Mr. Monk and the Toxic Masculinity

This essay is dedicated to the wonderful Alla Palagina who generously shared countless episodes of Monk with me and with whom I initially discussed this episode after we watched it in early 2011. May she rest in power.

Adrian Monk could represent an alternative masculinity. His clumsy, fumbling, mumbling, constantly terrified competence as police detective stands in stark contrast to the chest-puffing, misogynist, homophobic normative masculinity that pervades popular culture. Instead of embracing his competence though, Monk constantly aspires to normative masculinity. A telling episode is 2006’s “Mr. Monk and the Astronaut”.

Wagner prepares to murder Raphelson

Wagner prepares to murder Raphelson

“Mr. Monk and the Astronaut” begins with famous astronaut and test pilot Steve Wagner (Jeffrey Donovan) drugging Joanne Raphelson (Brianna Brown), a former Vegas showgirl he once dated and whom he severely beat and hospitalized several years earlier. Raphelson planned to reveal the beating in a tell all biography.

Wagner is a confident, charismatic white alpha male predator. And he has an airtight alibi for Joanne’s murder having been in planetary orbit at the time of Joanne’s death. He charms the police, Monk’s personal assistant Natalie and the children in Natalie’s daughter’s class when both he and Monk go to present on career day. Monk is the only one who believes he killed Joanne.

Children mock Monk at the career day then proceed to terrorize him with laser pointers. Hijinks ensue and afterwards he confronts Wagner in the hallway. Wagner uses aggressive physicality to cower Monk then tells him, “You’re a flincher, you’ll never stop me. Because when the chips are down when it really counts, you are always going to flinch.” This, combined with Monk’s panic about the laser pointers sets up the episode’s final confrontation.

Wagner makes Monk flinch

Wagner makes Monk flinch

Wagner ridicules, questions and challenges Monk’s masculinity throughout the episode. Monk confesses to his psychologist, “When I look at a manly man like Steve Wagner, I just feel weak. I just feel so inadequate. I know he’s guilty, but I’ll never be able to prove it.” Here Monk affirms Wagner’s perceptions as well as Wagner’s masculinity. This violent misogynist represents the manhood to which Monk aspires.

Monk is steadfast in the face of laser scopes

Monk is steadfast in the face of laser scopes

The films concludes with Monk confronting his fear and placing his body in front of a jet Wagner is piloting to prevent its takeoff. Monk remains steadfast in front of the plane even when soldiers arrive with (for some reason) laser scope rifles which cover him much like the earlier laser pointers. Wagner is taken into custody from the plane. As he is being handcuffed Wagner makes eye contact with Monk and gives him an acknowledging nod, validating his manhood. Alternately put, the episode resolves with Monk receiving validation of his own manhood through the toxic masculinity of the “manly man” he succeeded in incarcerating.

Murderer of women gives Monk a nod of approval

Murderer of women gives Monk a nod of approval

Monk is not exceptional in embracing toxic masculinity to validate the manhood of its male characters. The episode in question does not invent it but is does represent yet another exchange in and (re)production of normative patriarchal discourse.

“Mr. Monk and the Astronaut” (season 4, episode 14) originally aired on 3 March 2006 to around 5.65 million households in its initial airing.

The Interview – Two Deeply Unpleasant Hours of Cinema Paradisbro

The Interview

dir. Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
112 min | 2014
Columbia Pictures, L Star Capital, Point Grey Pictures

the-interview-poster1

Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s latest film The Interview was bound to get some attention even before its distributor, Sony, was hacked and the ensuing debacle with alleged threats from North Korea (DPRK). A film this racist would get attention regardless. Unfortunately due to the publicity around the Sony hack many more people will likely be subjected to The Interview and the attention won’t be as negative as it deserves. What follows includes spoilers if you believe something already rotten can be spoiled.

The Interview opens with an othering scene of a young North Korean girl singing about destroying the U.S. before an audience of dignitaries prior to a missile launch. The othering completes with a series of shorts news clips about North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) being the next Hitler before introducing Dave Skylark (James Franco).

We meet Skylark as a tabloid news host interviewing Eminem in a scene that kicks off nearly incessant gay jokes. Skylark is the kind of guy with no qualms about breaking into caricatured Black Vernacular English as ‘comedy’ nor any idea about why anyone would have such qualms. Pressured by producer Aaron Rapaport (co-director Seth Rogen) to due serious journalism, Skylark comes up with the idea of interviewing Kim Jong-un as a bridge. Rapaport will get serious news and Skylark will get sensational ratings.

Rapaport is the sober foil to Skylark’s unfiltered and hyper stream of consciousness. He’s shamed for his tabloid work by a fellow journalism school grad who now works for 60 Minutes. Rapaport’s sophistication is juxtaposed next to Skylark’s visceral racism and sexism. But they both due caricatured Korean accents. They both immediately ogle Agent Lacey’s (Lizzy Caplan) breasts. They both constantly make gay jokes. While Skylark is the dense one, the juxtaposition between he and Rapaport is one of tone only. So when at the end when Skylark says to a puppy, “Guess who’s going home to America where they don’t eat doggies” and Rapaport doesn’t let him finish he is not disapproving, merely hurrying him along.

Sook (Diane Bang) and the North Koreans are introduced with a soundtrack is only slightly less ominous than Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” in Star Wars, just in case they weren’t sufficiently othered earlier. When we meet Sook she is immediately objectified in the familiar way of cinema, with a cut pan up her body. The body pan opens up women’s bodies to the male gaze and orients, or given the aggressive and regressive Dragon Lady stereotyping in this case orientalizes, viewers to objects instead of characters.

Lacey then recruits Rapaport and Skylark in a plot to assassinate Kim. Skylark is convinced to go along with the plan by Lacey’s breasts, bangs and glasses (which are as close as The Interview gets to Lacey’s character development). Any justifications are secondary to Skylark’s pursuit of sex. The rationalizations eventually put forward are concentration camps, a hungry population, a nuclear threat and totalitarianism. These are never explored nor are their reflections in the United States but for Kim quickly stumping Skylark near the film’s climax with a retort about the U.S.’s mass incarceration regime.

The only character with any depth is Park’s Kim. He is a vulnerable tyrant with daddy issues and the initial portrayal is only half-bad. But as the film goes along any charisma or depth gets strained out of the narrative. As the final confrontation kicks off and assassinating Kim gets underway the film moves from boring to boring and bloody with the othered North Koreans being mowed down à la Rambo and similar Cold War tripe about evil Asians. The White Hero Skylark rousing North Koreans to rise against Kim is as ridiculous as the Russians chanting “Rocky! Rocky!” at the end of Rocky IV. Indeed Reagan-era Hollywood is where The Interview’s heart is. It aspires to be a Cold War buddy comedy and even offers the Scorpians’ “Wind of Change” as the credits roll.

Rogen and Goldberg’s idea of humor is something like “wacky” combined with racism, gay jokes and an obsession with anuses and inserting things into them. They do not contact a DPRK embassy to set up the interview, instead a wacky path including the Olympic Committee and a Rapaport trip to China ensues. There is a wacky drone strike that kills a tiger. Rapaport is wackily racist to the DPRK official on the phone. Ad infinitum.

The Interview has virtually no character development but plenty of overacting. It has a few quick montages – some with short clips some with jump cuts – that serve no purpose. It is aggressively sexist, homophobic and racist. The Interview is a comedy without any. I did chuckle once during a fight scene near the end of the movie. Rapaport is fighting a television worker who bites off one of his fingers. Then Rapaport bites off one of the other guy’s fingers. Then the guy bites off another of Rapaport’s fingers. That third one was a little funny.

Despite all of this The Interview has already found an audience. In addition to Seth Rogen’s dedicated following of people who think “Because I Got High” was robbed at the Grammys, U.S. nationalists are also up in arms about Sony’s pause on distribution. The nationalists are presenting The Interview as something to do with free artistic expression or fighting oppression. Not incidentally, neither of these audiences is up in arms about the multitude of racist emails released by the hackers nor about how vigilantes or cops kill Black women and men every twenty-eight hours. It has nothing to do with free artistic expression. Free expression does not mean an obligated audience and The Interview has not earned one.

Not distributing The Interview was both ethically and artistically the right decision but Sony has gone ahead with it anyway. Don’t see it. For the $6 Sony is charging to stream it you can find better ways to spend two deeply unpleasant hours. You could buy two bottles of soy sauce and drink them slowly. You could buy a roll of industrial tape and use it to remove body hair. You could buy a gallon of bland ice cream and see how long you can sustain brain freeze. All of these are better than watching The Interview.

A Punch Line. A White Supremacist Contortion.

This article examines U.S. public awareness of mass incarceration of Black people through the stories told on police procedural television programs. Though not quoting directly when focusing on mass incarceration and White supremacy I am informed by lectures and writings on prisons and racism by Angela Davis, George Jackson and Mariame Kaba. Please see their works for in depth analysis of prisons and White supremacy and Kaba’s Project NIA (or related efforts across the continent) for ways to take action to end the injustice described in this essay.

The punch line is a common exercise in storytelling beyond comedy. Punch lines are occasionally educational but much more often they depend on what the audience already knows. For this reason they are at least as telling of the audience as they are of the storyteller. This essay examines a particular punch line common to cop shows, with a focus on a 1987 episode of Hunter, that of the comeuppance of neo-Nazis by the police when the neo-Nazis are to be incarcerated in the U.S. prison system and thus, alongside people of color. Further, this essay also looks at what this punch line says about public awareness of and support for the mass incarceration of Black people and how normative White supremacist discourse contorts it into a purported anti-racism.

Bad tv

Bad tv

The Hunter episode “Bad Company” (Season 3, Episode 11 – 10 January 1987) begins with a group of white men and women robbing a Los Angeles gun store and killing the store owner. Police arrive in short order and a shoot-out between the cops and robbers ensues. Two of the robbers are injured, one killed and the other slightly wounded. The wounded party is Angela (Lar Park-Lincoln) who is transferred into the custody of Detective Sergeants McCall (Stepfanie Kramer) and Hunter (Fred Dryer) upon release from the hospital. We soon find out Angela is the daughter of Brother Hobarts (Dean Stockwell), the head of the National Aryan Order, a White nationalist militia on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Hunter and McCall transport Angela to another location. En route they engage her on her ideology, telling her she is off base as they attempt to turn her snitch. She replies, accurately but against normative liberal White supremacist discourse, that White nationalism is “what America is all about.” She continues while elucidating a fairly mainstream – if a little cartoonish so as to indicate viewers shouldn’t identify with with Angela too strongly – racist narrative “The right of decent Americans to defend their way of life against freeloaders and subversives and the mud races. I mean it’s nothing personal guys, but you’re on the wrong side.”

Villians all

Angela explains to McCall and Hunter why her version of White supremacy is better than theirs.

 

Hunter and McCall are captured by the National Aryan Order during the trip when the group rescues Angela from police custody. Up to this point Angela is still loyal to the Aryan National Order. McCall and Hunter do not manage to recruit her until one group member murders her love interest (who is also a neo-Nazi). Now betrayed, albeit not ideologically, Angela helps the cops escape and the group is eventually joined by other police who proceed to stop Brother Hobarts and crew from carrying out a planned attack. Hunter confronts Brother Hobarts, who is by this time in bracelets, and delivers the punchline “you Brother Hobarts are going to prison. Half the men you meet there belong to those mud races you were talking about. They’re gonna like you.”

Fuck the police

Hunter gives Brother Hobarts his comeuppance by using racism to fight racism. Wait, what?

This is a somewhat common punch line in cop shows. The Law & Order episode “Prejudice” (Season 12, Episode 10 – 12 December 2001) ends with the incarceration of a racist white man. As the prosecutors prepare leave the office at the episode’s end, District Attorney Nora Lewin (Diane West) says, “Wonder if Burroughs will still have a problem with minorities when he gets to prison and finds out he is one.” In the CSI episode “World’s End” (Season 10, Episode 19 – 22 April 2010), Nick Stokes (George Eads) says to a white supremacist suspect he is interrogating, “But you know what, I’m gonna do you a favor, since you like to whoop so much ass. I’m gonna have the warden put you in with some African-Americans, so they can give you an up close and person lesson on race relations.” There are several other examples.

The Racial Caste System As Anti-Racism

These punch lines mean to show the police and the mass incarceration of Black and other people of color as possible tools against racism rather than as baselines of systemic White supremacy. These punch lines are only given meaning by an audience who will understand them as the comeuppance of racists rather than as an affirmation of the racist order of things. For this to work without souring an audience that largely believes it isn’t racist or, at least, not about prisons and crime, Black criminality must be understood to as a matter of fact rather than as a matter of racial caste formation or, in other words, Black folk must be understood as criminals rather than mass incarceration being understood as the criminalization of Black people. Were it the other way around the shows would be (probably) canceled as the audience would (probably) receive the punch line as cruel cynicism rather than anti-racist comeuppance. (I use probably in parentheses because with White supremacy you can never be too sure that something horrifying actually will be taken as going too far even when problematized.)

For example the pilot episode of 21 Jump Street aired four months after the Hunter episode discussed above. It’s opening scene features a wealthy white family of four seated around the dining room table for a meal when two young Black men with shotguns break through the glass of the patio doors and lay siege to the family. This introductory scene of one of the most successful cops shows is anchored with Black criminality. The 21 Jump Street pilot offered nothing novel but affirmed what was already common knowledge; that Black people were dangerous criminals, the conclusion of which is that the prisons must be full of such criminals.

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

21 Jump Street kickstarts its franchise with Black criminality

The crudest neo-Nazi articulations fall far enough outside of White supremacist normativity for the mainstream public, especially though not quite exclusively the mainstream white public, to reject them. So long as mass incarceration of Black and other people of color is not understood as a racial caste system the public receives punch lines like those above as Black criminality being just desserts for neo-Nazis who get locked up.

An Inversion Version

What this essay describes is one example of White supremacy’s incredible discursive flexibility. The Hunter, Law & Order and CSI episodes described above contribute to normative discourse a perfect inversion of the racial caste system. Mass incarceration of people of color is a baseline of White supremacy. Yet the punch line to these stories is one where said systemic baseline is re-imagined as an anti-racist tool against individual white supremacists while the enforcers of the baseline (the police and prosecutors) relish in their enlightened anti-racism to a produce a feel good moment for the audience. The contortion is horrifyingly impressive.

These punch lines demonstrate another thing. This essay focused on the Hunter episode for a reason; it aired in 1987. United States liberals – largely unfamiliar with the radical Black tradition that produced critical prison analysis decades ago – are ‘discovering’ mass incarceration as a phenomenon of a racial caste system since the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander’s tome The New Jim Crow. But the Hunter audience over two decades before that book had to understand that the United States fills its jails in a wildly disproportionate manner with Black folks, otherwise the punch line doesn’t work.

Point being, White America knows and been knowing, it’s just not considered a problem. Mass consciousness is not critical consciousness when embedded in normative oppression. That the broad contours of an oppressive system are common knowledge might, however, offer opportunities for organizing. The same knowledge in a framework rejecting Black criminality, mass incarceration and White supremacy produces a very different discourse. To assist with efforts to produce a liberatory discourse please visit the “Resources” page on the Project NIA website.

American ‘Moral Bankruptcy’ and Israel Policy

Harvard University Professor Stephen Walt published an essay on 22 July in The Huffington Post titled, “AIPAC Is the Only Explanation for America’s Morally Bankrupt Israel Policy.” The piece focuses on how much the U.S. political leadership supported the recent Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip and its attacks throughout the West Bank. In Walt’s analysis, this support stems exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) from what he and University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer famously call “The Israel Lobby”. The article’s title uses “AIPAC” (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) as shorthand for those organizations working to shape U.S. political discourse on Palestine including a variety of Christian and Jewish Zionist groups like Christians United for Israel, Anti-Defamation League, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and others. These organizations are the “explanation for America’s impotent and morally bankrupt policy,” and are why this policy is “so at odds with [America’s] professed values.” As he and Mearsheimer do in their book, Walt also points to how U.S. policy on Palestine is profoundly against the U.S. national interest.

Walt’s analysis in the article and the Israel Lobby thesis more broadly are fundamentally flawed. Rather than refute specific points in Walt’s article I’ll instead lay out a different framework in which we can read the United States’ Israel policy. First I’ll concede all the facts in Walt’s article and The Israel Lobby, including those that are wrong. They are important but for the purposes of this essay they are largely immaterial. I fully agree that there are well organized lobbying groups and political organizations that are influential in both the details and fervor of the United States’ Israel policy. While their political donations may pale in comparison to, for example, the pharmaceutical and insurance industries or trial lawyers, they are impressive in their ability to mobilize bases for political action including letters to congressschmucks and the media, outreach to public officials and more (including, sometimes, voting). Their mobilizing acumen is matched by few lobbying efforts. All that being said, the basis and broad contours of the U.S. policy were already shaped long before Theodore Herzl was born.

Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940 that, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. […] The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are ‘still’ possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.” Gayatri Spivak, Edward Said, bell hooks and others have made the point similarly or better in the time since. Benjamin was writing specifically about European fascism including that of Nazi Germany. One concrete example, though he didn’t use this one himself, is that Nazism can only be astonishing if we refuse to listen to the Nama and Herero people of Namibia against whom the prior German regime genocided in the Südwestafrika settler colony. The “tradition of the oppressed” includes tools of analysis about and histories of resistance against European fascism that predated fascism on the European continent. For this essay, “the tradition of the oppressed” has a lot more to say about the United States’ “morally bankrupt [Israel] policy” than The Israel Lobby and related essays and clarifies what the country’s “professed values” actually mean. Put briefly, the Israel Lobby thesis suffers from the mistaken premise that U.S. history is something other than a horror story. Recontextualizing the Israel lobby and U.S. policy provides not only better understanding, but also more opportunities for transformative change.

Settlers Apart, Settlers Together

Like Israel, the United States is a settler colony. Both simultaneously establish themselves and eliminate indigenous sovereignty along with, in one way or the other, indigenous populations. Reductively put, every five acres of the United States is five acres less of Turtle Island.* The elimination is carried out through physical extermination, expulsion, disarticulating native indigeneity (for example trying to make Palestinians into ‘Israeli Arabs’ or removing indigenous children to raise them in the settler society) and more. In the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand and many other settler colonies, combinations of all of the above are used to ends certainly no less ‘morally bankrupt’ than the U.S.’s Israel policy. To the point of this essay, settler colonies recognize each other and use that recognition to build solidarity.

The Myths & Facts website is a project evolved from the Myths and Facts texts AIPAC began publishing in the 1970s. In the website’s “The U.S.-Israel Special Relationship” series, Eli Hertz notes “the affinity between Israel and the United States draws on the fact that both countries are democracies and share a host of other enlightened values, including a similar defining ethos as nations of immigrations,” (After a time, all settler societies call themselves ‘nations of immigrants’ and not ‘nations of settlers’). He continues, “both nations were built by waves of refugees or persecuted immigrants who sought religious, political, or economic freedom.” U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar appeal to U.S.-Australian solidarity during a 2011 address in Darwin, Australia.The bonds between us run deep. In each other’s story we see so much of ourselves. Ancestors who crossed vast oceans – some by choice, some in chains. Settlers who pushed west across sweeping plains. Dreamers who toiled with hearts and hands to lay railroads and to build cities. Generations of immigrants who, with each new arrival, add a new thread to the brilliant tapestry of our nations.” A more crude (honest?) version is that of former Israeli ambassador to Australia Naftali Tamir. In a 2006 interview calling for closer cooperation between Australia and Israel Tamir said, “Asia is basically the continent of the Yellow race. Australia and Israel do not belong to it – we basically belong to the White race.” Further, “Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are located in Asia but without the characteristics of Asians, our skin is not yellow nor are our eyes slanted.”

In addition to calls for solidarity with other settler societies based on the mere fact of being settlers themselves, settler discourse also points to other settler colonies to determine who will be allowed to join the colony. Walt’s Harvard University colleague George Borjas writes in The Washington Post, “While the United States has proven cautious about addressing [what kind and how many immigrants does it want], several other ‘nations of immigrants’ (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have far more proactive approaches to immigration: They have devised systems that are designed to favor people who will contribute economically to the country and who will assimilate quickly.” Borjas’ 2001 article is predated by around a century by the various anti-Asian policies that South Africa, Australia (under the banner of “White Australia”), the United States (especially in California) and Canada (especially in British Columbia) developed to restrict Asian immigration. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds examine in depth the how the various White settler colonies’ anti-Asian policies influenced each other in their 2008 volume Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Challenge for Racial Equality. Judd Yadid offers a liberal version in a 2013 Haaretz article about Australian Jewish hostility to South African Jewish immigration. “Those Australian Jews that criticize the influx and eccentricities of their South African brethren should show more empathy, and be mindful of the fact that they themselves are the offspring of immigrants. In fact, the entire non-indigenous population of the great southern land were once newcomers.” Yadid’s examination looks beyond Australian Jewish prejudice against South African Jews to critique Australia’s racist immigration policies. Yet by the article’s end he manages to use a critique of xenophobic racism to declare permanent settler colonialism. Most mainstream and liberal migrant justice discourse in settler colonies does this, again under the banner of ‘nation of immigrants’.

This mutual recognition that ‘they are like us’ amongst White settler colonies breeds frequent solidarity and joint political action. A full accounting of such actions would narrate a significant part of the 20th century but a few examples of this Settler International in action are in order. In numerous United Nations General Assembly votes on the question of Palestine, Israel is nearly alone in voting against the resolutions. Among the very few countries that regularly vote the Israeli side are Australia, Canada and the United States. The United States and Israel were two of the few countries that supported settler rule in South Africa nearly until the end. Both supported the apartheid regime with arms and trade assistance while Israel also contributed troops for combat fighting. John Collins – whose engagement of Benjamin heavily influences mine above – in his book Global Palestine narrates how the famous 1948-49 Berlin Airlift was carried out by “a who’s who of settler colonialism,” (United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, the latter managing settlement in Northern Ireland and Southern Rhodesia). The list goes on.

Settler colonies, apart from the secular far Right-wing, rarely pronounce or conceive of their solidarity in phrasings openly recognizing indigenous removal and doing so is unnecessary. Settler colonialism is an organization of power like capitalism, patriarchy or White supremacy. Its power is not just political and geographic, but also discursive producing a settler normativity – what Elizabeth Povinelli described as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” It need not be spoken or even consciously thought in hegemonic discourse. It is basic to settlers’ understanding of the world, often too basic to notice. A common example in the United States is the popular NFL football team the San Francisco 49ers. The original ‘forty-niners were populist genocidaires. The historical formation of the ‘forty-niner is inextricably tied to genocide and the conquest of California’s indigenous populace. Yet the football team is discursively divorced from the practices of the actual ‘forty-niners.

Indigenous removal is so basic to the settler cosmology that its daily celebrations of the genocidaires – on currency, in street, school and team names, on monuments, in holidays, etc. – pass unnoticed. Settler normativity is as much part of foreign policy as it is domestic as noted above in the appeal to fellow ‘nations of immigrants’. Settler colonialism is a baseline of U.S. policy, whether foreign or domestic. Without the Israel Lobby, it’s still difficult to imagine the United States being predisposed to solidarity with an indigenous people against another White settler colony when it has resisted doing so in every other case, even if eventually taking somewhat critical positions on Southern Rhodesia, Northern Ireland and South Africa.

Last, when settler rule in Palestine does fall, it will be the first modern example of settler rule falling when the settlers formed a majority of the population in the colony for any amount of time. That should be (Beautifully! Wonderfully! Literally!) unsettling to other settler societies, even those where settlers are the vast majority of the population.

Moral Bankruptcy and the American Tradition, or, the U.S. is a Shithole and They Made it That Way

The United States’ “professed values” range from ‘freedom’ to ‘democracy’ to ‘equality’ and similar phrasings. This is sleight of hand. The “morally bankrupt” Israel policy is representative of American policy as the “tradition of the oppressed” indicates.

Since the settler colony broke from its British sponsor in 1776, the United States has averaged just under 1.4 military deployments per year. Most are not large scale invasions and some, like evacuations, are easily or plausibly defensible. But most are not. A great many are bald interventions on behalf of U.S. business operations threatened by local demands for control of resources.

As noted above, the very premise of the United States is Indian Removal, one of two sine qua nons of the settler colony’s existence. And every year more land is colonized for mineral extraction, new housing developments and other reasons. Native children continue to be disarticulated from their indigeneity, abducted by the state to be raised in the settler society. Native political prisoners languish in U.S. prisons while the settler society creates native fetish objects as sports mascots and costumes or celebrates the genocidaires themselves.

The other sine qua non of U.S. history is African slavery, the labor of which built the nation’s wealth. Beyond stolen labor, U.S. tradition imagines Black bodies as infinitely fungible as Jared Sexton, Saidiya Hartmann, and others have described. Slaveowners attempted to turn enslaved Black people into whatever tool they needed followed by nonconsensual medical experiments and forced sterilization. As just one example today, prison labor programs where a wildly disproportionately Black prison population works for menial wages in fields that – by and large – won’t hire a convict upon release. Mass incarceration itself is part of a racial caste system targeting Black people as George Jackson, Angela Davis, Mariam Kaba and others have demonstrated.

One effect of White Supremacy and settler colonialism is a lower life expectancy for Black and indigenous people. For the present population, the 4.3 years average difference in life expectancy amounts to over 167 million total years collectively stolen from Black people. The discrepancy for the much smaller native population still amounts to over 5.7 million years stolen. These are quantities of years normally reserved for geologic or evolutionary discussions. Lest this be thought unintentional, the lack of accountability for the murders of Black people is an affirmation of stolen life. Indigenous dispossession and African slavery are in fact mutually constitutive as Andrea Smith illuminates.

The United States is by law, homophobic and transphobic (some aspects of which are being reformed under the banner of assimilationism).

The United States is officially anti-working class. One conspicuous element is immigration policy where working class people from other nations – especially Black and Brown people – find it nearly impossible to get visas.

U.S. economic policy is designed to facilitate wealth accumulation by those who already have it.

To make an exhaustive list would assume a naivety neither most proponents of the Israel Lobby theory nor other readers possess. The point is that “moral bankruptcy” is the default American position. Even those benefits that do accrue to people of color, the working class and middle class are largely predicated on exploitation abroad or on another group at home. Moral bankruptcy is a didactic and clumsy yet perfectly accurate description for American history.

In addition to settler colonialism, other fundaments of American policy, foreign and domestic, are capitalism, patriarchy and White supremacy. The U.S. prefers Israel to Palestine for reasons of Israeli wealth against Palestinian poverty (capitalist normativity, more about which in the next section). For having a more familiar articulation of patriarchy (often celebrated as gender liberal Israelis vs. gender conservative Palestinians). For Israel being dominated by Ashkenazim (Jews of European ancestry) and thus White, whereas Palestinians are people of color (White supremacist normativity). All of these are in step with American history and U.S. policy towards other nations. Only an untenable conception of American history produces the popular Israel lobby thesis.

American Foreign Policy With and Without The Lobby

The United States has a history of supporting regressive regimes that had no specific lobby of note. As with the previous section, there is no need for an exhaustive list. There are volumes upon volumes filled with critiques of U.S. support for regressive regimes including Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy and numerous others.

For decades the United States was the prime sponsor of the successive Duvalier regimes in Haiti. The U.S. was a key player in the 1953 anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran and the prime sponsor of the ensuing Shah regime. Before Israel was even a state the United States was sponsoring the brutal Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has supported regressive regimes in Central America for well over a century. The U.S. was a strong supporter of the Mobutu regime in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The U.S. supported the Nicaraguan Somoza regimes right up until the end and then spent the ensuing decade sponsoring the reactionary Contra militia against the Sandinista regime (against which it still intervenes).

In none of these examples was there a specific lobby in Washington comparing in size or scope to the Israel Lobby yet the U.S. still aggressively supports regressive policies. There were capitalist forces pushing for these policies generally, some with a more specific focus than others. For example, Mossadegh’s democratic socialist policies would have reigned in U.S. and British profits, especially in the petroleum industry. Fruit companies lobbied for support to regressive forces Central America in response to labor uprisings in and peasant mobilization against agribusiness. Various capitalist lobbies support Nicaragua policy in response to the Sandinista’s democratic socialist policy platform.

Capitalist interests are key drivers of U.S. foreign policy and always have been. They have been most aggressive in supporting regressive policy when anti-capitalist, or even liberal, regimes and resistance movements seeking to reign in capitalism were present. This fits with with Israel policy too. When the U.S. first began serious intervention in support of Israel the Palestine Liberation Organization was dominated by groups that ranged from democratic socialist to communist.

In the case of the United States belatedly and partially opposing settler rule in South Africa, it did so only under great pressure domestically and internationally. Even then only against the more crudely racist apartheid legislation and settler legislative rule. However capitalism and settler colonialism in South Africa are intertextual. The United States supported only ending settler legislative rule and the settler capitalist class remains a tremendous political force today. Opponents of ending settler rule framed the ANC, Black Conscious Movement and others as communist or socialist revolutionary organizations (with some accuracy!) to couch their opposition in terms other than explicit White supremacy. The PLO too was frequently discussed as socialist, communist or, more commonly, affiliated with or sponsored by China or the U.S.S.R.

Capitalism, like settler colonialism, is a fundamental U.S. political framework and Israel is a neoliberal capitalist state. That is part of their “shared values” and it is a reason the U.S. is partisan to Israel.

Who Defines the National Interest?

U.S. national interests in Southwest Asia aren’t easy to pin down. They vary wildly depending on who is making policy. For example, many political science Realists decried the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They said it would be counterproductive to U.S. interests in the regime. But recall the headline several years back: “Exxon. Biggest. Profit. Ever.” John Dewey said “Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” In that light, the war was very much in the national interest as defined by the oil lobbies close to the G.W. Bush Administration. So who is casting the biggest shadow at any given moment? That defines “national interest” as much as anything else.

In the case of Israel we’ve seen the U.S. bring its client state to heel on numerous occasions when the ‘national interest’ as defined by those in power was threatened. The U.S. in 2006 denied Israel Aerospace Industries export licenses for certain systems thereby disqualifying it from a South Korean US$1.5 billion AWACS tender, by default giving Boeing the contract as the only other bidder.

When China sent Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) it purchased from Israel in 1994 back to the country for upgrading in 2004, the U.S. intervened and prohibited Israel from sending back the UAVs, upgraded or not, despite them not containing U.S. technology and Israel no longer owning the machines. This is particularly notable because Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz – both prominent far Right supporters of Israel – led the campaign of pressure.

Israel Aerospace Industries won a contract in 1998 to sell its Phalcon AWACS system to China in a deal worth over US$1 billion, but under U.S. pressure, not only cancelled the deal but paid China a $350 million cancellation fee.

The Israel Lobby and the Israeli state lobbied vigorously against the Reagan Administration’s decision to sell AWACS systems to Saudi Arabia in what was then the largest – by dollar value – arms export in U.S. history. But Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander Haig and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger all pushed through the sale. In the end, they even took away the ‘pro-Israel’ position by couching the sale of one of the world’s most advanced weapons systems to Saudi Arabia as beneficial to “the security of Israel and peace itself.” Time and time again, especially around the arms trade, the United States disregards Israel’s wishes and even intense efforts by the Israel Lobby.

Broad general support with occasional disciplining is about what we would expect for a client state (this is being admittedly reductive). Examining the successes and failures of of the Israel lobby paints a clearer picture of the U.S. national interest as defined by those who actually enforce it. In the view of those who define the U.S. national interest, Palestinian liberation is simply a secondary or non-issue, hence the Israel Lobby’s near uniform success on anything related to Palestinian liberation.

All of the above is without even considering Israel’s actual role in U.S. empire as a regional heavy, bulwark against progressive Arab nationalism, conduit for U.S. arms sales to unsavory clients, subsidy for the U.S. arms industry and more (a topic for an essay to come). Israel is an important client state and that has a lot to do with U.S. support.

But the Israel Lobby does matter

All of this is to say that, contrary to the Israel Lobby thesis, AIPAC is not the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy. Moral bankruptcy is the U.S. default position and defining policy agenda. The United States historically shows tremendous support for other White settler states, no matter the size of any lobby. The United States historically shows tremendous support for colonizers over the colonized. The United States historically opposes revolutionary social movements whether at home or abroad, especially those led by people of color and indigenous people. The United States historically supports its clients states no matter what they do. The United States historically supports wealthier states over poorer ones (or movements representing working class liberation). There is nothing aberrant about the United States’ Israel policy with the exception of its ferocity.

The lengths the U.S. goes to in order to defend Israeli policy are indeed a little unusual. The ferocity is at a level normally reserved for anti-communist, anti-Black, anti-feminist and other domestic and foreign policies that threaten normative organizations of power. Here, finally, this seems to be the Israel Lobby at work. This is not to minimize the importance of the Israel Lobby. It is directly involved in shaping oppressive policy and discourse even if it is not fundamental to policy direction. Further, it is well-funded and almost competently organized (I won’t belabor the point but significant resources can mask a lot of incompetency. For example see every well funded public or private bureaucracy anywhere on the planet and The Peter Principle.). It is also a consciously ideological colonizing effort making it an important voice in settler colonialism. The Israel Lobby matters and it matters a lot. It is not, however, “the only explanation for America’s morally bankrupt Israel policy.” In my reading, it is not even a main reason. It is just one of several articulations of settler solidarity practiced by the U.S., unusual only in it vociferousness.

AIPAC and related groups cannot and should not be ignored. But addressing AIPAC should be couched in ways that also address the U.S.’s funamentally regressive politics. It’s true that one or more aspects of settler rule did fall in Southern Rhodesia, South West Africa, and South Africa and that, at a very late date, the U.S. did come around to opposing aspects of settler rule in these colonies. Perhaps this can be done with Palestine too. Walt and Mearsheimer’s Israel Lobby advocates for such a course by playing into American exceptionalism and locating the U.S.’s Palestine policy as anomalous.

But there is nothing exceptional about the U.S.’s Israel policy. Recognizing this, coming to a tenable conception of history, opens up possibilities for joint struggle and resistance, coalition building and movement growth in ways that are not possible otherwise (as groups like the United States Palestinian Community Network, INCITE! Women, Trans and Gender Nonconforming People of Color Against Violence, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and others have been doing for some time). A tenable conception of history sharpens our ability to understand and organize against oppressive policies.

* Turtle Island is a term several indigenous nations – especially though not exclusively those in the northeast towards the Atlantic – use for what the settler societies and European geography call North America. I use it as an example of one common name of many, not to privilege the term over other indigenous geographies.

Review: A Land Without People

A People Without A Land (2014)

78 min

Dir. Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon

http://www.withoutaland.com

A shorter version of this review was originally solicited by a better website but what I wrote was shit. Luckily my own website here has no standards at all and an audience of around four unlucky browsers who just saw Star Wars for the first time and couldn’t remember C-3PO’s name to accurately google the droid and thus are subjected to the following ramblings. What follows is based on the original review but takes some aspects of the film as points of departure to discuss topics in but not unique to A People Without Land.

APWAL Title

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s latest film, A People Without A Land, provides another entry into cases made for Palestinian liberation as a one-state solution. Ungar-Sargon describes himself as a “Jewish Rebel” on his website. Indeed in previous documentaries Ungar-Sargon has examined male circumcision and Jewish fetishization of the Shoah from, if you’ll forgive the bad pun, ultra-unorthodox angles. In A People Without A Land he compiles interviews with progressive Palestinian activists, Israeli liberal Zionists, radical right- and left-wing Israelis, stock footage, music and journalistic footage to present his case.

The film largely follows hegemonic liberal discourse from early Zionism through the Oslo years towards a two-state solution in the first third, starts the story over with a historical track towards a one state solution in the second third, then prosthyletizes liberal nationalism for the remainder. The film starts with with Zionism’s generative context in 19th century Central and Eastern Europe and initially follows Zionist settlement in Palestine through the Nakba (1947-49 war in Palestine), Naksa (Six Day War) and into the Oslo Process years through the second intifada and Operation Cast Lead. It narrates Zionist settlement, the mass expulsion of Palestinians from 1947-49, the conquest of the remainder of Palestine in 1967 and Israeli settlement and oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip through the present. A People Without A Land concludes making a case for a one-state solution in Palestine. Through all this the film shoots through a critical, to one degree or another, lens.

A significant strength when compared to most Palestine documentaries is the narrative space allotted to refugees and the Right of Return, a topic frequently ignored or given only lip service despite most Palestinians being refugees. As important is how Ungar-Sargon engages refugeedom no matter where the refugees are located, including those who are citizens of Israel, a refugee population close to discursively erased in all liberal and most non-Palestinian radical discourse. A People Without A Land even briefly explores Right of Return’s more practical aspects in a late sequence where it documents activists and architects from Miska Committee, Decolonizing Architecture and Zochrot discussing the reestablishment of Miska, a Palestinian village depopulated during the 1947-49 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In fact this is basic to the film in that it is bookended with scenes from Lifta, another depopulated Palestinian village. Other strengths include a skeptical eye towards the Peace Process and Palestinian Authority (the latter topic part partially subverted by having Saeb Erekat as a protagonist).

Except…

Yet the film leaves much to be desired narratively, historically and conceptually. The filmmaking is unremarkable but for Ungar-Sargon’s poor decision to include over thirty subjects in a film just seventy-eight minutes long. This works out to a new character every two and a half minutes or so. These characters range from far Right-wing Israelis to left-wing Palestinian advocates for decolonization. Ungar-Sargon offers nothing to bridge either the widely divergent political viewpoints nor the far too numerous subjects making the film frequently incoherent. It’s like someone’s “Israel-Palestine” youtube playlist.

For example, in one segment West Bank settler Ari Abramson says, “Most Palestinians do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Ungar-Sargon then refutes with Bethlehem resident Samer Kokaly — who supports one state — saying that Israel has a kind of right to exist. The film unambiguously supports a one-state solution so what’s the point of this segment? Leaving aside that there is no such thing as a “right” to settler rule in Palestine, it is out of place in a film explicitly rejecting Israel’s premise. There is a possible logic behind this scene to which I’ll return below.

In it’s final third the film variously advocates for and against a one-state solution. That Ungar-Sargon’s film advocates for a one-state solution is only clear because he very explicitly says so at the very end. Key interviewees Gershom Gorenberg and Gershon Baskin state their objection to one state in terms, too much hatred and all that familiar tripe, not so different from that offered by Right-wing Israeli geographer Arnon Soffer (Why is he interviewed at all? And why would the filmmakers celebrate his attendance at a screening?!) or, for that matter, George Wallace in his day. Both Gorenberg and Baskin are earlier posited as critics of Israeli repression of Palestinians so their advocacy for settler rule is still posited as some type of solidarity, not the crude racism it is.

A People Without a Land also includes historical misconceptions. At the very beginning Zionism is introduced as a Romantic Nationalism akin to others in Central and Eastern Europe from whence it came. This is true enough. But Ungar-Sargon narrates this as being fundamental to Israeli dispossession of Palestinians. One subject notes that, due to the European Romantic nationalist movements amongst which Zionism was conceived, Zionism is “not gonna jump to Thomas Jefferson and become a civic form of nationalism” akin to French and British nationalism. This framework is both wrong, and wrong again. Israel has proven decidedly Jeffersonian — as in how Jefferson conceived and enacted his aggressively anti-Native policies — in its relations to the indigenous Palestinian population. Settler-Indigenous relations are formed primarily in the actual spaces of colonization, not in praxes in the settlers’ place of origin. This framework also ignores the role of Western European colonialism played in expanding rights for citizens of the metropole, specifically the mass extraction of wealth from the colonies and the discursive formation and racialization of colonized Others juxtaposed with the colonizing Us. Alternately put, to the limited degree that Western European nationalist movements were ‘civic’ — movements advocating a state belonging to those who lived there instead of a specific group — they in no way meant states belonging to all those ruled by the state. It is just a brief segment but is a common misconception based in a colonial historiography. More importantly, it introduces Zionism by disconnecting it from from Zionism’s actual formative processes of colonization.

What kind of state?

The actual case made for one-state is also not obviously preferable. But for Omar Barghouti briefly mentioning that any state should be generally non-oppressive, A People Without Land offers the state itself as a solution. Yet states, in Weber’s conception the monopolists of legitimate violence, have been a leading cause of death, misery and oppression since their inception. Surely two egalitarian states recognizing Right of Return, social and economic democracy, gender liberation and so on would be preferable to one shitty state if for some reason the options were so limited. As one segment mentions briefly, there is just one state now and it is a nightmare. To argue for one state itself as the solution is to offer a bizarre quantitative theory of the state. The end of settler rule (aka: Apartheid or, as we say in Hebrew, Hafrada) in South Africa meant certain concrete political and civic gains. But in some ways, many indigenous South Africans are little better off because the terms of ending settler rule divorced civic and economic policy.

In A People Without Land Rabbi Asher Lopatin pitches one such one-state dystopia when he argues that Israelis and Palestinians should be able to buy houses anywhere inside Palestine. At first glance this sounds egalitarian. But Israeli per capita income is twenty times the of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a disparity that grows significantly once adjusting Israeli GDP per capita between Jews and Arabs and yet again when including Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Most Palestinians could not buy houses at the prices most Israelis could. Thus a theoretically non-discriminatory real estate market turns out to be a recipe for further Palestinian dispossession under the banner of a one-state liberal democracy. So one-state, fine. But what kind of state? A People Without Land doesn’t hint at anything decent despite many interviewees (Ghada Karmi, Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, Jeff Halper, Ariella Azoulay, Eitan Bronstein, etc.) making more concrete and liberatory pitches elsewhere.

The one-state pitch is also based on the two-state solution being declared dead for reasons of impracticality. Thus settler rule in Palestine is merely impractical, not unethical. That the solution should be through states at all is far from obvious but with few counterhegemonic discussions of the No State Solution towards Palestinian sovereignty at the present it’s a forgivable omission.

A One-State Solution for American Jews

A fundamental problem with A People Without Land comes from the overall impression it makes. With so many Ashkenazi narrators and the Yiddish soundtrack it feels like a film made for a liberal American Jewish audience. This is the only way the segment with Abramson and Kokaly mentioned above makes sense. It’s kind of like saying, “See American Jews? Palestinians do recognize Israel’s right to exist.” This also explains why Ungar-Sargon includes Liberal Zionists like Baskin and Gorenberg who support settler rule. Their critiques of Israeli policy are not uniquely insightful. Any of the Palestinians interviewed could have offered the same. They serve no purpose but to inject more Jewish voices to narrate Palestine to American Jews. Liberal American Ashkenazi Jews, like any other subgroup of white Americans, tend to be racist. Using Liberal Zionist narrators and recognizing Israel’s mythical right to exist appeals to this sensibility. This is not fighting fire with fire. Fighting oppressive politics with oppressive politics is just oppressive politics. This angle affirms the idea that American Jews should have some special place in Palestinian liberation or things Israel-Palestine simply because they feel a connection. American Jewish participation in the American settler colony is far more relevant and important than any opinions Americans Jews have about Palestine and the Israeli settler colony. This is not to say American Jews shouldn’t learn and act against U.S. support for Israel in the context of the U.S. Settler Empire, merely that A Land Without People only makes sense inside the White Supremacist context privileging the place of American Jews in discourse on Palestine.

Many more Palestinians narrate the latter half of the film, the part narrating liberation, which is a welcome turn. Yet Ungar-Sargon still frequently injects narrative Israeli — almost exclusively male Ashkenazim — control. In the segment examining reconstituting Miska, an unnamed Palestinian participant critiques such control. She notes, “Try not to put [Israelis and Palestinians] in symmetry. Why me as a Palestinian from Miska has to have the agreement of the Israelis surrounding me?” Indeed, why should the terms of Palestinian liberation be subject to Israeli veto? Yet Ungar-Sargon follows with an Israeli response about exactly why Israelis should have just that veto.

Borderline worth watching

Bookending the film with ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages and the lengthy treatment of Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return should not warrant mention because it is simply a proper way to do things. But Palestinian refugees are so aggressively marginalized that Ungar-Sargon’s film is uncommon in this regard. His skeptical view of the Peace Process and Palestinian Authority are also solid turns for audiences unfamiliar with the radical Palestinian tradition.

Yet the film is hard to recommend. Were it just my political quibbles it would be one thing, but the narrative lacks all coherence and no single idea, not even its central topic of a one-state solution, is meaningfully elucidated. This stands in sharp contrast with the lengthy explorations of Ungar-Sargon’s earlier Generation Gap. A tighter focus with fewer narrators would make A People Without Land a valuable educational tool and much better film even if political problems remained. Instead the film feels like Ungar-Sargon filmed a lot of great footage and tried to fit a bit of it all into a single narrative instead of some of it into a coherent one.

Law & Order: SVU – Pornstar’s Requiem (Season 16, Episode 5)

The following post examines gendered violence and sex work in the context of a recent Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode. I make use of narratives by two adult film performers, Belle Knox and Kayden Kross, who recently published articles that overlap with the SVU episode, one directly engaging the episode. For broader context I cite Incite!: Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence and the Sex Workers Project and, while not quoted directly, analysis developed by Emi Koyama. Knox and Kross’s lived experiences provide fuller context and analysis than I cite below and Incite! and Emi Koyama’s work are central to the struggle against gendered violence against marginalized and criminalized populations and systemic violence more broadly. I strongly recommend reading their narratives and supporting their work and prioritizing it over what follows should you have to choose between them. Thanks to Megan Spencer for insightful feedback and to you for reading.

Like many Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes, the theme of the 22 October episode “Pornstar’s Requiem” is rape culture and the entitlement men assume over women’s bodies. This assumption is especially acute against women of color, colonized women, trans women and other communities marginalized by racism, patriarchy, capitalism and other oppressive organizations of power. Though SVU often centers middle class and wealthy white women, “Pornstar’s Reqiuem” centers one such marginalized community, sex workers. While all sex workers are marginalized or dehumanized in one way or another, an individual or group’s status as indigenous, working class, black, transgender or any other Other (including intersections of any or all of the above and more) means not all sex workers have the same experience. That should be read throughout what follows. (For this review I ignore the production value and storytelling quality, saving that for a later engagement. In brief, this episode suffers from the caricatured posturing and hero-villain hyper-polarization prevalent in the last few seasons of SVU though it is not as bad as some.)

“Pornstar’s Requiem” is one of the series’ ‘ripped from the headlines’ productions. It takes an element from popular media discourse and fictionalizes it to fit the half-police procedural/half-courtroom drama that is Law & Order ’s trademark. The episode takes inspiration from the case of Belle Knox, a porn star and Duke University student whose real name was exposed without her consent by a male fellow student leading to extensive harassment on and off campus.

In the SVU version, Hannah Marks plays Evie Barnes, a white, working class student at Hudson University (a frequent Law & Order stand in for NYU) and adult film performer under the name Roxxxane Demay. Two fellow Hudson University students watching porn on-line recognize Barnes and arrange to get her alone in a bathroom at a college party where they, invoking the rough sex of the porn clip they previously saw, proceed to rape her.

As is usually the case, SVU gets some stuff right while embedding the broader story in problematic politics. At its best numerous characters, especially Barnes herself along with Sgt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hartigay) and Det. Amanda Collins (Kelli Giddish), over and again strongly reject repeated interjections from men trying to justify or rationalize the rape of Barnes due to her work in adult film. In one instance Barnes, her parents just having turned their backs on her because of her work, says, “I did nothing wrong and people need to hear that.” Barnes repeatedly invokes the principle of consent with no qualifications as to the job or social position of the person granting or withholding consent and how any violations of that are sexual assault.

Evie Barnes defends her right to withhold consent and perform in porn saying, “I did nothing wrong and people need to hear that.”

Evie Barnes defends her right to withhold consent and perform in porn saying, “I did nothing wrong and people need to hear that.” (Screen capture from “Pornstar’s Requiem”)

In her write-up of the episode, Belle Knox identifies closely with Barnes.

I know well the chilling rape culture entitlement that comes along with men discovering that I’m a porn star. This is the scenario that plays out on the episode. One of the frat boys accused in “Pornstar’s Requiem” even goes so far as to say to the police the following jaw-dropping line: “I didn’t think you could rape a girl like that.”

Have I heard this before?

Not in those exact words, but in actions and in snide remarks, in the assumptions people make with my body and my livelihood because they have watched me in porn or heard that this is my profession. One time a hotel provided a key card to a friend of another man I knew, and at 2 in the morning, this large and loud, older and incredibly drunk stranger wandered into my hotel room — with his own key. I was terrified. Did he think that because I was a porn star he could just come in? Did he think he could do something with me?

She continues, “There is this sense of ownership of porn stars from strangers, which is, quite frankly, chilling.” In a recent article for Salon, fellow porn star Kayden Kross describes her own nonconsensual outing as a college student and how, due to sex workers’ societal position, people outside the industry can’t even imagine how it is that she hasn’t been raped.

I have not been molested by an uncle. Not by a single one of them, if you can believe it. Yet strangers every day tag me with this scarlet letter because they can imagine no other circumstance under which I might choose the life I have chosen. Not only is this an insult to me, but it is an insult to all women who have made unconventional personal choices, because the go-to assumption is that a woman who doesn’t fit the mold has very likely been sexually damaged by a man. It is a comfortable way to explain away a disobedient woman.*

There are few keener descriptions of rape culture then how Kross describes the public as demanding her past rape in order to comprehend her. Rape is necessary for their engagement of Kross’s narrative, part of the “sense of ownership of porn stars” that Knox writes about. Kross describes the expected consequences in case of actual assault.

I sometimes wonder how deeply the assumption that the adult performer is somehow a lesser person really runs. Will our aggressor be given a lighter sentence in the event of a murder trial? Will the case be taken less seriously in the event that one of us disappears?

This is the result portrayed in “Pornstar’s Requiem”. After achieving the uncommon in real life result of a guilty verdict – according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network**, only nine out of every one-hundred sexual assaults are ever prosecuted in the first place – the judge sets aside the verdict and admonishes Barnes in the most condescending manner saying, “I hope going forward you find a way to respect your body and yourself.” Knox writes that the judge’s phrasing is “something I have heard so many times from my friends, family and peers it practically feels like my first name.”

The Patriarchal State and Accountability

SVU, like all cop shows, even more critical ones like The Wire, defines accountability as state intervention followed by incarceration. In the case of sex workers, people of color, colonized (including intersections thereof) and other Othered populations, interventions by institutions of state violence (the police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the military, F.B.I., etc.) frequently exacerbate rather than mitigate violence, including sexual violence.

The Sex Workers Project (SWP) at the New York City-based Urban Justice Center conducted a small survey of folks in the trade. Among their findings:

Thirty percent of sex workers interviewed told researchers that they had been threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% actually experienced violence at the hands of police. Reported incidents included officers physically grabbing and kicking prostitutes, as well as beating them; one incident of rape; one woman was stalked by a police officer; and throwing food at one subject. Sexual harassment included fondling of body parts; giving women cigarettes in exchange for sex; and police offering not to arrest a prostitute in exchange for sexual services.

Perhaps most obviously, that most sex work is criminalized means that agents of state violence generally seek to incarcerate sex workers, not offer any kind of protection or support. As Incite! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color Against Violence notes, “Existing laws that criminalize sex work often prevent workers from reporting violence, enable law enforcement agents to not take violence against sex workers seriously when it is reported, and facilitate police violence against sex workers.”

The vigorous defense offered by the (initially reluctant) District Attorney and police in “Pornstar’s Requiem” is anomalous in the real world though the lack of rapist accountability of any kind in the end, the paternalistic dismissal of Barnes by the judge, the exploitation of class differences between the rapists to turn the working class rapist snitch and the perpetual saving mission of the police all ring true.

Condemned to Porn

The end of “Pornstar’s Requiem” is filmed as tragedy. Kross writes about experiences outside of the porn industry bubble where porn stars are dehumanized and made punchlines. In a comedy class she is taking the instructor says, “Don’t worry, if you fail at this, there’s always porn.” It’s a common punchline. In their opening monologue for the 2013 Golden Globes, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler make a similar joke.

Tina Fey: I don’t think she has plans to do porn Amy.

Amy Poehler: None of us have plans do to porn.

Examples abound. Porn is not a career one chooses in such comments but a life one is condemned or resorts to.

The porn industry has no doubt been tragic for some of its workers. But so has the restaurant industry. So has accounting. So has professional American football. The “porn as last resort” narrative is another way of dehumanizing sex workers. Since, in patriarchy’s narrative, no one would choose it, those engaged in it must not be anybody nor any body. This is how “Pornstar’s Requiem” ends.

Evie Barnes broadcasts her social death. (Screen capture from "Pornstar's Requiem")

Evie Barnes broadcasts her social death. (Screen capture from “Pornstar’s Requiem”)

After the judge sets aside the verdict and frees Barnes’s rapist, Barnes commits what the show portrays as a kind of suicide, complete with suicide note, where she leaves university for porn. “Pornstar’s Requiem” narrates this as the failure of the agents of state violence to complete a saving mission. Barnes no longer exists, they lost her. Only Roxxxane Demay remains. Demay partially affirms her position telling Collins, “At least here when I say stop, they stop.” But does so on the verge of tears over a funereal soundtrack making that affirmation instead part of the “resort to porn” narrative. No matter that earlier in the episode Barnes expresses a certain fulfillment with her work in porn, “I signed contracts. I got paid. It felt good. I mean these guys [Barnes looks to each side at the men on campus] look right through me. They have no idea what I’m doing on set with hot porn actors.”

Evie Barnes self-medicates before her funeral. (Screen capture from "Pornstar's Requiem")

Evie Barnes self-medicates before her funeral. (Screen capture from “Pornstar’s Requiem”)

Evie Barnes’s social death is finalized on a porn set. Collins tells her, “You don’t have to be here,” and tries to offer her other options. Demay tell Collins, “Once you’re Roxxxane Demay, you can’t be Evie Barnes again,” takes some kind of pill, disrobes and walks to her burial, a gangbang scene with fifteen men as stand-ins for pallbearers.*** This, as with all saving missions, ends with the ‘saved’ being dehumanized by the saviors. The dehumanization that Barnes fights against earlier in the episode is finalized with the heavy, tragic soundtrack, Barnes/Demay’s tears and Collin’s desperate, sorrowful pleading. She is literally dehumanized in this narrative. The human Evie Barnes is dead and Roxxxane Demay, a fictional character invented by Barnes for stage purposes, now exists in a non-life as the title “Pornstar’s Requiem” suggests. Here Collins and Barnes’s rapists are no longer opposing parties, they find shared ground with Barnes’s dehumanization.

Roxxxane Demay approaches her funeral. (Screen capture from "Pornstar's Requiem")

Roxxxane Demay approaches her funeral and walks into the light. (Screen capture from “Pornstar’s Requiem”)

The episode’s end message affirms both agents of patriarchal state violence as sole recourse of accountability (though failed in this instance) to victims of gendered violence and the dehumanization of sex workers. NBC broadcast this message to over two million initial viewers. As with all popular culture, the episode did not invent this message. Instead it (re)produces it in conversation with broader media and popular discourse. “Pornstar’s Requiem” is another exchange in the conversation and in spite of its attempt at critical engagement, it ends up projecting and producing the real-life alienation described by Kross and Knox.

* Kross’s isolated quote can be read to affirm survivor stigmatization.

** Fuck RAINN for throwing a survivor under the bus in its horrible response to the recent Rolling Stone article on the University of Virgina gang rape story.

** The episode strongly suggests a social death and portrays Roxxxane Demay’s evolution as solely horror. There is another interpretation though the show does not point to it in any way at all, what Emi Koyama calls “Negative Survivorship“. Interpreting the scene this way is far better and appropriately positions the agents of state violence with the rapists while supporting Demay/Barnes. Based upon all previous episodes of SVU, this is not the intention of the writers.