfect friend, and you sure as shit can't be perfect at both.

You need the imaginary Justice Warrior. You need this picture in your mind, as something you can strive toward (even knowing that it is unrealistic and you will never get there). You need at least the concept of perfection, to feed the fire for love and justice in your heart.

But also – and this is crucial – when you're feeling crushed by your own expectations, when you're constantly feeling like an utter failure because you can't possibly measure up to the image of perfection in your mind, you need to remember:

You don't have to be perfect.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Refiner's Fire

This Lenten season, I have given up self-loathing.

I'm doing okay so far. Not great, though I never expected to stop hating myself altogether – you don't lose the habit of a lifetime just by deciding to give it up for Lent – but I've at least managed to steer clear of wallowing.

In the week or so running up to Ash Wednesday, it was very, very bad. Curl-up-under-my-desk-and-sob bad. Sit-in-the-back-seat-and-cry-silently-to-myself bad. When I get mired in it like that, it's very difficult to extricate myself, because it's self-perpetuating: I hate myself, and then I hate myself more for being so self-absorbed as to be thinking about how much I hate myself... It feeds itself.

So on Ash Wednesday I said to myself sternly: This ends now. For the next forty days, there will be no wallowing.

I've kept to that resolution pretty well, I think. Usually it present itself as a very stark choice between paths – THIS WAY TO THE QUAGMIRE OF SELF-LOATHING – and I just have to force myself to pick the sunny one. (No, inner voices, you're the worthless pieces of shit.) Unfortunately, I have not yet found a way to shut off the constant lower-level white noise of self-hatred that accompanies my every waking moment.

It feels as though that low-level stuff has stepped up its game in the past couple of months, but I don't think this is actually the case. I think what's happened is an increase in my self-awareness, to the point that I am now fully cognizant of (a) just how much self-loathing I've been carrying around in my brain-holder and (b) the possibility that maybe I should be trying to change that. (I also blame heightened self-awareness for the amplified gender identity struggle, which is not an entirely separate issue from the self-loathing one.)

This is not easy. Externally, my life is as close to perfect as it's ever been, and maybe it's because I feel I don't deserve such happiness that I torture myself so.

Fiction used to be enough. For at least a dozen years now, I've had one particular ongoing fictional world in which I spend at least a little time every single day. It sufficed as a channel, a coping mechanism, for my self-loathing (and, actually, some of my gender issues too). But lately that's not enough. I can't funnel it all into a world of my imagining anymore. I can't pretend my brain is made of tiny boxes. The walls are coming down, and I don't know what to do.

But, in my moments of optimism and faith, I can believe that what I am facing right now is the refiner's fire, and that I will be purified.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Losing Patience

I am seriously losing patience with white people who don't get it.

Pop quiz! What is your response to this?

B. I find it incredibly offensive that someone has just labeled my entire race as thieves. No one race is better than the other, I won't have someone stirring up racial hatred. If you define white as Western European and American, we are not responsible for all the evils in the world. Black people, Asian people, Indian people, Muslims, Jews, shamans, witch doctors, first nations, Maoris etc. have all committed atrocities and stolen from each other.

If you answered A, congratulations! You're not a completely terrible human being!

If you answered B (or some variant thereof), then just... GTFO.

When this happened on my Facebook, I pretty much disengaged completely. I wrote only, “OH NO, I'M REVERSE RACIST”, which is probably far too subtle a slice of mockery for the person in question (who probably thinks that “reverse racism” is a thing), and then I backed the fuck off. Another friend, who does a lot of anti-racist work, stepped up and wrote some very patient and kind posts to try to get the first person to check their privilege without hurting their fee-fees too much. I didn't say anything else, because I knew I wouldn't be able to stay civil.

The fact is, I'm having an extremely hard time giving a flying moon-fuck for white people who care more about their own hurt fee-fees than about combating racism.

Say it with me:


It's really, really, really, really, really not about us.

I am white – matrilineally Jewish but fully WASP in appearance – and my one personal encounter on the receiving end of racism (not to mention my numerous encounters with sexism and heterosexism) assures me of what should be completely frickin' obvious to everyone: being on the receiving end of an -ism is much, much worse than having to check your goddamn privilege.

And I am profoundly not interested in explaining this to people who don't get it.

I've been learning about the history of the gay rights movement in the US, and one thing I've found very striking is that from the very beginning the movement was split into two wings. The one side advocated a softly-softly approach, and the other was a lot more militant. I think it's generally accepted in activism that both wings are necessary for maximum movement efficacy: if you don't have a softly-softly side, you'll alienate the mainstream, but without a militant wing you might not get anything done.

Myself, I don't have the temperament to be gentle with people whose consciousness hasn't yet been raised. But, by God, I admire those who do.