Saturday, January 21, 2012

How Comedians Protect the (White Supremacist) State: The Example of DL Hughley with Ron Paul

Go to 07:30 in the above youtube clip and check out the giggly questions DL Hughley posed to Ron Paul in this 2009 interview about his positions, and how, in response to Paul's claim that the North could have just bought the slaves instead of having the Civil War, Hughley just laughs and says, "You make way too much sense. You can't be Republican!" Toward the end of the segment, DL clowns that in the next segment he will consider whether Jesus was a Republican. And that's about the extent of DL's critical examination of Paul's positions-- and of one position in particular that has especial relevance to black people.

I respect some of the work Hughley did before CNN pulled the plug on his news show. But I want to comment on why I think his performative moment here ends up doing more harm than good. Hughley may have been completely serious about how Ron Paul converted him to thinking that the US Civil War shouldn't have been fought, but it is also possible that he appreciated the irony of his being able to say to a powerful white conservative how unlike the others he seemed. After all, saying "You're too human to be a Republican" sounds a lot like what people say to black people all the time: You're so articulate/clean/smart/well-mannered/educated/etc.-- unlike the rest of your people. You must be from the Caribbean or Africa, right? The Backhanded Compliment par excellence (see Fanon, Du Bois, etc.). If that's what Hughley was going for, it doesn't work here, of course, because Paul will never be pulled over and locked up for being a conservative, and, if he were, he could simply disclaim his conservatism, while black people's black bodies are the reasons why we are attacked, fetishized, loved, hated, imprisoned, ignored, killed, etc. So even if DL was lightweight insulting Paul as a conservative, the joke backfires because he lacks the police power to make the insult really matter. Something else is going on here that slips away before his joke can really have any effect.

This clip is another example not only of how whack Ron Paul's politics in relation to black people are, but also of how black actors/comedians can serve (ie, be fungible to) the antiblack and white supremacist state and civil society, whether intentionally or not. Black people in spokesperson positions for the powerful seem to have a special type of effect, and those in power know as much and use them accordingly. Just like the black man the Pentagon used as its spokesperson for the invasion of Iraq, and like the black woman (Iris Cross) that BP is using to make itself look responsive to the black and poor Gulf communities it has killed, and like Kareem and Common being used to promote the US image abroad, and like the main lobbying group for Israel is deliberately seeking out black and Latino college students to promote its interests.

I'm sure that you can think of many other examples, one above all.

EVEN BEFORE A BLACK SPOKESPERSON SAYS ANYTHING, just the fact that a black person is standing there in a position to say certain important things functions as an ideological argument for how far "we" have come as a society (and as a people), concealing the fact that these handfuls of black people are just cherry picked, while the rest of black folk are struggling just to get things like jobs, health care, education, nongenocidal police, grocery stores that sell us food that isn't killing us, etc. And, of course, simply sharing the screen/stage with a black person is a cheap way to make a nonblack person look less racist, if not nonracist and downright cosmopolitan.

But I think what we see in this clip is worse because DL is functioning as a journalist, even if a comedic one. Journalists, unlike spokespeople, are supposed to encourage critical thinking. It's ostensibly their job to stop bullshit from filtering into the mainstream thinking. So when journalists can't come up with anything better that what DL does here, it doesn't just fail to check the expansion of bullshit, but it actually helps spread the bullshit.

DL might have, at the least, asked critically about the workability of the plan. Even a first-year (high school) student of history knows that South initiated the Civil War when South Carolina attacked Fort Sumter in 1861, so the idea that the rich white men of the North would pay the rich white men of the South for a war started by the rich men of the South is almost as absurd as the amount of money it would have taken to make the South give up all future profits it would have made from chattel slavery. DL's a smart dude and could have said that much.

More importantly, however, Paul's bullshit (unworkable) solution would have been a solution only for white people. Black people would still have been slaves because, instead of their emancipation being purchased by war, it would have been purchased by money. We all know that war is horrible, but slavery is basically living in a war that isn't called war. War is a contingent state in which a person's life is forfeit IF she/he is in one of the societies touched by that specific event of war, and, of course, even undeclared wars end when the contingencies for their arising are resolved (roughly speaking, when one side wins, loses, or draws). But slavery is condition that renders a person's LIFE permanently forfeited. And racial slavery renders the LIFE OF AN ENTIRE RACE forfeit. And so if someone purchases your freedom, you are still positioned by slavery, even if they no longer do you the disrespect of calling you a slave.

I'm not speaking out of school. Even the conservative Harvard historical sociologist Orlando Patterson, in his definitive work Slavery and Social Death, describes the emancipated slaves of the familia Caesaris of ancient Rome in the context of being slaves because...drumroll please...the one that giveth can taketh away. That's why even emancipated slaves are expected to maintain a posture of gratitude toward the (former) master class. Paul's whole idea is formulated so that white people might be free of the incursions of the state on their freedoms, without any consideration of the fate of black people. DL can laugh along with him, but Paul isn't talking about doing this FOR black people. He is not accountable to black people, and he wouldn't change the plan if black people said it was still the same shit as before (or worse). Paul is basically content to see black people being decided ABOUT rather than being decisionmakers. All he really wants is white supremacist states' rights, which is just as bad for black people as is a white supremacist centralized federal government.

Finally, Paul claims that this solution worked to resolve slavery in other places. Well, whatever events of slavery he is talking about, the matter of black slavery has not been resolved. That's part of the whole point of Modernity. Modernity is a network of entangled conflicts and antagonisms, and the fundamental antagonisms are between those who are recognized as humans and those whose humanity is always a big question mark. There is no place in the world where black people are that their blackness is not STILL in some way still tied to the slave or colonial (slave) past-- not in Brazil, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, México, the rest of the Caribbean, anywhere in Europe, Asia, or Africa. Moreover, there is something ethically bankrupt about the way Paul treats slavery as though it were a matter of dollars and cents. Historian David Eltis has shown that, if it were all about money, Europe could have enslaved its poor far more profitably. Slavery was also about the figurative uses of the slaves themselves-- various ways we were available to them to be enjoyed. The powerful ideological work we do can be even more effective in producing "the consent of the [white] governed" as any material we produce. It's sorta like the usages of a giggling black comedian acting as a journalist while a southern white man tells him that, basically, he would have sold him north and that would have resolved the slavery crisis. ha. ha.

I guess this clip points up the importance of the work that those of us who teach the teachers do. Hughley should be better equipped to do more than giggle along with Paul as though they share a joke. As skilled as DL was on this show, it ended with the hand that giveth taking away, so he may as well have been saying radical shit all along. Ron Paul's close association with white supremacists says waaaay more about who he is politically accountable to than does a 8-minute segment in which he holds his nose and deigns to share the screen with a black man. And Hughley's actions show that he didn't really know that the joke was ultimately on him and on all of us.

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