When I blogged several weeks ago about Technologies of Masculine Purpose, I focused on guns and Boats.

Little could I have imagined that I’d now have to add:

Untitled

Enough said for now.  If you want more context on my argument, refer to that earlier blog.

More to come soon!

Trump BibleThe roiling controversies of the past few weeks constitute a moment of social and political ferment in the U.S.  Three things circulate; the ongoing covid pandemic; emergent cultural reckoning with racism; and a make-or-break general election.  These are also of global import and significance as we’ve seen.  The whole world is again watching.

Several times ago, I started a thread titled “culture is everything.”  I had some good discussions and feedback on it.  The most compelling question came from a colleague who asked what exactly I mean by “culture.”  I mean it in a limited way, for purposes of discussion.  In sociological terms I mean “not structure.”  But perhaps a better signal would be to point to Williams’s notion “structure of feeling.” 

By “culture” I mean the circulation of imaginaries of identity and value that operate in relation to structural conditions of life like class, gender, race, gender identity, etc. 

What I wish to explore in this and future reflections may make clearer (to me and to everyone else) what I mean.  My point, really, is to argue to a rather limited audience—my academic colleagues in the field of culturalist media studies—that we have too long ignored one specific and explicit feature of the cultural and media landscape: religion.  My further point is that our lack of a substantive conceptual purchase on religion has left us ill-prepared to fully grasp the emergent politics of the times.

I’m going to continue that argument by investigating evidence of how “religion” functions in contemporary politics.  It does so in ways that are explicit and manifest, but also in ways that are implicit and latent.  In all, though, religion should be grasped by culturalist scholarship for its functioning as culture.  We can leave structural studies of religion to the sociologists.

One of the problem with religion-as-culture is that it seems to act in three registers 1) explicitly; 2) implicitly; and 3) indexically.  As we go on, we’ll see examples of each.  Over the years, I’ve come to realize (something I’ve learned from culturalist religion scholars) that you don’t go for axiomatic or canonical or taxonomic definitions of the beast.  You have to see it where it is, take it on its own terms and try to understand it as it functions.  That is, as culture, in the sense that Stuart Hall meant.

I’ve already started, in a way, with two posts about the incident pictured above.  What I’ll add today is that as the St. John’s church picture incident has become something rather important. A cultural moment that has proven to articulate together a range of gestures rooted in religion and politics.  It means more than itself.

And, it supports my thesis that “culture is everything” because the President and his handlers worked so hard to construct it as a particular and specific artifact.   It became a ritual directed at constructing a perfect image, to make an argument, to appeal to referents outside itself.  The amount of political capital that was spent to make it possible (evidenced by the continuing controversies) is a testament to its significance.  It became about (and there is religion in this as well) the actions and gestures that led to its construction.  It is more than itself.  And reflexive publics, conditioned and cultivated by their experience of participation in media circulations, understand and read the image, its construction, and its intention in certain ways.  Much more later.

The spontaneous demonstrations of the past two-plus weeks have been stunning.  They’ve led to a reckoning in so many places and ways.  And a lot of introspection.  I’m an academic, and in my patch, this has only begun and who knows where it will all lead?  I hope to positive change—real, lasting change.

I’ve been reluctant to write.  Yes, I can’t stand outside this struggle but in important ways it’s not mine iDC Demonstrationn the same way it is for my colleagues-of-color.  I take fully on board the words I’ve seen online saying this is not the time for White voices to come to the center. Not a time for “White-splaining.”  But I have colleagues I care about who are saying that White voices need to say something.  They are right.  But the less the better.  There will be plenty of time for cerebral reflection, post-mortems, and observations from our disciplinary perspectives.

Now is a time to speak personally.  My significant other (let’s call her Kaz) and I share in common the sense that three events shaped our beliefs and moral consciousnesses more than any others:  the cold war (“duck and cover”); Vietnam; and the civil rights movement. We both think that the latter actually shaped us the most.  The events of the last few weeks have taught me why that is the case.  I now realize that my understanding of what it means to be a citizen here was shaped more by Martin Luther King Jr., than by my teachers, scoutmasters, or other influencers.  He explained, and showed—and the experiences that have led up to the last two weeks have brought into full relief—why and what the Constitution is and was about.  I don’t mean that in the trivial way it may sound.

The Constitution and the whole project of the Western Enlightenment—of which I am a child—means nothing unless it can encompass the meaning and significance of difference, particularly the searing difference of race.  If we can’t finally address this (and it hasn’t been quick or easy) then the project has failed and will continue to fail.

I regret now to admit that I and people like me kept thinking—after the gains of the civil rights movement—that things were being “fixed” and getting better.  Police reform, police commissions, community policing, more people of color as officers and chiefs and mayors, more scrutiny.  I know it is more than just about policing per se.  It’s the legacy of Reconstruction,  the uncontested emergence of the “Lost Cause” movement, that policing is also the Jim Crow that the North developed in response to the Great Migration, and the redlining of the 50s that left Black people out of post-war (publicly-financed) economic expansion, and that voting majorities bear much responsibility for the situation because of their complicity with conservative politics in making spending on policing sacrosanct when spending for areas of social good that would make policing less necessary is not.

We knew it wouldn’t be fast.  I’m enough of a social scientist to know that deep change is incremental (and the fact that younger people today are much more woke than we were is evidence of that).  But it wasn’t fixed.  Ferguson (and scores of other incidents) have proved that.  The intransigence of politics against the BLM movement got in the way, and may now have been swept away. I hope so.

But, I have lived through the five decades since the death of Dr. King (something that shocked and saddened us more than either of the Kennedys’) and am convinced we still have a long road ahead.  The forces against change are staying quiet and mostly keeping their powder dry, but they’ll come creeping back, probably before the Fall election.  And many of them will cloak themselves in the armor of religion and our public and media discourse will largely let them get away with that.  But that is too cerebral.  I said I’d be personal.

So, how to think about where we are.  Hope?  Fear? Portent? Resolve? I know that I and people like me need to do more.  We need not to leave it up to others to combat racism.  Its not enough to not be racist, we have to fight racism.

I have never been able to understand White people who say they don’t see race or that we’re beyond it as a nation.  My parents taught us to think about race and be conscious of it, that it is a continuing feature of American life. We were not to say certain words and were to confront stereotypes.  They made us think about it as something that has been a long struggle. Part of the family lore were stories of crossing and confronting the racial barrier, including by forbears who took direct action.

The events of these past weeks sent me to the story of Edwin Coppock, one of those ancestors.  He and his brother Barclay stood with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.  Both were martyred to the cause, remembered in this history written by the American Socialist and organizer, Eugene Debs.  Edwin was executed by the state of Virginia on December 16, 1859, two weeks after Brown himself.  Debs’s account includes a letter Edwin wrote to his uncle just days before he was hanged.

the time may come when [God] may still further remember the cause in which I die. Thank God the principles of the cause in which we were engaged will not die with me and my brave comrades. They will spread wider and wider and gather strength with each hour that passes. The voice of truth will echo through our land, bringing conviction to the erring and adding members to the glorious army who will follow its banner. The cause of everlasting truth and justice will go on conquering and to conquer until our broad and beautiful land shall rest beneath the banner of freedom. I had fondly hoped to live to see the principles of the Declaration of Independence fully realized. I had hoped to see the dark stain of slavery blotted from our land, and the libel of our boasted freedom erased, when we can say in truth that our beloved country is the land of the free and the home of the brave; but that cannot be.

Are we, like him, only able to imagine things as yet unseen with hope to see them but doubt that we will?  Or can we have more hope because—unlike him—we have lived to see the “gathering strength” of the cause?

For two days in a row now we’ve seen the President engage religion in an effort to reposition himself to the center of the current crisis.  Lots can be said.  What I want to focus on is how these two gestures attempt to use mediated visuality to make an argument.  These images are, as I said yesterday, deeply incoherent on many levels.  Today, the incoherence is driven home by the Archbishop himself.  Trump’s approach to the demonstrations is deeply contradictory to Catholic Social teaching, and his use of the Basilica as a backdrop is therefore offensive.

Trump BibleBut in both cases, we can see an attempt to create a visual moment that seeks to cut through these contradictions by going straight for a position right at the center of some religious-social geography.  What is that geography?  Clearly the imagined religious-revanchism of social grievance advocated by a number of voices:  Robert Barr, Mike Pompeo, Steve Bannon, and Trump’s own “evangelical cabinet” headed by Paula White.

This revanchist project imagines itself as a pan-religious (at least encompassing both Catholic and Protestant interests) effort focused on recapturing lost geographies of imagined domestic and cultural perfection in which religion hovers over a social world defined by “virtue.”

But what symbols to use?  In the media age, this must be produced.  And these visuals were produced.  They were produced by on-the-ground horrors of imposition of civil violence, both direct and threatened.  So many eggs were broken to make these visual omelets that it is unclear what could be constituted by putting them back together reprehensibleagain.

And what did we get?  We got visuals that are so superficial as to be nearly meaningless. The gesture of the Bible, held up backwards and upside down.  FLOTUS inappropriately dressed at a shrine.  A concatination of the President and a Pontiff whose legacy he barely understands, etc.  The evidence is in the incoherent language used by interpreters who now seek to explain this all.  Sarah Sanders, for example, tweeted about the courage it took for Trump to break into an Episcopal churchyard using military force.

This all and only makes sense as a visual argument.  And it is up to us as scholars to try to keep this all straight.  Sometimes we can’t.

 

Trump BibleIn the middle of all the chaos of late May and early June, 2020, no more chaotic image (in my view) circulated than one of Donald Trump holding a Bible in front of historic St. John’s church in Washington.

I’ve given up hoping that main news journalism will finally get the religion story “right,” but this is a case where it is critical that they do so.  Here’s why. This picture holds within it so many contradictions that are critical to public understanding of this political moment and the role of religion in it.  But it is too complex for a journalism that still chooses to see religion–if at all-in uni- or bi-dimensional terms.

Let’s try to see a few of the contradictions here. For starters, the picture was made possible by the President and his entourage intentionally breaking into a moment of national anguish and activism, using police force to disperse peaceful demonstrators to clear the field for this publicity shot.  Second, Trump’s own relationship to the Bible is tenuous at best (remember “two Corinthians”?)   Third, the most incoherent and contradictory part of this is that it is a superficial and trivial attempt to curry favor with the “religious liberty” crowd among his “base.”  This is a contradiction because St. John’s is an Episcopal church with an active social ministry, not an Evangelical mega-church riven with feelings of grievance.

Fourth, the invocation of the Bible in such a place is a direct assault on the kind of religion that church represents, which is *not* one that celebrates the moral-culture “virtue” religious revanchism represented by Attorney General Barr, Secretary Mike Pompeo, and Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon.  Fifth, this image is an attempt to elide the real contradiction between the moral culture of a nation reeling from its racial reckoning and forces in the world of religion (Barr, etc., as well as Trump’s “religious cabinet” of Evangelical leaders) who want the nation to remain comfortable with its history of religion-sanctioned racial tension.

Will anyone at the Post, the Times, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc….rise to the occasion?

My Twitter followers will know I’ve recently done a few tweets tweaking mainstream media for their inattention to detail in their stories covering religion in the age of covid.  Of course lack of detail in journalism about religion is nothing new.  For now, though, I want to focus on one recent piece that appeared in a major venue, the Washington Post.

In it, Gary Abernathy asks “What is behind Republicans wanting a swift reopening?”  His answer is “Evangelicals.”  He begins by noting what he calls the “age old” reluctance to discuss religion “…beyond its basic political impact…” and suggest moving beyond that to a more focused view.  He first identifies the Trump coalition as a broad concatenation of conservatives, libertarians, and Evangelical Protestants.  He then focuses on the Evangelical tranche in more detail.  So far, so good.  I agree that our public treatment of the religion in the Trump phenomenon has been to narrow and simplistic and there has been a reluctance on the part of journalists and political observers to try to understand it on its own terms.

Abernathy’s approach is to focus specifically on what constitutes an “Evangelical” in the first place.  He turns to the four principles of Evangelicalism outlined by the National Association of Evangelicals.  The fourth of these is the belief in salvation and the afterlife.  Abernathy’s argument then becomes one of tracing how, among the Trump supporters, there exists a group who are so focused on the afterlife that something like a this-worldly fear of death would not stand in the way of their boldly embracing re-opening in the face of scientific and medical advice to the contrary.

He concludes, “…when ruminating over why there are millions of people who don’t seem to panic over a global pandemic or other life-threatening event, critics should remember that, right or wrong, it often involves a belief in something even bigger than people named Trump, Hannity or Limbaugh.”

Fair enough.  We should of course not assume that Evangelicals are more likely than anyone else to be the hapless dupes of influencers and instead should try to understand them in more depth and detail.  But Abernathy’s focus on confidence in salvation as the reason Evangelical voters might support risky behaviors seems to me misplaced in two ways.  First, if such belief is so definitive, would Evangelicals not eschew gun ownership for personal protection, preferring to leave things to God?

No, there is something more going on here, and I think I must attribute it to politics.  You don’t need to deny something basic and authentic about the Evangelical community to say that as a modern movement, born in the 20th Century, it bears the markers of secular modernity and modernity’s enforced sorting of “the religious.”

To search for essentialist explanations for the social practice of faith denies much of the reality of modern life. There are few faith communities for which you can argue that their lives are completely inscribed by their spirituality.  The Amish come to mind, and certain monastic groups. But not modern Evangelicals.

We need to remember that Evangelicalism as we know it today was borne out of a set of social and political gestures.  When Jerry Falwell led Fundamentalism out of the shadows of the Scopes legacy of quietude and marginality and into a full-throated presence in the public sphere—something that the mainstream culture saw as the emergence of “neo-Evangelicalism”—the shift carried with it an implicit understanding.  That understanding was that these new Evangelical Americans were giving up their quietude to enter social and cultural politics and that would involve a certain amount of risk, strategy and compromise. Further, it would involve a new “situational ethics” of Evangelical politics where not every move or every strategy could or would be directly inscribed with faith and spirituality.

No, Evangelicals would need to do things and say things and embrace things that might not bear explicit markings of their faith because they sought the “greater good” of making this world more to their liking.

So Evangelicals who go along with Trump’s calls for reopening in spite of the risks do so not because of their confidence in the afterlife.  An appeal to faith embraces their actions, of course, and something like a profession of faith in salvation serves as a valuable ex post facto rationalization.  But it’s not an explanation, or even the most important explanation.

I fear that Abernathy’s piece inadvertently makes his point about the tone-deaf-ness of the “mainstream media” to religion.  That the editors of the Post saw his contribution as perhaps definitive when it is actually rather narrow and misdirected, indirectly confirms his overall argument.

 

The Coronavirus crisis is disruptive in ways that we can only begin to imagine.  Like pandemics before it—the black death, the 1918 Kansas (not “Spanish”) flu, HIV/AIDS, Ebola—it has unleashed circulations of discourse and action on many levels.  New claims have been empowered, new cultural logics trotted out.  We are only beginning to see all of its implications and the many ways it will be interpreted, understood, and deployed in national and global cultures in coming months and years.

armed in michiganBut there are signs all around us, and this one has caught my eye: images of armed protestors showing up in the Michigan state capitol and to “support” protest “openings” of businesses in Michigan, Texas, and perhaps elsewhere.  The images are already meme-worthy and iconic.  Men, variously dressed in camo, sporting tattoos, coiffed in the studied manner of a certain class/cultural motif (twenty years ago, they would have probably sported mullets) stand with impossibly large guns (some rifles, some assault rifles) and largely without masks.

These are intimidating pictures, of course—and needless to say do not in any logical way represent a “well-regulated militia.”  They were not organized or trained, did not seem to have any particular plan in mind, they simply showed up and showed their hardware.

The fact that there was no clear purpose for their presence led to a wide range of reactions and comments.  My favorite was Stephen Colbert’s observation that perhaps the implication is that “…if you are out of Lysol, you can always shoot your groceries…”

But I saw something else, something that Curtis Coats and I talked about in our book Does God Make the Man?  We identified three core ideas at the center of modern masculinity.  We called them “…the three Ps”:  Provision, Protection, and Purpose.  The first two of these are straightforward and self-explanatory, the third not so much.  The gun, of course, is a multi-purpose tool that fits (though problematically in modern life) with the first two of these.  Hunters of course can be said to be involved in provision.  Gun ownership for household protection is all about protection.

We had a harder time explaining, or understanding, “purpose.”  But it was there nonetheless.  Again and again in our conversations, men expressed how important it was for them to have a sense of purpose.  The exact nature of that purpose was less important than that they have purpose. We noted that this actually fit well with some classicists’ views of what masculinity has always meant.

So, purpose need not be articulated to actual goals to be important.  It is just important to act with it.  That could well describe these gun displays. They don’t make any real sense in the situation other than their display.  And, of course, they make good—very good—media.  They fit into long-standing media narratives, from classic westerns to war movies.  They were for media display, not for actual use.  They may not even have been loaded. They didn’t need to be.

It struck me that we could think about these guns as “technologies of masculine purpose.”  In this sense, these images reminded me of images from recent floods and hurricanes, where private boat owners were shown performing relief and rescue missions.  The media narratives portrayed these in heroic terms, examples of people rising to the occasion to help their neighbors.  This coverage of Hurricane Harvey in Houston was typical.  “We just had to do it…” said one of the boat-rescuers.  Of course this is laudable.  And I don’t want to draw a direct parallel between the life-affirming act of rescuing someone from a flood and the life-threatening act of intimidating someone with a firearm.

But I do see a parallel.  At the time of Harvey—and mindful of what we’d learned about the meaning of “purpose”—I observed in a seminar that a flood was kind of a perfect coincidence.  It brought together a possession (and one that is—like the gun—deeply gendered) that is often thought of as a guilty pleasure or a luxury—a boat—with a perfect moment of purpose.  Suddenly that boat—that your family wished you hadn’t spent the rent money on—fit the historical moment.  It gave the boat—and you—a purpose.

It strikes me now that we can think about both boats and guns as technologies of masculine purpose.  They are acquired and held for a variety of reasons, but they can take on new an enhanced cultural meaning when they can find a role in purpose.  They wait there for their purpose.  Lurking in the garage or the closet or the gun case.  Again, the purpose part of this does not need to be about anything in particular.  The boats and the guns are affective projections of purpose realized more often in imaginaries of their potential than in their reality.

In the case of the boat, the actualization of the technology and the purpose worked out well for everyone.  In the case of the guns during covid, it is less clear.

One fears, of course, that the chain of practice that brings certain technologies of masculine purpose into use could end very badly indeed.

The CoVid19 crisis looked like it might be a moment of universal solidarity.  Indeed, most Americans (and most others throughout the world) have come together to meet this unprecedented challenge.  This has included nearly universal public support for health workers, first responders, and the many, many hourly and casual workers who are keeping the whole of the Western world running at some risk to themselves.

But, as we know, this has not stopped politics, and here in the U.S. we’ve seen a smattering of small anti-lockdown demonstrations emerge.  These are probably not spontaneous and they of course fit a political playbook that pro-Trump interests think will benefit him in the Fall.

They fit into a pattern I’ve noted before, that contemporary politics is increasingly cultural and increasingly defined by a performative agonism fitted to the media age.

But these protests are not virtual performances, they are real and embodied, and their participants pose an actual, known, physical danger to themselves and to the wider community.  This contradiction has been noted and commented on, but with little insight into how it makes sense or can be made to make sense for its participants.

This kind of cultural sense-making is the central concern of cultural studies and specifically of media studies scholarship: all of this resides at a boundary between these two conceptual and practical realms: culture and media.

So, it is up to us to try to explain this.

It really does illustrate how “culture is everything.”  And by this I mean to suggest that our received ideas of politics need to be tuned to an age when—at least for some—what we would think of as concrete “interests” can be “trumped” [sic] by “culture” or where the latter becomes such a salient interest that people actually propose to sacrifice lives for the sake of (what they consider to be) a compelling cultural narrative.

For media scholarship this involves recognizing the shifting sands where culturalism needs to re-think its commitment to a nearly-exclusive focus on material, class, racial, and other interests and begin listening to the voices at the center of such politics as they describe what these cultural “interests” are (however self-destructive and self-contradictory they seem).  It also means that our scholarship needs to begin taking seriously things that we’ve long ignored, including religion.

There I said it.

Those who have joined these protests (some openly defying appropriate self-distancing measures) fit into a larger narrative of grievance that merges nostalgia for a lost past with masculinism and re-affirmation of traditional gender roles, and with a desire to once again re-mark the culture in certain ways, with religion acting as a powerful and probative index of this constellation of values.  In this discourse, religion serves as less of a moral or spiritual “first cause” and more of a marker of a “structure of feeling” that makes nonsense into sense.

It nonsense but it is powerful nonsense.  While they are not about to put themselves in harm’s way by going out to protest, voices such as Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and erstwhile moral-compass-of-the-nation Bill Bennett have articulated a masculinist vision that makes protest against public health measures into heroic acts of self-sacrifice.  They evoke a sense of purpose (in which I see traditional masculinism) that neatly calls into being broad nativist narratives of protection of the home and the homeland against external forces of pollution and danger.

And of course religion is there, at the center.  It quickens the narrative, a kind of cultural “leavening” which at the same time legitimates and implicitly elaborates the systemic moral center of these ideas and also serves as an explicit interest in the midst of all of this.  One of the things being grieved in the protests is the impact that stay-at-home orders have on “religious liberty.”  This in spite of the fact that the vast majority of religious leaders and movements the world over have complied with public health guidance.  And in spite of the fact that religious liberties of the white Christians who are at the center of this discourse  are not in any real sense—and never have been—under assault in the United States.  (Minority religions such as Native American practices have faced sanction throughout our history, but not majoritarian white Christianity).

What has been under assault is a certain vision of U.S. culture, one what sees the past 70 years or so as a gradual retreat from the mid-20th Century accommodation of religious and secular power in the “establishment era” of American Protestantism.  For most of us, this has seemed to be a natural and rational evolution and the kind of secularization that would naturally emerge in an increasingly culturally and intellectually diverse nation.  For others, though, this period has been a succession of horrors, and the politics of the turn of the 21st Century have found a way (powerfully instantiated in religious media) to articulate that sense of panic and grievance, embodied most recently in the contradictory alliance of conservative Protestantism with Donald Trump.

The narrative that attracts and motivates the martyrdom of the anti-lockdown protesters is a powerful one for them and for many others.

There is much more to be said about all of this. Each of these strains of cultural history, discourse, and narrative deserves much more attention than I can give it here.  This is an outline.

But my point remains:  for culturalist media scholarship, our research materials are at the very center of these troubling times.  Culture is our business, as it were.  It is our job to build knowledge about how cultural narratives and cultural markings are constituted, how they work, how they make sense to certain interests and how they elide contradictions.

People who willingly resist rational, secular, scientific authority, and put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of grievance, nostalgia, and a return to an imagined past marked by religious and gendered traditionalism and nativism demonstrate that our received focus on material and practical “interests” has been missing something.  The times are showing us what we should have been able to see all along. That is that in certain ways and certain places,

Culture is everything.

A thoughtful and thorough analysis ran this morning on Fivethirtyeight.

The upshot:  lots of evidence that the rightword political tilt of conservative Protestantism over the past three decades has had the consequence of driving moderate and liberal voters away from religion and toward the Democratic party.  This, of course, has led to claims that the Democrats are increasingly “godless.”

The social science behind this is all good, except, this analysis goes where most of those studies go–to suggest that the effects of this will be large-scale drift away from religion. And, indeed, as younger people–even younger Evangelicals–are driven away by this politicization–there may be effects in this direction.

But, most of this work equates “religion” with institutional religion.

A voice from the world of media and religion scholarship: mine.  That is not the only possible consequence.  There is lots of evidence that there are non-institutional, public-media-based places where people can and do find religion.

I–along with many others–was shocked and saddened to learn of the death over the weekend of Wade Clark Roof.  Clark was a trusted mentor, friend, scholarly conversation-partner…and a fine human being.  Ironically, he was to be honored with this year’s AAR Martin E. Marty Award–something he richly deserved.  I looked forward to joining his many friends and colleagues in celebrating with him there….

I, and the whole world of scholarship of contemporary religion, will miss him.

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