The painting is of Jesus Christ on the cross. It’s very apparent, but also quite jarring in its differences from the iconography of European Christianity in the 20th century. Marc Chagall, the Jewish painter, deliberately estranged and defamiliarized the painting’s subject. The cross on which he is crucified does not have a top and is shaped more like a “T” (as some scholars say many crucifixes were). Christ himself is wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl. This is not Jesus as Christian messiah we are seeing suffer, but Jesus as Jew.
White Crucifixion was painted by Chagall in 1938. Kristallnacht, the anti-Jewish pogrom that was officially sanctioned by Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels, had taken place just prior to his starting the painting. It was a plea for the world to acknowledge and pay attention to what was being done to Europe’s Jews at the time. It seems strange, with the full horrific magnitude of the Holocaust so well-documented and commemorated, to think that Germany’s inhuman treatment of Jews needed acknowledging, but so it was.
The inversion of the Christ-figure was deliberately chosen by Chagall. To take the figurehead and savior of the world’s dominant religion and revert him back to Jewish martyr was to force the viewer to question how they view atrocity. It prevented them from distancing themselves from it, categorizing it away. It took the notion of identity and pulled it out of the abstract, jarring the person to ask not just question how they identify, but with whom.
Around the suffering Christ are scenes that we now identify with the push to erase the Jewish people. A synagogue is engulfed in flames. Families flee in boats and on foot as Nazi soldiers pursue them. In short, the world of European Jewry – its towns, its culture, its communities – burns. But the catastrophe is ultimately not limited within these confines. The unreal blending together of various tableaus, placing several disparate scenes on the same plane, leaves us wondering when these same flames might spread beyond. The realities of oppression are such that they never simply impact who they are directed against.
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There is something chillingly apropos in Saturday’s mass shooting taking place when it does, intersecting three different communities very much facing the wrath of the American right. Omar Mateen opened fire at Pulse nightclub during Latin Night, where Latinx and Puerto Rican drag queens were to perform. It took place during Pride Month. Donald Trump has characteristically taken the opportunity to dust off his “ban all Muslims” routine. Hillary Clinton has characteristically only been slightly less bellicose, making the strange assertion that she’s “not afraid” to speak of radical Islam. Both have essentially erased the valence of sexual and gender orientation from the picture. As have others in the media.
This is a calculated tactic. To admit that what happened in Orlando was first and foremost an act of homophobia is to tacitly confess that homophobia and transphobia are real and dangerous phenomena. It is a politically expedient alternative to blame the event on something that came from “outside.” Bad things happen “over there” because “over there” has a phantasmagorical culture or vague history that somehow explains the horrific brutality and bloodletting. And when “over there” starts to inch closer – the bodies of refugees washing up on European shores, terror attacks in metropoles like Paris and Brussels – they are to be viewed as an existential threat in which the west is blameless. All the easier it then is to bomb the hell out of them later. As Trump and Clinton are both characteristically calling for now. Thus the circle tightens.
Let’s broaden the scope without distorting it. Let’s put aside the media lenses that make the tragedies of other nations seem somehow less tragic. Let’s talk about that shooting at Pulse nightclub for what it was: an act of racialized queerphobic and transphobic terror.
Let's call the context what it is: a scenario in which the long attempt to impose a new American century has spun into chaos abroad and curdled at home. And let's call Omar Mateen what he was: a man twisted and shaped by the context. He was an avatar for perpetual blowback, a distillation of militarism, hypermasculinity and bigotry in an empire that only knows how to dig in its heels.
Omar Mateen was, after all, a US citizen, and had wrapped himself in some of America’s most toxic cultural manifestations. He worked for an infamous global mercenary firm and was contracted as a juvenile corrections officer. He may have had aspirations to be a cop. All are vocations that value the forcible repression of the ill-behaved. At work he was known to be violent, threatening and outwardly bigoted. At home, he was abusive. He clearly had anger issues. And now, yet another twisted and disturbing wrinkle is added: the possibility of him being a deeply self-hating gay man. Whether ultimately true or not (he may have just been scouting his planned target) it is clear that this is a man who dealt with his insecurities through violent shame.
On balance, all of this should make the spatialized othering described above much more difficult. Ominously, that hasn’t been the case. None of these basic truths are being treated as relevant by politicians. Omar Mateen was Afghan, a Muslim, and supposedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State over the phone as he carried out the attack. These bits of information are, apparently, all we need to know. They are being recycled and reused and will continue to be in the coming days, rationalizing and making foreign an act that has become quintessentially American. Blame for this shooting lays elsewhere, in something or someone that can be externalized. Never are any of the responsible factors homegrown.
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Identities are constructs, yes, but they are fluid constructs, and of a dual character. Adopted and embraced, they can provide a sense of personal empowerment. But when they are enforced, when they become lines-you-shall-not-cross, they can be weaponized.
With this in mind, we should ask what it is that so many mass shooting targets have in common. Why did Mateen target a gay Latinx nightclub, adding more to a long line of such attacks? Why did Dylann Roof target a church? Why are mosques so often the object of Islamophobic ire? Why did Wade Michael Page target a Sikh temple? What do these spaces share in terms of function?
All are community spaces. More pointedly, they are communal spaces, as in spaces where people commune. They chant, they often sing and clap, sometimes they dance, all as a way of cementing shared identity through some form of collective spiritual activity. They are outward expressions of shared social position of one kind or another. They are places where an existence as some kind of static “other” can be converted into something alive, even transcendent, brushing up against the total and universal.
That some of this spiritual activity is religious in nature and some of it secular, that some of it may be overly-corporate or problematic somehow, is secondary to the one who does it violence. Carnival, even in its tamest and most watered down version, is ultimately anathema to demands that the oppressed stay in line.
A thought should also be spared – given that talk of “bombing ISIS” is being tossed around with such aplomb – for the human and cultural casualties of Daesh. The movement that has over the past two years become America’s greatest external threat is, of course, a direct outgrowth of the instability brought to the region by the invasion of Iraq and other imperial excursions. The more inhuman the occupation, the more inhuman these outgrowths will be. And so Daesh’s ire against art, music, culture and transgressive celebration eerily mirrors that of the American right. Same for their hatred of queer folk, and ethnic/religious minorities. Apples, trees and so on…
Theodor Adorno observed, in the aftermath of the same Holocaust that shook Chagall and so many other artists and writers, that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The statement is often misinterpreted and vulgarized as “No poetry after Auschwitz.” But with the brutal inertia of racism and empire sinking deeper and deeper into the fabric of the everyday, it can often seem that even this vulgarization might be coming true. And if it is, then what we are losing is more than nice words or pretty pictures, but a key component of what it means to be not just human but part of a human race. That is what is at stake with Pulse and other spaces like it.
Cynicism of media and politicians notwithstanding, the reaction to Orlando has been thankfully heartening. Declarations from Muslim groups in support of the LGBT+ community, as well as denunciations of Islamophobia from queer organizations. Now is the time to point out that lines of identity can be blurred from the bottom up. To highlight the fact that there is such a thing as queer Muslims and Muslim queers, including ones that are accepted by their religious and gender-orientative cohorts. Social boundaries can be crossed, “who you are” can be redefined, and spaces in which this takes place deserve to be defended.
It will take much more than that to uproot this sickness, though. It’s simply not the case that “the war has come home.” The war was never not here, it’s just been waged by other means. I would like to believe that this is dawning on more and more people. Militancy and solidarity are called for – unapologetic and systematic in their drawing together bigotry at home, empire abroad and vice versa.
The world is not just burning. It has been set ablaze with ruthless deliberateness, even if the flames have gone well beyond the control of those who started them.