Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Use of Tragedy

I may have something more useful to say on that whole "call-out culture" thing, thanks in the first place to the ongoing collapse of Virginia Democratic governor Ralph Northam since he's been called out for his repellent self-presentation in his 1984 med school yearbook, in a photograph where he was either in minstrel-show blackface or KKK robe and hood (we haven't yet been told which of the two people was him), and it looks as if he's going to have to resign eventually or, as David Brooks will be saying any day now, his life is being destroyed.

Or maybe sooner—as I write, AP is reporting what looks like an effort to plead innocent to the thing he just abjectly apologized for:
A Virginia Democrat who has spoken with Gov. Ralph Northam has told The Associated Press that the governor now does not believe he was in a racist picture in his 1984 medical yearbook and has no immediate plans to resign.
How's that? Had he thought at first we were talking about some other picture? [Update: He's confessing that he actually did darken his face in 1984 for an entirely different purpose, dressing as Michael Jackson in a dance contest, and thought initially that was the yearbook picture, although it's hard to figure how you could remember wearing a Michael Jackson costume and not remember that Michael Jackson rarely dressed like this:

So I don't think it's an entirely satisfactory explanation.] If that's his strategy, he may well be out before I manage to finish writing this, and I kind of hope it's sooner rather than later. He has to go.

Anyway, the other thing I've been thinking about is the concept of tragedy, which comes from going to see Clémentine Margaine singing Carmen on Tuesday, with my daughter, who hadn't seen the opera before, and was ready to have a somewhat woke discussion about it afterwards, because the plot is fairly problematic. It's the story, if you don't know, of José, a well-bred country boy in the big city, a corporal in the civil guard, who is seduced by a Romani girl with possibly magical powers, helps her evade jail and goes to jail himself on her behalf, and ends up the leader of a smuggler band she is attached to, whereupon she dumps him for a famous matador, and he kills her outside the bullring during the corrida rather than let another man have her, and surrenders to the police. You can't make it less Orientalist, but there's a more feminist, and I think a better, way of reading its gender politics, as Carmen's story rather than José's, as that of somebody who values autonomy more than her own life. When she meets José he seems like somebody who's really prepared to respect her, unlike his rapey lieutenant Zuñiga, but once he has her he wants to own her after all. So she dies, though she could have escaped: she owns her death by refusing to run away or show any sign of weakness. She's the hero.

But, said my daughter, she dies. She deserves a therapist who'll help her to stop making such bad relationship choices and recognize it's OK to be alone, she doesn't deserve to be stabbed to death.

Well, it's a tragedy, I said, and she couldn't argue with that. Theater isn't fair. Besides, the music is really as great as it gets and it was a tremendous performance.

Brooks's example was taken from a fairly peculiar little subculture, of feminists inside hardcore punk, described in the original podcast from which he skimmed his material, who developed a fairly extreme set of rules for themselves:
ROSIN: Posts on Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook that started appearing about five or six years ago in social justice circles around the country as part of a new vigilance in the air that seeped into fringe scenes like Richmond hardcore, out of a conviction that the police and courts and society in general had failed to respond to things like sexual violence and racism and men abusing their positions of power to do bad things.
EMILY: Harm, abuse, men being rapists. Fuck him.
ROSIN: Call-outs were something between a warning and a wanted poster. A member of the community would name-check someone publicly. That's the abuser.
EMILY: He's shitty.
ROSIN: The person they'd harmed - that's the victim.
EMILY: The victim.
ROSIN: If the community agrees the abuser is guilty, then the abuser becomes the known abuser.
EMILY: Cut him out from your life.
ROSIN: And then members of the community will decide on the appropriate punishment, from gentle rebuke all the way to banishment.
But I can't help thinking his real issue, the thing he wants to write about, is the typical  political call-out catastrophe, when the skeleton of some abusive past behavior wanders out of the Great Man's closet and onto the Facebook, which you and I may see as having a tragic quality, at least when it happens to a Democrat, with particular differences depending on the peculiarities of the character, from the sentimental-domestic in the case of Al Franken, who looks like the victim of a conspiracy since we can't believe he really did anything bad, to the high awful of Eric Schneiderman, the superb New York attorney general who seemed to lack a clear understanding of the concept of consent when it came to rough sex practices, it's the example of a man (at least normally a man) with a great virtue and a moral defect that leads to his downfall, arousing our pity and fear.

He really has to have the downfall, and we have to feel the emotions. He doesn't die, this isn't theater, but he loses his job, and has to find some new way of defining himself or some road to redemption, which he's best off finding in private, which is for the audience the same as if he were dead, and if he was somebody we liked, like Franken or Schneiderman, we need to mourn him. We are in fact bereaved, or we think we are, perhaps wrongly—the huge thing we learned after Schneiderman stepped down was that the solicitor general, Barbara Underwood, must have been doing most of the work all along, because the office continued to perform spectacularly well under her.

Northam may well turn out to be more dispensable than that. He was the darling of the Virginia Democratic establishment in the 2017 election that put him in office, after he'd voted twice for George W. Bush (before he got interested in politics, he explained), and most progressives strongly preferred his primary rival, Tom Perriello, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who will succeed him if he steps down, is an attractive young black politician who would be eligible to run for reelection in 2021, as Northam wouldn't, because of Virginia's crazy term limits law. So it could in effect be a good thing for everybody, which is another set of reasons for hoping Northam resigns.

But this, in any case, is my answer to David Brooks: it may be unjust, and sometimes certainly is, when Al Franken has to resign and a serious repeat-offender racist like Steve King (R-IA) keeps his job just because Republican standards are different, but it isn't killing anybody, and these guys are going to find their feet. (Eliot Spitzer's running his father's real estate business.) We're right to be unhappy about each incident as it comes and to wish it hadn't happened, but we're obliged to learn from it what we can, not hide from it because it's bad news and wish everybody would shut up.

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