Milwaukee’s “Faux”-vela of Shame and Horror

My very own Milwaukee has caused international uproar over the building of a fake favela at the Nomad World Pub on Brady St., the very same towny/sporty bar where I play magic upstairs with the boys on Tuesdays. Where one Tuesday I looked down from the window to see the bar’s courtyard transformed by costumey colored clothing hanging in mock haphazard fashion from lines crossing now brightly painted walls. Apparently these fake poor could also not afford driers. But I digress…

photo

I’m really writing about the appropriation of poverty.

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen the favelas first hand. My father grew up in Brazil… In Rio and other parts. And I’ve traveled and taught there. Spoken with NGOs actively involved in raging a war against the government who is waging war against the favela dwellers. My interest was in the way that testimonies of people living in the favelas were being used by NGOs to build a campaign to keep people in their homes, and prevent the government from completing their complete pre-World Cup, pre-Olympic slum clean up. My problem with the NGOs was that they were paying people for their stories and censoring stories that reflected a critical spirit toward the slums they were trying so valiantly to save. This rock/hard place ethics treading is a more than common occurrence in the international aid community. We all have the very best intentions (even as we strip your rights to save you.) In short, the “favela situation” in Brazil is a complex one and its history long. Any attempt to wade into the geo-historio-political cross hairs of this housing pandemic had better come packing. But again, I digress (and with tasteless mixed metaphors, no less)…

I think what I’m really writing about is media and hypocrisy.

1) Any press is good press. The dark and evil Nomad World Pub is now truly worldly with the exposure. Come one and all to visit this rogue establishment!! Give us your dollars for a chance to sit in our gauche shanty-esque corner of Milwaukee! How I am reminded of walking the Killing Fields of Cambodia watching tourists take smiling pictures in front of mounds of skulls. How much the remnants of that atrocity remain one of the major reasons that “dark tourism” continues to be a source of money for that country.

2) For all the hand wringing over Nomad’s appropriation of poverty, I truly wonder how many of those news outlets have EVER cared to report on the actual subject of the appropriation, that is, millions of people living in squalor in Brazil’s slums? The real message then becomes: we don’t actually care about the world’s poverty…just don’t appropriate it!! Because then we might actually be reminded that it’s there.

The critical reception of the Nomad’s faux-vela, I’m convinced, is mostly interested in slapping the hand that so blatantly tries to commercialize an impoverished area. As long as the actual disparity between Brazil’s rich and poor, between the shiny new stadiums shadowing the tins roofs of countless homes, as long as that situation remains hidden, then the complicit critic is content.

Congratulations.

For all of the Nomad’s bad taste and stupidity, they don’t come close to the hypocrisy of their critics.

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My God, Dan Brown

This post is not a book review, per se.  But I would like to offer a brief rant about Dan Brown’s latest literary crack output, titled Inferno.

So spoiler alert–I’m going to discuss the ending, and the basic premise of the book, which happens to be a perfect fit for Pop! Atrocity! in that you don’t get an author more pop than Danny B. who, having exhausted the baddies of the Vatican in previous works, turns his gaze in this most recent work to consider, nay contemplate, the End of Days.  And what, this genocide scholar asks, is more fitting for your airport layover, than mulling over the total destruction of mankind? I really couldn’t say.

So Inferno’s basic premise is that overpopulation is a big deal that most of us don’t care enough about (along with a lot of esoteric facts about Dante–always an education, that Dan Brown!)  And that, given the way of things, there are really only two solutions to the world’s massively threatening overpopulation: 1) mass murder, and 2) mass disease, a.k.a. the Plague.  The Black Death.  (check your pits!)

As a caveat, and a wink to the NT “rational” personality types among us, the first solution actually proves that genocide has its benefits–an ethically dubious fact not lost on the likes of Brown who makes reference to such an uptick in our ultimate annihilation through the mad ranting of the evil genius villain/savior of mankind who serves as both Brown’s protagonist and antagonist, as it were. “Let the killers kill them all, because that means less stress on the earth! Sustainability, people, ultimately requires less of you, not more.”

So if it’s not immediately obvious here’s the problem with Brown’s ultimate solution to the crisis of too many mouths to feed.  He lets the evil genius create a virus that randomly makes a third of the population sterile.  Think the lighter, brighter side of eugenics.  The “good guys,” namely Langdon and random attractive yet sexually sterile female character ultimately shrug–they weren’t going to forget and have kids anyway.

This final solution is given the big “meh.”

And therein betrays the lazy thinking on the part of Brown–because it’s easy for an American white man puffed with agency to write a character who uncannily resembles himself, able to make the unilateral decision about the reproductive choices of the entire world.  (Convenient!) The offense, if we are bored enough to take any, is the fact that this option is touted positively in the novel.

Perhaps, and to give Brown the benefit of the doubt (I don’t know why)…maybe such an ending is supposed to disgust us so much with its utter uncreativity and arrogant hegemony that we literally spit such nonsense out of our mouths and actually start thinking of some real solutions to the world’s problems.  I really couldn’t say.

Justin and Anne, Sittin’ in a Tree: Pop Collisions with the Holocaust

There are, to my mind, few select moments when celebrities do things that really stand out for me in terms of personal integrity. When Justin Timberlake dressed up as a huge tofu block on SNL, for instance, I thought, “Now there’s a man who hasn’t let the hype obliterate the fun.” Maybe I’m just enamored with all those willing to make total fools out of themselves. On a more serious note, I admire Angelina Jolie’s recent public statements regarding her double mastectomy.  The posted responses to her op-ed only highlight the shallowness of all those wondering, “Will she still be sexy?” But, after all, isn’t “not being dead” really the absolute baseline for sexiness? (Don’t answer that). At the very least, if being on display is the nature of celebrity, these two examples work to buck our expectation that the famous should be (always already) flawless.

Then there are celebrities who continually perform the role of antagonist to the public goodwill. And this brings me to Justin Bieber.  Specifically, that moment called “Justin Bieber meets the Holocaust.”  The story is, by now, well-known starting with his surprise visit to the Anne Frank House Museum while on tour in Amsterdam. “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber,” he wrote in the guestbook.  Posted on the Anne Frank House Facebook page, Bieber’s comments have since sparked international outcry, with celebs and commoners and commentators jumping the bandwagon of defense or damnation.

bieber frank

On the one hand, and to put it bluntly, I think his comments betray a naive and ignorant boy with an embarrassingly limited knowledge of history.  That being said, and unlike Timberlake and Jolie, the Beebs is currently still a teenager and so I tend to give people in this category plenty of wiggle room for being as ridiculous and self-involved as ever, if only to say a big thanks to those who put up with me at that age.

Alas, there’s the boy, and then there’s what the boy said. And what he said had the stink of truth:

As some have pointed out (included Frank’s step-sister), if Anne Frank had been a teen today, she in all probability–and much to the chagrin of her parents–would have been a belieber.  Frank was a young girl who was, like most young girls, gaga over celebrities.  Hollywood was alive and well on Frank’s radar, even when she was in hiding. Frank’s diary, with its allusions to Garbo and others is, in fact, more a testament to a young girl’s coming of age, than it is a testimony to the extent of the Nazi brutality.  (Arguably, the latter is something that Frank only experienced after her diary ended.)

The problem I see with much of the public demonization of Bieber is that it works primarily to preserve an idolization of Frank.  Both demonization and idolization are the flip sides of a common impulse–dehumanization. To dehumanize is to depict a person as other (and usually less) than human.  Dehumanization is the third of eight stages of genocide. Dehumanizing terms like “cockroach” and “vermin” have attended every recorded genocide in history.

We usually find it easier to connect the dots between demonization and dehumanization.  And yet, it is idolization–in this case, turning Anne Frank into a cherubic icon of purity–that proves to be an insidious form of dehumanization in my mind. For when we stop thinking about her as a hormonal teen with dreams and aspirations and crushes, and elevate her to sanitized and sacralized spokesperson for the Holocaust, we actually learn very little about the systematic destruction of European Jewry, very little about the nature of discrimination and perpetration, and very little about ourselves.  I think we do these teenagers–Anne Frank and Justin Bieber (and indeed ourselves)–a supreme service when we remember their humanity.

This brings me, perhaps, full circle to my sincere appreciation for those moments–little things like pop singer Timberlake taking the piss out of himself or, much more seriously, sex object Jolie openly sharing her choice to remove her breasts in order to spend more years with her six children.  These are moments that call us to remember certain people as people. They are, above all, humanizing moments.

Hipster Hitler, Kitlers, and the Demythologization of Evil; Or, Hitler Didn’t Kill Anyone*

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery.  That’s only mostly true. It can also be a brilliant way to mock something.  In general, the premise behind parody, farce and satire is to delegitimize the subject through creative mimicry.  In pop culture’s engagement with mass atrocity, the figure of Hitler presents a prime target.

Take the following two websites: Cats That Look Like Hitler.com and Hipster Hitler.com.  If the name “Hitler” is now most often invoked as the world’s paradigmatic evildoer, these sites offer an excellent comedic antidote.

kitler1With Cats That Look Like Hitler, the site’s title is obviously descriptive of its content:

“Does your cat look like Adolf Hitler? Do you wake up in a cold sweat every night wondering if he’s going to up and invade Poland? …If so, this is the website for you.”

The pictures are provided by visitors to the site and they are hilarious.

Hipster Hitler is an online comic that, in the words of its creators, “satirizes both hipster culture and the exploits of the Third Reich using a combination of puns, parody, dark humor, anachronisms, and visual gags.”

hipster hitler logo

The authors seem to tread carefully on their subject matter, stating that the comic is “not written with the intent of offending people and refrains from making the holocaust or any other similar horrific event as the subject matter of a strip. In constructing Hitler as a Hipster we’re offering a new way of disliking Hitler and laughing at the ‘lazy dictator’ he was, who is known for being indolent, maniacal at times, with violent bursts of enthusiasm. In the process of satirizing Hitler’s thoughts, actions and logic, we’re taking a few digs at a contemporary subculture of urban, middle-class youth that fetishize the ‘authentic’ and conform to non-conformism.”  These two examples are just a few of the growing number of sites that employ the use of parody, farce and satire in reference to Hitler

It seems to me that the real work of these sites is in their demythologization of evil.  In other words, to represent Hitler as cat and hipster is to critique the popular connotation of Hitler as someone like the Evil emperor Darth Sidious.** It is to deflate the myth back into a man.  For a man–a failed artist, in fact–is who Adolf Hitler was.

This refiguration is important because it has the potential to draw our attention to the actual nature of perpetration and the practical ways mass killing is carried out today. For the simple fact remains that, as a single man, Hitler didn’t physically kill anyone.* By contrast, the real killers, those women and men who’ve carried out the genocides of the 20th century, and who continue to carry out those of the 21st century, are not diabolical masterminds. They are average people, civilians and soldiers like you and me. Many of them are children.

When we allow historical fact to demythologize evil, we are faced with the reality that humans (young, old, rich, poor etc) have exercised incredibly brutality, and incredible kindness, on their fellow humans. To be human, then, is to be capable of acting along this same moral spectrum. In this light, we must resist the urge to call any person “evil.” Actions may certainly be categorized as evil, but those who commit them do so out of complex motives, sometimes as a result of mental illness, but more often than not out of what they consider to be a ethical obligation given their specific set of socio-political circumstances.

In fact, the really frightening thing is the ease at which we all fall into thought patterns which can lead directly to perpetration.  Here is a simple example: Consider a group of people you might say you “hate.”  Have you ever felt that the world/my city/my family/my government would be a better place if these people just weren’t here/didn’t exist/lived elsewhere/were dead/became exactly like me?  This is the banality of evil.  How quickly our fear of difference transforms into our desire to wipe out that difference through appropriation or extermination, even if only in our imaginations.  We can counter our ever so common colonizing, dehumanizing, violent, and genocidal impulses by personally getting to know someone we consider to be our other.  This means sitting down with someone who is different than us, learning what they like, what they don’t, and what life experiences have brought them to those conclusions, with the sole intent not to change that person but to experience the personal growth that is the inevitable result of the simple act of listening.

* except himself, on April 30th, 1945, via gun and cyanide tablet

** there’s actually quite a lot of parodies dedicated to a Darth Vader vs. Hitler match-up:  see this meme (which takes creative license with the subtitles for the film, Der Undergang, particularly the scene depicting Hitler’s rant); and the “Epic Rap Battles in History” youtube video featuring Darth Vader vs. Hitler. (Thanks to Michael R. for bringing this last to my attention!)

Further reading:

On meeting atrocity with farce, satire and what not:

White Flour

        (The Clowns take on the KKK–children’s book based on a true story)

Hope: A Tragedy: A Novel

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (Penguin Classics)

On the nature of perpetration and evil:

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Eichmann in Jerusalem (Penguin Classics)

Dark Etymology: A Rant

There’s something profoundly unsettling about the way the term “solution” is thrown about willy nilly in today’s pop culture. As in, “Howdy folks, here’s a solution for a need that you didn’t even know you had. Enjoy!” Whenever I hear about some newfangled app promising the ultimate solution to the vexing problem we have with, say, finding a great burrito in the city at 3am, I can’t help thinking that some cynical nihilist in the marketing department has been taking a cue from Nazi Germany, those master rhetoricians who win the prize for the most creatively perverse and darkly euphemistic employment of the term: die Endlösung.

 

Well, you can keep your jargon, thank you very much. Those insidious, immoral crack-like solutions, which merely addict and rot the psyche…that slow, drawn out death…zombie apocalypse indeed.

Is life possible sans solutions? Can you visualize it? I imagine it would be one that’s lived as if life is not merely something to get over with, if only to get the satisfaction of ticking off that final box on our to-do list.

My Favorite Genocide

To open the discussion on the ways atrocity gets hashed out in popular culture, I’d like to briefly discuss my own confrontation with public discourse, namely through the popular responses I’ve received when I answer the following:

“So what are you studying for your PhD?”

I always hesitate when I’m asked this question. Granted, the ability to frame my dissertation in 10 seconds is a requisite skill, my short answer — atrocity literature — has proven to be somewhat of a conversation stopper. Strike that…it’s actually more like the ultimate party buzz kill.

The responses I’ve received from such a topic have surely ranged from the antagonistic to the flippant, but most follow one of the following three conversations:

Them: “Ew…that’s depressing…”
Me: Ah yes, depression. That is but one response to the suffering of others.

Them: “How morbid! Why would you ever want to study that?”
Me: Well, when considering what would be an important topic to devote years of study, it was a toss-up between kittens and killing and, silly me, I chose the latter!

Them: “So what’s your favorite genocide?” (Actually a question I’ve been asked multiple times, usually by boys trying to be witty and flirtatious.)
Me: Oh baby. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.

I’ve experimented with relevant come backs, attempts to educate, attempts to sympathize, sarcastic attempts to alleviate my own annoyance, but mostly I’ve begun to psychoanalyze these responses to atrocity.  Besides being the initial impetus for this blog, I feel they provide a window into the most common coping mechanisms employed in popular culture for dealing with anything we find uncomfortable.  And boy, there’s nothing that seems to bring out the awkward more than atrocity.  One woman, for example, started listing all the aid organizations she was contributing to, as if my choice of study designated me as her personal human rights confessor.

On the whole, I’ve come to realize that these reactions are primarily covers for the same emotion: shame.  We feel shame when confronted with the disparity between our relative privilege in the midst of the ongoing occurrence of atrocity.  By privilege, I mean the ability one has to influence the course of one’s life.   Another word for privilege is agency:  The ability to make choices for oneself…to move.  It is the possibility of social movement that has become so engrained in the ethos of the American middle class.  This is the American Dream.

My students in a World Literature course were particularly irked to learn that the popular sentiment, “Honey, you can become anything when you grow up,” is not a universally available maxim for the world’s children. They were reading about the Guatemalan genocide through the autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, written by the famous (and famously controversial) Guatemalan activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Rigoberta Menchú.

Menchú’s rite-of-passage at age 10 included this traditional parental advice: “They told me I would have many ambitions but I wouldn’t have the opportunity to realize them.  They said my life wouldn’t change, it would go on the same- work, poverty, suffering.  At the same time, my parents thanked me for the contribution I’d made through my work, for having earned for all of us…”

I feel I have a license, nay, a responsibility, in this pop culture-meets-atrocity blog to rip the most famous line from Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  True?  Yes.  But I believe that the truth of this trope depends greatly on how it is applied.  Adopted willy-nilly and we simply become overwhelmed and paralyzed by the woes of the world.  Or worse, we attempt to take them on by transforming into imperialist white saviors, wrecking geopolitical havoc with our good intentions.  Note:  If you haven’t seen The Whistleblower, I recommend it in terms of content (and yes, I still believe in the UN, just not in the ability of some of us to keep it in our pants).

Instead, I think becoming aware of one’s power or agency in the world means learning how to use agency wisely and that responsibility starts close to home.  It begins within our individual spheres of influence.  Determining how to best contribute within our individual spheres of influence?  The most effective way I’ve found is choosing to live the intentional and examined life.

So, like concentric circles, perhaps overcoming the world’s greatest villains begins with solving what we consider monstrous in our communities, which in turn emanates from an examination of what is monstrous within ourselves.

Pop Culture and Mass Atrocity

I’m immediately drawn to the uneasy tension between these phrases.  Placed in juxtaposition, these ideas seem to stand on opposite ends of a spectrum stretching between the trite and the sacred, the humorous and the horrific.

And yet, the apparent incompatibility between large-scale human suffering and pop culture is, of course, largely illusory.   The more one looks for it, the more atrocity references show up in games, movies, television shows, music etc.   It seems that, despite our natural aversion, we have an unconscious desire to air humanity’s dirty laundry in the public sphere.

I begin this blog as a way to trace the myriad of ways in which pop culture negotiates atrocity as it continues to occur throughout the world.  To be sure, the formal study of atrocity owes much to pop culture.  In fact, it’s been argued* that a TV show–the much acclaimed 1978 mini-series “Holocaust”– actually served as the primary catalyst for scholarly and historical interest in the Holocaust in the US.  What this means is that Holocaust studies (as it exists in its current institutionalized form in US academia) would not be what it is today if not for the foresight of some eager beaver producers who predicted that the atrocity of the 20th century could be creatively mined for prime time entertainment.

Today, against the most damning attacks against pairing atrocity with anything aesthetic (think Adorno’s “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”), we have the growing popularity of taboo-flaunting games such as, “Cards Against Humanity.”   (I’ll be reviewing this game in a later blog, along with movies such as Cabin in the Woods, songs such as Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing,” organizations such a Campus Crusade.  I’m open to suggestions.)  My point is not to condemn–an easy move but one opposed to critical thinking.  Instead, I’d like to consider the political, ethical and socio-psychological functions of such cultural production.

This blog also serves a personal purpose, and that is to think about how my own study of atrocity interfaces with those I come in contact with.  My entrance into this topic is my PhD research on theories of testimony and representations of genocide in post-WWII literature.  In other words, I study the literature of suffering.

* See, for instance, the historian Saul Friedländer’s lecture “The Development of Public Memory and the Responsibility of the Historian,” published as “Im Angesicht der ‘Endlosung’: Die Entwicklung des offentlichen Gedachtnisses und die Verantwortung des Historikers.” In Das Judentum im Spiegel seiner kulturellen Umwelten.Symposium zu Ehren von Saul Friedländer. Dieter Borchmeyer and Helmut Kiesel eds. Neckargemund, Germany: Edition Mnemosyne, 2002. 207-223.