09 May Chaos and Outrage
There is no doubt that we are in a time of outrage and upheaval, much of which is facilitated by the media and it’s cousin, social media. This is not a statement of blame, but instead, awareness. I believe the real culprit is an asymmetry in power that the culture can no longer bear. Black Lives Matter, #Metoo, and other connected movements have created a breach in the culture’s willingness to accept the power structure as it stands. Since that power structure is unwilling to become aware of what has become clear and obvious to those without power, rage ensues. At Rumur, we have been documenting over the last 30 years political dissent in our area in the form of short films. From this work, we have woven together a feature called “Working in Protest” which highlights the evolution of much of this rage – its ebbs and surges.
The last couple of days were as chaotic as I can recall, both personally and politically. On the personal front, my next door neighbor in Brooklyn called in a panic saying that water was rushing into my basement and it was damaging their house. I was alarmed and quickly tried to contact the tenants in our house. I was able to get someone into the basement who found some moisture in a corner near the back, but no broken pipes or clear reason for the water. When I called the neighbors back with relief that the problem was not as bad as feared, I found that the water scare was partly a pretext to complain about my Rastafarian friend who lives in and takes care of our house while we are on our sojourn in North Carolina. According to her, he is a nefarious, sordid person who is up to no good. She was hinting that he’s dealing drugs out of the house and that she won’t hesitate to call the authorities. I have known my friend for a decade, and her assertions were not tethered to reality. When my friend got home, he quickly discovered that the water was coming from the neighbors’ rain gutter and that it was actually damaging our house. He sent me pictures, and I sent them to her. I had hoped that was the end of it, but I spent most of the next morning having her yell at me about the state of my house with no indication that she would take care of the real problem. The exchange was fraught with issues of power. Rather than try to work with me to discover the problem and fix it, she was in such a rage that there was no way to communicate.
As I dealt with that nonsense (and I think it’s connected), NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was stepping down just hours after a New Yorker article detailing his abusive relationships with women appeared, Trump was cancelling the Iran deal, and a NY Magazine article was postulating that a 1.6 million dollar payment to a Playboy Bunny paid by RNC committee member Richard Broidy was actually a bribe to Trump. It was head spinning because everything in the article made much more sense than the story that had been floated by first revelations about the payment. Broidy has been married to his wife for decades and they work together in their consulting business. This is chaos.
Secrets and lies, like cryptocurrency mining, take enormous amounts of energy that are essentially unsustainable. Trump has been able to lie his way power, but lies will not keep him there. Later in the evening, Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniel’s lawyer, released documents indicating that Michael Cohen was acting as a bag man for Trump, taking payments to secure access to him. If these allegations prove to be true it is hard to understand how this administration can stay in place. Some of those payments came from a Russian Oligarch. The news today will be off the hook.
At the same time as that was unfolding, there was a blog story by the local paper in North Carolina detailing how the VP of Student Affairs at Duke went into a privately-owned coffee shop on campus (meaning that it is university property that the business leases at the pleasure of the University), and was disgusted by rap music that was playing and demanded that the African-American barista turn it off. She quickly did, apologized and offered to give him his muffin and tea for free. He insisted on paying for it. Two days later, she and her colleague working at the time were summoned to the corporate office and told that the VP had demanded they be fired. He released a statement denying that he had ordered their firing. Many people are pointing out that someone is lying. Instead, I think that someone is blind to the responsibility of power. It is much more likely that by expressing his outrage to a company that he could have removed from campus, he made it clear that “action” had to be taken. He may not have even realized he ordered that they be fired, but he is still responsible for that action because that is what was understood.
By the time I woke up, the Duke story was trending on Twitter. Outside of the realms of power, the awareness of this abuse of power, blindly as it may have been wielded, is seen for what it is. The VP’s statement, casting blame on the company for acting without his direct command, is not flying. By the end of the day, the VP will have either been fired, stepped down, or had a profound awakening and apologized profusely for his lack of awareness for how the wielding of his power played out. I think most people would agree that it was reasonable of him to ask that a song using curse words and racial slurs not be played in a campus coffee shop. However, his failure to realize that the barista was probably not completely in control of a Spotify playlist, and his refusal to simply accept an apology and move on, were tone deaf. From his original response, I’m guessing he’ll be gone one way or another. I am not making the argument that the VP has to go, just making the prediction that he will, because I don’t see how the outrage storm will allow for it.
I am not a fan of expressions of rage. I think that rage rarely leads to connected communication or a sense that both parties to a conversation feel heard. However, if the teapot is boiling, and there’s no valve for the steam to escape, it will eventually explode from the pressure. Right now the teapot is boiling and we see time and again that the only way it stops it is to open the steam valve. At some point will run out of water, but not before the teapot explodes.
UPDATE: It appears that the coffee shop has fallen on their sword and said that it was their fault for misinterpreting Duke’s contact. The statement from Duke merely re-states the statement from the coffee chain. What Duke fails to recognize is that their position of power requires that they be more direct and thoughtful in their communication. Their public statements still place all of the blame on the coffee chain, negating the fact that they wield enormous power over the small coffee chain. Fearful of being booted off of campus, the coffee chain reacted with reasonable fear of their more powerful landlord. I believe it is Duke’s responsibility to recognize how their power might create the kind of confusion that took place and share the responsibility for the problem. Twitter seems to agree, as most of the comments state exactly that.