This is America
Public expressions of violence are not merely a matter of the number of lives lost; their impact cannot be measured in such terms. Rather their impact is shaped a great deal by the lens we view them through, through narratives already present in society. Take, for example, the Orlando shooting two years ago - the impact of that mass shooting was felt in such a way because it was very explicitly motivated by homophobia. The cultural battle lines were already in place, this shooting just heightened the stakes. Its impact was felt all the more acutely by the LGBT community, and friends of the LGBT community (hence why at the time, I felt an immediate need to respond). Or, take the ongoing violence along the Gaza strip this week, Palestinians being killed by Israelis upon the border. Again, we are all the more conscious of this event, because we are very familiar with that ongoing conflict.
The narrative really matters. We experience the world through stories. We live our lives through stories. It is stories which shape the way we understand our selves, and the world we inhabit. Take William James’ work from last week, ‘our belief creates the actual fact.’ The temptation is, within our numbers-driven world, to quantify the impact of these events. We wrongly believe that numbers, the number of those killed, the number of those affected, somehow gives us a better grasp upon an incident’s severity, upon what’s real.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more I’ve become convinced that this is a completely wrong approach. It is that which shines forth to us, that which we notice, which is the most real. The impact of an event upon our consciousness, and upon our collective unconscious, goes far deeper than the numbers. I think it’s important to emphasise this point, because it runs so contrary to what the world tells us. The world wants to lessen the significance of our personal experience, and heighten the significance of (so called) objective reality. But how foolish this is. Don’t they know nobody lives in objective reality? We all live in the world of belief. Belief shapes reality, our belief is our reality (to qualify: all so-called 'facts' to which we subscribe, are channeled through the psyche, and are as such foremost 'beliefs', even if they happen to be 'beliefs' which are 'true' and correspond to 'reality'.)
‘This is America’ has been occupying my mind of late. It came out just a couple of weeks ago, and since then I have watched the music video more times than I can say. It’s by Donald Glover, AKA Childish Gambino, an American actor, comedian, and rapper. A man of many talents: this song in May, and next month playing one of the starring roles in the new Star Wars movie, as Lando Calrissian. ‘This is America’ is a rich, layered piece of commentary upon American black culture, in particular the racism, the shallow entrepreneurialism, and the gun violence which frames it. As I said though, most of the depth is encoded not so much into the music, but far more so into the music video, which is a violent articulation of the world as Glover perceives it. During the course of the video, a clever trick is played on us. We are entranced by Glover’s dancing, while in the background, the world slowly descends into chaos. While you listened, you would have heard the moments when the song’s tone becomes more sinister, that deep base tone which punctuates the video with explicit scenes of violence, before the dancing resumes. Clearly a characterisation of an American culture, shocked by violence one day, and then the next going on as if nothing has changed. After each violent act in the video, the gun responsible is carried away carefully wrapped in red velvet, while the bodies are disregarded - clearly a comment upon a society which respects the sanctity of guns, but not that of life. The violent act is committed, and the singer declares, ‘This is America’.
I asked in the first part of my address this morning: what is reality? Is reality found in impersonal statistics, like homicide statistics, or economic disparity statistics? Or is reality found within the individual experience, the individual’s beliefs concerning reality? And I believe the latter gets far closer to the truth, because as I said, we don’t live in the objective world, we live within in the world of the psyche, and that can’t be expressed in numbers. In fact, they can often flat out contradict each other. The numbers might suggest upward momentum, economic progress, while the reality within the psyche may be a spiritual void, in which the individual has been alienated from their truest self, and is thus inhabiting a perpetual struggle. Perhaps amongst young men in the west, this is particularly the case today. On paper they can be shown to be doing fine, but spiritually are in crisis. The measurable surface of things distorts the nihilism beneath, the meaninglessness and lack of identity. In many circles today, it’s taken as a given that masculinity in the 21st century is by its very nature a toxic force.
Given then that I can discern this lack of direction amongst men of my generation, Glover highlights the extent to which this is far amplified within African American culture. Therein, as the video suggests, there are only two paths available: a life of crime, or a life of celebrity for celebrity’s sake. As the song repeats, ‘we just want the money.’ These two directions contrast with each other sharply. The celebrity, the entertainer, the rap artist, who distracts our gaze from the world of violence, of police brutality, of race motivated attacks. The entertainment provides the distraction, the drug, so that we need not confront the harsh truth. Many have commented that Glover is making reference to Jim Crow, the racist black caricature from when white people in the 1800s and 1900s dressed as black stereotypes for entertainment. If entertainment provides the distraction, and black culture was once hijacked to that end, so today it continues to be hijacked, though hijacked not by “white imperialists”, but by a willing black subculture. America then applauds these outward expressions of black culture, and is entertained by them, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the rife injustices besetting the African American community.
One of the expressions of violence which momentarily jolts the watcher away from Glover’s otherwise hypnotic performance is aimed at a church choir, which has been taken as a nod to the 2015 Charleston Church massacre in South Carolina, which was again racially motivated – white on black violence. To what extent is America turning a blind eye to racism in its more explicit and implicit forms, while at the same time merely paying lip service to affirming black culture? And perpetuating the illusion that there are only two paths, the path of crime, and the path of celebrity. There is a sense in which this two-fold path illusion is perpetuated because it serves the economic interests of America for it to be perpetuated. One of the lines sung is ‘This a celly, That's a tool’ - a “celly” as in a cell-phone, a mobile, the mobiles which is held up to either film the celebrity or the violence, or the mobile which is held up to be watched, to lock us into this world of violence and celebrity ever being perpetuated. A generation of people who watch and record events but never speak out. This is the apocalyptic reality, the nightmare illusion Glover is trapped within. He expresses this sentiment by having a white horse ride across the backdrop towards the end of the video, when the chaos, the rioting, and the violence is at its heights; a reference to Revelation, “Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.” The personal apocalyptic moment that must bring about the new before it’s too late, before all is lost.
Of course, in doing what Glover is doing here, in problematising this dichotomy, and exploring these issues in such an intricate manner, he is creating an alternative path for American black culture. Or at least showing that an alternative is possible. When Glover performed this song live for the first time on Saturday Night Live, he had himself introduced by another black American actor, Daniel Kaluuya, which I think is significant. Last year, my two favourite films were Paul Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’, and Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ starring Daniel Kaluuya – it’s the role he’s best known for. This horror movie ‘Get Out’ addresses many of the same issues the music video does, that black culture is demeaned into a token to be wheeled out and exploited for the pleasure of the white hegemony. It makes perfect sense that these two pieces of art, ‘Get Out’ and ‘This is America’, should be linked. They both offer a provocative and timely critique of the way African American culture is portrayed. The final few seconds of the video show Glover running in terror from the reality as he has framed it, attempting to throw off the illusion, and free himself from the horror he is within. The hope though, is of course that through these artistic expressions, he and other like-minded artists are able to find an alternative path anyway, in which they need not be framed by violent crime or trite celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
Two weeks ago, I gave my address on the apocalypse, and how our personal or communal conception of apocalypticism precipitates the possibility of the new. This is an example of that. And last week, my address on William James emphasised our own beliefs, our own worlds of meaning, which for all intents and purposes is the world. This reframing, and reorientation of the real, emboldens us to trust our own sense of things, and not to be subservient to the elitist, empirical, or hegemonic conception of the ‘real’. Again Glover’s boldness here is an example of that. If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too… And this lends itself to a hope, to a prayer of sorts, that we will recognise the new which is needed, thorough our personal apocalypses, and be bold enough to trust our own sense of things.