Beyond the Aesthetics of Progress

Reflecting on the events in and in response to Ferguson, Missouri I wrote this on Facebook, “So if you want to know how I really feel: I was talking tonight about how despite my radicalism I had this naive idea that culture would “progress” and politics would have to follow. But now I feel like we’ve only “progressed” aesthetically, sort of, and really what we are left with is a legacy (and current practice) of slavery, colonialism and extreme racism (as well as sexism and many other ugly things). But because of those aesthetics of progress those who call out injustice are often shut down and made to feel crazy and like they are “subjective.”

benetton_handcuffs1

With so many trolls and often unproductive exchanges I’m reluctant to talk about politics online, but I thought more about this idea of the “aesthetics of progress” and wanted to write a little more about that. In the past ten years I feel lucky to see some kind of “progress” on a political front in the United States – gay marriage is legal in the majority of states, Barak Obama is President,  Sheryl Sanberg and Beyonce feminism is part of the norm, we see big pop culture movies with strong female heroines… and these things are powerful and some of them have a profound impact on peoples’ lives, but at the same time there’s been so many disturbing things happening that it can make all of this supposed “progress” look a bit wan.

A friend who commented on my Facebook page commented, “I agree that we mask our shit much better than we used to, but I also think that we are digging at deeper and deeper psychological levels of hatred. 300 years ago the murder of an unarmed black teen in would have barely caused an eyelash to bat, now it’s world news.” And while I completely agree, I have to ask, at what price this perspective and slow progress?

In our progressive society we see brute racism such in the case of the shooting of Michael Brown, the erosion of a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will have children (or even have access to health care and birth control), violent backlash to feminist critiques of tech and gamer culture (or event the suggestion of the important of diversity) that we’ve seen in gamer gate, the erosion of job security and the middle class at the benefit of the super wealthy… and the those are just the examples I could think about off the top of my head.

I know that addressing injustice is uneven, but this is more about political stagnation and back tracking on political gains, a culture that is hostile to all those who are not white, rich and male under the guise of diversity and empowerment, United Colors of Benetton style. I feel we are living out the specific legacy of George W. Bush’s policies and culture, as well as the influence of groups like the Tea Party – conservatism, restriction on women’s right and belief in trickle down economics – combined with a sense of entitlement and a willingness to ignore connections between issues and events.

There’s nothing new to this, but I’m realizing that what I want is not just aesthetics of progress, but an end to what bell hooks called in her more politically pointed earlier writing the “white, supremacist, capitalist, [heteronormative] patriarchy.” I realize I sound like the late 1990s cultural studies student that I am, but there’s real truth and power in remembering that oppressions act together. It may sound strange to bring up Ferguson, MO and “Gamergate” in one short post, the point is that what we are witnessing is a violent crack down on “difference” and a society that is becoming more and more closed and hostile, while spewing rhetoric of progress and greater equality.

I find myself returning to James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, not necessarily for answers and hope, because he wrote of the same cultural forces and histories 60 years ago, but for a reminder to keep analyzing, keep going deeper into the histories and prejudices that drive these events, and to keep fighting and taking care of ourselves and nurturing the vision for a society we truly want to see. And so I’ll leave you with a (long) quote from Baldwin:

“The idea of white supremacy rests simply on the fact that white men are the creators of civilization (the present civilization, which is the one that matters; all precious civilizations are simply “contributions” to our own) and are therefore civilizations guardians and defenders. Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men. But not so to accept him was to deny his human reality, his human weight and complexity, and the strain of denying the overwhelming undeniable forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that the approached the pathological.”

And finally, “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

– James Baldwin, from Notes of a Native Son

 

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