Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why
Django Unchained, or The Help
On reflection, it’s possible to see that Django Unchained and The Help are basically different versions of the same movie. Both dissolve political economy and social relations into individual quests and interpersonal transactions and thus effectively sanitize, respectively, slavery and Jim Crow by dehistoricizing them. The problem is not so much that each film invents cartoonish fictions; it’s that the point of the cartoons is to take the place of the actual relations of exploitation that anchored the regime it depicts. In The Help the buffoonishly bigoted housewife, Hilly, obsessively pushes a pet bill that would require employers of black domestic servants to provide separate, Jim Crow toilets for them; in Django Unchained the sensibility of 1970s blaxploitation imagines “comfort girls” and “Mandingo fighters” as representative slave job descriptions. It’s as if Jim Crow had nothing to do with cheap labor and slavery had nothing to do with making slave owners rich. And the point here is not just that they get the past wrong—it’s that the particular way they get it wrong enables them to get the present just as wrong and so their politics are as misbegotten as their history.
Thus, for example, it’s only the dehistoricization that makes each film’s entirely neoliberal (they could have been scripted by Oprah) happy ending possible. The Help ends with Skeeter and the black lead, the maid Aibileen, embarking joyfully on the new, excitingly uncharted paths their book—an account of the master-servant relationship told from the perspective of the servants—has opened for them. But dehistoricization makes it possible not to notice the great distance between those paths and their likely trajectories. For Skeeter the book from which the film takes its name opens a career in the fast track of the journalism and publishing industry. Aibileen’s new path was forced upon her because the book got her fired from her intrinsically precarious job, more at-whim than at-will, in one of the few areas of employment available to working-class black women in the segregationist South—the precise likelihood that had made her and other maids initially reluctant to warm to Skeeter’s project. Yet Aibileen smiles and strides ever more confidently as she walks home because she has found and articulated her voice.
The implication is that having been fired, rather than portending deeper poverty and economic insecurity, was a moment of liberation; Aibileen, armed with the confidence and self-knowledge conferred by knowing her voice, was now free to venture out into a world of unlimited opportunity and promise. This, of course, is pure neoliberal bullshit, of the same variety that permits the odious Michelle Rhee to assert with a straight face that teachers’ defined-benefit pensions deny them “choice” and thereby undermine the quality of public education. But who knows? Perhaps Skeeter brought with her from the 2000s an NGO to arrange microcredit that would enable Aibileen to start up a culturally authentic pie-making venture or a day spa for harried and stressed domestic servants. In the Jackson, Mississippi of 1963, no such options would exist for Aibileen. Instead, she most likely would be blackballed and unable to find a comparable menial job and forced to toil under even more undesirable conditions.
Django Unchained ends with the hero and his lady fair riding happily off into the sunset after he has vanquished evil slave owners and their henchmen and henchwomen. Django and Broomhilda—whose name is spelled like that of the 1970s comic strip character, not the figure in Norse mythology, presumably a pointless Tarantino inside joke—are free. However, their freedom was not won by his prodigious bloodletting; it was obtained within the legal framework that accepted and regulated property rights in slaves. Each had been purchased and manumitted by the German bounty hunter who, as others have noted, is the only character in the film to condemn slavery as an institution.
Django is no insurrectionist. His singular focus from beginning to end is on reclaiming his wife from her slave master. Presumably, we are to understand this solipsism as indicative of the depth and intensity of his love, probably also as homage to the borderline sociopathic style of the spaghetti western/blaxploitation hero. Regardless, Django’s quest is entirely individualist; he never intends to challenge slavery and never does. Indeed, for the purpose of buttressing the credibility of their ruse, he even countermands his bounty hunter partner’s attempt to save—through purchase, of course—a recalcitrant “Mandingo fighter” from being ripped apart by dogs. He is essentially indifferent to the handful of slaves who are freed as incidental byproducts of his actions. The happy ending is that he and Broomhilda ride off together and free in a slavocracy that is not a whit less secure at the moment of celebratory resolution than it was when Django set out on his mission of retrieval and revenge.
In both films the bogus happy endings are possible only because they characterize their respective regimes of racial hierarchy in the superficial terms of interpersonal transactions. In The Help segregationism’s evil was small-minded bigotry and lack of sensitivity; it was more like bad manners than oppression. In Tarantino’s vision, slavery’s definitive injustice was its gratuitous and sadistic brutalization and sexualized degradation. Malevolent, ludicrously arrogant whites owned slaves most conspicuously to degrade and torture them. Apart from serving a formal dinner in a plantation house—and Tarantino, the Chance the Gardener of American filmmakers (and Best Original Screenplay? Really?) seems to draw his images of plantation life from Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, as well as old Warner Brothers cartoons—and the Mandingo fighters and comfort girls, Tarantino’s slaves do no actual work at all; they’re present only to be brutalized. In fact, the cavalier sadism with which owners and traders treat them belies the fact that slaves were, first and foremost, capital investments. It’s not for nothing that New Orleans has a monument to the estimated 20,000-30,000 antebellum Irish immigrants who died constructing the New Basin Canal; slave labor was too valuable for such lethal work.
The Help trivializes Jim Crow by reducing it to its most superficial features and irrational extremes. The master-servant nexus was, and is, a labor relation. And the problem of labor relations particular to the segregationist regime wasn’t employers’ bigoted lack of respect or failure to hear the voices of the domestic servants, or even benighted refusal to recognize their equal humanity. It was that the labor relation was structured within and sustained by a political and institutional order that severely impinged on, when it didn’t altogether deny, black citizens’ avenues for pursuit of grievances and standing before the law. The crucial lynchpin of that order was neither myopia nor malevolence; it was suppression of black citizens’ capacities for direct participation in civic and political life, with racial disfranchisement and the constant threat of terror intrinsic to substantive denial of equal protection and due process before the law as its principal mechanisms. And the point of the regime wasn’t racial hatred or enforced disregard; its roots lay in the much more prosaic concern of dominant elites to maintain their political and economic hegemony by suppressing potential opposition and in the linked ideal of maintaining access to a labor force with no options but to accept employment on whatever terms employers offered. (Those who liked The Help or found it moving should watch The Long Walk Home, a 1990 film set in Montgomery, Alabama, around the bus boycott. I suspect that’s the film you thought you were watching when you saw The Help.)
Django Unchained trivializes slavery by reducing it to its most barbaric and lurid excesses. Slavery also was fundamentally a labor relation. It was a form of forced labor regulated—systematized, enforced and sustained—through a political and institutional order that specified it as a civil relationship granting owners absolute control over the life, liberty, and fortunes of others defined as eligible for enslavement, including most of all control of the conditions of their labor and appropriation of its product. Historian Kenneth M. Stampp quotes a slaveholder’s succinct explanation: “‘For what purpose does the master hold the servant?’ asked an ante-bellum Southerner. ‘Is it not that by his labor, he, the master, may accumulate wealth?’”1
That absolute control permitted horrible, unthinkable brutality, to be sure, but perpetrating such brutality was neither the point of slavery nor its essential injustice. The master-slave relationship could, and did, exist without brutality, and certainly without sadism and sexual degradation. In Tarantino’s depiction, however, it is not clear that slavery shorn of its extremes of brutality would be objectionable. It does not diminish the historical injustice and horror of slavery to note that it was not the product of sui generis, transcendent Evil but a terminus on a continuum of bound labor that was more norm than exception in the Anglo-American world until well into the eighteenth century, if not later. As legal historian Robert Steinfeld points out, it is not so much slavery, but the emergence of the notion of free labor—as the absolute control of a worker over her person—that is the historical anomaly that needs to be explained.2 Django Unchained sanitizes the essential injustice of slavery by not problematizing it and by focusing instead on the extremes of brutality and degradation it permitted, to the extent of making some of them up, just as does The Help regarding Jim Crow.
The Help could not imagine a more honest and complex view of segregationist Mississippi partly because it uses the period ultimately as a prop for human interest cliché, and Django Unchained’s absurdly ahistorical view of plantation slavery is only backdrop for the merger of spaghetti western and blaxploitation hero movie. Neither film is really about the period in which it is set. Film critic Manohla Dargis, reflecting a decade ago on what she saw as a growing Hollywood penchant for period films, observed that such films are typically “stripped of politics and historical fact…and instead will find meaning in appealing to seemingly timeless ideals and stirring scenes of love, valor and compassion” and that “the Hollywood professionals who embrace accuracy most enthusiastically nowadays are costume designers.”3 That observation applies to both these films, although in Django concern with historically accurate representation of material culture applies only to the costumes and props of the 1970s film genres Tarantino wants to recall.
To make sense of how Django Unchained has received so much warmer a reception among black and leftoid commentators than did The Help, it is useful to recall Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 dictum that “economics are the method: the object is to change the soul.”4 Simply put, she and her element have won. Few observers—among opponents and boosters alike—have noted how deeply and thoroughly both films are embedded in the practical ontology of neoliberalism, the complex of unarticulated assumptions and unexamined first premises that provide its common sense, its lifeworld.
Objection to The Help has been largely of the shooting fish in a barrel variety: complaints about the film’s paternalistic treatment of the maids, which generally have boiled down to an objection that the master-servant relation is thematized at all, as well as the standard, predictable litany of anti-racist charges about whites speaking for blacks, the film’s inattentiveness to the fact that at that time in Mississippi black people were busily engaged in liberating themselves, etc. An illustration of this tendency that conveniently refers to several other variants of it is Akiba Solomon, “Why I’m Just Saying No to ‘The Help’ and Its Historical Whitewash” in Color Lines, August 10, 2011, available at: http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/08/why_im_just_saying_no_to_the_help.html.
Defenses of Django Unchained pivot on claims about the social significance of the narrative of a black hero. One node of this argument emphasizes the need to validate a history of autonomous black agency and “resistance” as a politico-existential desideratum. It accommodates a view that stresses the importance of recognition of rebellious or militant individuals and revolts in black American history. Another centers on a notion that exposure to fictional black heroes can inculcate the sense of personal efficacy necessary to overcome the psychological effects of inequality and to facilitate upward mobility and may undermine some whites’ negative stereotypes about black people. In either register assignment of social or political importance to depictions of black heroes rests on presumptions about the nexus of mass cultural representation, social commentary, and racial justice that are more significant politically than the controversy about the film itself.
In both versions, this argument casts political and economic problems in psychological terms. Injustice appears as a matter of disrespect and denial of due recognition, and the remedies proposed—which are all about images projected and the distribution of jobs associated with their projection—look a lot like self-esteem engineering. Moreover, nothing could indicate more strikingly the extent of neoliberal ideological hegemony than the idea that the mass culture industry and its representational practices constitute a meaningful terrain for struggle to advance egalitarian interests. It is possible to entertain that view seriously only by ignoring the fact that the production and consumption of mass culture is thoroughly embedded in capitalist material and ideological imperatives.
That, incidentally, is why I prefer the usage “mass culture” to describe this industry and its products and processes, although I recognize that it may seem archaic to some readers. The mass culture v. popular culture debate dates at least from the 1950s and has continued with occasional crescendos ever since.5 For two decades or more, instructively in line with the retreat of possibilities for concerted left political action outside the academy, the popular culture side of that debate has been dominant, along with its view that the products of this precinct of mass consumption capitalism are somehow capable of transcending or subverting their material identity as commodities, if not avoiding that identity altogether. Despite the dogged commitment of several generations of American Studies and cultural studies graduate students who want to valorize watching television and immersion in hip-hop or other specialty market niches centered on youth recreation and the most ephemeral fads as both intellectually avant-garde and politically “resistive,” it should be time to admit that that earnest disposition is intellectually shallow and an ersatz politics. The idea of “popular” culture posits a spurious autonomy and organicism that actually affirm mass industrial processes by effacing them, especially in the putatively rebel, fringe, or underground market niches that depend on the fiction of the authentic to announce the birth of new product cycles.
The power of the hero is a cathartic trope that connects mainly with the sensibility of adolescent boys—of whatever nominal age. Tarantino has allowed as much, responding to black critics’ complaints about the violence and copious use of “nigger” by proclaiming “Even for the film’s biggest detractors, I think their children will grow up and love this movie. I think it could become a rite of passage for young black males.”6 This response stems no doubt from Tarantino’s arrogance and opportunism, and some critics have denounced it as no better than racially presumptuous. But he is hardly alone in defending the film with an assertion that it gives black youth heroes, is generically inspirational or both. Similarly, in a January 9, 2012 interview on the Daily Show, George Lucas adduced this line to promote his even more execrable race-oriented live-action cartoon, Red Tails, which, incidentally, trivializes segregation in the military by reducing it to a matter of bad or outmoded attitudes. The ironic effect is significant understatement of both the obstacles the Tuskegee airmen faced and their actual accomplishments by rendering them as backdrop for a blackface, slapped-together remake of Top Gun. (Norman Jewison’s 1984 film, A Soldier’s Story, adapted from Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, is a much more sensitive and thought-provoking rumination on the complexities of race and racism in the Jim Crow U.S. Army—an army mobilized, as my father, a veteran of the Normandy invasion, never tired of remarking sardonically, to fight the racist Nazis.) Lucas characterized his film as “patriotic, even jingoistic” and was explicit that he wanted to create a film that would feature “real heroes” and would be “inspirational for teenage boys.” Much as Django Unchained’s defenders compare it on those terms favorably to Lincoln, Lucas hyped Red Tails as being a genuine hero story unlike “Glory, where you have a lot of white officers running those guys into cannon fodder.”
Of course, the film industry is sharply tilted toward the youth market, as Lucas and Tarantino are acutely aware. But Lucas, unlike Tarantino, was not being defensive in asserting his desire to inspire the young; he offered it more as a boast. As he has said often, he’d wanted for years to make a film about the Tuskegee airmen, and he reports that he always intended telling their story as a feel-good, crossover inspirational tale. Telling it that way also fits in principle (though in this instance not in practice, as Red Tails bombed at the box office) with the commercial imperatives of increasingly degraded mass entertainment.
Dargis observed that the ahistoricism of the recent period films is influenced by market imperatives in a global film industry. The more a film is tied to historically specific contexts, the more difficult it is to sell elsewhere. That logic selects for special effects-driven products as well as standardized, decontextualized and simplistic—“universal”—story lines, preferably set in fantasy worlds of the filmmakers’ design. As Dargis notes, these films find their meaning in shopworn clichés puffed up as timeless verities, including uplifting and inspirational messages for youth. But something else underlies the stress on inspiration in the black-interest films, which shows up in critical discussion of them as well.
All these films—The Help, Red Tails, Django Unchained, even Lincoln and Glory—make a claim to public attention based partly on their social significance beyond entertainment or art, and they do so because they engage with significant moments in the history of the nexus of race and politics in the United States. There would not be so much discussion and debate and no Golden Globe, NAACP Image, or Academy Award nominations for The Help, Red Tails, or Django Unchained if those films weren’t defined partly by thematizing that nexus of race and politics in some way.
The pretensions to social significance that fit these films into their particular market niche don’t conflict with the mass-market film industry’s imperative of infantilization because those pretensions are only part of the show; they are little more than empty bromides, product differentiation in the patter of “seemingly timeless ideals” which the mass entertainment industry constantly recycles. (Andrew O’Hehir observes as much about Django Unchained, which he describes as “a three-hour trailer for a movie that never happens.”7) That comes through in the defense of these films, in the face of evidence of their failings, that, after all, they are “just entertainment.” Their substantive content is ideological; it is their contribution to the naturalization of neoliberalism’s ontology as they propagandize its universalization across spatial, temporal, and social contexts.
Purportedly in the interest of popular education cum entertainment, Django Unchained and The Help, and Red Tails for that matter, read the sensibilities of the present into the past by divesting the latter of its specific historicity. They reinforce the sense of the past as generic old-timey times distinguishable from the present by superficial inadequacies—outmoded fashion, technology, commodities and ideas—since overcome. In The Help Hilly’s obsession with her pet project marks segregation’s petty apartheid as irrational in part because of the expense rigorously enforcing it would require; the breadwinning husbands express their frustration with it as financially impractical. Hilly is a mean-spirited, narrow-minded person whose rigid and tone-deaf commitment to segregationist consistency not only reflects her limitations of character but also is economically unsound, a fact that further defines her, and the cartoon version of Jim Crow she represents, as irrational.
The deeper message of these films, insofar as they deny the integrity of the past, is that there is no thinkable alternative to the ideological order under which we live. This message is reproduced throughout the mass entertainment industry; it shapes the normative reality even of the fantasy worlds that masquerade as escapism. Even among those who laud the supposedly cathartic effects of Django’s insurgent violence as reflecting a greater truth of abolition than passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, few commentators notice that he and Broomhilda attained their freedom through a market transaction.8 This reflects an ideological hegemony in which students all too commonly wonder why planters would deny slaves or sharecroppers education because education would have made them more productive as workers. And, tellingly, in a glowing rumination in the Daily Kos, Ryan Brooke inadvertently thrusts mass culture’s destruction of historicity into bold relief by declaiming on “the segregated society presented” in Django Unchained and babbling on—with the absurdly ill-informed and pontifical self-righteousness that the blogosphere enables—about our need to take “responsibility for preserving racial divides” if we are “to put segregation in the past and fully fulfill Dr. King’s dream.”9 It’s all an indistinguishable mush of bad stuff about racial injustice in the old-timey days. Decoupled from its moorings in a historically specific political economy, slavery becomes at bottom a problem of race relations, and, as historian Michael R. West argues forcefully, “race relations” emerged as and has remained a discourse that substitutes etiquette for equality.10
This is the context in which we should take account of what “inspiring the young” means as a justification for those films. In part, the claim to inspire is a simple platitude, more filler than substance. It is, as I’ve already noted, both an excuse for films that are cartoons made for an infantilized, generic market and an assertion of a claim to a particular niche within that market. More insidiously, though, the ease with which “inspiration of youth” rolls out in this context resonates with three related and disturbing themes: 1) underclass ideology’s narratives—now all Americans’ common sense—that link poverty and inequality most crucially to (racialized) cultural inadequacy and psychological damage; 2) the belief that racial inequality stems from prejudice, bad ideas and ignorance, and 3) the cognate of both: the neoliberal rendering of social justice as equality of opportunity, with an aspiration of creating “competitive individual minority agents who might stand a better fighting chance in the neoliberal rat race rather than a positive alternative vision of a society that eliminates the need to fight constantly against disruptive market whims in the first place.”11
This politics seeps through in the chatter about Django Unchained in particular. Erin Aubry Kaplan, in the Los Angeles Times article in which Tarantino asserts his appeal to youth, remarks that the “most disturbing detail [about slavery] is the emotional violence and degradation directed at blacks that effectively keeps them at the bottom of the social order, a place they still occupy today.” Writing on the Institute of the Black World blog, one Dr. Kwa David Whitaker, a 1960s-style cultural nationalist, declaims on Django’s testament to the sources of degradation and “unending servitude [that] has rendered [black Americans] almost incapable of making sound evaluations of our current situations or the kind of steps we must take to improve our condition.”12 In its blindness to political economy, this notion of black cultural or psychological damage as either a legacy of slavery or of more indirect recent origin—e.g., urban migration, crack epidemic, matriarchy, babies making babies—comports well with the reduction of slavery and Jim Crow to interpersonal dynamics and bad attitudes. It substitutes a “politics of recognition” and a patter of racial uplift for politics and underwrites a conflation of political action and therapy.
With respect to the nexus of race and inequality, this discourse supports victim-blaming programs of personal rehabilitation and self-esteem engineering—inspiration—as easily as it does multiculturalist respect for difference, which, by the way, also feeds back to self-esteem engineering and inspiration as nodes within a larger political economy of race relations. Either way, this is a discourse that displaces a politics challenging social structures that reproduce inequality with concern for the feelings and characteristics of individuals and of categories of population statistics reified as singular groups that are equivalent to individuals. This discourse has made it possible (again, but more sanctimoniously this time) to characterize destruction of low-income housing as an uplift strategy for poor people; curtailment of access to public education as “choice”; being cut adrift from essential social wage protections as “empowerment”; and individual material success as socially important role modeling.
Neoliberalism’s triumph is affirmed with unselfconscious clarity in the ostensibly leftist defenses of Django Unchained that center on the theme of slaves’ having liberated themselves. Trotskyists, would-be anarchists, and psychobabbling identitarians have their respective sectarian garnishes: Trotskyists see everywhere the bugbear of “bureaucratism” and mystify “self-activity;” anarchists similarly fetishize direct action and voluntarism and oppose large-scale public institutions on principle, and identitarians romanticize essentialist notions of organic, folkish authenticity under constant threat from institutions. However, all are indistinguishable from the nominally libertarian right in their disdain for government and institutionally based political action, which their common reflex is to disparage as inauthentic or corrupt.
The previous year’s version of the socially significant film bearing on race (sort of), Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which also received startlingly positive responses from nominal progressives,13 marks the reactionary vector onto which those several interpretive strains converge. It lays out an exoticizing narrative of quaint, closer-to-nature primitives living in an area outside the south Louisiana levee system called the Bathtub, who simply don’t want and actively resist the oppressive intrusions—specifically, medical care and hurricane evacuation, though, in fairness, they also mark their superiority by tut-tutting at the presence of oil refineries—of a civilization that is out of touch with their way of life and is destroying nature to boot. The film validates their spiritually rich if economically impoverished culture and their right to it. (Actually, the Bathtub’s material infrastructure seems to derive mainly from scavenging, which should suggest a problem at the core of this bullshit allegory for all except those who imagine dumpster-diving, back-to-nature-in-the-city squatterism as a politics.) Especially given its setting in south Louisiana and the hype touting the authenticity of its New Orleans-based crew and cast, Beasts most immediately evokes a warm and fuzzy rendition of the retrograde post-Katrina line that those odd people down there wouldn’t evacuate because they’re so intensely committed to place. It also brings to mind Leni Riefenstahl’s post-prison photo essays on the Nilotic groups whose beautiful primitiveness she imagined herself capturing for posterity before they vanished under a superior civilization’s advance.14
Beasts of the Southern Wild stands out also as a pure exemplar of the debasement of the notion of a social cause through absorption into the commercial imperative, the next logical step from fun-run or buy-a-tee-shirt activism. The film’s website, has a “get involved” link, a ploy clearly intended to generate an affective identification and to define watching and liking the film as a form of social engagement. There’s nothing to “get involved” with except propagandizing for the film. But the injunction to get involved pumps the idea that going to see a movie, and spending money to do so, is participating in a social movement. (I happened to be on a flight from Hartford, Connecticut, to Chicago with Oprah’s BFF and my local news anchor, Gayle King, on the premiere weekend of Oprah’s film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Gayle intimated in a stage whisper to the gaggle of gushing Oprah fans seated around her that it was very important to see the film on opening weekend in order to build the all-important box office count. I hadn’t realized theretofore that making yet more money for Oprah ranks as a social responsibility.) In this device Zeitlin repeats a technique employed by Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman, the corporate school privatization movement’s Triumph of the Will, speaking of Leni Riefenstahl, and its fictional counterpart Daniel Barnz’s Won’t Back Down, that movement’s Birth of a Nation. It is a minor cause for optimism that, to put it mildly, neither of those abominations came anywhere near its predecessor’s commercial or cultural success.
In addition to knee-jerk anti-statism, the objection that the slaves freed themselves, as it shows up in favorable comparison of Django Unchained to Lincoln, stems from a racial pietism that issued from the unholy union of cultural studies and black studies in the university. More than twenty years of “resistance” studies that find again and again, at this point ritualistically, that oppressed people have and express agency have contributed to undermining the idea of politics as a discrete sphere of activity directed toward the outward-looking project of affecting the social order, most effectively through creating, challenging or redefining institutions that anchor collective action with the objective of developing and wielding power. Instead, the notion has been largely evacuated of specific content at all. “Politics” can refer to whatever one wants it to; all that’s required is an act of will in making a claim.
The fact that there has been no serious left presence with any political capacity in this country for at least a generation has exacerbated this problem. In the absence of dynamic movements that cohere around affirmative visions for making the society better, on the order of, say, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 “Second Bill of Rights,” and that organize and agitate around programs instrumental to pursuit of such visions, what remains is the fossil record of past movements—the still photo legacies of their public events, postures, and outcomes. Over time, the idea that a “left” is defined by commitment to a vision of social transformation and substantive program for realizing it has receded from cultural memory. Being on the left has become instead a posture, an identity, utterly disconnected from any specific practical commitments.
Thus star Maggie Gyllenhaal and director Daniel Barnz defended themselves against complaints about their complicity in the hideously anti-union propaganda film Won’t Back Down by adducing their identities as progressives. Gyllenhaal insisted that the movie couldn’t be anti-union because “There’s no world in which I would ever, EVER make an anti-union movie. My parents are left of Trotsky.”15 Barnz took a similar tack: “I’m a liberal Democrat, very pro-union, a member of two unions. I marched with my union a couple of years ago when we were on strike.”16 And Kathryn Bigelow similarly has countered criticism that her Zero Dark Thirty justifies torture and American militarism more broadly by invoking her identity as “a lifelong pacifist.”17 Being a progressive is now more a matter of how one thinks about oneself than what one stands for or does in the world. The best that can be said for that perspective is that it registers acquiescence in defeat. It amounts to an effort to salvage an idea of a left by reformulating it as a sensibility within neoliberalism rather than a challenge to it.
Gyllenhaal, Barnz, and Bigelow exemplify the power of ideology as a mechanism that harmonizes the principles one likes to believe one holds with what advances one’s material interests; they also attest to the fact that the transmutation of leftism into pure self-image exponentially increases the potential power of that function of ideology. Upton Sinclair’s quip—“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”—takes on all the more force when applied not merely to actions or interpretations of an external world but to devoutly savored self-perception as well.
That left political imagination now operates unself-consciously within the practical ontology of neoliberalism is also the most important lesson to be drawn from progressives’ discussion of Django Unchained and, especially, the move to compare it with Lincoln. Jon Wiener, writing in The Nation, renders the following comparisons: “In Spielberg’s film, the leading black female character is a humble seamstress in the White House whose eyes fill with tears of gratitude when Congress votes to abolish slavery. In Tarantino’s film, the leading female character (Kerry Washington) is a defiant slave who has been branded on the face as a punishment for running away, and is forced—by Leonardo DiCaprio—to work as a prostitute. In Spielberg’s film, old white men make history, and black people thank them for giving them their freedom. In Tarantino’s, a black gunslinger goes after the white slavemaster with homicidal vengeance.”18
Never mind that, for what it’s worth, Kerry Washington’s character, as she actually appears in the film, is mainly a cipher, a simpering damsel in distress more reminiscent of Fay Wray in the original King Kong than heroines of the blaxploitation era’s eponymous vehicles Coffy or Foxy Brown. More problematically, Wiener’s juxtapositions reproduce the elevation of private, voluntarist action as a politics—somehow more truly true or authentic, or at least more appealing emotionally—over the machinations of government and institutional actors. That is a default presumption of the identitarian/culturalist left and is also a cornerstone of neoliberalism’s practical ontology.
In an essay on Lincoln published a month earlier, Wiener identifies as the central failing of the film its dedication “to the proposition that Lincoln freed the slaves” and concludes, after considerable meandering and nit-picking ambivalence that brings the term pettifoggery to mind, “slavery died as a result of the actions of former slaves.”19 This either/or construct is both historically false and wrong-headed, and it is especially surprising that a professional historian like Wiener embraces it. The claim that slaves’ actions were responsible for the death of slavery is not only inaccurate; it is a pointless and counterproductive misrepresentation. What purpose is served by denying the significance of the four years of war and actions of the national government of the United States in ending slavery? Besides, it was indeed the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery.
Slaves’ mass departure from plantations was self-emancipation, by definition. Their doing so weakened the southern economy and undermined the secessionists’ capacity to fight, and the related infusion of black troops into the Union army provided a tremendous lift both on the battlefield and for northern morale. How does noting that proximity of Union troops greatly emboldened that self-emancipation diminish the import of their actions? But it was nonetheless the Thirteenth Amendment that finally outlawed slavery once and for all in the United States and provided a legal basis for preempting efforts to reinstate it in effect. Moreover, for all the debate concerning Lincoln’s motives, the sincerity of his commitment to emancipation, and his personal views of blacks, and notwithstanding its technical limits with respect to enforceability, the Emancipation Proclamation emboldened black people, slave and free, and encouraged all slavery’s opponents. And, as Wiener notes himself, the proclamation tied the war explicitly to the elimination of slavery as a system.
Firefly, or The Road to Serfdom
So why is a tale about a manumitted slave/homicidal black gunslinger more palatable to a contemporary leftoid sensibility than either a similarly cartoonish one about black maids and their white employers or one that thematizes Lincoln’s effort to push the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives? The answer is, to quote the saccharine 1970s ballad, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings.” Wiener’s juxtapositions reflect the political common sense that gives pride of place to demonstrations of respect for the “voices” of the oppressed and recognition of their suffering, agency, and accomplishments. That common sense informs the proposition that providing inspiration has social or political significance. But it equally shapes the generic human-interest “message” of films like The Help that represent injustice as an issue of human relations—the alchemy that promises to reconcile social justice and capitalist class power as a win/win for everyone by means of attitude adjustments and deepened mutual understanding.
That common sense underwrites the tendency to reduce the past to a storehouse of encouraging post-it messages for the present. It must, because the presumption that the crucial stakes of political action concern recognition and respect for the oppressed’s voices is a presentist view, and mining the past to reinforce it requires anachronism. The large struggles against slavery and Jim Crow were directed toward altering structured patterns of social relations anchored in law and state power, but stories of that sort are incompatible with both global marketing imperatives and the ideological predilections of neoliberalism and its identitarian loyal opposition. One can only shudder at the prospect of how Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, or Costa-Gavras’s State of Siege (1972) would be remade today. (Guy Ritchie’s and Madonna’s execrable 2002 remake of Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 film Swept Away may provide a clue; their abomination completely erases the original film’s complex class and political content and replaces it with a banal—aka “universal”—story of an encounter between an older woman and a younger man, while at the same time meticulously, almost eerily, reproducing, scene by scene, the visual structure of Wertmüller’s film.)
Particularly as those messages strive for “universality” as well as inspiration, their least common denominator tends toward the generic story of individual triumph over adversity. But the imagery of the individual overcoming odds to achieve fame, success, or recognition also maps onto the fantasy of limitless upward mobility for enterprising and persistent individuals who persevere and remain true to their dreams. As such, it is neoliberalism’s version of an ideal of social justice, legitimizing both success and failure as products of individual character. When combined with a multiculturalist rhetoric of “difference” that reifies as autonomous cultures—in effect racializes—what are actually contingent modes of life reproduced by structural inequalities, this fantasy crowds inequality as a metric of injustice out of the picture entirely. This accounts for the popularity of reactionary dreck like Beasts of the Southern Wild among people who should know better. The denizens of the Bathtub actively, even militantly, choose their poverty and cherish it and should be respected and appreciated for doing so. But no one ever supposed that Leni Riefenstahl was on the left.
The tale type of individual overcoming has become a script into which the great social struggles of the last century and a half have commonly been reformulated to fit the requirements of a wan, gestural multiculturalism. Those movements have been condensed into the personae of Great Men and Great Women—Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and others—who seem to have changed the society apparently by virtue of manifesting their own greatness. The different jacket photos adorning the 1982 and 1999 editions of Doug McAdam’s well known sociological study of the civil rights movement, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, exemplify the shift. The first edition’s cover was a photo of an anonymous group of marching protesters; the second edition featured the (staged) photo—made iconic by its use in an Apple advertising campaign—of a dignified Rosa Parks sitting alone on the front seat of a bus looking pensively out the window.20
Ironically, the scholarly turn away from organizations and institutional processes to valorize instead the local and everyday dimensions of those movements may have exacerbated this tendency by encouraging a focus on previously unrecognized individual figures and celebrating their lives and “contributions.” Rather than challenging the presumption that consequential social change is made by the will of extraordinary individuals, however, this scholarship in effect validates it by inflating the currency of Greatness so much that it can be found any and everywhere. Giving props to the unrecognized or underappreciated has become a feature particularly of that scholarship that defines scholarly production as a terrain of political action in itself and aspires to the function of the “public intellectual.” A perusal of the rosters of African American History Month and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speakers at any random sample of colleges and universities attests to how closely this scholar/activist turn harmonizes with the reductionist individualism of prosperity religion and the varieties of latter-day mind cure through which much of the professional-managerial stratum of all races, genders, and sexual orientations, narrates its understandings of the world.
There is another, more mundane factor at play in the desire for “black heroes.” It stems from a view that Hollywood is resistant to depiction of black heroes and that, therefore, any film with a bona fide black hero is the equivalent of a civil rights victory. Minister J. Kojo Livingston, writing in the Louisiana Weekly put his appreciation of Django Unchained succinctly: “I liked the Black guy winning in the end.”21 That’s fair enough, so far as it goes, particularly when consideration is given to how recently it has become possible to expect the black guy to win in the end. I was quite impressed and gratified at the time that Keith David’s character made it along with Kurt Russell’s to the end of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing and that in the 1979 Alien Yaphet Kotto’s character was the penultimate one killed and only then because of the ineptitude of another crewmember who blocked his line of attack on the creature. When we watched the 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, my then twelve year-old son remarked that he’d want to leave the theater if the black starship captain (played by Paul Winfield) killed himself to save Captain Kirk, which of course happened moments later. (As Minister Livingston continued, “Heck, I liked the Black guy even living to see the end of a movie.”) But, understandable as that impulse is, it is problematic as a basis for making claims about films’ social significance at this point in American history. Black characters or characters played by black actors now routinely survive to the end of films in which most characters die, and black actors commonly enough play leading roles.
Literature scholar Kenneth Warren has suggested that objections to films like Lincoln on the basis of what they don’t do often rest on a premise that mass-market films depicting themes that bear on black American history are so rare that each of them is under pressure to address everything that could be addressed. So a film that focuses on a particular legislative initiative in a brief period at the end of 1864 and early months of 1865 has sparked objections that it does not address issues outside its scope, such as Lincoln’s evolving views of blacks, the role of black abolitionists and black troops in creating the climate that made the Thirteenth Amendment possible. But the sense that everything must be said at once sets an expectation that no film could ever satisfy even minimally. And, as Warren notes, the notion that occasions for such films are extremely rare is also problematic. That belief, like the premise that Hollywood refuses black heroes, is sustained largely by reference to a past—although, as I indicate above, a not very distant one—when it was clearly true.
Of course stereotypical representations of black characters remain. I had exactly the same reaction as Armond White to Hushpuppy, Quvenzhané Wallis’s character in Beasts of the Southern Wild. When the two-bit magical realism and lame ponderousness of the dialogue are boiled off, she is, down to her name, a contemporary pickaninny and a window into the racial fantasy life of the hipster carpetbaggers who have flocked to New Orleans post-Katrina searching for authenticity and careers. Like all good satire, the “Black Acting School” in Robert Townsend’s 1987 Hollywood Shuffle had a foundation in material reality. Viola Davis seems to be a quite accomplished actor, but not only did she do basically the same performance in The Help and Won’t Back Down; both characters are all too evocative of a stock figure—the quietly strong, long-suffering black woman depicted over the years by a string of actors from Joanna Moore and Claudia McNeil to Mary Alice, Beah Richards, Cicely Tyson, and now, woe be unto those with low tolerance for overacting, Angela Bassett. And it is not unreasonable to contend that double standards persist for black and white actors, directors, and thematic matter. Denzel Washington, after turning in basically the same sort of performance in a spate of films since the 1990s, finally won the best actor Academy Award for the version of it that was in the character of a corrupt, murderous cop, and he was nominated again in 2013 for a role as another ethically and morally flawed character, this time an alcoholic airline pilot.
Nevertheless, racial stereotypes and morally compromised characters are not the totality of black representation in films any more, nor even the preponderance. What made Hollywood Shuffle possible, and more significantly what made it successful, was the extent to which the conditions it satirized were already under critical scrutiny if not retreat. And a debate over whether there are enough starring roles for black characters, black actors cast in leading roles that may not be racially specified, or films with black subject matter is a much more complicated and ambiguous matter—enough according to what standard of expectation, after all?—than whether there are any.
The more interesting issue is the inclination to see the racial limitations of the present through the lens of the exclusion of the past. This habit of mind shapes the claim that Django Unchained breaks a convention of sanitizing slavery in both films and American culture in general. Harvard sociologist Lawrence D. Bobo rests his proclamation of Django’s cinematic and cultural significance, which belies his nearly simultaneous articulation of the “just entertainment” defense, on an assertion that “For too long American cinema has presented—and American audiences have accepted, digested and largely tacitly embraced—a hopelessly sanitized version of slavery in the South.” He goes on to declaim on a “collective memory” in which the “defining image, of course, is that of Scarlett O’Hara and family enjoying the ‘good life’ before ‘the War.’ Slavery has been often rendered just a benign backdrop to the beauty, elegance and, indeed, virtue of the plantation elite.”22 Bobo is hardly alone in asserting that claim. It is a standard refrain, even including references to Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation, in defenses of Tarantino’s film.23
Are we really to believe that, notwithstanding the massive sea change in the society since the end of World War II, Hollywood’s depictions and the baseline of most Americans’ presumptions about slavery are unchanged since 1915 or even 1939? In his defense of Django Adam Serwer at least limits the domain of persistent “lionization of the Lost Cause and the Confederacy” to the genre of the “revenge Western,” but that qualification takes all the starch out of the claim. Redemption of the genre of the revenge Western seems like a low stakes, even lower reward undertaking. It would hardly be a notable victory for racial justice or any other significant social interest. I take Serwer’s point that the “trope of the wronged former Confederate” is visible, albeit “excised from its historical context” in the sci-fi television program Firefly and its 2005 adaptation to feature-length film, Serenity. However, that excision from social context means more than he suggests.
Firefly’s superficial parallels with the ex-Confederate hero trope are strong enough to have provoked discussion among devotees and adjustments in dialogue to have leading characters denounce slavery off the cuff.24 The central characters are a crew of defeated insurgents operating as renegade traders who remain hostile to the oppressive and corrupt central authority that defeated them, and that makes the parallel to the wronged Confederate trope seem especially, even disturbingly, strong. I had an immediate and intensely negative reaction to it, even though the defeated rebels and those in league with them are a racially diverse lot, and neither the settings nor plot devices in any way evoke the slave South. Jeff Hart, in an essay on the theme of the brooding ex-Confederate hero in AMC’s period drama Hell on Wheels, contends that Firefly “masterfully extracts all the cool stuff about being a Confederate that we love in our outlaws without any of the bad stuff (like slavery!).”25
However, that observation begs the question whether the “cool stuff about being a Confederate” can reasonably be seen as evoking the 1861 secessionist insurrection at all if it comes without that “bad stuff,” without which there would have been no secessionist movement at all. Slavery, as Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens characterized it weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration, in the midst of the secessionist frenzy, was the “cornerstone” of the southern order that he and his confreres considered in jeopardy.26
I recognize the impulse to treat the disconnected trope as though it has an essential meaning fixed by that distinctive context because that connection has such a lengthy, and more recently a charged, history. It has been around, after all, at least since the romance of the James brothers. As I remark above, that impulse affected my own reception of Firefly. It may be that Joss Whedon’s appropriation of the trope of the brooding ex-Confederate outlaw hero for a setting that has nothing at all, even allegorically, to do with the nineteenth-century South in some way works backward to sanitize it in its more familiar context, but that seems far-fetched. There are, however, two ways in which that impulse is problematic.
First, the view that the trope of the emotionally damaged renegade outlaw of a Lost Cause is necessarily Confederate, even when disconnected entirely from racial subordination and slavery, may in effect validate apologists’ argument that the secessionist treason rested on motives besides defense of slavery. The Lost Cause narrative emerged out of the consolidation of planter-merchant class hegemony in the South at the onset of the twentieth century. Films like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind were instrumental in propagating this discourse, which sought to preempt non-southern opposition to racial disfranchisement and Jim Crow. Rhetorically, in an era in which the secessionist insurrection was within two generations of living memory for many Americans (as many as 10,000 veterans of the hostilities were still alive as late as 1938), that project involved defusing slavery’s legacy as a point of contention by representing it as a benign natural order in the antebellum era and by asserting that secessionism’s objective wasn’t protecting the institution of slavery but defending a conveniently evanescent “way of life.”27
Second, giving in to that impulse directs attention away from the political vision Firefly actually does articulate, which says more about the character of our historical moment. Firefly’s narrative conceit resonates much more clearly with contemporary anti-statist conventions than it evokes the Lost Cause line. The trope of resistance to a brutal and insensitive central authority is what today corrals social imagination in that perverse ratification of inequality and bourgeois class power commonly euphemized as an abstract “freedom” or “liberty.” This conceit permeates mass entertainment from The Matrix series to The Hunger Games and a line of dystopian fantasy that stretches back at least to Norman Jewison’s original Rollerball in 1975.28 It is recycled endlessly in the melodramatic cult of the maverick cop or physician who bristles under the corrupting and defeatist constraints of bureaucratic oversight—what otherwise might be described as accountability to the public trust. It has been a dominant theme in the genre of the disaster film and the lineage of sci-fi horrors in space spawned by Alien.
That the evil central authority is often cast as direct rule by corporations, as in Rollerball and Alien (where it may reflect these stories’ roots in the still politically contested 1970s), is by now more a misdirection than a mitigation of the anti-government narrative; that plot device collapses the distinction between public and private and serves as a naïve counter to criticisms that the films purvey right-wing politics. However, the overarching narrative framework pits the local, familial/gemeinschaftlich and individual against the central, distant, and bureaucratic, which are invariably villainous. That device is only a step away rhetorically from the crypto-fascist, stab-in-the-back Vietnam vigilante films like the Rambo series and Missing In Action.29
But the ideological patron saints of these films are Friedrich Hayek or Gary Becker more than Julius Streicher or Ted Nugent. It is the trials and torments, and the glorification of the individual, often even The One, that drive their narrative arcs—even when they imagine themselves doing otherwise. The priority of individual will is a thread connecting fantasy, fiction and “faction” alike. Cold Mountain reduces the southern elites’ treason to a thin backdrop for a puerile love story, barely leavened with a couple of trite “war is hell” references and a dash or two of Clarissa Pinkola Estés-style cultural feminism about how it’s the women who really suffer from the wars that y’all men make. (As Dargis noted, however, the period artifacts nearly all pass muster for authenticity.) For all its bullshit, dorm-room philosophy, geeky double and triple reversals, and purported critique of authoritarianism, The Matrix films pivot on Neo as The One. In fact, apparently the only hope for combatting the ubiquitous threats in any given post-apocalyptic world is to wait for the arrival of the Chosen One. The Iron Lady reduces even Margaret Thatcher to a bourgeois feminist story of Woman Overcoming.
No wonder Maggie Gyllenhaal couldn’t tell the difference between her union-busting, ditzy zealot Jamie Fitzpatrick and Norma Rae or Karen Silkwood. Never mind that both those characters were modeled on real union activists: Norma Rae’s inspiration was Crystal Lee Sutton, a member/organizer of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, now part of UNITE HERE, and Silkwood lost her life as an activist in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, now part of the United Steel Workers. That’s all pointless detail, TMI; it’s really all about individual working-class women fighting for what they believe in and Overcoming. (It may be a marker of the changed era that, twenty-eight years after she played the lead in Silkwood, Meryl Streep starred as Thatcher.)
Forget about possible evocations of the Confederacy; this is Firefly’s ideological milieu. Its vision is anti-government, punto, a multiculturalist, and thus left-seeming, anti-statism. The main expression of the central authority’s oppressiveness that affronts Serenity’s band of inter-planetary smugglers is its exorbitant taxation and arbitrary, corrupt regulation of trade. The captain and central character, also the most given to political declamation, is a committed free-trader. Firefly’s defenders describe its politics as libertarian. That is not only compatible with its multiculturalist egalitarianism; the two can fit organically. But, as Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman—as well as their acolyte, Thatcher—all were very much aware, there is no such thing as a left libertarianism. The belief that there is reflects the wishful thinking, or disingenuousness, of those who don’t want to have to square their politics with their desired self-perception.
Libertarianism is a shuck, more an aesthetics than a politics. Libertarians don’t want the state to do anything other than what they want the state to do. And, as its founding icons understood, it is fundamentally about property rights über alles. Mises and Hayek made clear in theory, and Thatcher and Friedman as Pinochet’s muse in Chile did in practice, that a libertarian society requires an anti-popular, authoritarian government to make sure that property rights are kept sacrosanct. That’s why it’s so common that a few bad days, some sweet nothings, and a couple of snazzy epaulets will turn a libertarian into an open fascist.
Whether or not Firefly contains more or less abstruse secessionist allegory, the fact that that issue is the basis of concern about its politics is a window onto a core problem of the current political situation. It reflects a critical perspective that accepts neoliberal ideological hegemony as nature and finds its own standard of justice in the rearview mirror. To the extent that Firefly embraces a libertarian politics, what it would share with the slave South isn’t racism but something more fundamental. Insofar as the “freedom” the heroes yearn for includes destruction of the regulatory apparatus of the state in favor of a market-fundamentalist idea of freedom or liberty, no matter how racially diverse and egalitarian that world would be, it would be closer than one might think to the essential normative premise of the social order of which slavery was the cornerstone, the conviction that individual property rights are absolute and inviolable.
The southern political economy didn’t become grounded on slavery because it was racist; it became racist because it was grounded on slavery.30 That is, it was grounded on the absolute right of property-owners to define and control their property—including property in other human beings—as they wished without any interference or regulation, except, of course, reliance on the police powers of the state to enforce their rights to and in such property. This takes us back to the necessity for authoritarian government, about which there was little disagreement within the dominant planter class.
Prominent pro-slavery ideologist George Fitzhugh was resolutely antagonistic to free-market, especially free-labor, liberalism and would hardly be considered a philosophical libertarian. But neither would Hayek or Ron Paul have been when describing the authoritarian regime essential for realizing property-based Liberty. As one of the most vocal proponents of the argument that slavery was a positive good for all involved, Fitzhugh doubled down on the matter of holding property rights in people as the sectional crisis intensified. His 1854 book, Sociology for the South, or, the Failure of a Free Society, argued for enslavement of poor whites as well as blacks. James Henry Hammond, U.S. Senator and former governor of South Carolina, memorialized this perspective in what came to be known as his “Mudsill Speech” on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1858 (also Django’s big year). Speaking in Congress as a member of a party that counted northern free white workers among its core constituencies, Hammond was politic enough not to propose enslaving them. However, he did underscore the essential reduction of freedom to property rights, describing the slave South as enjoying “an extent of political freedom, combined with entire security, such as no other people ever enjoyed upon the face of the earth.” And he argued that, in effect, freedom was more complete and more secure in the South because slavery permitted suppression and absolute exclusion from civic voice of its “mud-sills” —the stratum necessary “to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life [without which] you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement.” That’s what made the South more effectively free than the North. Freedom, or liberty, meant the unbridled license of the propertied class.
The rhetoric of antebellum fire-eaters and the ordinances of secession they crafted stand out for the vehemence of their protests that their essential liberties were under attack. The secessionists framed their extravagant denunciations of the national government for its potential infringement of their right to hold property in human beings in language that from our historical location seems Freudian in the blatancy with which they declared themselves as literally fearing enslavement by the United States. But it wasn’t psychological projection or reaction formation. They considered any potential infringement on absolute property rights as indeed tantamount to enslavement. For them property is the only real right; therefore, property-holders are the only people in the society with rights that count for anything, and their rights trump all else.
This is a perspective that can provide some badly needed clarity on debates in contemporary politics regarding the relation of race, racism and inequality. For example, Ron and Rand Paul, libertarians of the highest order, do not oppose the 1964 Civil Rights Law because they hate, or even don’t like, black people. (And, for the record, whenever one finds oneself agreeing at all with Kanye West about anything, it’s time to take a step back, breathe deeply and reassess.) They oppose it, as they’ve made clear, because it infringes on property rights. They dislike black people because they understand, correctly, that black people are very likely to be prominent among those committed to pursuing greater equality. They oppose black people’s demands and all others intended to mitigate inequality because any efforts to do so would necessarily impinge on the absolute sanctity of property rights. I don’t mean to suggest that the Pauls aren’t racist; I’m pretty confident they are, no matter how much they might protest the assessment. My point is that determining whether they’re racist, then exposing and denouncing them for it, doesn’t reach to what is most consequentially wrong and dangerous about them or for that matter what makes their racism something more significant than that of the random bigot who lives around the corner on disability.
Returning to Firefly, we don’t ever have to confront Captain Mal’s and his crew’s libertarianism beyond platitudes and the sort of errant patter of an adolescent irked at being told to clean up her room. We don’t because they aren’t in a position to demonstrate what their libertarianism would look like in practice. What they do perform regularly is liberal multiculturalism, which no doubt reinforces a sense that the show’s gestural anti-statism is at least consonant with an egalitarian politics. And that is a quality that makes multiculturalist egalitarianism, or identitarianism, and its various strategic programs—anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heteronormativity, etc.—neoliberalism’s loyal opposition. Their focus is on making neoliberalism more just and, often enough, more truly efficient. Their objective is that, however costs and benefits are distributed, the distribution should not disproportionately harm or disadvantage the populations for which they advocate.
But what if neoliberalism really can’t be made more just? (And, to be clear, when I say neoliberalism, I mean capitalism with the gloves off and back on the offensive.) What if the historical truth of capitalist class power is that, without direct, explicit and relentless, zero-sum challenge to its foundations in a social order built on its priority and dominance in the social division of labor, we will never be able to win more than a shifting around of the material burdens of inequality, reallocating them and recalibrating their incidence among different populations? And what if creation of such populations as given, natural-seeming entities—first as differentially valued pools of labor, in the ideological equivalent of an evolving game of musical chairs, then eventually also as ostensibly discrete market niches within the mass consumption regime—is a crucial element in capitalism’s logic of social reproduction? To the extent that is the case, multiculturalist egalitarianism and the political programs that follow from it reinforce a key mystification that legitimizes the systemic foundation of the inequalities to which those programs object.
Regimes of class hierarchy depend for their stability on ideologies that legitimize inequalities by representing them as the result of natural differences—where you (or they) are in the society is where you (or they) deserve to be. Folk taxonomies define and sort populations into putatively distinctive groups on the basis of characteristics ascribed to them. Such taxonomies rely on circular self-validation in explaining the positions groups occupy in the social order as suited to the essential, inherent characteristics, capabilities and limitations posited in the taxonomy’s just-so stories. These ideological constructions and the social processes through which they are reproduced, including the common sense that arises from self-fulfilling prophecy, are what Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields call “racecraft.”31 An implication of the racecraft notion is that the ideology, or taxonomy, of race is always as much the cover story as the source of even the inequalities most explicitly linked to race.
James Henry Hammond’s mudsill theory is instructive. The southern system was superior and afforded greater freedom, he argued, because its mudsills were held to belong to an ascriptively distinct and naturally subordinate population. The North was a less secure and stable society because its mudsills were “of your own race; you are brothers of one blood. They are your equals in natural endowment or intellect, and they feel galled by their degradation. Our slaves do not vote. We give them no political power. Yours do vote, and, being the majority, they are the depositaries of all your political power.” He in effect judged the North’s ruling class to be more unstable than the South’s because it hadn’t been able to turn its mudsills into a sufficiently different ascriptive population. (Fitzhugh, the theorist, proposed a remedy for that problem; Hammond, the politician, understood that was easier said than done.)
Hammond was no doubt sincere in his conviction that blacks were by nature fit to be slaves, “of another and inferior race.” But notwithstanding his sincerity, that view was relatively new as a defense of slavery. Alexander Stephens indicated as much in the “Cornerstone Speech” and noted that the dominant perspective of the Founding generation was that “enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature.” Of course, Stephens insisted that that perspective was “fundamentally wrong” in that it “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races.” The defense of slavery that he and Hammond articulated dated only from the 1830s, when the combined pressures of a surge in abolitionist activism and articulations of free labor ideology outside the South called for a more robust defense of the “peculiar institution” than the fundamentally apologetic contention that it was a “necessary evil” economically. South Carolina’s father of the secessionist treason, John C. Calhoun, gave the new argument its systematic expression in “Slavery a Positive Good,” an 1837 speech to the U. S. Senate.32
That argument aligned with the emergent race science that would provide the basic folk taxonomy through which Americans apprehend race and categories of racial classification to this day. A central text of that nascent race science was the 1854 tome Types of Mankind, co-authored by George R. Gliddon, a British-born Egyptologist, and Josiah C. Nott, a native South Carolinian and wealthy slave-holding physician in Mobile, Alabama.33 In 1851 Samuel A. Cartwright, a plantation physician and pioneer in the science of racial medicine, published in De Bow’s Review a paper, “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” which he had initially presented at a Louisiana medical convention and in which he examined, among other racial particularities, a condition he called “drapetomania”—a “disease of the mind” that induced slaves to “run away from service.”34 Race theory, that is, took shape as a defense of slavery only in the last decades of the institution’s life; it was the expression of a beleaguered slavocracy doubling down to protect its property rights in human beings.
Hammond may have believed that he’d always believed the positive good argument and that black slavery was nature’s racial decree. If he did, he would only have been demonstrating the power of ascriptive ideologies to impose themselves as reality. Marxist theorist Harry Chang thus analogized race to Marx’s characterization of the fetish character of money. Just as money is the material condensation of “the reification of a relation called value” and “a function-turned-into-an-object,” race is also a function—a relation in the capitalist division of labor—turned into an object.35
Race and gender are the ascriptive hierarchies most familiar to us because they have been most successfully challenged since the second half of the last century; ideologies of ascriptive difference are most powerful when they are simply taken as nature and don’t require defense. The significant and lasting institutional victories that have been won against racial and gender subordination and discrimination, as well as the cultural victories against racism and sexism as ideologies, have rendered those taxonomies less potent as justifications for ascriptive inequality than they had been. As capitalism has evolved new articulations of the social division of labor, and as the victories against racial and gender hierarchy have been consolidated, the causal connections between those ideologies and manifest inequality have become still more attenuated.
Race and gender don’t exhaust the genus of ascriptive hierarchies. Other taxonomies do and have done the same sort of work as those we understand as race. The feebleminded and the born criminal, for example, were equivalent to racial taxa as ideologies of ascriptive hierarchy but did not hinge on the phenotypical narratives that have anchored the race idea. Victorian British elites ascribed essential, race-like difference to the English working class. The culture of poverty and the underclass overlap racially disparaged populations but aren’t exactly reducible to familiar racial taxonomies. Some—like super predators and crack babies—have had more fleeting life spans. Their common sense explanatory power hinges significantly on the extent to which they comport with the perspectives and interests of the social order’s dominant, opinion-shaping strata; as Marx and Engels observed in 1845, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”36
Hell on Wheels, or the Tea Party
In addition, the exact sort of work that given taxonomies, or categories within one, will do is linked to historically specific regimes of hierarchy. A taxonomy’s ideological significance and material impact, that is, can vary widely. “Race” was an ideology of essential difference in 1820, as it was in the 1850s. Yet it didn’t do the same work in the earlier period’s defenses of slavery as a necessary evil that it did in later defenses of it as a positive good, like those articulated by Fitzhugh and Hammond. Nor does gender do the same work in the early twenty-first century that it did at the beginning, or even the middle, of the twentieth.
Once established, stereotypes and the folk taxonomies that legitimize them may die hard, but their significance as props for a regime of class hierarchy can change along with the political-economic foundations of the class order. Persistence of familiar narratives of hierarchy can evoke the earlier associations, but that evocation can be misleading and counterproductive for making sense of social relations in both past and present. In particular the “just like slavery” or “just like Jim Crow” proclamations that are intended as powerful criticism of current injustices are more likely to undermine understanding of injustice in the past as well as the present than to enable new insight. Another version of the trope of the damaged ex-Confederate is illustrative.
Unlike Firefly, the television drama Hell on Wheels constructs the wounded ex-Confederate much nearer its original form but with revisions that underscore the contemporary period drama’s problematic and ideological relation to history. Adam Serwer adduces Hell on Wheels, which is set in 1865 in a mobile railroad town, as another illustration of the persistence of the trope of the vengeful former Confederate brooding hero/sociopath, albeit in a “hilariously rationalized” form. Its version of the character, Cullen Bohannan, had been a large Mississippi planter who freed his slaves a year before the treasonous insurrection in deference to his northern, anti-slavery wife who—true to tale type—was later martyred by marauding Union soldiers, now the targets of his quest. Serwer is correct to say that the preposterous device of separating the hero’s Confederate loyalties from commitment to slave-holding is a transparent effort to sanitize the hero’s secessionism.
However, the difference in historical context is crucial in this regard as well. The old Lost Cause tropes, originating in the early twentieth-century southern ideological campaign for sectional reconciliation on white supremacist terms, don’t do the same cultural and ideological work in a society in which Glenn Beck appropriates Martin Luther King, Jr. to accuse President Barack Obama of racism that they did in a society in which racial subordination was supported explicitly by the force of law and custom. This is not to imply that there’s nothing politically disturbing and reactionary about the conceits of Hell on Wheels. On the contrary, going beyond the superficial rehearsal of hoary tropes to consider the program’s representations in their actual historical context discloses its more insidious work in legitimizing inequality.
The conceit that Bohannan had freed his slaves before he fought for secession does more than separate the treason from its foundational commitment to slavery. That conceit also replaces slavery as an institution with slaveholding as a matter of individual morality, as in Django Unchained. That Bohannan manumitted his slaves as a gesture of love for his wife folds into another trope of the genre, the pedestalizing, “I love her so much I’d change my raffish ways for her” fantasy. That’s the happy face of adolescent patriarchy, its expression that doesn’t usually involve a restraining order, though it’s probably best that the brooding loner hero’s sainted wife is nearly always a martyr and thus motivation for, instead of the object of, his sadistic violence and mayhem. But in Hell on Wheels that device also reinforces the reduction of slavery to slaveholding as an individual act, a consumer preference to be negotiated within a marriage—like owning a motorcycle, going to the strip club with the guys every weekend, or painting the living room magenta.
From the standpoint of claims to social significance, a deeper problem with period vehicles like Django Unchained, The Help, and Hell on Wheels is their denial of historicity. By this I do not mean historical accuracy as faithfulness to facts about the past. The manumission themes in Hell on Wheels and Django Unchained are instructive. Voluntary manumission was all but impossible in Mississippi as the sectional crisis intensified on the eve of secession. By 1860 even Maryland with a relatively large free black population and Arkansas, which had comparatively small slave population, had outlawed the practice; the states with the largest black populations had done so much earlier—South Carolina in 1820 and Mississippi in 1822. Considering its relatively incidental place in each story line, though, the historical inaccuracy on which those bits hinge is within the boundaries of acceptable artistic license. The problem is with the ideological character of the larger story lines that preclude even wondering whether manumission would have been possible.
Both tales trifle with slavery. For Hell on Wheels it’s an unfortunate artifact of the genre, baggage that threatens to sully the appeal of the hero as wronged Confederate. Producers Joe and Tony Gayton (a former production assistant for political reactionary John Milius and co-writer with his brother Joe of the Vietnam POW rescue fantasy film Uncommon Valor) may also have been concerned to preempt sharp criticism for romanticizing the institution indirectly through their hero’s secessionist loyalties. For Tarantino slavery is a prop for a claim to social significance and a hook to connect spaghetti western and blaxploitation. In both vehicles it is a generic bad thing, an especially virulent species of racism, though slavery’s pastness—not only was Bohannan no longer a slave owner; but the series is set in 1865—keeps it peripheral in Hell on Wheels. And once again the central thread is the individual quest. Even the principal ex-slave in Hell on Wheels, Elam Ferguson (played by the rapper Common), is depicted as “coming to terms with the risks and responsibilities of his newly-acquired freedom,” and, because he had a “white father and a slave mother,” apparently he is therefore “a man with no true home or people he can call his own.” And he and Bohannan, also a disconnected individual, engage in an exchange about the need to “let go of the past.” Even though that exchange seems intended partly as a comment on the impossibility of either man’s doing so, the punch line remains the individual quest, leavened with the unshakable personal demons that are the banal melodrama’s yeast. (And I can anticipate the contention that Hell on Wheels is somehow critical of capitalism. It’s not. It’s critical of big capitalism and once again the capital/government nexus and their running roughshod over beleaguered individuals. That’s the critical standpoint of a reactionary populism that’s as likely to support Tea Party style fascism as any other politics, and it would be good for us all to be clearer in recognizing that for what it is.)
Effacement of historicity and the social in favor of the timeless—that is, presentist—narrative of individual Overcoming is the deep politics and social commentary propounded in these products of the mass entertainment industry. They differ from other such products only because they ostensibly apply the standard formulae to socially important topics. They don’t, however. They do exactly the reverse; they revise historically and politically significant moments to fit within the formula. In doing so they are nodes in the constitution of neoliberalism’s ideological hegemony.
And the extent of that hegemony is attested by claims from the likes of Lawrence Bobo, Jon Wiener and others who should know better than to think that a film like Django Unchained somehow captures the essential truth of American slavery. That truth is apparently, as Bobo condenses it, “brutality, inescapable violence and absolutely thorough moral degradation.” But those features were neither essential nor exclusive to slavery; they were behavioral artifacts enabled by the institution because it conferred, with support of law and custom, a property right—absolute control of life and livelihood—of some individuals over others. That property right was the essential evil and injustice that defined slavery, not the extremes of brutality and degradation it could encourage and abet. No effort is required to understand why mass-market films go for the dramatic excesses, but what about the scholars and other nominal leftists who also embrace that view of slavery?
In part, the inclination may stem from a corrosive legacy of Malcolm X. Malcolm was an important cultural figure for most of the 1960s, before and perhaps even more so after his death. He was not, however, an historian, and few formulations have done more to misinform, distort and preempt popular understanding of American slavery than his rhetorically very effective but historically facile “house Negro/field Negro” parable. It doesn’t map onto how even plantation slavery—which accounted for only about half of slaves by 1850—operated. Not only was working in the house no major plum; it hardly fit with the Uncle Tom stereotype, such as Tarantino’s self-hating caricature, Stephen. The well-known slave rebels Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Robert Smalls all gainsay that image. Anyway, the Uncle Tom notion is not a useful category for political analysis. It is only a denunciation; no one ever identifies under that label. Yet its emptiness may be the source of its attractiveness. In disconnecting critique from any discrete social practice and locating it instead in imputed pathological psychology—“Why, that house Negro loved the master more than the master loved himself,” pace Malcolm—the notion individualizes political criticism on the (non-existent) racially self-hating caricature, and, of course, anyone a demagogue chooses to denounce. Because it centers on motives rather than concrete actions and stances, it leaves infinite room both for making and deflecting ad hominem charges and, of course, inscribes racial authenticity as the key category of political judgment.
That sort of Malcolm X/blaxploitation narrative, including the insistence that Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind continue to shape Americans’ understandings of slavery, also is of a piece with a line of anti-racist argument and mobilization that asserts powerful continuities between current racial inequalities and either slavery or the Jim Crow regime. This line of argument has been most popularly condensed recently in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which analogizes contemporary mass incarceration to the segregationist regime. But even she, after much huffing and puffing and asserting the relation gesturally throughout the book, ultimately acknowledges that the analogy fails.37 And it would have to fail because the segregationist regime was the artifact of a particular historical and political moment in a particular social order. Moreover, the rhetorical force of the analogy with Jim Crow or slavery derives from the fact that those regimes are associated symbolically with strong negative sanctions in the general culture because they have been vanquished. In that sense all versions of the lament that “it’s as if nothing has changed” give themselves the lie. They are effective only to the extent that things have changed significantly.
The tendency to craft political critique by demanding that we fix our gaze in the rearview mirror appeals to an intellectual laziness. Marking superficial similarities with familiar images of oppression is less mentally taxing than attempting to parse the multifarious, often contradictory dynamics and relations that shape racial inequality in particular and politics in general in the current moment. Assertions that phenomena like the Jena, Louisiana, incident, the killings of James Craig Anderson and Trayvon Martin, and racial disparities in incarceration demonstrate persistence of old-school, white supremacist racism and charges that the sensibilities of Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell continue to shape most Americans’ understandings of slavery do important, obfuscatory ideological work. They lay claim to a moral urgency that, as Mahmood Mamdani argues concerning the rhetorical use of charges of genocide, enables disparaging efforts either to differentiate discrete inequalities or to generate historically specific causal accounts of them as irresponsible dodges that abet injustice by temporizing in its face.38 But more is at work here as well.
Insistence on the transhistorical primacy of racism as a source of inequality is a class politics. It’s the politics of a stratum of the professional-managerial class whose material location and interests, and thus whose ideological commitments, are bound up with parsing, interpreting and administering inequality defined in terms of disparities among ascriptively defined populations reified as groups or even cultures. In fact, much of the intellectual life of this stratum is devoted to “shoehorning into the rubric of racism all manner of inequalities that may appear statistically as racial disparities.”39 And that project shares capitalism’s ideological tendency to obscure race’s foundations, as well as the foundations of all such ascriptive hierarchies, in historically specific political economy. This felicitous convergence may help explain why proponents of “cultural politics” are so inclined to treat the products and production processes of the mass entertainment industry as a terrain for political struggle and debate. They don’t see the industry’s imperatives as fundamentally incompatible with the notions of a just society they seek to advance. In fact, they share its fetishization of heroes and penchant for inspirational stories of individual Overcoming. This sort of “politics of representation” is no more than an image-management discourse within neoliberalism. That strains of an ersatz left imagine it to be something more marks the extent of our defeat. And then, of course, there’s that Upton Sinclair point.