A few years ago, for about ten minutes, everyone was obsessed with the word “body,” specifically as it was applied to various socio-ethnic demographics: “Black bodies,” “brown bodies,” “queer bodies,” “trans-franz-abled WoC bodies,” and so forth. So far as I can tell the linguistic zeitgeist stemmed from one of those interminable Ta-Nehisi Coates essays in which the writer used the term a little over three dozen times (my friend Mark Hemingway argues that Coates has “vaulted into the rarefied realm of writers whom people are afraid to edit”). I guess it sounded cooler and more fashionable to say “body” rather than “person,” though in the end everyone must have realized how quietly stupid it was, so you don’t really see it much anymore.
You see these kind of trends here and there. These days “white supremacy” seems to be filling that role; everyone’s saying it! “White supremacy” seems to have eclipsed “white privilege,” which itself eclipsed “racist,” as the liberal racial buzzword of the moment. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the real, actual white supremacists that appeared in Charlottesville, Virginia a number of weeks ago—but it seems more like it’s just a thing that people are saying, to the point of hilarious absurdity. For example:
The Miami Police Department took to Twitter on Sunday, as Hurricane Irma battered the state. “Thinking about looting? Ask these guys how that turned out. #stayindoors,” the post read, sharing a photo of people inside a jail cell.
To which writer Sarah Jaffe responded, in a tweet that received a great many shares:
the carceral state exists to protect private property and is inseparable from white supremacy
There’s that phrase again! Now, it’s easy enough to point out the obvious: that Sarah Jaffe would probably not feel quite so hostile towards “the carceral state” if it were her widescreen television and heirloom jewelry getting pilfered. But in itself this kind of strikes at the heart of the moral and intellectual dishonesty on display here—Jaffe was presumably not, after all, the victim of post-Irma looting, and so it feels mildly sanctimonious for her to lecture the cops, and by implication dismiss the people who were victims of robbery. If Jaffe had been one of the victims, you’d imagine she would want desire some sort of justice to be meted out to the people who robbed her. Then again, maybe she honestly wouldn’t care—but if so, this sets up a remarkably stupid and destructive duality in which our choices are either (a) white supremacy or (b) consequence-free larceny. Perhaps these are the two choices the Left believes we have before us: either Alabama in 1921 or Los Angeles in May of 1992. Or, gee, I don’t know, maybe there’s a third option.
Speaking of Ta-Nehisi Coates and white supremacy, the writer has a new essay out this month, another very long treatise on race and America, one in which he claims that Donald Trump is “the first white president.” Reflecting on the racist legacy of the American presidency, Coates draws a distinction between past white presidents, who utilized “the passive power of whiteness,” and Donald Trump, who was apparently a bit more up-front about it:
Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party [of the presidency] seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
Oh, for goodness’s sake: out of the first eighteen presidents of the United States, thirteen of them owned slaves at one time or another—over half of them while they were in office! The notion that these men had an “elegant detachment” from the “awful inheritance” of American racism is a staggering assumption, unless you are prepared to argue that Donald Trump’s sometimes-nasty rhetoric and his fumbled P.R. response to a neo-Nazi rally somehow constitutes a more noteworthy racial comportment than owning human beings. Trump Derangement Syndrome, like Bush Derangement Syndrome before it, is a great corruptor of reasoned debate and intellectual clarity. In the end it will also probably be a great boon to Donald Trump’s re-election prospects.