ILLUSTRATION BY VINCE JOY
A Couple of days before the presidential debate, I was running an errand uptown when I crossed 57th Street and saw a small horde of media with TV cameras and digital recorders. In the center was an older, red-faced white guy who was holding something up and talking about it in a voice that was mild-mannered and reasonable. When I got closer, I saw that his prize was a jar with a bobble-headed Obama planted in what looked like shit.
Part of his spiel was that it wasn’t really fecal matter, just brown Play-Doh. He opened up the lid and took a sniff, and offered it to the reporters. “See, Play-Doh.” Then went on to say it should sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars like “Piss Christ,” the Andres Serrano photo of the crucifix immersed in actual urine. He, of course, hadn’t used anything so offensive. Nope, he’d used Play-Doh. Big difference. No reason to get upset.
He made quite a contrast with the guy behind him, a Latino man with a handmade sign scribbled on cheap poster board. I thought he was protesting the speaker, he seemed so different in demeanor, not to mention race. He was definitely what cops and shrinks like to call agitated. “Get your hands off me. I have a right to be here,” he shouted at a security guard. He looked nuts. Partly because he was alone. I kind of identified with him until he also started to rave against the “Jew” gallery owners.
Later, I found out the two were both part of a Catholic group denouncing the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery that has Serrano’s 1987 “Immersion (Piss Christ)” on display. It created quite a stir when it was first shown in ‘89. Protests have been resurrected recently, most notably in France where last year four Catholic extremists went at it with a hammer at an exhibition in Avignon called “I Believe in Miracles.”
I thought about the two men as I walked away. The smug, mellifluous one with the florid face of the drinker. The taut brown one twisted with rage. They both scare me. The furious one because it seemed like it would be easy to push him toward violence. As Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
But worse are the honeyed, “reasonable” types that usually do the pushing. Or kill with the stroke of a pen. They neutralize their opponents by making them look like radical fools. At the same time, they themselves often front for howling mobs, embracing their anger, nudging them in one direction or another. Chasing Jews. Chasing queers. Stringing up black men. Any convenient enemy.
As a dyke, I am always at a disadvantage with these rational men. Because everybody knows females are not strong enough to hold emotion and reason in one brain without becoming unbalanced. Speak too passionately and some deep, smooth voice will instantly dismiss you as being incapable of lucid thought. As being confused. Unhinged even, because it’s that time of the month. Haw haw. It’s worse for dykes, always suspected of harboring irrational man-hating rage.
Females are not the only victims of the double standard of passion. When Obama finally opened his mouth about the death of one more unarmed black kid, calmly declaring, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” his unwhite face made it an expression of black rage. At least in the eyes of white right-wingers, who are quickly moving from wingnut status into the Republican mainstream.
How do you fight that? If you’re Obama, you become even more reasonable, even more repressed, professorial. Given to long lectures. Clinging to facts. Which is, I think, what happened in the presidential debate last Wednesday night. What’s a black guy supposed to do when the smooth talking — and very white — Mitt Romney energetically piles on lie after shitty lie?
If you leap in, make a spirited defense, they’ll say you went all Panther on their asses. Because even the mildest attack will be amplified by his black face. So Obama more or less just stood there. Wilted even. The way he’s probably trained himself. No way he’s gonna be the face of black rage. When he hears about an asshole waving around a bobbleheaded Obama in crap, the POTUS probably leans back and smiles, “I’m not going to dignify that with a comment.” Which is okay for a turd-hawker like the Catholic League’s smooth-talking William Donohue. Not against the Romneys of the world.
Who knows what will work? Definitely not just standing there and piling on the facts. So if he doesn’t want to respond in anger to Romney, it’ll have to be something else. Why not humor? Passion? A few one-liners? Love even, for America. A performance from the heart.