Monday, November 14, 2016

"All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again"

There's not one machismo, there are many types. There are people who like to brag about their ability to eat spicy food. There are people that love to inform you that sitting for an 8 hour movie is no big deal. You name it, there's someone bragging about their insouciance and subtly shaming you for your lack of it. One of the more noxious and obnoxious forms of this is shock machismo. This is when something terrible happens and the first response is to shrug with heavy eyelids.

Of course, shock machismo is just an adolescent pose. It is an attempt to control chaos, to tell it you are still in charge even when that's clearly untrue. And in some quarters we have seen a tiny bit of shock machismo in action with the election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States of America.

Even typing those words sends a wave of nausea through my body. I suppose it would be comforting to not allow myself to be horrified by this. For some that resistance takes the form of shock machismo ("What'd you expect from AmeriKKKa?"), for others it takes the form of normalization ("I know Trump destroyed every value we claim to hold dear in this country to win but it's time to give him the benefit of the doubt."). To give one's self over to the apocalyptic horror of this election is harrowing. I suppose I should be patient with people trying to not look this particular Medusa in the face. But I am not.

Whether Trump institutes a fascist dictatorship like something out of an 80's dystopian sci-fi movie directed by a British commercial director or turns out to be an ineffectual bumbler, we have lost something we will never reclaim. We have lost the ability to say that in America truth matters. We have lost the ability to say that in America basic human decency matters. We have lost the ability to look at ourselves as different from the backwards nations we have deemed cruel and inferior. We have lost the ability to say that competence and qualification matter more than identity and celebrity. And these losses should haunt us all for the rest of our lives.

But how do we make sense of this so we can ward off the paralysis that comes along with facing the abyss? That will takes us a long time to do. And even though very smart people have already isolated some of the key factors in this historic election it fails to make this event seem like anything more than a nightmare that should never have happened.

The beauty of history is how it puts everything into perspective. Nothing that happens has never happened before. It doesn't ease the pain of a calamity, but it at least offers an important reminder that life will go on. There are many obvious historic precedents for the Trump election. The first is Reconstruction and Redemption. After the American Civil War, the federal government attempted to make good on its promises of full citizenship to the formerly enslaved. That progress was real until the southern whites, who viewed themselves as redeemers of the south and not despoilers of liberty, stopped that progress and put Jim Crow in place for a century.

The 1990s were another time when minority groups made great strides only to have that answered with the George W. Bush era. Whenever we see equality coming to America's minorities, backlash follows. And for me, the first time I saw that happen was when I was 8 years old.

On July 12, 1979 in Chicago, radio DJ Steve Dahl hosted an unusual event. In the interval of a White Sox doubleheader, Dahl organized a ceremonious burning of disco records. Dahl hated disco and branded himself the general of an "anti-disco army" (he showed up to the record burning in military regalia). The deal was you'd be admitted to the game for only one dollar if you brought a disco record to be thrown on the pile. Dahl and the White Sox organization feared the night would be a flop. Their fears were unfounded. The crowd was so large Comiskey Park hit capacity and an estimated 20,000 were unable to be admitted to the park.

If you google "Disco Demolition Night" you can read the accounts and see the photos of what happened. Once Dahl started literally blowing up heaps of disco records, his mostly white male army lost control of themselves and a full scale riot ensued. The second game planned that night had to be forfeited. People were dismayed by this gleeful act of incivility on the hallowed grounds of America's pastime but Dahl was unrepentant and reveled in his achievement.

I was 8 when this happened and nowhere near Chicago. But what I remember is seeing this in the news and thinking "how could anyone hate dance music that much?" But of course, this wasn't about music. It was about culture. It was an act of white male cultural reclamation against a musical movement that threatened their dominion.

It doesn't matter how you personally feel about disco. It had detractors from many quarters (some producers of soul music rejected disco as a white bastardization of Black music). But the facts are these: disco brought the races together, offered female vocalists a position of power, and threatened norms of gender and sexuality. It was in short the musical analog of all the social liberation happening in the glorious 1970s; a decade when Blacks, Latinos, women and gays made a bid for the mainstream.

And within a year of Disco Demolition Night, it had all evaporated. The targeted music scene collapsed. Disco was never going to have a long life but Dahl's spectacle certainly legitimized and accelerated the backlash. It told the guy who never could dance and found disco alienating that he wasn't alone. And he was emboldened. So disco fell. Shortly after that Ronald Reagan was elected president. This ushered in an era of swaggering conservatism where the strides made by the women, the gays, the Blacks and the Latinos were almost erased.

And here we are, once again. In truth I've wondered more than once during the Obama era when that "Disco Sucks" moment would arrive. I even began to think that maybe we wouldn't see a grand backlash from conservative white America. But Tuesday it came, led incongruously by a man known to frequent Studio 54 with his gay Jewish mentor on several occasions.

So what do we take away from this? First we take that backlash is almost the natural order. For the democratic candidate to prevail would have gone against persistent trends. It could have happened, but I think many including myself underestimated how much a Clinton victory would've upended historic pattern (I don't mean that she was a woman- though there is that). This defeat should not be read as proof that liberalism cannot succeed, but more that America tends to act as a pendulum between left and right especially when identity politics are thrown in.

For me one of the most maddening aspects of the Monday morning quarterbacking is all the handwringing over the Democratic party's perceived failure to woo the white working class. Imagine on July 13, 1979 a group of disco producers and club DJs looking at Dahl's spectacle and asking themselves "maybe we should've thought more about rock fans when we made disco." That seems absurd, right? I know many will find this to be a hyperextended analogy but this is what I think of when I hear that the Dems failed the white working class (and can we also remind ourselves that said white working class abandoned the Dems for the GOP after the Dems decided to secure civil rights for non-whites- how does one woo someone back who is offended by equality?). Every political party has to concern itself with outreach, but the notion that the Trumpist white proletariat would ever see anything that spoke to them in the Democratic nominees is delusional and an unproductive avenue of discussion. They could no more support a Dem than Dahl's soldiers could trade in Rush for Chic.

If you think I'm being dangerously dismissive or glib let me remind you that the Democratic candidate got more votes and her electoral college shortfall could've been more easily avoided if stopping fascism was more important to some lefties than rejecting so-called "neoliberalism".

Finally, the most important lesson to take from Disco Demolition Night is that its success was limited. Yes, disco disappeared, but while they were blowing up records in Chicago they were scratching records in New York City. Hip Hop, not quite as disturbing to rock fans perhaps but a musical idiom that would one day overthrow rock's cultural primacy nonetheless, was already hatching. And somewhere in Chicago as Dahl and his anti-disco army rioted was a Black gay DJ the world would come to know as Frankie Knuckles who later fathered house music which he called "disco's revenge."

In other words, the door to progress seemed to have been shut and bolted in 1980 with the ascendance of Reagan, but it was only for a time. Disco Demolition Night didn't kill disco forever. Reagan didn't prevent the election of Obama. The murder of Harvey Milk didn't prevent Transparent from winning Emmys. Backlash doesn't last forever. It only puts some drag on forward momentum, it cannot completely reverse it.

This election is a catastrophe. There is no softening or sugarcoating it. People are going to suffer and some will die because (white) America chose a leader who made fascist overtures his remedy for what ails us. But history teaches us that this is part of the eternal cycle of history. The pendulum will not stay in one place forever.

It reminds me of the ending of Bernardo Bertolucci's delirious Marxist epic 1900. After the peasants celebrate the fall of fascism and the victory of the proletariat, the film ends with communist Olmo and padrone Alfredo (played by Depardieu and DeNiro) as old men scuffling like little boys. The greatness of Bertolucci was in recognizing that the film, despite its earnest belief in a workers' revolution, could not end with a pageant of proletarian victory. No it ends with the peasant and the landowner locked in eternal combat which is as much comic as tragic. And so it goes for the left and right in America. We will never have a progressive utopia. We will have progressive eras that give way to backlash before they are restored. Whether that fact is depressing or encouraging is a matter of perspective, or perhaps, an act of will.

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