The Genuine Article

The genuine article. I’ve been thinking again (always a dangerous pastime) about what passes for real in our current fun-house mirror of a country that’s not so much fun.

Where do you begin, in a context of “alternative facts” having to be rebutted with a straight face, in a climate where prefacing a statement with the words “truly” or “trust me” automatically signals that what follows will be a lie? Obviously, a serious avalanche of blame should land on the shoulders of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, the political atmosphere in general, and our celebrity-obsessed, so-called “reality TV” culture, which many people watch knowing perfectly well it’s not real and even enjoying the put-on. But we’re all of us complicit, and in ways small and large we have all of us fed into legitimizing fake reality, or what I could call sub-reality. And all of us will have to take some responsibility for that before we can turn it around.

For example, deconstructionism. Serious academics—yea, even some serious feminist academics–flocked to adopt this trendy theory that has spread its sickening-mold influence over much scholarly thinking. Now, for those of you who’ve always gone sensibly brain numb upon hearing the word “deconstruction,” or for those of you who think it means demolishing community buildings to make way for gentrification and upper-class housing, well, yes. But no.

Deconstructionism, briefly, is a 20th Century school in philosophy initiated by Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. It’s a theory of literary criticism that attacks traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth. It insists that words only refer to other words (got that?) and it tries to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings (still with me?).

At its core, it’s a parlor game for pseudo intellectuals who love to obfuscate and fear clarity even more than simplicity, and I’m not alone in thinking that Derrida was a buck-naked wannabe emperor without a stitch to cover himself. Furthermore—not to descend into assigning guilt by association, but also mindful that the company we keep does reveal a lot about us—it should be noted that Derrida acknowledged the influence on his work of Martin Heidegger (who was an early supporter of Nazism in Germany), and that Derrida also claimed Friedrich Nietzsche (the little German sunbeam who was a fascist before the word fascism was coined) was a forerunner of deconstructionism—sort of like John the Baptist to Derrida’s Christ, I presume. Last but contemporaneously, Steve Bannon is a great fan of deconstructionist theory.

Of course, when applied in the classroom, the deconstructionist fad has managed to eviscerate what was once Women’s Studies (now largely amalgamated into “gender and sexuality studies”), as well as to de-politicize Black Studies, Chicano, Asian American, and other specific focuses of legitimate scholarship, sucking them into “ethnic studies” programs. For “ethnic” read “other.” White is not ethnic, you understand. European American is not ethnic. Male is not ethnic. White and male are considered the generic. White and male are considered human. Besides, if words mean nothing and nothing is real, then you’re not even really oppressed, even if you persist in feeling that you are, you hallucinating silly-billy!

Feminists were among the first to call out this theory—at least feminists outside of France, where it had taken root, though the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir took a firm stand against it before she died. Fortunately, deconstruction’s faddishness has begun to fade in American academia. It can’t fade fast enough. Ta ta, Derrida!

But back to other examples of general complicity leaking into our body politic and rendering it “the alt real.”

Remember Rachel Dolezal, the white, European-American woman who managed to “pass” herself off for years as African American? Talk about cultural appropriation! When her masquerade was finally discovered, she wasn’t even apologetic. In fact she was defiant, refusing to grasp how curling her hair, adopting stereotypical Black English phrases, and wearing Kente cloth did not bestow upon her the by now almost cellular knowledge of 500 years of American enslavement of, and racism toward, black people. She claimed she so loved black people she just wanted to be one of them. Not surprisingly, real African Americans made it clear that they didn’t feel particularly loved by Rachel Dolezal, nor did they think imitation was the highest form of flattery; on the contrary, they likened this particular form of imitation to minstrel-show “black-face” routines so popular with whites during Jim Crow.

To me, some transgender male-to-female people who adopt the most stereotypical aspects of “femininity”—voluntarily mimicking and validating behavior, appearance, and attitudes that have been enforced on female human beings with attendant enormous suffering for millennia—commit the same hurtful offense as did Rachel Dolezal regarding race.

It’s a mystery to me: why not forge ahead with creating third, or fourth, or fifth, categories–if we have to have categories at all? Indigenous cultures have long called people who reject female/male binaries “Two-spirited,” and in some cases have regarded them with special reverence as possessing greater insight into the broad spectrum of human existence. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with daring, to be an original, a new, real creation, instead of settling for being a copy of, an ersatz version of something else, and then insisting it’s the same? It’s not the same. It’s different—maybe wonderfully different! Why not celebrate that difference instead of settling for, even yearning to be, a caricature?

I can’t help noticing that such supposedly “disruptive” and “transgressive” trends turn out to be distressingly familiar, even reactionary. I can’t help asking if this uniformity of thought that pretends to explore variation isn’t at heart deeply opposed to variance, and whether in a political context it hasn’t been a major influence in corroding the pluralism that was at the core, however flawed, of this country’s genius. And I can’t help wondering if the hierarchical patterns that patriarchy has socially programmed in all of us drive us to fear difference—because we assume difference must be ranked as inferior or superior, even when it’s neither. This much we know: sexism, racism, nativism, ageism, homophobia, class and caste and all the other alienating systems that “otherize” thrive on the refusal to welcome and honor difference.

It’s up to each of us now to make a difference, literally; up to each of us to refuse anything less than we deserve: the genuine article—in fact, more and more, lots of genuine articles. It’s not as though we lack a model for that. The infinite uniqueness of each snowflake, each leaf, each shell. It’s how the universe works, after all.