The woman with the pink velvet poppies twined around the assisted gold of her hair traversed the crowded room at an interesting gait combining a skip with a sidle, and clutched the lean arm of her host:
‘Representative Ilhan Omar…
*pause for boos*
‘… has a history of launching vicious, anti-Semitic screeds…’
What Donald Trump, the assisted gold of his hairpiece shining under stadium lights, said of Rep. Ilhan Omar is patently untrue. The Congresswoman had made statements questioning the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and duly apologized for any unwitting stumble into old tropes over the ‘divided loyalties’ of Jewish-Americans. While responses to this apology varied, the appeal on either side of the issue was to nuance. But a Trump rally is, to invoke the 1927 short story by Dorothy Parker, para-quoted above, an altogether different ‘Arrangement in Black in White.’
‘Oh I get so furious when people are narrow-minded about colored people. It’s just all I can do not to say something’…
In Trump’s narrative, his incitement of his crowd was not venomous petulance over Omar’s opposition to his border security bill, but a sincere desire to protect racial tolerance. The clamour of his followers to deport a woman of colour for the dual crimes of participating in the political system, and having opinions on its nature (one might say it’s swampiness) comes not out of hate, but the most generous and liberal instincts. In this looking-glass reality, a milkshake splattered over the Saville Row suit really is more oppressive and dangerous than a hand tightened around a protester’s throat.
As with last week’s piece on Anne Widdecombe and Brexit’s Orwellian DNA, we acknowledge that Donald Trump’s odious solicitations to his supporters were vile, reprehensible, terrifying and dangerous while aiming to go beyond performative outrage. There is plenty of scope for this – Trump had earlier called for Omar and three other Democratic congresswomen of colour – Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley to ‘go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. The Nuremberg moment captured in his address to the adoring throng was a callback to the ‘locke her up’ chants of 2016 Trump claimed he had not intended… It was just all he ‘could do not to say something.’
As is generally well understood, the true context to these developments was not the stadium or, heaven forfend the White House press room, but Twitter, the world’s largest, most successful and consistently unpleasant online game (as noted years ago by the critic Charlie Brooker). It is a platform where people, institutions and brands – the Drouth – included curate and perform personas quite literally @ each other.
Among these personas is Ilhan Omar’s, who responded to Trump’s call for a lynching with this tweet:
You May Shoot me with your words
You may cut me with your eyes
You may kill me with your hatefulness
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Pitting poetry (Maya Angelou’s) against thuggery is a classy move, but the role these avatared performances of our political and social divisions play is one worth considering. What does it mean to participate in ‘gamified’ political discourse – where beliefs are performed, we react with the curator’s eye for optics, disputants are enemies and we literally score points (likes) with our notional tribes as we try to win each encounter?
Such an arrangement in black and white is now as regular to us as the daily lunchtime conclave of the ‘vicious circle’ that was the Algonquin Roundtable (c1919-1929) was to its co-founder Dorothy Parker. She was the great anthropologist of performance, of veneer, of the ‘scene’, her short fiction, poems and reviews replete with stylish snark and testaments of almost unbearable exchanges of wit. At least, this was the Round Table of legend, as curated by the eary-wigging pressmen lurking around its edges, reporting every prank and put down. A ‘New Yorker’ magazine reality, as trustworthy as your pretentious schoolfriend’s Facebook status. Froth, of the best and most skillfully wrought kind.
“I think it’s an actual privilege to meet a man like Walter Williams. Of course I do admit when you get a bad colored man they are simply terrible.”
But however unreal her own reality, Parker’s fictions were honed by an extensive fieldwork among women with pink velvet poppies and hair of assisted colours. Said character is clearly emblematic – for what can be more American than her frothy insistence that she has absolutely ‘no feeling’ about musician Walter Williams’ African American background? Williams is named, peered at, talked about – but never truly talked with. The woman and her Calvin-Coolidge-esque host draw him into conversation – but it is a sham. He stays on its edges, spectating while the woman makes a play of her own tolerance and open mindedness. Her breezy performance cuts off every opportunity he offers to plunge through the froth into matters of substance.
As a result, our questions as to why having ‘no feeling’ is somehow a virtue, or how the absent husband defines ‘a bad colored man’ have no answers. But the original readership of Arrangement in Black and White already knew them – and why they must be unspoken.
It would be disrespectful to generations of civil rights activism in America to say we remain at Parker’s dinner party from Hell any more than she still lunches at the Algonquin Lounge. Progress there has been – Omar, Tlaib, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez are themselves, emblems of a different American reality. But the froth of Parker’s story bubbles from American racial neuroses that are depressingly persistent. What lies beneath the frothy, toxic-foam chatter of the woman with pink velvet poppies does and should, frighten us.
“The only thing he says is that he wouldn’t sit down at the table with one for a million dollars. ‘Oh,’ I say to him, ‘you make me sick talking like that.’ I’m just terrible to him. Aren’t I terrible?’
Oh, no, no,” said her host. “no, no.”
This uneasiness over our how ‘appropriately’ we act brings us to the controversies surrounding Omar’s colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A persistent target of the ‘alt right’ she has also drawn criticism from Senior Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi over her subversive approach to the rules of American political practice, often expressed through her own prolific use of social media to sidestep committees and gain leverage on issues such as Climate Change, economic inequality and race. As the party mandarins bristle over the ‘impatience’ of the four women targeted by Trump, the latter barely conceal their contempt at the sham-conviviality enshrined in the way things are currently done. These are, after all, time where being ‘terrible’ to racists and neo-nazis reflects badly on us. So if we do see a milkshake frothiness to Omar and Ocasio Cortez’s tweet-happy tactics, can we not also see coded here a much deeper critique of the way in which people of colour have been perpetually left in ellipsis?
“Honestly, I can’t get it out of my head. I have my husband nearly crazy, the way I go around humming it all the time. Oh, he looks just as black as the ace of. . . Well. Tell me, where on earth do you ever get all those songs of yours? How do you ever get hold of them?”
“Why,” he said, “there are so many different . . .”
“I should think you’d love singing them,” she said.
The Pelosi Ocasio-Cortez disagreement is one of real substance, that speaks to the heart of what we see and expect in the American system. But it is also a conveniently frothy drama of the tensions within the current Democratic Party. Especially Parker-esque are the deeper socio-political currents that bubble up through it. At its heart are a myriad of questions over what is the correct arrangement to bring Trump and his sinister cohorts down? Do you upstage or no-platform? Do you dismantle said platform or purify it? Do we mount the roundtable or sit at it? Do we speak in such black and white binaries – or not?
And as we do consider this, let us not forget the crimes of those bewigged in assisted gold and married (in the wider sense) to bigots. We must look hard at what Parkerian froth tells us about America’s substance, and the poisons that lace it.