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October 26, 2009 / JV

defining we. my thoughts on capitalism: a love story and related rants

bourke-white

so it’s no secret that there is a default of whiteness in normative culture. that is: unless otherwise noted, people are white. i think this default can be challenged in communities that are predominantly of color on an everyday level (telling stories with an anonymous “she”), but when we engage with the popular sphere (movies, tv characters, in other words “visible people” in narratives created by others and passed down to the masses), people are – generally speaking – expected and assumed to be / imagined as white.

so, knowing this, why was i still disappointed in the white-middle-class-ness that tainted the narrative of michael moore’s capitalism: a love story? is it because he’s touted as a progressive filmmaker, and to interrogate capitalism without also challenging the normativity of whiteness is to basically suck at understanding the intersections and complexity of oppressions? a shortcoming that results in merely symbolic and short-falling attempts at being subversive. because he knows about other stuff, is he supposed to also know how to make a film that doesn’t indulge in the usual habit of seeing things through a white historical lens?

the problem i had with micheal moore’s film was that the “we” he constructed often translated into white middle class people. and this wasn’t something i can pretend was glaringly obvious, because it was mostly subtle. noted in the use of “we” and the implication that follows of who “they” were.

womaninkitchenfor example, there’s a part where he’s talking about “the good old days”. he talks about how women didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to and we see a typical blonde 50s housewife walking around straightening things up (not to be mistook for actually cleaning). i thought to myself: really michael? because last i checked this was only true for a bracket of white, suburban, middle-class, married women. working class white women and black women were working outside of the home during these good old days and they had been for decades. then he goes on to talk about how things were just better then (red flag), you know, when there were industrial jobs. we could deal with a little bit of this, he says, as we see a quick flash of black folks being hosed and/or attacked by police dogs (i can’t remember which), and a little bit of that. again: really, though?

when i brought this part of the doc up to a friend, i was reminded that it was supposed to be “facetious”. and i mean, i’m sure micheal moore isn’t trying to say that the huge problems of racism, systematic violence, etc are small worries. but even the fact that these issues, which were (and are) an inescapable everyday reality for a lot of people, could be compressed into a sarcastic flash on the screen, says something about who is telling the story, and for whom.

the fact is — all wasn’t peachy-keen for most of us. to create the impression that life was good when dick worked while and jane shopped for dresses is to basically reiterate a dominant, class-, race-, and location-based narrative that delusionally relegates a lot of people to the fringes. history didn’t look like that. period.

i’ve noticed a similar issue in children’s books, especially with this whole organizing elementary school libraries thing I’ve been doing which I mentioned in the last post. How easy it is to assume and even assign ignorant/privileged positionality within a paradigm that is obviously influenced by race (i.e. living in 19th century America). For example, author Ann McGovern has a whole series of books that depend on the default of whiteness in articulating a historical “we”. She has books like …If You Lived in Colonial Times, with questions on the back like “What kind of clothes would you wear?” “Would you go to school?” “What would you do on Sunday?” and “What would happen if you didn’t behave?”. A few of her other books are If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln, If You Lived 100 Years Ago, and If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. The gist of all of them is like.. you would’ve dressed funny and had to use your hands sometimes. by golly, the olden days.

colonialmcgovern

I’m looking at these books like, actually, if I lived in colonial times, I wouldn’t be eating mutton and porridge at a table on a terrace with my white mother and father. More likely, i’d be the other person in this picture — that person of color whose narrative has no place in a book like this directed at the general public — placing the chicken on the table. iffff i was even so lucky.

the default of whiteness is not only untrue to most people’s realities and obviously problematic on the basis that white (in)visibility necessitates erasing all other persons, but it’s also, frankly, not entertaining. if, as a creator of sorts, you claim to tell ‘our’ history, then do us a favor and tell what really happened. or, make up something completely fantastical that doesn’t depend on an already played-out assumption about who the audience will automatically identify with, and ultimately, create a new narrative.

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14 Comments

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  1. dalia / Nov 1 2009 5:33 pm

    i have yet to see it, am constantly pulled each weekend into really feeling the need, and then feeling the the pre-emptive utter disgust and confusion at being annoyed and saddened by a critique of capitalism…that is actually like “HITTING THE MAINSTREAM” [relatively] in a fucking chicago movie theater.

    thanks for putting words to feelings that are often too knotted in my belly for me to even bring myself to fork over the $11 to see it. thanks. i mean it.

    • the black scientist / Nov 1 2009 10:14 pm

      right. ‘why capitalism sucks’ pulling in blahmillion at the box office this week. sponsored by .. private donors.

      i promise, you will be disappointed. although i kinda want you to see it just to hear your critiques.

  2. Angelique / Nov 19 2009 6:54 pm

    Excellent critique. I saw it a couple weeks ago, and I was also extremely disappointed. It was a very simplistic breakdown of capitalism – and yes completely white-washed, middle-class perspective. And Moore should know better. But it seems as if he is pandering to a certain audience – mainstream white middle-upper class – and they don’t wanna hear about race. So many problems with that film… thanks for opening up this space to discuss it…

    and about children’s books – I completely agree with you — one has to search, really search, to find books for children of color – I just spent hours searching on Amazon for books for my nieces – and you really have to know authors and titles in order to find anything. Luckily there are quite a few – but its hard to find them in bookstores.

    • the black scientist / Dec 1 2009 9:56 am

      yeah, it seems like moore is definitely talking to a specific audience.. trying to get them to care about the world by making it about them.. the ‘dont you see yourself in this’ appeal…

  3. kholi / Nov 24 2009 11:48 am

    this is really interesting … i mean … in that i had no real interest in seeing this film … precisely because i feared i would find some of the things you’re discussing … but now i kind of WANT to see it … precisely because you found the things you’re discussing.

  4. Naima / Nov 30 2009 10:24 pm

    dude, i dig it. In fact I agree with everything you’re saying. But, the reason it didn’t so much get under my skin was because it was completely and utterly deliberate. Every reference to the good ol’ days and middle suburban whiteness dripped (in my opinion) with sarcasm. Every image of blonde babies with cheeky grins was deliberate and I think he was kinda slapping middle class suburbanities in the face with his critique. The idea that the world revolved around you, the idea that America was run on people like you. I also thought it was funny because he was completely poking fun at Republicans (main street, not wall street!) but look at who the fuck is running shit, look at who has gotten you so conditioned and scared of anything other than money.

    so i see your point and under most contexts, agree wholeheartedly, however I thought more about him poking fun at whiteness rather than conforming to it.

    • the black scientist / Dec 1 2009 10:12 am

      i don’t knowww. when it comes to white people critiquing things, i’m really reluctant to embrace ‘sarcasm’ and ‘irony’ because there’s generally a thin line between those things and just plain ignorance. and making fun of something generally arises from feeling comfortable with how one is positioned in relationship to it…

      in michael moore’s case, i think he’s smart enough to know better buuut if sarcasm was what he was going for, it fell way short. and it can be pointless for parody/irony to too closely resemble the real thing. i just feel like it was extremely ineffective in that it so simply reflected the dominant narrative. and knowing your audience, most of whom don’t question the normativity of whiteness, you should know what they will be able to discern.

      overall, i think to paint middle class whiteness as the mainstream american past was a bad choice (intentions aside). and that’s not to say that sarcasm can never work (although it’s not my personal favorite way of making arguments) but that the critique has to look different if it’s coming from within the dominant discourse.

  5. latra / Dec 3 2009 3:56 am

    um…can i quote this in a paper i’m writing about white normativity and the fallacy of colour blindness? i’ll credit you and all.

    • the black scientist / Dec 6 2009 7:24 pm

      :D :D :D

  6. latra / Dec 11 2009 2:43 am

    <3
    A+

  7. rthsiung / Dec 19 2009 3:50 pm

    yo — stumbled upon your blog from your facebook. i was originally going to comment that i thought that i had thought that moore’s color “blind”ness was intentional as well, but i see someone else has already said that. i would agree with your point that there is a very thin line between sarcasm/irony and open critique. and even if moore’s intentions were for the film to function as a critique, intentions alone accomplish nothing.

    also: interestingly enough, the film only played in places like NYC and San Fran. which i took to signify that it was meant really only for audiences that would get the irony of his color-blindness, so really, he’s just preaching to the choir right? even so, i still think the film is valuable for its information, but, like you said, questioning the narratives it constructs is an imperative.

    • the black scientist / Dec 19 2009 9:31 pm

      soo glad you’ve stopped in. thank you and welcome :)

      did the film really only show in those places? that’s kinda.. like.. silly. but i guess that’s what capitalism is about (hahahah). targeting audiences and selling them what they’ll buy into. and thereby avoiding audiences you know abhor you. (not to be metronormative or anything). mr.moore is a smart guy. i appreciated the film, kind of, for inserting the word capitalism into mainstream discourse. other than that though, i think it failed pretty horribly at critiquing the system of capitalism. i was also a little irked at how he juxtaposed capitalism to democracy. i think i know where he was trying to go with that, but.. it just didn’t happen right.

  8. Jeffery / Mar 6 2010 5:11 pm

    I Reckon people are going to focus on different things in the movie, depending on their own, issues.

    I think the first half was sloppy. These people agreed to foreclosure contracts and got loans on the values of their homes. So it was their fault because they agreed to those contracts. I feel sorry that they lost their homes, but it was something they were fully aware of.

    The second half, about goldman, lobbyists and the banks was more interesting and had some really good points to make.

    The default whiteness argument is true, as a standalone argument, but isn’t really applicable here in my opinion. I did like the fact of roosevelts file footage showing all races standing side by side with grief though. People need to be reminded of what it was really like.

    • the black scientist / May 24 2010 1:01 pm

      hi, thanks for stopping in. i’m months late – but working on being more time efficient in internet world.

      i thought the film was a tad sloppy altogether, just in relation to what i thought it could be. there was a lot of potential there in my opinion, for an effective critique of capitalism.

      why don’t you think the whiteness as default is applicable here?

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