EssaysFeature

White Men Running (For President)

The DNC’s nostalgic embrace of familiar, and obsolete, white male leadership

“Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” 

Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and its Discontents.”

In this 2020 Democratic primary reality TV season, Biden, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, and Sanders all seem to be performing different facets of a kind of idealized white male type. Take your pick and meet us at the debates!

Folks, Meet Joe! Joe takes the commuter train, cries on cue, and apologizes cursorily for gigantic mistakes!

Pete’s a veteran and a small-town mayor (Cue John Cougar Mellencamp, or is it Radiohead and Phish?) Pay no attention to his housing policy or his position on voting rights for prisoners. Did I mention he’s just gay enough for it to be progress?

Bernie is an old-school socialist from Vermont (Hippies! Guns! What could go wrong?) He’s like your aw-shucks grump of a great-uncle but with better policy positions! Focus on that messy hair and rumpled suit and pay no attention to the lack of appetite for dealing with gender or race!

Beto was in a punk band! He crouches on diner counters so he can get right in your face and Hear Your Concerns! Punk was cool, right? Remember punk? His wife is with the kids, and he admires that.

These performances all seem derived from the same subtle, desperate longing for an imagined time before Trump, when white men were more authentic and not all bad. It’s as if centrist Democrats and their attendant press outlets have been trying everything possible to cast a President that can, through his combination of identifiably positive attributes and white male identity, offer an implicit absolution for the sins of Republicans. Beto, Biden, Bernie, Buttigieg: the other white meat (now in new De Blasio Flavor!). Make America Feel Okay About Itself Again.

“Nostalgia…is essentially history without guilt. Heritage is something that suffuses us with pride rather than shame.” Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.

How Can We Forget

There’s an undercurrent here of an argument we heard a lot in the aftermath of 2016, which is that Trump won the presidency because he appealed to the “forgotten man,” inferring that working class white men (and women; don’t think the forgotten men don’t have wives!) had been left behind, perhaps eclipsed by all the messy and threatening diversity and cosmopolitanism of the Obama era (then represented by Hillary Clinton). If we just reconnect with the base, we’ll carry 2020 away from this terrible white stain on our white supremacy and things can get back to where they were supposed to be: more inclusive at home; more exploitive overseas.

Never mind the fact that women, specifically women of color, had unprecedented success in the 2018 midterms. Never mind that the actual number of white voters who might be swayed away from Trump in 2020 likely make up only a small percentage of the electorate. Rather than really deal with entrenched racism and sexism, confront voter suppression, or do real community organizing, the DNC is still going to look for a few good men.

Yes, any of these four candidates would be far better than Trump. Yes the Clinton campaign was deeply flawed. And yes, anyone can ‘evolve’ on issues like prison reform, gun control or personal gropiness. I’m sure most of us will, as we say over and over to whomever is telling us to fall in line, vote for the party nominee because they will be an incalculable improvement over what we have now.

No one thinks all white men are bad. I know if I did, I would only feel terrible about myself. I’ve descended from some good ones. I have good friends. I have good days. I am sometimes amazed or horrified, though, at how nearly all of us have absorbed, often unconsciously, a permission to employ and project various of the master’s tools when we need them. And I wonder if that absorption of supremacy, and our continuing lack of consciousness of same, makes it possible for one of us to really govern a plurality.

What strikes me as sad, ironic, profound and pathetic is the way the press and mainstream Democratic party has rallied around these four candidates, and then has seemed defensive when they are shown to favor aspects of white, male supremacist thinking and policy-making. Whether it’s an ease with real estate development that replaces urban planning, a cynically-calculated apology to a woman whose life you ruined, or an unwillingness to consider the measured validity of slavery reparations, each of the four seems to move with the assumption that because the good outweighs the bad, his candidacy is worth supporting. What is troubling is how many people have rushed backward toward a familiar trope of leadership without confronting the fact that it may actually be obsolete.

“Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.” Svetlana Boym

Reconsidering the Center

A few months ago I was lucky enough to participate in a training by activist author Adrienne Maree Brown, who wrote the book Emergent Strategy. A lot of the most palpably revolutionary American activism of the last 60 or so years has come from Detroit and Brown, based in this city, works in and expands that lineage in a newly creative way.

Working in small groups, we used Emergent Strategy to create approaches to collective action. I was one of three white folks in a cohort of nine. To introduce ourselves to each other, we were asked to talk about what the root of our work in the world was. Both of the other white people in the group went just before me, and each said something about how they felt their work was to “de-center whiteness.” In response, an African-American group member asked, matter-of-factly, “Why not just center blackness?”

This was — maybe a little embarrassingly — revelatory for me. If I am “de-centering whiteness,” I’m still centering myself. Look at me! I am de-centering us! It’s entirely possible that if I’d introduced myself before the other two, I’d have said what they did.

But if I am centering blackness or other kinds of non-whiteness, or if I’m a man simply centering women and non-conforming voices, perhaps I lose nothing in that. Perhaps I just learn to listen. Should I even be writing this essay? I want to challenge us to really be aware of the work that’s being done, sometimes invisibly, and to be amazed, challenged, and in support of it, without it always needing to be about us.

“Choosing the margin, as bell hooks points out, is much different from being placed in the margin.” Jodi Rios, “Reconsidering the Margin.”

Being in a punk band doesn’t absolve you from taking corporate money. Being a veteran doesn’t let you off the hook for racist housing policies. And if somehow Trump won 2016 by appealing to that small margin of forgotten, racist, misogynist men (abetted by Russian interference), why are mainstream Democrats trying to appeal to that same small margin, instead of opening the party’s arms to the bedrock support of the actual majority of people here? Is there a fear of actual change because it would mean a surrendering of power and centrality?

“The prepackaged ‘usable past’ may be of no use to us if we want to co-create our future.” Svetlana Boym.

As a white guy, I don’t know if it’s possible for us to absorb how much has to change for the world to repair. What would it be like if we just tried to amplify and center the people we used to call “other”? Women, queer and non-binary people, indigenous people and other people of color have been working to get free since forever; to get themselves, their communities and the planet free. That’s why I think we’re not only ready for a woman president, or another non-white president — I think the moment in the world demands it.

Aaron Landsman is a playwright, performer and teacher. A recent Guggenheim Fellow, he is currently an artist-in-residence at Abrons Arts Center. He works at the intersection of live performance and social justice. He tweets @thinaar.

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