Resisting Fascism Means Resisting the Gentrification of Politics
People were saying:
Pride is supposed to be for all ages, the public can’t consent to their bdsm attire, and it pushes the idea that being queer is some weird fetish
if you support kink in public (i.e unconsentually [sic] exposing ppl to kink) you can unfollow me right fucking now
Incest freaks don’t belong at Pride
Zoophiles don’t belong at Pride
Kink-displaying weirdos don’t belong at Pride
Public displays of sexual fetishes during pride parades where kids are present are not appropriate.
To discourage retaliation, I haven’t attributed these tweets, but they are quoted from users who ostensibly identify as LGBTQ+. It wasn’t even June yet—before Boston announced its “Straight Pride” Parade, before our anti-queer president wished us a Happy Pride, and before my hometown learned we had to protest our newest gay bar. But while an autocratic president and reactionary rallies have become the background noise to American life, queer people equating the sight of BDSM gear with nonconsensual violation is thornier—and not only because it endangers an already marginalized community. This impulse to flatten or normalize—to blur life experience or identity with a received notion of what that experience or identity should look like—threatens every person, party, movement, and platform in American life.
Earlier this year, I wrote an essay for Pacific Standard criticizing “prescriptive memory,” a kind of commodified popular history whereby citizens are supposed to remember individual tragedies as snapshots. I argued that turning atrocities into images via memorials and slogans isolates these events from one another; it clips history into a series of semi-related images that tell us little or nothing of how that history came about, or how it informs the present. This rosy-snapshot style of thinking applies not just to history but also to ideas, including those that shape our laws and their enforcement.
This is, after all, a country in which the absurd notion that politics can somehow be kept out of everyday life goes widely unchallenged. The typical style of contemporary punditry, in prose and on television, disconnects rhetoric from policy and its effect on constituents, and often disconnects language itself from decisions that can alleviate or amplify suffering, that start or end wars, that grant or revoke agency over our bodies and relationships.
This is the consequence, for example, of crying “America first” in a world America already controls, of tagging human beings as “illegals,” of referring to one’s misogyny as being “pro-life,” or of simply calling social-support systems “entitlement programs.” In place of informed, working knowledge is a market of clichés that rarely, if ever, refer to real people or real situations. “Terrorism,” as most media paint it and as many Americans see it, is an Islamic phenomenon; and yet most terrorist attacks on United States soil are committed by white American men.
Nor are these facile, consumer-friendly categories limited to ideas we’re supposed to fear or denigrate. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, for example, which looks to the ways socioeconomic and political oppression can intersect with gender discrimination, is one of the most useful, powerful, and empathetic philosophies for thinking against oppression; and yet many well-intentioned people seem to use it as a way to graph their identities on a matrix—to point at a hierarchy and say, “I am here.” Once commodified like this, intersectionality can begin to seem competitive, a quest to recognize the “most marginalized.” That kind of competition is antithetical to using one’s overlapping privileges—even as a marginalized person—to protest, lobby, and legislate toward a less oppressive society.
The fate that theories like Crenshaw’s fall victim to is not mere stupidity or oversimplification but also cooptation, as those who misuse political-isms and -alities, even out of good will, tend to denigrate, devalue, or ignorantly pollute these terms until they mean little or nothing. To be “intersectional,” in this naïvely coopted language, starts to sound as if one shops at many different stores to supplement one’s variety of overlapping identities. In a word, this diluting of critical, even revolutionary ideas is a “gentrification” of politics, whereby a consumable image of an idea, an historical event, or a political belief replaces the real-life complexity of that idea or event or belief. And ours, I’m sorry to report, is an unbearably gentrified era of political thinking.
Who decides what a group of queer individuals should look like? How do other queers intuit what is “appropriate” and what is not? Matthew J. Phillips, a writer and literature professor, saw the danger in those tweets above: “To argue—falsely—that [seeing BDSM gear] is a violation of your consent is to argue that the public sphere must be policed and certain expressions of behavior and sexuality excluded,” Phillips wrote. The argument in favor of respectability politics at Pride events is quintessential, Phillips says, of the “cis-hetero-patriarchy”—a powerful social apparatus that legislates what is normal and what is not among sexuality and expression. It’s similarly depressing to see LGBTQ+ individuals using children as rhetorical props, since an imagined threat to children has been, for centuries, the easiest way to convince the public to dehumanize queer people.
This heteronormative impulse—this “othering” of LGBTQ+ persons by their own peers—is not isolated to arguments over sexual expression. Witnessing a parallel behavior is what led Sarah Schulman to write her 2013 book Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination. In late 2010, Schulman met with several young queer artists who were curious about the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Instrumental in recognizing AIDS as a crisis, the members of ACT UP “had created change through confrontation, alienation, and truth telling,” in Schulman’s account, and had found admirers among this new generation of queer artists. Still, “[these young people’s] professional instincts led them in different directions: accommodation, social positioning, even unconscious maneuvering.” In other words, this new generation had “depoliticized” and “depersonalized” their queer experiences. Like many young queer people, they had internalized the “normalcy” of queerness in mass culture—including entertainment and advertising—which allowed them to forget the more radical and consequential elements of queer history. Schulman’s metaphor for this sanitized thinking is “gentrification.”
By erasing “complexity, difference, dynamic, dialogic action for change,” Schulman argues, gentrification becomes “a kind of institutionalization of culture,” and identity becomes a commodity. The metaphor is apt, especially in a country whose mythology intimates that anything can be bought, even a new life. In cities, gentrification is what happens to neighborhoods when they no longer resemble what made us want to, or able to, live there. Those who live happily in gentrified neighborhoods patronize the same establishments one finds in gentrified areas nationwide. Luxury apartments built over demolished, once-affordable housing resemble those in other cities, filled with furniture and décor from the same retailers. Bars, restaurants, clubs, arcades, and breweries siphon activity from public spaces, which go neglected and underfunded. The densest and busiest urban spaces in America are coming to assume the trappings of suburbs, even gated communities.
Key to gentrification is replacement. Those who seek the neighborhoods described above seek suburban comfort in an urban environment, with people of color and those living in poverty placed at a distance via private transit (personal cars and ride-sharing apps), pricing (tickets and cover charges), and aggressive policing. This is not how a person is meant to live in a city; but, in photographs, it certainly looks as if one is living in a city. Gentrification is the replacement of city living with an image of city living, often informed by social media or entertainment. It is performing, for one’s own benefit, a consumer identity—city dweller—at the expense of a neighborhood that other people once called home.
Just as replacing urban life with an image of urban life is an act of gentrification that affects vulnerable persons, so too is the replacement of lived queer sexuality with a consumer image (rainbows, nuclear units, “love is love”) a parallel harm. Those left out of the image of what palatable queerness looks like are often poor, people of color, trans, and so on. Schulman isn’t the only one to see this connection. Writing for Harper’s in January of 2018, Fenton Johnson observed how, “The evolution from ACT UP and Zen Hospice to state-sanctioned marriage is precisely analogous to gentrification—the creative outliers do the heavy lifting, and when a certain level of safety has been achieved, the assimilationists move in, raise prices, and force out the agents of change.” Standing with a clipboard and asking strangers to “legalize love,” Johnson writes, a young person can assume the image of a political activist. But championing marriage as the solution to bigotry erases a more radical history in which a neglected, marginalized community “insisted that we had something to offer, that our world, where we formed enduring relationships outside the tax code and the sanction of the church and state, where we created and took care of families of lovers and friends and strangers alike … was richer, more sustainable, and more loving.”
Instead of this queer alternative to an institution entrenched in property rights, the movement to legalize gay marriage retreats into a reduced, simplified image: The queer family is identical to the heterosexual family.
And with that image, what was once queer and radical capitulates to the same capitalist hierachy that, only 30 years ago, watched tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people suffer and die, often alone, because they were different. And with this new image of the safe, wholesome queer couple or family, we also have new differences. Families, so pictured, are not trans, they are not poly, they are rarely black or Native or Latinx, and—at least in advertisements—they are certainly not poor.
As this process continues within queer politics, so too are all political ideas vulnerable to gentrification. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a country where “socialism” is still often discussed in the narrow terms of a specifically totalitarian species of Communism, nor in a country where “identity politics” is misconstrued and then swatted back and forth among septuagenarian politicians like a shuttlecock. Events, too, are name-dropped with the same hollow insincerity. For example, to try to discredit Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar’s criticism of American Islamophobia, the president conjured the “tragedy” of 9/11 as shorthand to incite resentment and anger, to mobilize an emotional constituency against the congresswoman. He used a gentrified image of a terrorist attack for his own political benefit, despite boasting, on the morning of September 11th, 2001, that his own building was now the tallest structure in Lower Manhattan. (It wasn’t.)
To use simplified or flattened images in place of a more nuanced, complex reality is an isolating, ignorant approach to both the past and the present, and confronts us with a significant threat. In a word, that threat is fascism. Historical fascist movements—including Mussolini’s capital-F original—often arose to “protect” land and factory owners, i.e. the gentry, from proletarian revolutions. Fascism is a politics that guards the privileged from those whom they oppress. A violent and autocratic perversion of populism, fascism is the apotheosis of gentrified politics: its promises, ideas, and policies are almost totally cleaved from reality—images all.
Before his death in 2014, the political philosopher Ernesto Laclau observed that populist movements, whether from the left or the right, are predicated on an “idea of a fullness which unfulfilled demands constantly reproduce as the presence of an absence.” There is no meeting fascist demands because these demands are never clear; they are inevitably framed outside of the present, disseminating a nostalgic image of the nation’s past or a “perfection of man” in some unreachable future. There is no “great” America to restore into being, only an image gentrified by decades of political rhetoric and popular entertainment. When our national politics is replaced by a gallery of images—”Main Street vs. Wall Street,” illegal immigrants, latte-sipping cosmopolitans, the “white working class,” coastal elites, hardworking Christian families, and so on—that politics becomes irreconcilable with reality. Yet, voted into office, our senators and representatives, our governors and presidents, use these images to inform policy decisions that affect the real lives of their constituents. And one only has to look to Flint or to Ferguson, to trans women murdered in our cities or to the concentration camps at the southern border, to understand how, through inaction, neglect, or corruption, our elected officials often affect those lives by ending them.
It is because of gentrified thinking that fascism in America is not only possible but ruling from the White House. The American taste for commodifying ideas and identities—of shelving nearly everything that can be thought or believed in a market of interchangeable, consumable images—has all but welcomed it. Because once the fascist imagination acquires the strength of the state, the state begins replacing reality with its promised, simple, easily grasped image of that nation, eliminating whatever doesn’t fit within its frame; notably, human beings.
Alongside this threat of fascism, we have the image of “resistance”—the proud cry of the anti-Trump liberal, which is itself an appropriation and gentrification of radical leftist philosophy and history. In posting political memes and uploading “solidarity” user photos, by intoning “not my president” or tagging #LoveTrumpsHate when another child is bureaucratically murdered at the border, Americans replace a chance at surviving a fascist government with an Instagrammable image of how cool, how righteous it is to resist. This is the embrace of a safe and gentrified resistance that blends the vocabularies and images of the civil rights and Stonewall eras with those of occupied France in World War II. While real lives are in danger, the “resistance” is donning costumes and snapping selfies.
The political triumphs of the past can serve as inspiration for movements of our own, but we cannot treat them as fashion, or as a collection of borrowed images. In these earliest days of a fascist America, an ungentrified resistance would begin by dissolving of the images that create our lacquered sense of reality and seeing our neighbors and neighborhoods, our fellow citizens and civic ideas, not just as they are but also as they’re connected. It is in connections where human kindness, compassion, and accountability find their strength; and it is in connections—in reconciling ideas to one another—where the fascist impulse collapses. To “resist” what’s happening in America, the unchecked creativity of fascist image-making must be scrutinized and challenged, publicly and at every level. Words coined and images drawn by far-right pundits and politicians should never be repeated without context—least of all by media organizations who wish to portray themselves as responsible.
Beyond that, this fascist creativity must be outdone and outrun. If fascism moves, those on the radical left, or simply those who are radically kind, must move faster. A resistance must be more nimble, more shape-shifting, more fluidly queer than any hateful, harmful phrase, promise, or slogan could ever hope to be. It must connect and reconnect until enmeshed, inseparable and unbreakable. There is no specific word, I don’t think, for this plurality—pushing for civic action entirely from our overlapping, interlaced strengths. Nor am I sure there should be: no slogan, no poster, no party, no T-shirt, no image, nothing to champion or wear or believe—just a fervent interest in the way our collective civic power can reduce and assuage suffering in this country and abroad. Though I suppose that word is “politics,” or at least what politics was before it became just one more thing to wear, or sell.
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