America’s Parallel Realities: Are We All in the Wrong Movie?

What is most striking in today’s America is the fundamental disjointedness, for lack of a better word, between realities.
Hans-Georg Betz, Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right, CARR, QAnon conspiracy, Donald Trump QAnon, conspiracy theories, USC professor suspended, racist language, Alexandria House author, N-word controversy

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September 10, 2020 06:29 EDT

In the early 1960s, one of the most popular series on American television was “The Twilight Zone.” This was a time when television, even in the United States, was still in black and white. Most of the show’s episodes were riveting, poignant and, in a number of cases, scary as hell — starting with the haunting tune at the beginning of each episode.

“The Twilight Zone” reflected the anxieties and fears of a generation faced with the horrifying potential of technology capable of obliterating humanity. At the same time, it was informed by the equally terrifying capability of humans, if given the chance, to commit the most horrendous atrocities against other humans as long as there was a political regime that both sanctioned and encouraged them in the name of some kind of narrative, based on religion, race, class or superior insight.

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It might not come as a surprise that in recent years, there has been an upsurge in references to “The Twilight Zone.” As the author of a 2018 article put it, the “anti-fascist, anti-racist themes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ are more relevant today than ever.” So are the themes referring to environmental catastrophes which also featured prominently in the series.

For me, however, the reason “The Twilight Zone” has increasingly popped up in my mind lies elsewhere, in the way many of the episodes were constructed. A person wakes up in the morning in his or her familiar setting. A few hours later, he or she enters a fundamentally different reality, finds him or herself “in the wrong movie.” This is how I feel when I read American newspapers today and expose myself to the latest news. What is most striking in today’s America is the fundamental disjointedness, for lack of a better word, between realities.

Episode 1: The Case of the Racist USC Professor

A couple of days ago, the idyllic world of American academia was rudely awoken by an egregious case of blatant racism in the classroom or, rather, in the virtual space of Zoom-enhanced higher learning. A widely-known and celebrated business communications professor at the University of Southern California, which is generally better known for its prowess in college football than its academic achievements, repeatedly used the N-word — or at least what appeared to be the N-word — during a lecture.

Commenting on the importance of filler words in communications, he used as an example the expression “nei ge.” The use of the expression caused much distress among African American students, resulting in the demand that the professor be immediately sanctioned. The university complied, putting him on administrative leave.

As it happens, my wife is Chinese. When she speaks to her relatives and friends, every other sentence is interrupted by “nei ge.” It appears to be one of the most common expressions in Chinese, much like an English “um” or “uh,” allowing the speaker to take a pause to find the appropriate words to finish the sentence. In today’s victim culture, however, an innocent expression is turned into a signifier of racism, given the phonetic similarity between it and the N-word, much to the bewilderment of those like my wife who come from the culture that has used the expression for centuries (apparently a similar expression exists in Korean).

In the end, there is no easy way to resolve the issue. It would be easy to demand that Chinese speakers in the United States show a modicum of sensitivity when using words that might cause offense. At the same time, however, Chinese speakers have a just cause to demand that others show a modicum of sensitivity to them, give them the benefit of the doubt and abstain from assuming evil intentions.

The controversy reminds of the brouhaha over the word “niggardly,” which is the synonym of “stingy,” and has nothing to do with the N-word. Yet on several occasions, it has provoked accusations of racism, grounded more in the accuser’s unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the English language than the evil intentions of the person who dared to use it. To be sure, there are good reasons to avoid using the word. It is largely outdated, and “stingy” is a perfectly appropriate equivalent. At the same time, it is preposterous to sanction a person for the single reason that he or she uses a word that might evoke phonetic associations but which has absolutely nothing to do with the offensive term.

Episode 2: The Case of the Racist Romance Novelist

Romance novels are big sellers. In fact, they outsell most other literary genres. Its readers number in the millions, not only in the United States but worldwide. Most of the authors are women — as are the readers — and most of the women authors happen to be white. As a result, most of the stories revolve around white women getting involved with white men of either the affluent or the dangerous variety. Romance novels are replete with millionaires and billionaires just waiting to fall in love with single moms and members of motorcycle gangs with a soft core falling for the “sassy girl” next door.

There are relatively few women of color who have made it in and into the genre. One of them is Alexandria House. Her novels center around some of the strongest women the genre has produced. In fact, Alexandria House’s stories are every feminist’s dream, and for good reason. Her heroines refuse to take shit from anyone, and particularly from good-looking, cocky African American men. Her heroines are strong, ballsy women who know what they want, and they have no problem asking for it and pursuing their goals with determination and verve.

And then there is this: One of House’s best novels is “Let Me Love You,” with a Goodreads score of 4.6 out of 5. The setting is the hip-hop scene, and the main protagonists are top performers making millions with their songs. The novel has all the drama and heartache one would expect from an outstanding romance, and it delivers in a big way. This, however, is not the point. What is particularly striking to a reader sensitized to the intricacies of racist language is the fact that the novel’s author has absolutely no qualms using the N-word throughout the story. In fact, thanks to Kindle, the precise number of the N-words is easy to ascertain — 39 times, to be exact.

To be sure, things are never as clear-cut as today’s hypersensitized purists would like us to believe. The debate about the N-word, in its two versions, has been going on for decades, and it has hardly been conducted in as straightforward a fashion as one might expect. To be sure, it does make a difference who uses the N-word. In fact, as has been pointed out, used on the part of an African American author, the word has a different connotation — including expressing a sense of endearment, which, I presume, is House’s intention — than used by a white author. 

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In a recent essay in The Atlantic, John McWhorter from Columbia University has discussed the question at great depth. One of his conclusions: “Even when discussing rather than wielding the word, people —including black ones — might avoid barking out the word any more than necessary. (Or avoid writing it more than necessary, as in this very essay.) Surely, its history means that it provokes negative associations; it doesn’t sound good.”

McWhorter starts his essay with controversy at Columbia following a white professor’s evoking the N-word in reference to James Baldwin’s 1963 public statement that he was “not a nigger.” One of her (white) students objected to her uttering the word, the administration agreed and put her under investigation. Ultimately, she was cleared of suspicion that she had violated the university’s anti-discrimination rules.

For McWhorter, the very fact that a professor would be sanctioned for exploring the question of why James Baldwin would have chosen to say what he did is a clear indication of what he calls mission creep, “under which whites are not only not supposed to level the word as a slur, but are also not supposed to even refer to it. That idea has been entrenched for long enough now that it is coming to feel normal, but then normal is not always normal. It borders … on taboo.”

This brings me back to the main topic of Episode 1. Here is a case that goes even further than the “mission creep” McWhorter alludes to. It surely is a case of that “hypersensitive to injury so abstract,” so inane, it should never have become an issue of controversy. To make the point quite clear: This is not about the use of Alexandra House’s use of the word. It is about the controversy generated by the use of “nei ga.” As said before, Alexandria House is one of the very best authors of romance novels. Her rather frequent evocation of the word is largely owed, I presume, to her attempt to reflect the realities of the setting of the novel, the hip-hop scene. 

At the same time, however, in light of the controversy over the use of “nei ga,” it opens up legitimate questions that are not easy to resolve. In any case, it is probably a blessing that most college students don’t read romance novels. They might find themselves in the wrong movie.

Episode 3: The Case of the Conspiracy Theory to End All Conspiracy Theories

On August 31, during a mass protest against the German government’s draconian measures (i.e. wearing a mask) to combat the spread of COVID-19, dozens of Germany’s new freedom fighters managed to break through police lines to storm the Reichstagsbebäude in Berlin, the seat of the German parliament. For many of the demonstrators, having to wear a mask, according to one sign, was “inhuman,” almost a crime against humanity.

As it turns out, many of the freedom stormtroopers were inspired by QAnon, which has taken the white global biosphere, from the US to Germany, from Australia to France, by storm. QAnon is the new all-encompassing master narrative for all those eager minds who want to know, but for whom Marxism is far too sophisticated, Nostradamus too obscure, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion too parochial (a Jewish cabal? So 19th century!), and Scientology far too expensive. To be a QAnonista, all you need is a sign with a big “Q” and you too can sow terror and fear among the elite.

From what I understand, QAnon is a “theory,” albeit a conspiratorial one, postulating that whatever happens today is the result of the evil designs of obscure forces, from the World Economic Forum to powerful individuals such as George Soros, Bill Gates and, why not, Elon Musk. As Mike Wendling describes it for the BBC, “At its heart, QAnon is a wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media.”

In the world some of us inhabit, theory is a bunch of ideas that only gain value if subjected to an empirical test. A famous example is the Ptolemaic system, which postulated that the Earth was the center of the universe. It sounded good at the time but turned out to be completely false. The theory was debunked to be replaced by a new theory that made sense. Today, apparently, the word “theory” has a different connotation — at least among the growing number of those who believe there are dark forces at work seeking to manipulate and, ultimately, control humanity. Today we know because we know, because it makes common sense or because we’ve read it somewhere.

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This is why creationism — the notion that the Earth was created some 10,000 years ago — is a viable theory, on a par with Darwin’s theory of evolution. (Creationism is absolutely true. I saw pictures of Jesus riding and petting dinosaurs. Or the theory that the world is flat, and if you are not careful, you’ll fall off the edges. Absolutely true, too. I read it in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the ultimate source of scientific knowledge for sophisticated endeavoring teenage minds.)

In today’s populist world, where science is scorned (it’s just so last century) and scientists loathed, something is true if enough people believe it is true. QAnon is the perfect example. According to a recent poll — unfortunately based on scientific method and therefore prone to fake news-ism — one in three Republicans believes that the “theory” is mostly true. A further quarter thinks that some parts of it are true. That leaves only a bit more than a tenth who think that it is not true at all. Against that, among Democrats, a three-quarter majority hold it not true at all — the definitive proof of the pernicious influence of living in the real world.

The “success” of QAnon “theory” is symptomatic of the utter bizarreness of the schizophrenic state of reality in today’s world. For many of us, the fact that Donald Trump was elected president already evoked a strong sense that we had somehow passed into the twilight zone. Over the years of his presidency, this sense has gotten stronger and stronger. Like COVID-19, the Trump virus — that mixture of fear-mongering, appealing to raw emotions and a dose of paranoia — has slowly been infecting growing parts of our world, as recently demonstrated during the siege on the German parliament, inspired by claims that Russian and American troops were on their way to deliver the German people from its tyrannical government which forced them to wear masks.

At the same time, the fact that a professor’s reference to one of the most common expressions in the Chinese language would provoke charges of racism suggests that bizarreness is hardly confined to the right. Add COVID-19 to the mix, which has created a new dimension of parallel realities, and the scenario for a brand new “Twilight Zone” series practically writes itself.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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