Opinionista Siya Khumalo 6 July 2020

How Eusebius McKaiser’s review of ‘White’ presages a rupture in culture wars

Let’s look at what philosophical and ideological touchstones seem absent from mainstream ‘woke’ discourse, how the excerpts that McKaiser read from ‘White’ underscore those shortcomings, and why it’s crucial to reinforce those joints before they’re pressure-tested.

Conventional wisdom says one shouldn’t write about a book one has just started. But this article isn’t about Bret Easton Ellis’s White (Random House, 2019) as much as Eusebius McKaiser’s engagement with it. The book’s title and McKaiser’s choice to review it make me think he’s foreseeing a shift in political and ideological winds we’d do well to get ahead of. 

“Wokeness”, as it’s sometimes called, is like postmodernism in its lack of some of the philosophical and ideological touchstones that have anchored other major movements. McKaiser’s willingness to read White matters, because beyond symbolic solidarity on the part of the privileged, the systemic policy implications of wokeness are going to require answers to the kinds of questions raised, perhaps in an insensitive tone at a sensitive time, by White

McKaiser clarified that he wasn’t defending Ellis’s body of work; he hadn’t read him exhaustively or even finished White. But I suspect McKaiser said this to skirt the possibility of the proponents of “cancel culture” denouncing his engagement with the ideas in White on account of their source and the book’s title. This is consistent with Ellis’s critiques of wokeness, whose philosophical and ideological strength lies in the numbers of its supporters more than in the strength of its syllogisms. 

The ethical imperatives raised by a movement like #BlackLivesMatter are glaring, but contrary to human intuition no ethical imperatives are self-attesting except by contrast with existing practices. That means an appeal to the obviousness of some moral imperatives works while we’re discussing a man being murdered on the street, but is less effective when we discuss instituting economic redress policies, and even less as the stakes become more obscure. 

#BlackLivesMatter may succeed in saving black bodies, but not black lives. That there’s criticism towards McKaiser’s choice to discuss some of the book’s strengths suggests the momentum of the social justice movement is only as enduring as the deaths of black people are graphic. So, assuming Ellis makes the sort of argument I extrapolated from McKaiser’s discussion, let’s look at what philosophical and ideological touchstones seem absent from mainstream “woke” discourse, how the excerpts that McKaiser read from White underscore those shortcomings, and why it’s crucial to reinforce those joints before they’re pressure-tested. 

Ellis compares the way gay white maleness as a cultural movement “defends” its existence through movies like King Cobra (and indirectly, American Gigolo) with how “wokeness” presents itself through Moonlight, a movie about a gay black man. The former two are “whiter”, assuming many of the freedoms the protagonist of the latter has to relentlessly fight for throughout the movie. But Moonlight’s critical race theory and wokeness don’t offer a compelling moral alternative to the allegiance white people have with the privilege that stands in the way of change. 

“When did people start identifying so relentlessly with victims, and when did the victim’s worldview become the lens through which we began to look at everything?” Ellis asks. Describing it as an “Oprah experience” whose sullenness “underlies its basic conservatism”, he says, “The movie asks us to endure Chiron’s pain without offering us much of anything else. There’s nothing particularly interesting or admirable about Chiron, so the only thing at stake is his sadness and pain. He’s not into anything – not music or poetry or comic books – and is simply a cipher. And because of this Moonlight seems to like its bullying scenes, climaxing when Chiron gets beat up by a schoolmate, most of all, and this is when the movie becomes active instead of passive and Barry Jenkins is strongest and most direct as a filmmaker. The movie is an elegy to pain, bursting with one feel-bad moment after another, a litany of rejections.” 

#BlackLivesMatter may succeed in saving black bodies, but not black lives. That there’s criticism towards McKaiser’s choice to discuss some of the book’s strengths suggests the momentum of the social justice movement is only as enduring as the deaths of black people are graphic.

That as an artistic offering – the story of a black boy so suppressed, so unable to breathe that that’s all that’s left to depict of him – matters to those of us who’ve lived that. Society produces that and must be shown what “suffering caused by victimisation” is like from an inside many are familiar with.

Ellis doesn’t quite confuse style with substance, but he does impute substantiality to the style offered by the “white” movies without extending the same generosity to depictions of suffering in the “black” movie. Is he aware that if he argues that suffering isn’t inherently virtuous, then neither can he say hedonism is inherently virtuous either – no matter how stylishly depicted? Nor is overcoming adversity necessarily noble. We don’t consider convicted criminals’ daring escapes from prisons noble, yet the alternative destiny Ellis offers the character of Moonlight (as what it’d take to make the character more interesting) seems more interested in individualistic self-realisation than moral self-realisation. 

“Wouldn’t it have been a more ‘progressive’” – read: morally compelling – “view if Chiron had defeated his old victimized self, if this big and beautiful black guy by then could have easily found physical intimacy and perhaps affection and maybe even love on the down-low? Maybe dissatisfied or unhappy, but that would have constituted a dramatic progression and an ideological triumph.” 

I won’t speak to the hints of fetishisation in that, nor to whether pleasure is intimacy is happiness is joy is progressiveness. What’s more interesting is Ellis’s wish that Moonlight’s consumers had an appetite for protagonists who overcome the violence of the systems from which the characters of the movies he does enjoy, benefit. Since might is not right, neither would a black story about the triumph of the human spirit have necessarily made the grade for Ellis’s cultural appetite anyway. And those stories do exist.

Though he says he isn’t saying King Cobra and American Gigolo are “better” in the moral sense, only that they’re artistically superior to Moonlight, that valuation can’t be read apart from his refusal to agree with “woke” people that the suffering in Moonlight presents some sort of “virtue”. Much as he denies it, he does sound like he’s making a moral argument for white gay males’ right to enjoy movies and cultural experiences that allow them to transcend, ignore or even benefit from the suffering of black people, as long as it happens offscreen and the immediate picture is artistically kosher because suffering doesn’t necessarily amount to a case for a new global moral centre of gravity that challenges said white privilege. 

A moral law without a moral lawgiver is a platitude, a preference enforceable, again, by the power of some over others. And sometimes, the power is more important than the preference itself.

So, Ellis understands that a shift in the status quo requires first a sufficient reason to move this way instead of standing still or moving the other way. But this supposes some developments in character are better for individuals and society than others are, and individuals are obligated to follow any development that benefits both. But where does this obligation originate? By what standard are some things deemed “better” than others, and how is it different from mine or Ellis’s whims? What distinguishes ethical imperatives from moral platitudes? Until popular woke discourse anchors ethical imperatives in something that transcends humans and humanism, there’ll always, in the words of author Toni Morrison, be one more thing. 

Even if we agree on the contents of a moral code, we may still have the situation described by Mark Greene in 48 Laws of Power where those who seem most amenable to fairness actually seek to control the distribution of power or to play God. There’s no way to tell that people aren’t doing this, but the inconsistency of the worldviews they profess is a clue. A moral law without a moral lawgiver is a platitude, a preference enforceable, again, by the power of some over others. And sometimes, the power is more important than the preference itself.

Consistency means none of us can write an economic policy without accounting for where the natural resources in said economy come from (otherwise any source of goods or services down the distribution chain may be treated like a slave). Economic policy is where social justice lives or dies because redress has to be economical. Beyond accounting for where natural resources come from, then, the writer of economic policy has to show that what he or she says ought to be done with those natural resources is congruent with the purpose for which the creator of natural resources made those resources: failing this, the justification for all economic activity is artificially imposed on resources that weren’t created for that purpose. Such economic systems can be considered violent before they’ve produced one corpse, and a naturalistic account of the origin of natural resources yields Darwinian capitalism, bringing us right back to the dystopian society we live in anyway. 

So why should an Ellis switch allegiance from the economic ideals behind King Cobra to those behind Moonlight

“I can’t claim that King Cobra is a better movie than Moonlight but on an emotional-aesthetic level I prefer it as a gay-themed picture, because with its casual tossed-off manner it has no problem visualizing complicated reserves of gay male desire. White privilege makes it easier for these guys to connect effortlessly, and to publicly exploit their bodies and sexuality.”

These are astonishing confessions, by the way: “White privilege makes it easier for these guys to connect effortlessly.” Ellis goes on to explain how the characters get to enact and actualise their desires and motivations such that “the explicit gay sex in King Cobra isn’t dictated by its porn milieu background, and this is why the movie seems a step ahead of Moonlight.” And that, to a reader who hasn’t read the whole book but has watched the movies, says privilege is virtuous and shouldn’t be disturbed. All that stabilises Ellis’s case from reductively collapsing into that is the comparative argument that the victimhood depicted in Moonlight fails at representing wokeness as virtuous. 

“If [Justin] Kelly” of King Cobra “flirts with a bitchy camp aesthetic, that’s mostly folded into the true-crime narrative – the movie is soapy, not campy. The best scenes involve gay men talking about money, and the negotiations and power games they enact, rather than trying to illustrate how they’re so shut down by society, by ideology, by homophobic parents, whatever.” Whatever, indeed.

His description of the “most compelling scene” reveals the ultimate moral conclusion of what he seems to be advocating: “… a long take in a sushi bar where three of the lead characters are discussing business, done in a very slow zoom and with behavioural details and funny asides and digressions that hint at the film King Cobra could have been, but finally, it’s just a soft-core exploitation movie, sleazy, energetic, and not afraid of being tacky. This occasionally reminds you that sometimes artlessness can be an aesthetic, too.” 

Elsewhere he writes, “I prefer King Cobra because this is the rare post-gay film in which no one is tortured about being gay, no one gets bullied, no one is ashamed, no one has tearfully passionate coming-out scenes, and there’s no gay suffering at all – there’s a murder, but it’s over money. And isn’t this, in our new acceptance of gay lives and equality, whether black or white, the more progressive view?” 

Progress towards what, exactly? DM

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