Amy King, “Perspective”

for X., because you need to stop being racist and apologizing for all that is wrong in the world. There are harsher consequences than my words or anger. There have to be.

When this age only lives as a topic of academic interest, years from now, I don’t think it will be possible to communicate how central the concept of race was to us. I don’t even know the remote past would understand our obsession, as it looks to me like Ancient Greece would be vicious to anyone who was a stranger, but not directly because of skin color. The future will probably take note of our bigotry and racism the way we do of superstitions we’ve rejected. “People really believed that?” they’ll gasp, and then they’ll get into their self-driving cars and be amused by an assortment of fully automated fidget spinners, thinking no more of our silly opinions.

It is up to us, then, to understand our obsession with indulging stereotypes and prejudice. It isn’t as simple as mere ignorance — it’s about wielding power. White nationalism translates into material gains for some, status gains for others. But even that is not sufficient to explain its appeal. The only thing I know, something I must try to communicate to the future, is that a more complex and fatal humor defines the body politic. Amy King’s “Perspective” helps illustrate just how nasty and troubling it is:

Perspective (from Poetry)
Amy King

When I see the two cops laughing 
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you're going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!, 
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.
I think of a clip from the hours 
of amateur footage I've seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way 
the dark red pools by the standing cop's feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying 
while black and which one stands by white. 
I think this morning about the student 
in my class who wrote a free write line 
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, "...the homoerotic 
scene against a white sky" with no other men 
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script? I ask my students. 
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

The perspective King starts with is well-documented, and it is safe to say America knows it, though many try to deny it. One will find her first 8 lines contentious. Cops on TV laughing about a gunshot wound sounds absurd for those unaware of years of police militarization. Flag-waving, romanticizing instruments of state violence, makes a lot of money for media organizations not formally tied to the government. Precisely because of this, one might argue that the motives of those who are never critical of police or soldiers are purer. They see a powerful country with serious devotion to law, order, security, and love media that praise what is ordinarily praiseworthy. They don’t see the below as insanity, but as strength, if they admit it ever happened at all:

When I see the two cops laughing
after one of them gets shot
because this is TV and one says
while putting pressure on the wound,
Haha, you’re going to be fine,
and the other says, I know, haha!,
as the ambulance arrives—
I know the men are white.

On the one hand, King invites us into her subjectivity. “I know the men are white,” she declares after verse documenting no less than a literal violent fantasy. On the other hand, she bears witness. She sees what the TV presents, and the television shows an officer saying he knows he’ll be fine after a deadly confrontation. She all but says outright that some do not have to bear the costs of deadly violence while inflicting it on others. America is more than a violent place: it’s a playground for killers.

Against this, many will argue. They’ll say this is jaundiced, influenced by identity politics. They’ll insist on the impartiality of law and order, claiming that no one gets abused by the law if they’re not doing anything wrong already. King cuts off these arguments, though, through three simple words: this is TV. There’s no way you could show this unless it was shocking or acceptable. Everyone in America knows it isn’t shocking — the arguments against critics of police violence simply seek to discredit the critics. There’s only trying to justify violence, never trying to make peace or insist on deescalation. America belongs to a few who can do whatever they like with it. The Spartans, we note, used to mount ferocious campaigns of ritual slaughter against the Helots to keep their skills sharp and keep the Helots in line.

It isn’t just the television, though. We have hours upon hours of abuse of power documented by amateurs. We don’t care that it tells the exact same story:

I think of a clip from the hours
of amateur footage I’ve seen
when another man at an intersection
gets shot, falls, and bleeds from a hole
the viewer knows exists only by the way
the dark red pools by the standing cop’s feet,
gun now holstered, who
yells the audience back to the sidewalk.
I know which one is dying
while black and which one stands by white.

Our media, which will outlast us, stands as record of what we did and consumed, revels in presenting raw violence and fear as legitimate authority. Still, the viewer only knows the man is dying because of pools of blood; the actual violence done to a black body is invisible to us. It’s insane that we live in the 21st century and people genuinely believe others are less human than they are, but that’s what it takes to not see violence done to others and retch. That the officer with gun now holstered… yells the audience back to the sidewalk might seem a frightening detail, and to some in this country, it is. To many though, it is the essence of morality.

The romanticizing of state violence goes hand-in-hand with violence in the name of sect. What ails America now is the same thing Jefferson once warned us about: the religious wars of Europe are here. Only, instead of Protestant vs. Catholic, we kill in the name of morality itself. People genuinely believe that without guns they cannot be free, as apparently Jesus wasn’t free. They believe that without the willingness to kill, to defend something sacred, they will be destroyed from within. To purge themselves of their own sin, they kill minorities; morality is the ability to use one’s arms for a supposed good. The disease is diversity, everything around you that could be a foreign thought. Everything is idolatry except devotion to the holy sword.

You could say this is an NRA/KKK fantasy come to life, and it certainly is. You might even say it is a minority of Americans. There I would stop you. It’s not a minority. It’s the product of having everything and not having any real values. That it is contentious to link Christianity with peace on earth shows how far we have fallen. No Jeremiah will show up this time, as the prophets spoke to this ages ago. We are the authors of our own decline, and we secretly know we replaced God with ethno-nationalist hatred. Like anyone devoted to the craft of bullying, we double-down. The fervor of our belief will save us — God will save the ignorant, will He not? I have news, and it isn’t good: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t like seeing people gun others down and then call anyone critical “the real racists.” I’m pretty sure that’s a one way ticket to Hell. But what do I know: I read Nietzsche and Marx, both of whom Tom DeLay told me were the anti-Christ (apparently there’s two).

America is a free country, and that means there will always be a debate over values. Can that debate, though, be allowed to dictate the value of human life? The strange thing is that in this environment, any observation will become part of that debate, and thus any observation could determine, directly or indirectly, the value of life. “Judge not that you will not be judged.” Underneath all our violence is some kind of erotic longing, but that eros does not promise peace. It promises confusion, where we don’t know how we see, how others see, and trust is lacking all over:

I think this morning about the student
in my class who wrote a free write line
on the video I played
that showed a man pouring water
on his own chest, “…the homoerotic
scene against a white sky” with no other men
present. Who gets to see and who follows
what script?
I ask my students.
Whose lines are these and by what hand
are they written?

Maybe a homoerotic image was shown on the video during class; maybe there was something devoid of any eroticism. “Pouring water” might indicate some kind of cleansing. What is sacred to one is outrageous to another. Instead of looking to resolve confusion, restore trust, King preaches responsibility. The student is to reflect on who gets to see, what script she followed. If you say something, why did you say it, but also how did you say it? Are certain statements — certain perspectives — privileged? This is not simply Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” where the majority limit opinions because they hold fast to a few. This is the problem of tyranny, pure and simple. If you can throw entire religious and ethnic groups out of the country based on your paranoia only, you’re not quite the worst sort of tyrant — you’re not a genocidal maniac, necessarily — but holy, you’re pretty bad. One has to take responsibility for one’s perspective, and yes, that includes me, too: Whose lines are these and by what hand are they written? The failure of modern democracy is that moral responsibility really is one’s domain, and unfortunately, people would rather create cults than work to accept others.

1 Comment

  1. There are two spheres intersecting here and that creates complexity. Too many people operate in both using a rubric suited only to one, and that is the problem. Two spheres: external and internal; and, no, I am not advocating hypocrisy or overlooking that sometimes they bump into each other and even enter into one another, merging. Two spheres…we tend to judge based on the external such as skin or even shallow labels, when it should be the opposite: we should judge based on the content of a person’s character. And we tend to forget that we can tolerate some things that are different from our own internal beliefs…as long as they are not threatening. But we must not tolerate anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of life. So, how does this relate to King’s poem?

    She applies color to values but they are transparent and colorless, though we can see them. And the real fishbowl contains only a hierarchy of meat eaters: those who eat bugs and worms and are sometimes content with stale bread, and those who eat other fish and sometimes take bait. But in a fishbowl we can label them based on external features of speciation and we can generally anticipate their diets based on those qualities; though this is not possible with humans. We have been given choices. It was God-ordained: trees and their fruits. And so we know each other by our fruits, we can tell whether a person eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or whether s/he has chosen the tree of life (which is wisdom).

    So, yes, the physical hand writes a record, but it emerges from the heart, not the surface skin, and a script is born. But God is the judge of whether or not it should live.

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