Archive for August, 2010

The Ecclesiarchy

Throughout the whole tawdry spectacle of controversy over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque,’ it has been interesting to follow the responses of American liberals.  Some have cravenly attempted to track the mythical beast known as ‘public opinion,’ hoping to capture it and save their own sorry hides.  Others have acquitted themselves well, taking a principled stand against racism.  Despite the welcome display of backbone on this issue on the part of many liberals, I’ve nonetheless experienced a certain dissatisfaction upon reading their arguments.  This feeling is especially acute regarding their treatment of the assertion that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground.’

People can certainly be forgiven for meeting this charge with stifled giggles.  After all, as one much-reposted blog entry has shown us, the former World Trade Center site is surrounded by strip clubs, betting parlors, and all imaginable varieties of tourist terror kitsch.  Furthermore, the repeated solemn intonations of the phrase by various talking heads have so emptied it of semantic content that one is left with the impression that it means little besides ‘no muslims allowed.’  Thus, many have concluded, this site is not hallowed ground, but rather one more piece of Manhattan where people will do anything to make a buck.  While such a response is tempting, however, it is insufficient.  For it is precisely the veneration of accumulation, embodied in the various supposedly profane establishments listed above, that makes Ground Zero a sacred space in the American imagination.

To understand why this is so, we must look, with Walter Benjamin, upon capitalism as a religion.  Benjamin made this argument in a short unpublished fragment from 1921.  A response to Max Weber’s famous treatment of Protestantism and capitalism, Benjamin’s fragment sought to demonstrate not merely that capitalism was strengthened by religious culture at key points in its development, but that it was itself a religious phenomenon.  Thanks to Michael Lowy’s erudite exegesis of the fragment in Historical Materialism last year, those of us without a complete edition of Benjamin’s unpublished writings can see this fascinating argument for the first time.

Capital's avatar

Benjamin’s characterization of capitalism as a religion relies on three main points.  The first is that capitalism is a peculiarly cultic phenomenon, one in which ‘nothing has meaning that is not immediately related to the cult’.   The cultic activities – ‘capital investment, speculation, financial operations, stock-exchange manipulations, the selling and buying of commodities’ – are the only ones invested with meaning, as all else is rendered valueless (p. 62).  The idol of the cult is money, the only object worthy of worship.  As Lowy notes, this description of capitalism is not Marx’s, focusing as it does on mercantile activity, and not the aspects of capitalism (the commodification of labor power) that Marx thought were decisive.  Nonetheless, the practices Benjamin focuses on are those which are crucial to capital’s self-presentation — its church clothes, if you like.

The second religious aspect of capitalism is its conception of time.  Benjamin’s phrase, borrowed from Weber, is “sans trêve et sans merci” (without rest or mercy) (p. 63).  Capital’s time is homogenous, rationalized.  It marches steadily forward without interruption, without pause.  For Weber, this dynamic had its roots in the Puritan suppression of holidays, when time spent for one’s self was time stolen from God.  For Benjamin, the accent is different, as the cultic allegiance capital demands, the ceaseless worship of its idols, transform every day into a sacred one, homogenizing our experience of time into a never-ending cultic ceremony.

The final religious aspect of capitalism is its production of despair.  Capital recognizes nothing beyond itself.  It forecloses on all futures except its own.  This destruction of futurity can be seen as the essence of despair, since any hope is contingent upon the possibility of a future.  Every capitalist must expand or be crushed by the competition, so that collectively the class ensures that none of its members may have any respite from this dynamic.  As Lowy puts it: “According to the religion of Capital, the only salvation consists in the intensification of the system, in capitalist expansion, in the accumulation of more and more commodities; but this ‘remedy’ results only in the aggravation of despair” (p. 68).  According to the rules of the game, the pursuit of salvation only assures damnation.

All of these cultic aspects of capitalism were on exhibit in the original World Trade Center.  Conceived in the 1940s as a means to revitalize lower Manhattan, the WTC was to act as a locus for international trade at the same time that it would be an engine of urban renewal by improving the value of the real estate surrounding it.  The cultic devotion to the realization of profit here reshaped the urban form, restructuring the city environment in ways more conducive to capital.  Architecturally, this same dynamic shaped the design of the buildings themselves.  The WTC’s distinctive design, in which the steel support beams were placed on the building’s exterior, was intended to allowed maximum flexibility for the tenants of the various floors.  The  project’s planners envisaged every sort of commercial activity within the wide open spaces of the towers’ interior, from office space to trading floors hundreds of feet above the city.  Every aspect of the project was to be devoted to the cultic practices of capitalism.

The homogenization of time was also important in the project’s conception.  The WTC was to be a command center of global capital, a place from which the expansion of markets and the battering down of trade barriers could be planned and executed.  Its purpose, in other words, was to facilitate the imposition of capitalist time upon those areas of the world still outside of it.  The WTC’s form also lent itself to the project of homogenizing time.  The skyscraper, after all, is a particular attempt to control time through a spatial configuration.  By gathering so many of capital’s prelates into one place, the planners of the WTC hoped to minimize the temporal disruptions caused by difficulties in communication.  Through the manipulation of space, time could be smoothed into that frictionless medium demanded by capitalist theology.

Crucial as the homogenization of time and the domination of cultic activity were to the WTC’s design, the production of despair was by far the most important ideological element of the project.  Minoru Yamasaki, the head architect, conceived of his design as a tribute to American democracy.  Yamasaki hoped that his buildings would be a ‘a living and active monument to world peace,’ linking the globe through trade.  Though couched in a language of liberal hope, Yamasaki’s dreams for his project reveal a profoundly desperate vision of the future.  The WTC was to be a monument to a particular kind of world peace – that established under American global supremacy.  Launched during the Cold War, the project’s goal of uniting the world through trade was a particularly American vision of global cooperation.  As capitalism works through eliminating possible futures, ensuring that its future will be the only one, so the WTC was a symbol of the United States’ bid to ensure that the world’s future would be identical with its own.

With so much cultic energy embodied in the WTC, it is unsurprising to find that the project’s design expressed certain themes in common with sacred architecture.  Portentously enough, Yamasaki chose Islamic architecture as the tradition from which he would draw.  Capitalism’s relentless reduction of everything to ductile raw materials here worked its magic on symbolic motifs of pre-modernity, transforming the sacred architecture of Islam into adornments of the church’s of capital.  This pattern was most obvious on the exterior of the towers, where transition from wide column spacing to “dense structural mesh” created implied pointed arches, one of Islamic architecture’s most recognizable motifs.  The central plaza of the WTC was patterned after the Qa’ba in Mecca, the most holy site in Islam.  All of this was quite conscious on Yamasaki’s part, as he described his project as “a mecca, a great relief from the narrow streets and sidewalks of the surrounding Wall Street area.”  Just as  other religions absorb the holidays and deities of their predecessors, capital absorbed the sacred architecture of Islam into its own hallowed ground.

Capital's Qa'ba

September 11th, as they like to say, changed everything.  But the designation of the WTC site as a sacred space of capitalism would remain untouched.  Before the wreckage had even been cleared, plans for rebuilding were already under way.  The eventual design that was settled upon, ‘Freedom Tower,’ was to be a monument to America’s determination to rebuild.  It would be, as its designer Daniel Libeskind declared, “a global symptom of optimism.”

As Oscar Wilde told us long ago, however, “The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”  In this case, truer words have never been spoken.  Freedom Tower is a bathetic expression of American supremacy.  At 1776 feet tall, its structure is meant to remind us of our hallowed past and sacred mission.  Yet patriotic numerology cannot expunge from consciousness a certain awareness of the structure’s origins in terror.  As dominating as the tower purports to be, it cannot conceal the paranoia built into its structure.  As the New York Times’ architectural critic has put it, the structure’s ’20-story, windowless fortified concrete base decorated in prismatic glass panels [is] a grotesque attempt to disguise its underlying paranoia.’  Of course, the project’s devotion to the cultic pursuits of capitalism also remains.  The current owners of the lease have hawked rental space in the tower with all the fervor of a revivalist preacher, assuring the tenants that their pursuit of profit is a noble service to their country.

So, next time someone tries to convince you that Ground Zero is ‘hallowed ground’ which would be defiled by a community center, don’t simply brush them off with a reference to strip clubs.  Instead, join with the lost soul in religious brotherhood.  There’s bound to be a Starbucks nearby where the two of you can take communion.  Though it seems like the conflict over Park51 may tear this country apart, remember: we are a nation full of faith.  With enough good works, we are sure to make it through.

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…and the bigots

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I have to admit I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately about political potentialities in the United States.  Despite the real change that Obama’s election signaled in American racial politics, it seems all but certain that we’re heading into a period of increased attacks on people of color.  This is most obvious in the campaign against Muslims in the US.  The GOP, who have recently hit a new low in their approval ratings, have realized that the Tea Party ideology of naked contempt for anyone suffering as a result of the economic crisis is not the stuff of which successful electioneering is made.  Accordingly, they’ve fallen back on what’s familiar – race baiting.  Unfortunately, this looks as if it will work out rather well for them.  Polls generally show about 70% of Americans oppose the so-called ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (which is neither at ground zero, nor a mosque – discuss amongst yourselves).  On another front, it’s worth pointing out that the Facebook group “Stand With Arizona (and Against Illegal Immigration)” has more than 300,000 members, about three times as many as any of the pro-immigrant groups.  This is a rough metric, to be sure, but it’s nonetheless expressive of something.  And now today, the New York Times, that bastion of liberalism, publishes an article whose argument is quite literally that xenophobia is good.  Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

During the great waves of 19th-century immigration, the insistence that new arrivals adapt to Anglo-Saxon culture — and the threat of discrimination if they didn’t — was crucial to their swift assimilation. The post-1920s immigration restrictions were draconian in many ways, but they created time for persistent ethnic divisions to melt into a general unhyphenated Americanism.

The same was true in religion. The steady pressure to conform to American norms, exerted through fair means and foul, eventually persuaded the Mormons to abandon polygamy, smoothing their assimilation into the American mainstream. Nativist concerns about Catholicism’s illiberal tendencies inspired American Catholics to prod their church toward a recognition of the virtues of democracy, making it possible for generations of immigrants to feel unambiguously Catholic and American.

I’m not discounting the fact that struggle is growing against all these things, and that people are doing some wonderful things.  I’m just saying I’m not optimistic.

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When you see this
you probably don’t think this,

but you should.

It’s become commonplace to describe contemporary racial ideology in the United States as ‘colorblind racism.’ Since the civil rights movement, overtly racist language has become unacceptable in public life. As a consequence, those dedicated to upholding white suprmacy in the US have had to shift their rhetoric. While once Reagan could expect to make political hay by blaming Martin Luther King, Jr. for his own assassination (he said it was a “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break”), by Nixon’s time the president realized that such sentiments needed dressier garb (According to Nixon’s chief of staff, Tricky Dick “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. [Nixon] Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true.”)  Thus was born the rhetoric of colorblindness, putatively race-neutral language that works nonetheless to achieve the same results of black subordination.  Code words (or dog whistle politics) such as ‘welfare queen’ or ‘crime’ are only the most familiar of this genus of race talk.

This is a familiar story, and much good work has been written exposing what’s behind the facade, from Michelle Alexander’s social physiology of the criminal justice system to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s investigation of “the linguistics of color blind racism.” There is one gesture, however, in the rhetoric of colorblindness that has been wanting for attention – the provocation, as epitomized by Glenn Beck’s little outburst above.

Now, it will be patently obvious to those reading this that the comparison of Obama’s America to the Planet of the Apes is racist.  There have already been a whole host of incidents in which various reactionaries made similar comparisons.  Two things distinguish Beck’s use of the image, however.  First, he is a major media figure, not some provincial GOP peckerwood forwarding an email.  Second, and more importantly, he is a (slightly) more discrete.  Rather than directly comparing one of the Obamas to an ape, he deploys a metaphor. It’s true that one must only go a few stops on the associational train (Planet of the Apes is ruled by apes -> America is like a planet ruled by apes) to get to the point, but Beck and his gormless followers can nonetheless feign surprise at the outlandish associations made in the  minds of their progressive persecutors.  Making a crazy leap of logic like that…they’re probably the real racists!

Given the racial scrutiny Beck has been subject to (ever since he talked about putting Muslims in concentration camps and expressed fear that Obama opposed white culture), it seems obvious that the Planet of the Apes metaphor was chosen with some care.  There are, after all, innumerable other filmic metaphors which could make substantially the same point (through the looking glass, the Twilight Zone, the Land of Oz, etc etc).  Why choose one which will certainly draw condemnation from places like Media Matters, even if plausible deniability is built in?

The obvious answer is that it throws red meat to the resentful white Fox viewership, bunkered down in their own personal Fortress Americas and savoring whatever expressions of white privilege they can get their hands on before the rising tide of color sweeps them all away.  There’s certainly something to this, and I’ll return to the white libidinal investment in these sorts of things shortly.  But I think it’s also important to recognize that Beck’s metaphor is governed by a more strategic logic as well.  This is where the trap comes in.  The comparison of Obama’s America to Planet of Apes was designed precisely to elicit the predictable condemnations.  I’m not the only one to notice this dynamic.  One of Beck’s defenders, taking note of the accusations that quickly appeared, described the metaphor as “exotic liberal bait [given how] quickly as liberals have grabbed it to scream racism.”

The way it works is like this: Beck makes a comparison that is supposedly race neutral, but unmistakably grounded in racist symbolism.  When liberals and antiracists call him on it, he accuses them of being racist against white people for assuming Beck was saying something racist.  For Beck and his viewers, it is one more instance of how true (white) Americans are the victims of system in which any complaint they have is dismissed as racist.  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has described how projection is a key rhetorical device for colorblind racism, allowing whites to blame any evidence of racial disparity on Blacks themselves (“they like to be with their own kind” as an explanation of residential segregation, for example).  In this context, provocation can be seen as a kind of auxiliary gesture, one that works to enable the projection by eliciting ‘evidence’ for its claims.  As such, the wide eyed innocence with which Beck and his associates meet their accusations is like recent Israeli diplomacy – a lie whose true content is its own unbelievability.

For the right wing, this kind of provocation is a good deal of fun.  Dave Weigel has nicely encapsulated the impulses going into this sort of play, noting that “Extremism — theories about race, right-wing European politics, anti-immigration rhetoric — is seen in these circles as something of a lark. It’s forbidden knowledge. It terrifies liberals.”  Since everyone knows there’s no more racism in America (except against white people), baiting liberals and people of color is a game, one that at once mocks their perception of reality and affirms the intellectual superiority of the provocateur.  By deploying rhetoric they know will cause an uproar, people like Beck and his confreres on hate radio get to feel as if they are pulling the strings, demonstrating how easy it is to whip the dusky herd up into a frenzy over what’s really nothing at all.

So what should be the proper response of antiracists to this blatant provocation?  Simply don’t take the bait?  I would hope, dear reader, that you know me better than that.  Trying to avoid the trap is simply not an option, for a number of reasons.  First, the result of not responding is the mainstreaming of racist language, the re-entry into public discourse of the kind of race talk that has been banished (to a degree) for a generation.  In light of the persistence of racist discourse outside the environs of official politics, some might be tempted to say that it would be a good thing if politicians today were as honest as Strom Thurmond in 1948.  It means something real, however, that openly racist discourse is no longer an accepted aspect of American political life.  It matters that African Americans on television aren’t treated like Malcolm X was in the 1960s, an object of open scorn and derision.  Moreover, given that half the fun of this sort of provocation is getting caught, it’s not as if Beck and company will desist when their efforts don’t achieve the intended result.  They’ll just push a little harder.

As such, there’s really no choice here except to take the bait.  If it helps the provocateurs make the case that the elites are keeping real Americans down, so be it.  Whatever aid our response gives our enemies in organizing their side, it is the sine quo non of organizing our own.  A movement to dismantle what Manning Marable calls the new racial domain will get nowhere by ignoring racist abuse.  As the exit of Mark Williams from the Tea Party shows, it is possible to put a real price on this kind of talk.  If organized, we really can take their toys away.

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