What We Miss When We Focus on the Confederate Flag…

This past June, I began my summer travels with a homecoming tour of the American South, visiting old friends, and stopping at places across the region that had meant something special to me growing up. One of the highlights of the trip was dinner at Chef & the Farmer, the neo-Southern cuisine restaurant opened by Vivian Howard in Kinston, North Carolina. My wife Cynthia and I were joined for this amazing dinner (one of the 3 or 4 best I have ever eaten) by John Huey, the former Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. and a fellow member of the jury for the Peabody Awards, and his wife, Kate.  

Howard’s program, A Chef’s Life, had won a Peabody Award during our first year on the jury: this program tells the story of how Howard and her husband, the artist Ben Knight, moved back to Eastern North Carolina from New York City to open a farm-to-table restaurant. A Chef’s Life situates her efforts to reinvent southern cooking in the context of the cultural life of her surrounding community, telling the stories of the farmers who grow the food she serves and the local traditions concerning how that food is prepared. Howard knows how to make traditional southern dishes taste great! Her program offers an alternative set of images and stories about the American south, focusing on its rich cultural traditions and its strong sense of community. A Chef’s Life ranks in my personal canon of contemporary works which invite us to rethink and reimagine southern identity: Russ McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, Ava DuVerney’s Selma, Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights, Ray Mckinnon’s Rectify, and the music of T-Bone Burnett, to cite just a few favorites. 

Huey and I had grown up in Atlanta, just a few miles apart, and so we had bonded as members of the committee; we both had fallen hard for Howard and her program. I wanted to taste the food she prepared: Huey had already had a few chances and promised me that I would not be disappointed. And I was not.

It is hard for anyone raised in the South (especially someone who has found their fortunes outside the region) not to have profoundly mixed feelings about what it means to be southern.  As we had dinner together, the two couples (with visits from Howard and her staff) talked about how we struggled to separate what we love about the South from its more cringeworthy and disappointing aspects.

But when we got back to our rooms, we learned the news of the tragic shooting at the black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Huey and his wife are residents of Charleston and were driving back immediately to participate in some of the gatherings that would take place there in the aftermath. We talked briefly about how much progress that city had made — people of many races working together — to create a more diverse yet unified community. 

There are many ways America could have responded to the shootings in Charleston, including, for example, by pursuing all the more aggressively the kinds of gun reform (or mental health) policies  that might have actually prevented the shooting from taking place, using the incident to continue what I had seen as a promising national dialogue about race and racism or  to foreground the history of efforts (successful or otherwise) towards civil rights and cultural diversity within the region. And some of these other approaches were tried. But for the most part, the Charleston shootings have triggered a summer where the public conversation has been dominated by debates around the Confederate flag.

Let me begin with as direct a statement as I can make: the continued use of the Confederate battle flag on public buildings or state flags in the South is indefensible.

State governments should no longer provide cover for those for whom the flag has always been about hate and not heritage; citizens of color should no longer feel misrepresented or excluded when they look upon their state’s seat of power, and our local and state governments should be looking towards the future and not the past. So, take it down!

Obama is correct that the flag belongs in a museum.  There is no way to erase or ignore the fact that this flag’s history has been charged at every moment by the worst kinds of racist ideologies.

In 2003 (way too recently!), the Confederate war banner was removed from the Georgia flag and similar choices were made by other southern states. Today, the Confederate flag is officially part of the flag of Mississippi, but until the recent efforts, it was still displayed, for example, on state-sanctioned auto license plates. As state governments have moved away from the use of the Confederate flag for official purposes, that banner has been used almost entirely by the most extreme, most defiant segments of the white South. Today, most people choosing to use this flag, in the face of pained responses from other people, are doing so with the full knowledge of the flag’s implications. That said, the Confederate flag has always bourn a complex range of other meanings (family, region, class, masculinity, tradition, pride, resistance), which are not easy to separate out from that history and which is why removing the flag still carries an emotional charge, even for those of us who have come to deplore it as a symbol of the south’s worst impulses.

I hear my non-Southern friends on Facebook say that the Confederate flag is “simply” about racism, and what I want to suggest is that there is nothing simple about it.

You will get no defenses of the flag from me based on arguments around heritage. It is impossible to reduce a flag to a single meaning, but, in so far as it is possible, the Confederate flag now stands for racism. Period. End of story.

So I was happy when we saw a new wave of energy across the South to further limit the use of the flag in any official capacity, a struggle long over-due and well worth fighting. But as the flag goes away, we then have to work through the other things that it stands for and we have to develop a more complex account of how race operates in contemporary America.

Let’s start with a key point. Banning symbols is rarely the best way to get at the source of problems and often can be a way of masking their root causes.   Removing symbols attempts to negate their original meanings and effects (perhaps necessary to do) but does not generate new beliefs and practices. We need to find new ways to articulate southern identity that are not based in racist ideologies and that reflect  contemporary southern experience.

For much of my life, I, like many other southern white men of my generation, saw the Confederate flag as a sloppy shorthand for my southern identity. The Confederate flag waved over my childhood treehouse and was part of the state flag I learned to draw in elementary school. My grandmother filled me with stories of my Great-Great-Grandfather who fought for the Confederacy and helped to raise her. There were still aging Confederate veterans being paraded around during my early childhood.

 Whiteness has often been discussed as an ex-nominated category, an unacknowledged norm against which all other identities need to justify themselves, but it can also be experienced as a lack — an absence of a particular identity or history, a hunger for stronger ties (which is part of what people mean when they talk about the Confederate flag in terms of “heritage.”) My family’s history went far back in the South, so far that we have never traced our story to an immigration narrative: Jenkins is no doubt an Irish or Welsh name but I have no other “mother country” from which I can meaningfully claim ancestry. So, for me, being a southerner is a deep part of my identity. Just as there is much about southern history that fills me with dread, shame, and guilt, there is much — food, music, literature and language, cultural practices —  that I still value enormously.Let’s be clear that there is no one southern experience; being southern is to be part of what Benedict Anderson would call an imagined community, and the shifting boundaries of who belongs or doesn’t belong within that community are part of what is at stake in this debate. There are important regional, generational, and gender/sexuality-based differences in what it means to be a white southerner and beyond that, southern history needs to incorporate its multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic influences. 

One can express pride in being an Irish-American without that pride being read as necessarily a snub to Polish-Americans and one can assume that such pride brings with it some ambivalence: after all, most of those immigrants left their mother countries for good reasons.  Yet, Americans seem to find it easier to define their heritage through links to Europe or some other elsewhere rather than deal with regional particularities in their own backyards. We have few symbols through which to express a shared southern identity. The Confederate flag was the wrong symbol, as is now clear, but it was the one we inherited from previous generations.

Flags are imperfect vehicles for expressing cultural identity, since they can always be high-jacked by someone else in pursuit of their own identities (ultra right wing groups have used the American flag to hammer home divisive political messages, but progressives don’t relinquish the flag as a symbol of their country). Most flags have uncomfortable histories (How can anyone wave the Union Jack given the history of British racism and colonialism around the world?) For that reason, while I was deeply offended by the use of the flag as a symbol of white supremacy,  I was frustrated with the idea that something that was part of my state’s flag could be reduced to a single negative meaning, given what cultural studies teaches us about how even the most loaded cultural symbols can be appropriated, remixed, and resignified. (See, for example, this website which explores the diverse ways that southerners of multiple race have endowed the flag with meaning in the context of their everyday life choices.)

There was much I did not know (or had not bothered to find out) about the Confederate flag until recently, starting with the fact that what we are calling the Confederate flag never flew over the government of the Confederate States of America. It was explicitly a battle flag, and it was reclaimed as a symbol of the south by subsequent generations of political leaders who almost without exception deployed it for explicitly racist purposes. For example, the Confederate battle flag was added to the Georgia State Flag in 1956, just two years before I was born,  in the context of debates about the civil rights movement. It was not added to the flag simply as an acknowledgement of southern pride (the earlier flag included a variant of the official flag of the Confederacy and it was replaced by the more militant image).  It was a symbol of defiance against the federal government’s push towards desegregation.

I’m thankful this summer’s debate highlighted those facts—which I’m guessing many southerners of my generation or younger didn’t know. But I’m dismayed that this conversation has led to intense negativity about the American South in general, so my friends on Facebook would add comments about “white trash,” “crackers”, “rednecks,” “Bubba,” and “Honey Boo Boo.”  If critics use the flag debate as an excuse to mock southerners in general, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at a knee-jerk reaction by some to hold onto the stars and bars. Southerners have a right, like any other group,  to be proud of their culture and their family histories. But that pride should not be expressed at someone else’s expense.

The attack on the Confederate flag has come dangerously close to treating racism as if it were somehow the unique property of a particular region. America has a history of locating racism in the South in order to avoid addressing the racism that infects the whole nation.   Anyone who grew up in the South during my generation had to confront this legacy of racism and white supremacy. You had to decide how you were going to respond, while many  in New England or the Midwest have rarely reflected on their own  privilege or seen themselves as implicated within racism. My schoolmates each made a choice; I knew people (myself among them) who became active in the civil right’s movement  and I knew people who joined the Klan.  As long as the rest of the country has a way to deflect serious consideration of a more complex history of racism onto a set of stereotypes about “rednecks” waving Confederate flags, they will do so. 

This refocusing on the Confederate flag has come at a moment when we are, as a country, paying increased attention to, for example, racialized police violence. The #BlackLivesMatters movement has helped us to see incidents of black deaths at the hands of white cops not as isolated incidences, not as problems in local police forces, but as a more widespread issue that impacts the lives of every Black American. So, it has been significant that the incidents which have sparked media coverage have come from places like Ferguson, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles,  and Baltimore as much or more than they have come from Florida, Texas or South Carolina. Going after Confederate flags doesn’t get us very far in terms of understanding someone like Donald Trump and the many people around the country who seem to be embracing what he stands for. Racism remains a problem in every community in America and people at all levels will need to work together to bring about meaningful change.

A focus on the Confederate flag has a tendency to personalize racism, to discuss it as a moral failing of specific individuals, rather than as a systemic and structural problem. For many white people, racism does not appear to be a problem in America today because they do not see blacks being forced to ride the back of the bus and do not see people burning crosses in their neighborhoods. We have hidden the overt signs of racism (though not the everyday micro-aggressions) and we have changed many Jim Crow laws. This does not mean, however, that we are not seeing the rolling back of voter rights, for example, or that our communities do not still feel the economic and social impacts of post-war housing policies which limited who could get loans to buy into particular communities (a history capably discussed in George Lipsitz’s recent How Racism Takes Place) or that criminal justice and incarceration policies do not have implicit racial biases or… The point is that these phenomenon are built into the system in such a way that we do not need to identify explicit racist intents in order to find racialized impacts.

So, what happens to the focus on these structural and systemic factors when we bring back the age-old boogeyman of the redneck waving a Confederate flag? This is not to let Bubba off the hook or to deny that there are real hate groups in the south and elsewhere which need to be confronted. The Southern Poverty Law Center which monitors such groups do valuable work. That said, we could get rid of all of the Klansmen tomorrow and still have substantial issues we need to confront.

A focus on the Confederate flag brings with it a particular framing, which emphasizes the relations between blacks and whites, at the expense of adopting a more complex, layered picture of our multicultural society. It reduces the issue of racism to a binary when much of our best contemporary theory about race and racism has been emphasizing intersectionality — multiple points of contact between multiple demographic groups, not to mention the ways race intersects with class, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Ironically, it was an Indian-American woman, South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Hailey, who ended up taking the lead on getting the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House, a reminder that the modern south has experienced waves of immigration in recent years resulting in much more demographic diversity than most media representations acknowledge.

Even if we want to focus on race in the South, we need to do so with an awareness of the experiences of Latino, Asian-American, American Muslim, and a range of other minority groups who are struggling to survive and thrive in the region.  To return to my home state, Georgia is now the tenth largest state for Hispanics in the United States. To focus more narrowly on my home town, Atlanta long consisted overwhelmingly of blacks and non-Hispanic whites; those groups made up 92.1% of the city in 1990, but by 2010 their proportion had shrunk to 85.0%. Metropolitan Atlanta’s Hispanic population increased by 72.0% from 2000 to 2010, and in 2010 the city was 10.2% Hispanic. The Asian American population increased by 65.5%, and in 2010 Asian Americans made up 5.1% of the Metropolitan area. And depending on which estimate you use, Georgia’s  Muslim population is between 9.9-13% of the state’s total population. (So much for our Bible Belt stereotypes). None of this is to make the mistake of universalizing the meaning of #BlackLivesMatter by translating it into “all lives matter.” Black-white relations have a special status, have a painful history that needs to be confronted and acknowledged, but there is also work we need to do that factors in these other experiences of racial and cultural difference in the south and beyond.  

A debate around the Confederate flag increases our awareness of the history of racial conflict in the region — which can be a good thing. As I mentioned, it awakened me to the specific timing of the introduction of the Confederate flag to the state flag of Georgia and thus undercut any lingering rationales for its status as tradition. Yet, as we do so, we need to also pay attention to the long history of struggles to forge cross-racial alliances across the region — the ways diverse people have worked together  to re-invent their communities, to form new symbols and traditions, to frame new identities, that are more inclusive. Some key southern cities have made real progress in reforming laws and policies that bear traces of that history of racial discrimination. Yes, we’ve got a long, long way to go but we may want to look at what’s working in cities like Charleston, Atlanta, and elsewhere, as we try to figure out how we might form meaningful alliances to overcome racist beliefs and practices.

It is neither fair nor realistic to tell white southerners that they should not have some form of collective identity which reflects their history. This is why a fight over the flag becomes so divisive and defensive. We need to create positive new symbols of local pride. Otherwise, people will cling to the old ones. We need to find ways to represent the south that are more inclusive while confronting the region’s particular history of racism and segregation.  The flag must go but we should not leave a symbolic vacuum in its place or we will not like what fills that space.

And this might bring us back to Vivian Howard and A Chef’s Life, by way of illustration. We should never place all the burden on one sign or even one cultural system.   Food, which demonstrates the potential for constant variation and re-articulation, may offer us a more sophisticated language for talking about regional and cultural identities than flags. The ingredients at the core of traditional southern cooking — sweet potatoes, collard greens, okra, corn bread, iced tea, peanuts, peaches, chicken, black eyed peas, etc. — are foodstuffs that can be found in both black and white kitchens. Some were foods that were brought to America from Africa. Some were foods that hint at shared histories of poverty and struggles to survive. Some were foods prepared by black cooks working in white households, and so they hint at the ways — painful and sometimes affectionate — that white and black lives were complexly intertwined across that history.

The history of southern cooking is fraught with exploitation, appropriation, marginalization, and scarcity, it would have to acknowledge how much blood was spilt over gaining access to lunch counters. The fact that we eat many of the same foods does not mean we fix them in the same ways or eat them in the same places and there are some dishes which produce dread and disgust,  so there’s much we still have to overcome.  Paula Dean shows us that southern cooking can contain too much butter — and too much racism — to be always the best thing for our health, but all the more reason  to tinker with those classic ingredients and see if something a bit more tasty emerges.  

The great thing about food is that it comes with a “serve by” date, and after that, we throw it out and try something else. Food can represent family history (as anyone with fading hand copied recipes from earlier generations can attest) but it also points to community practices — the potluck — which imply a world where there is always room for another seat at the table. Traditional southern dishes can be mixed with new ingredients which reflect other histories and trajectories.

The Southern Foodways Alliance, for example, represents the kind of collective enterprise that will be required if we are to construct alternative markers of southern identity. Here’s part of how they describe their mission: “The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We set a common table where black and white, rich and poor — all who gather — may consider our history and our future in a spirit of reconciliation…We tell honest and sometimes difficult stories about our region. We embrace Southern history, the realities of the Southern present, and the opportunities for Southern futures. In other words, we don’t flinch from talking about race, class, religion, gender, and all the other biggies.”

Howard’s food and her personal narrative are a powerful expression of local particularity, all the more so because it is a story of a return to the south, of what people bring back with them and what they discover “back home”, of new beginnings and creative rewordings: what emerges in her kitchen is provisional and improvisational  and this is what we need to embrace if we are to articulate forms of southern pride that do not bear residuals of the Confederate past.

And I can tell you, for all the symbolic weight I am placing on it here, Howard’s food tastes damn fine.

I am grateful to John Huey, Charlie Jenkins, Sam Ford, Amanda Ford, Tara McPherson, Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Samantha Close, Andrea Wenzel, Erna Smith, for critiques, advice, and insight during the writing of this essay. Any stupidity that remains is my responsibility.

The New Audience: Movie-Going in a Connected World

Late last spring, I participated as the opening speaker of a program hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and dealing with the future of movie-going. The program was organized by Michael Shamberg, a two-time Best Picture nominee with credits including The Big Chill, A Fish Called Wanda, Erin Brokovich, and Django Unchained. My fellow panelists included Ze Frank, the President of Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and a long-time innovator in digital media; Tayo Amos, a young filmmaker who described how digital media was creating openings for minority artists to create and share their work; and John Lassiter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering.

As a long-time Oscar fan, it was a great honor to be speaking to this audience and I enjoyed pulling together a talk which spanned the history of motion pictures and sought to flag some key developments in contemporary Hollywood. Over the summer, the videos of this event have been released, and I wanted to share them here.

Over the next week or so, I am heading off to the East Coast: I am on leave this fall and in residence at Microsoft Research’s New England office. There will be a brief gap in the flow of blog posts, having gotten caught up on a backlog of material that built up over the summer, and then I will be back like gangbusters. So pardon our interruption.

Digging Deeper: Virtual Reality and Immersive Entertainment

Havas Media’s 18Hubs (their innovation Lab in Venice, CA) has produced an outstanding series of videos on virtual reality and immersive entertainment hosted by Jez Jowett and featuring participants from this past spring’s Transforming Hollywood conference.   Check them out below.

If you missed my post earlier in the year showcasing the videos of the actual sessions from that conference, you can find them here.

And if you want some further reflections on the topic, Fred Turner, who spoke at our conference, followed up with a recently published essay in American Prospect. And if you want more historical reflections on VR and technological change, see this Soundcloud interview with media archaeologist Erkki Huhtamo, who also spoke at our Transforming Hollywood event.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 1 – Future or Fad from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 2 – Advertising from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

Experts discussed Virtual Reality with Havas at Transforming Hollywood – Part 3 – Storytelling from 18 Los Angeles – Havas Media Gr. on Vimeo.

“Somewhat Diverse?”: Remarks to the Science Fiction Research Association Conference

Earlier this summer, I was presented with the Pilgrim Award for “lifetime contributions to SF/FS” by the Science Fiction Researchers Association. I learned of this honor too late to attend but I sent them the following remarks, which speak to their conference’s key themes about recovering marginal voices in science fiction and fandom. My first response was “not dead yet,” in my best Monty Python impersonation, but beyond that, I was deeply honored.  These remarks were published in the organization’s summer newsletter, but I wanted to share them here, especially since this blog and the community it attracts was specifically singled out in their presentation of the award. What follows are some of my own reflections about where we are at and where we still need to go as a field as we engage with the politics of diversity as they relate to scholarship on fandom and genre entertainment.

I was deeply honored to learn that your organization, the Science Fiction Research Association, had bestowed on me your 2014 Pioneer Award. I am so sorry that I am not able to be there to accept the award in person. I am scheduled to leave in the next few days for an extended trip to India and Indonesia. The trip has been in planning for some time, and it wasn’t possible to adjust my plans accordingly. But I hope that I may be able to attend a future conference and perhaps share some time with many of you so that I can learn more about the research you are doing. So, first, let me say thanks. But, second, let me offer a short provocation — one intended to build on the themes you have outlined for this year’s conference.

Science fiction in particular; genre fiction more generally; and fandom above all have been key influences on my thinking since childhood. They remain sources of ongoing inspiration to me, as I am sure they are for those of you attending this conference. I grew up in the segregated South. I went to segregated schools, and I attended a segregated church. Insofar as I encountered racial and cultural difference, I encountered it on Star Trek, with its multi-cultural and multi-planetary crew. I encountered it through alien life forms in the pages of science fiction novels. And I encountered it through Lt. Jeff Long, the black astronaut that Mattel controversially included in its Major Matt Mason toy line.

 

The narratives of that period, we might say now, were painfully flawed, unable to imagine a world not dominated by white men; unable to imagine a galaxy where being human was not the best possible thing we could be and being American was the highest form of being human. Yet, despite—or, perhaps, because of—those limits…because science fiction raised expectations it could not itself satisfy…my experiences as a science fiction fan were central to opening my eyes to the experiences of others. Star Trek’s Prime Directive was perhaps most powerful because it gave us a vocabulary to critique all of those many times when Kirk sought to disrupt or overthrow other cultures because they did not confirm to his own deeply entrenched norms and values. Talking about and critiquing the show with fellow fans sharpened my own sense of social justice and forced me to question things I was observing in the world around me.

 

From the start, science fiction was designed to be a provocation, an incitement for reflection and dialogue about the nature of change, whether understood in technological or cultural terms. At each step along the way, science fiction writers have encouraged readers to ask some fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of world we want to live in—questions which have inspired political movements and informed academic research across many disciplines. I have been struck recently by Michael Saler’s discussion in AS IF of early science fiction fandom as a “public sphere of the imagination,”—that is, a space where fans could speculate and ask questions just removed enough from the realm of their lived experience that participants were free to consider and debate alternatives that might be unspeakable and unthinkable under other circumstances. Science fiction narratives and art provided resources for thinking through those other possibilities, and fandom provided a social space where people from somewhat diverse backgrounds might trade insights and experiences with each other.

 

My phrase “somewhat diverse” is meant to acknowledge what I take to be a central theme of this year’s convention—the attempt to reclaim science fiction’s suppressed and marginalized histories, to come to terms with the exclusions as well as inclusions that have shaped the history of science fiction as a genre and fandom as a social/cultural phenomenon. The histories of science fiction culture, which have been handed down to us from First Fandom, have stressed the roles played by white men who belonged to certain educational and technological elites, while they also remind us of the roles ethnic minorities and especially youth who were first or second-generation immigrants—people with names like Schwartz and Asimov—played in shaping science fiction cultures. Samuel R. Delany has written about the “liberal-Jewish” traditions that shaped this early fan culture. And, yet, we also know that these were not the only people engaging with speculative fictions.

 

If SF fandom constituted a public sphere of the imagination, we can only assume that there were multiple counter-publics where these same ideas were being discussed by those who would not have been welcomed at the World Science Fiction Conventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Where were science fiction’s “hush harbors”? Recent work on Afro-futurism has helped us to identify resources from science fiction that have found their way into other kinds of representation and become tools for survival of the black community, but we need to know much more about what these same processes have meant for Asian-American, Latino, first nation, and American Muslim communities across the 20th century. And we need to remember that science fiction has been a global discourse, one which has repeatedly addressed the process of globalization and colonial exploitation and one which has had an active role to perform in fostering post-colonial identities.

 

We are starting to piece together some fragmented histories of the roles science fiction fandom has played for female fans (and the conflicts they faced as they sought entry into the once almost-exclusively male clubhouse and continued to face once they got there). For me, this history has gained new poignancy as we have watched how some corners of fandom (such as Sad Puppies or Gamergate) are continuing to react aggressively against efforts to diversify and include others whose stories and perspectives matter. When we see the intensity of some of today’s fights, we gain a new appreciation of what that first generation of feminist fans must have confronted. Fandom studies was, in many ways, born from those gender wars and, from the start, has been inspired by feminist scholarship (whether the work of cultural theorists such as Janice Radway and Angela McRobbie or the work of science fiction practitioners such as Johanna Russ). Fan fiction was understood as a form of women’s writing, and these stories were often read as counter-narratives which poached the genre conventions of science fiction or other genres to tell stories from the margins. And fandom studies was quick to embrace new insights from queer theory and to engage with what fandom’s alternative forms of production and reception meant for the LGBT community. We still have much to learn by digging deeper into early fanzines which included some of the first essays advocating gay rights in America, by seeing how fans responded to James Tiptree’s transgender identifications, by looking at how organizations such as the Gaylaxians advocated for queer characters on board the Enterprise, and by examining how slash fans were drawn by their fantasies into participation in struggles around “don’t ask, don’t tell” and marriage equality.

 

But the original sin of fandom studies was its silence about race. Those of us who pioneered fandom studies too often bracketed race and class in order to focus on gender, sexuality, and generation. As we sought to validate forms of cultural production and experience that were meaningful to us, we neglected the fact that our own ranks were still too narrowly constituted and that there was more we should have done to validate forms of culture that were meaningful to a more diverse population. However much we might have sometimes felt like outcasts in our own lives, we were still in a privileged position to help inform what kinds of cultural production and reception mattered in an academic context. We pioneers have much to answer for, but we cannot afford to wallow in liberal guilt.

 

Today, work on race and fandom takes on new urgency as we confront the grim, even deadly, political realities of our times (as represented by events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and perhaps some other city by the time you read these remarks). In the process, we have seen the power of social media to coalesce communities and spread critiques of the police and the news media’s responses to racialized violence in America. In the forthcoming book from our USC Media, Activism, & Participatory Politics project team, entitled By Any Media Necessary: The New Activism of American Youth, we talk about the civic imagination. Before we can change the world, we need to be able to imagine what alternatives might look like. We need to understand ourselves as civic and political agents. We need to be able to grasp the experiences and perspectives of people different from ourselves. And we need to be able to imagine concrete steps we could take to change the world. We are finding that American youth are rejecting traditional political rhetoric as insular and partisan and seeking inspiration from popular culture, including science fiction and fantasy texts, as they make appeals to their collective civic imagination.

 

We have seen genre entertainment become yet again a space where vital conversations can take place—one where we can imagine alternative futures of race in America, where we can rewrite the scripts with their embedded racial and gender hierarchies, and where we can reimagine who gets to be depicted as a hero and how they get depicted in popular narratives. We have seen signs that fandom can be as intolerant as any other sector of our society, despite a historic embrace of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” (as Star Trek fans of the 1960s might have put it). But we have also seen fandom as a place where alternative representations might emerge and where different kinds of dialogues might take place, grounded in shared passions and interests.

 

Just as we critique the failures of science fiction to achieve those ideals, we need to advocate for those practices that have proven productive in generating new visions for future race relations. As researchers, we need to be there as feminist fans redraw the covers of superhero comics to challenge their hypersexualized depictions of female protagonists as part of the Hawkeye Project. We need to be there as fans embrace a Pakistani-American girl as Ms. Marvel or when they debate whether they can accept a black Spider-Man or Human Torch. We need to be there as fan activists attach their civic imaginations to stories such as Harry Potter, Man of Steel, or the Hunger Games as vehicles for fighting for human rights, immigration reform, or fair wages. We need to be there when Racebending challenges a history of white-casting in the entertainment industry, as minority characters often change their colors when their narratives are brought to the screen, or when women at San Diego Comic-Con insist that Cosplay is Not Consent. And we need to be looking more closely at the ways fan fiction has experimented, sometimes in ways that are painful to observe and sometimes in ways that give us hope, with other kinds of stories we can be telling. As we observe and document these more recent developments in science fiction and genre narrative, we need to place them into a larger historical context. That will require us to go back and reclaim histories and revisit texts that were neglected by earlier generations of fans and researchers.

 

As science fiction fans, we know that technology will not be our savior in these struggles, that what matters are the human choices we make in response to the affordances of new media platforms. A crucial theme running through my own work has been the ways that a growing number of people around the world who are experiencing an expansion of their communicative capacities are using those platforms and tools to assert a much more active role in shaping cultural production and circulation. I used to talk about these shifts in terms of participatory culture, but it is increasingly clear that these opportunities are unevenly distributed and that many are being left behind…so it makes more sense to not only describe but to advocate a more participatory culture.

 

Studying fandom gives us a window into understanding how grassroots power might change the world. Science fiction fandom has a long history of networked communications, and of communities coming together and conducting long-distance exchanges around shared interests. Studying science fiction fandom has thus been an important entry point into larger conversations about how cultural agendas get shaped, how communities get formed, and how publics get mobilized in the age of Web 2.0. Much of the pressure for more diverse representations in commercial entertainment right now is being driven by fans. Fans are also driving many of the critiques of the mechanisms by which digital companies exploit the creative labor of their participants.

 

Critics of this work on participatory cultures and new media have sometimes dismissed us as engaging in pure speculation, describing our accounts as “mere science fiction.” However, the people in this room know fully the power that comes from tapping into both the utopian and dystopian imagination. The best science fiction dystopias often include within them representations of what forms resistance to power might take. And the best science fiction utopias often include some hint of the current realities against which they are being framed. As we think through what a more democratic and inclusive culture might look like, the theoretical turns we use need to do what science fiction has always done best. Go beyond what is known. Trace forward implications of current trends. Warn against dangers. Advocate for opportunities. And, above all, help us to think through the nature of change itself.

 

Some of this work is already being done, no doubt by those attending this conference—many of them graduate students and recently hired junior faculty members who are seeking to insert their voices into the scholarly conversation. Those of us who are more established need to be insuring that those emerging voices get heard. We need to be supporting their research and insuring that it gets published. And we need to be bringing these insights into our teaching and our own research.

 

I am encouraged to see your organization identify some of these topics as your central concern for this year’s event. I wish I were able to be there in person to more fully engage in these crucial conversations. I hope that we will hear of much more such research in the future. In short, science fiction researchers need to boldly go where no one has gone before.

 

Once again, thank you for this honor.

F For Fake (In the Second Order): Yanis Varoufakis, The Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

I have returned.

I spent the summer having some incredible experiences, and some profound conversations, across India and Indonesia. Some of you will have followed these events via my Facebook page, and I am going to be sharing some highlights and some reports on media developments there on this blog in the weeks ahead. But, for now, I am playing catch up with some developments while I have been away.

Moritz Fink, an expert on culture jamming, who has contributed to this blog in the past, shared with me this insightful post about the ways the Greek crisis has been depicted via comedy news and memes and I wanted to share this analysis here as we continue to focus on the interplay between news, politics, and participatory culture. Enjoy!

 

F for Fake (in the Second Order)

Yanis Varoufakis, the Germans, and the Middle Finger That Wasn’t There

by Moritz Fink

On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece were asked in a democratic referendum whether they would accept the terms imposed by the European Union to receive another tranche of desperately needed euros. The outcome was an overwhelming oxi (“no”), which, indeed, may mark a caesura in the ongoing European economic crisis. On the other hand, it seemed to be but another act (although most people considered it the very climax) in a series of political decision-making documented by the news week by week: an arrival of optimistically smiling politicians at European crisis summits and a departure of the same after long hours of discussion without any specific results. We all have seen these scenes a dozen times and followed them in an almost routine manner.

The summits have become rituals — for the protagonists, as for the journalists and commentators, as for the people at home in front of their TV sets. It’s a political daily soap opera starring, on one side, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and her Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, French President François Hollande, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Playing opposite these leaders is the Greek delegation: Prime Minister Alexis Zipras, representing the Syriza left-wing government elected earlier this year, and, until recently, his charismatic finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis — plus, oddly enough, Mr. Varoufakis’s middle finger (both symbolically as well as literally).

For the news industry, a figure such as Varoufakis is a great character. Varoufakis, a post-Marxist Professor of Economics, presented himself as an unconventional and combative politician. His narcissistic ego undoubtedly enjoyed the image amplified by the mainstream media, and thus Varoufakis became the irreverent and overconfident bad boy perfectly suited for dramatizing the business of politics as well as polarizing (that is, entertaining) the “audience.”

Although he publicly promoted the government’s oxi-stance, Varoufakis resigned as Minister of Finance after the 5th July referendum. According to his version of the events, he left office because he “was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted ‘partners’” that no agreement could be reached between the European creditors and the Greece government as long as he held office.[i] While the negotiations may perhaps be easier without Varoufakis, the news media already misses him, as Varoufakis readily provided the headlines journalists seek to write (in fact, the continuing media interest in Varoufakis after his resignation confirms this thesis). Varoufakis’s rhetorical style is certainly ambiguous: offering powerful vocabulary and images, he has become infamous for denying any controversial statement that had been attributed to him. Typically, Varoufakis would propose bold ideas about how to better the economic situation of Greece, but could not refrain from garnishing these proposals with intellectual hubris or even offensive remarks (of which his middle finger has become but the symbolic peak).

Yet, it wasn’t merely his role as controversial politician that made Varoufakis the media’s “darling” — as the crazy-but-smart, good-looking rock ’n’ roll politician. Of course, Varoufakis himself fueled this image by exuding a glamorous high-society aura as intellectual star and man of the world, jet-setting between his professional life as bestseller-author and professor of economics, and his political life as Greek parliamentarian.

Indeed, Varoufakis’s eccentric style and celebrity status made him not only a catchy figure for “serious” journalists (featured in such illustrious formats as the French lifestyle magazine Paris Match), but also a great vehicle and poster boy for political satire.

Varoufakis 1

Fig. 1. Fan-created image in the form of a movie poster which satirically depicts the dispute between Germany (represented by Angela Merkel) and Greece (represented by Yanis Varoufakis), posted on http://fuckyeahyanisvaroufakis.tumblr.com.

As the popularity of TV shows like The Daily Show or Colbert Report indicates, satire today plays an important role in how citizens perceive and evaluate the political establishment.[ii] And not only on TV: the meme culture of Internet has become a major tool for its users to articulate their own voices, which often blend politics with pop culture in satirical forms of media productions.[iii] In fact, what has become subsumed under the hashtag #varoufake demonstrates the vitality of satire in the age of media convergence. The hashtag refers to a satirical stunt that unfolded through various media channels, a stunt that somehow wasn’t planned and nevertheless appeared to be a grandiose satirical scheme.

All of this started with a parodic music video clip titled V for Varoufakis produced by Jan Böhmermann, host of the German comedy late night show Neo Magazin Royale, and his team in late February 2015. The clip featured Böhmermann as a parody rock star à la Jack Black. Standing in front of a microphone in Freddy Mercury‑esque fashion, complete with mustache and melodramatic pose, Böhmermann sings about the “German angst” during the times of the European crisis. The video is interspersed with representations of “Germans,” portrayed in folkloristic dirndl-look and military uniforms reminiscent of the Second World War (in part, a self-ironic turn on populist anti-German sentiments that have emerged in Greece, which articulated itself, for instance, through placards depicting Angela Merkel as Adolf Hitler).

Much of the comedy of V for Varoufakis derives from its ironic portrayal of German stereotypes which are put in relation to the current economic crisis in Europe, in particular in relation to Europe’s problem child, Greece. Germans are assiduous and fearless, the narrative of the video says, but become anxious about Greece’s unruly behavior personified by Yanis Varoufakis, the “Minister of Awesome.” Varoufakis has indeed worked hard to cultivate his image of being a renegade politician unintimidated by Germany as Europe’s hegemon. The Minister suggested that he would be an unconventional and tough “cool” guy who arrives at official meetings with “jacket collar raised” and “on a black motorbike,” as Böhmermann puts it in the song before entering the chorus with the bridge line, “He puts the ‘hell’ in Hellenic and wants to take our pride.”

Aside from what are apparently re-enactments in which Varoufakis is mimicked by an anonymous double, the video contains original footage showing the Greek Finance Minister with jacket collar raised and on a motorbike. The whole clip reflects a style of “radical scavenging,” as Christof Decker calls practices of alternative documentary filmmaking where the “re-editing and assemblage of television (and film) outtakes [is] used for the construction of alternative histories.”[iv]

Böhmermann’s parodic take on Varoufakis has indeed conjured up such an alternative history, yet probably in a different way than he and his team had intended. An outstanding detail of V for Varoufakis is footage where we see Varoufakis at a public performance mentioning the words “stick the finger to Germany”; at this, we see him giving the middle finger to the camera. “Hilarious!” Böhmermann might have thought. The scene perfectly captures the humor of the whole clip. “How dare he?” many television viewers were wondering two weeks later, however, as the aforementioned scene was blended in on Günther Jauch, for several years the most popular political talk show in Germany. (Günther Jauch airs Sunday nights, right after the primetime crime series Tatort, a program slot that guarantees high ratings.)[v]

The topic on Jauch that evening was Greece and the economic crisis in Europe. Even Varoufakis joined the discussion live from Athens throughout the whole show. After the prescribed diplomatic welcoming talk, the host of the show, Günther Jauch, let the cat out of the bag: The middle finger scene was blended in, and Jauch confronted Varoufakis with the gesture. He wanted to know how “the Germans” could trust someone giving them the finger; it won’t be an option for Greece, said Jauch, to give Germany the middle finger anyhow.

Then something strange happened. Rather than explaining himself, Varoufakis insisted that the scene with the finger was “doctored” — in other words, manipulated. “I can assure you,” Varoufakis said, “I can prove this beyond reasonable doubt, and I wish that you could simply take it away. It never happened.” Everyone in the studio (including Jauch) looked bewildered. “When I’m in this show,” one of Jauch’s guests said, “I assume that every visual material and data is correct.” “We’ll verify your standpoint,” Jauch replied to Varoufakis.

Jauch Varoufakis

Fig. 2. Still from Günther Jauch where the host confronts Varoufakis with the infamous gesture, looking aghast at Varoufakis’s explanation: “The finger was doctored!” (Well, was it?)

They didn’t need to. Just two days later, Böhmermann and Neo Magazin Royale launched a new clip on YouTube in which Böhmermann apologized to Jauch and his editorial team, acknowledging that the footage incorporated into V for Varoufakis was actually faked.

In what appears to be a making-of documentary, Böhmerman traces the origins of the middle finger in V for Varoufakis. Thus his team took the scene from an appearance of Varoufakis at the so-called Subversive Festival in Zagreb, Croatia, in 2013. “There is this scene where he [Varoufakis] says the words ‘stick the finger to Germany,’ Böhmermann explains. “It’s a totally harmless context — indirect speech — so, [Varoufakis] isn’t really saying that he wants to give the finger to the Germans. But we [Böhmermann and his team] thought it would be a good idea if the words ‘stick the finger to Germany’ were followed by Varoufakis actually giving the finger.”

Böhmermann reflects on how the middle-finger scene has taken on a life of his own after it had been shown on Günther Jauch. Bild-Zeitung, the most blatant organ of the German yellow press, wrote “Lügner” (“Liar”) in bold letters next to an image of Varoufakis framed by the silhouette of a middle finger gesture. Böhmermann presents headlines of the tabloid press that boldly ask, “Is the middle-finger video real or fake?” Then we see footage from Bild-online where “experts” were consulted about the possibility that Neo Magazine Royale had faked the scene. “I would assume it . . . would be impossible if the whole take wasn’t done in a studio,” the expert concludes.

From his confession clip you can tell that Böhmermann enjoys the fuss he has generated. In fact, the middle finger provided him with the maximum of media attention possible. If Böhmermann was designated to follow in the footsteps of veterans of German TV comedy such as Harald Schmitt or Stefan Raab, the middle finger made him Germany’s Jester No.1 overnight. Reveling in his triumph and schadenfreude, Böhmermann rhetorically asks, “Who would fake such a scene? The only thing I can imagine is that this was some small public-broadcasting loser show.” And “who could have thought that anyone from Subversive Festival would have participated in such a subversive move?” he added with a tongue-in-cheek smile.

Then Böhmermann directly addressed Jauch, wondering how he and his editorial team could use the scene totally out of context and without verifying its authenticity. And yet, Böhmermann joked, “Varoufakis wasn’t right. You [referring to Jauch and his team] didn’t fake the video. You just used it out of its original context, took the middle finger and pulled a Greek politician through your studio so that mom and dad can get their weekly kick of getting annoyed. . . . That’s what you did, the rest was our effort.”

In the following hours, user comments on the Internet skyrocketed. Even Yanis Varoufakis himself came into the picture, congratulating Jahn Böhmermann for his coup on Twitter.

Varoufakis 2

Fig. 3. Varoufakis commenting on Böhmermann’s coup on Twitter.

For Jauch and his team, all of this was of course extremely embarrassing. And so Varoufakis and Böhmermann appeared to be partners in crime when, a few days later, NEO Magazine Rolyale announced that it had actually been the confession video that was made up — faked. The finger, indeed, had been there. But so what?

What’s much more important is that Böhmermann successfully unmasked the bigotry inherent to the debate over the finger as such. According to Böhmermann, the reason that the finger had generated so much fuss has to do with German narcissism. “We’re going nuts when someone is giving us the finger,” Böhmermann says with a big grain of satiric salt. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, he later stated that the whole stunt was meant to serve a demonstrative purpose: While everybody was talking about Varoufakis’s middle finger after the scene was shown on Jauch, it should be apparent that the gesture itself was actually the thing least important about the complicated relationship between the governments of Europe/Germany and Greece.[vi]

If this is so, it is safe to assume that journalists like those of Bild and the team of Günther Jauch were fully aware of the effect Varoufakis’s finger would have, namely to fuel the climate of haughtiness towards the Greek people which currently dominates German discourses about Greece. As a motif, the finger fits well in the picture relayed by some populist media representatives. The “Greek tragedy,” as commentators across the news sarcastically keep calling the crisis in Greece and Europe, isn’t coming to an end. According to this reading, the Greeks not only can’t solve their problems; they don’t appreciate the generosity of their fellow Europeans, reacting in the deprecating way of giving them the finger instead. But wasn’t this much more an incident of the Germans giving the finger to Greece?

Hence the message of Böhmermann is that we all (including the media itself) should always view media content in a (self-)critical light. Through his fake-fake — or fake in the second order — Böhmermann succeeded in executing a lesson in media criticism; he warned us “to be a little more careful of what we read or watch.”[vii] In this sense, Varoufakis makes an important point as he reflects in retrospect on his own image in the media during his time as Minister of Finance. Since he took office, says Varoufakis, the media had made him appear as a madman who wants to rip off the Germans.[viii]

This corresponds to Marco Deseriis’s account of fakes as an interventionist approach that makes use of the mechanisms of the media in order to “challenge the media’s ability to discriminate between reality and fiction.”[ix] In fact, Böhmermann’s stunt follows this logic in that it entails a fundamental critique of the softening of journalistic standards. “In the age of the seemingly unstoppable rise of infotainment, soft news, and celebrity culture,” Deseriis argues, “facts are routinely sacrificed to narrative.”

Indeed, the Internet has provided us with a wealth of oral and visual material; it has never been as easy to repurpose media content to fit a certain narrative as in the digital age. Böhmermann’s fake-fake seems to indicate that we have to be aware of that and consider every spectacular story that we hear or see under that premise.

Interestingly, the fakes Deseriis describes all come from outside of and position themselves vis-à-vis the commercial media. They share a bottom-up, countercultural impetus; their producers are people like Alan Abel and Joey Skaggs or teams such as ®TMark (ARTMark) and The Yes Men — folks who consider themselves conceptual artists or culture jammers.

However, as the case of Böhmermann and #varoufake has shown, in the age of media convergence the borders between pranksters and the media industry are blurry. Böhmermann’s original accomplishment was to develop a fake as cultural critique out of the “official” sphere of the commercial media itself. This incident demonstrates that satire can actually affect the political debate and leave the public with a degree of confusion and critical insight at the same time.[x]

Speaking of confusion, according to the contemporary Greek satirists Nikos Zachariadis, Varoufakis didn’t actually resign. A pseudo-newscast launched by Zachariadis reported that the announcement of Varoufakis’s resignation was due to a misinterpretation by the media. “Never mentioned the word ‘resignation’!” reads a faux tweet ascribed to Yanis Varoufakis.[xi] Well, who knows? As we have seen, with Varoufakis any course of events might be possible.

Varoufakis 3

Fig. 4. Fake tweet ascribed to Varoufakis, saying that he has never resigned but is still minister.

[i] Yanis Varoufakis, “Minister No More!” July 6, 2015, Yanis Varoufakis: Thoughts for the Post-2008 World, http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2015/07/06/minister-no-more/.

[ii] Jeffrey P. Jones, Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement, 2nd ed., Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010

[iii] Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[iv] Christof Decker, “Radical Scavenging Revisited: Emile de Antonio and the Culture Jamming of Compilation Film,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[v] On June 5, 2015, Günther Jauch announced the end of his talk show, tagesschau.de, http://www.tagesschau.de/inland/jauch-talksendung-ard-101.html.

[vi] “Wie Schach ohne Würfel” (“Like chess without dice”), interview with Jahn Böhmermann in Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 15, 2015, p. 11.

[vii] Thomas Seymat, “#varoufake: When Satire Acts as Media Watchdog,” March 19, 2015, Euronews, http://www.euronews.com/2015/03/19/varoufake-when-satire-acts-as-media-watchdog/.

[viii] “Wie ist das, wenn man ganz Europa gegen sich aufgebracht hat? Ein Gespräch mit dem ehemaligen griechischen Finanzminister Yanis Varoufakis” (“What is it like to antagonize all of Europe? An interview with the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis”), Zeit Magazin, July 30, 2015, pp. 14–23.

[ix] Marco Deseriis, “The Faker as Producer: The Politics of Fabrication and the Three Orders of the Fake,” in Marilyn DeLaure and Moritz Fink, eds., Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention, New York: NYU Press, forthcoming.

[x] In a subsequent step, Böhmermann again engaged with the political debate in Germany about Greece and the euro crisis in collaboration with fellow comedian Klaas Heufer-Umlauf in mid-July. In the YouTube clip titled Unsere schönen Deutschen Euros (“Our beautiful German euros”), we see Böhmermann and Heufer-Umlauf wearing white pajamas in a fancy hotel speaking to each other on the phone. The telephone conversation turns out to be an ironic rant against Greece in which the two recite various headlines from the German mainstream media that reflect anti-Greek sentiments noticeable in Germany these days.

[xi] Nikos Zachariadis, “Διαψεύδει την παραίτησή του ο Γιάνης Βαρουφάκης!” (“Yanis Varoufakis denies his resignation”), July 6, 2015, Protagon.gr, http://www.protagon.gr/?i=protagon.el.moyfanet&id=41963.

 

Moritz Fink is a media scholar and author. He holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the University of Munich. His areas of interest include film and media studies, cultural studies, disability studies, visual culture, political humor and satire. He is co-editor of the collection Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Popular Intervention (forthcoming from NYU Press).