While burrowing into virtual rabbit holes and making scatter-brained jottings in the process of writing this blog, I remembered a series of posts on Broad City’s Instagram page all featuring the caption “THIS IS THE FUTURE THAT LIBERALS WANT” with an irreverent image or video above. At the time I figured it was a response to some meme or other, but didn’t care to investigate.
So eventually I decided to investigate. Here is the conservative tweet that spawned what New Yorker columnist Ian Crouch called “the joke that liberals need”:
And here are a couple of the responses:
As it typically goes with the internet, the original post is much richer and funnier than its facetious progeny. The caption is a comically weak jab at liberals, yet the photo is the real star, a genuinely arresting and hilarious juxtaposition in its own right. Although I like Crouch’s analysis, I disagree that the “future liberals want” meme is essentially self-deprecating, since the butt of the joke is the original post’s squeamishness towards the realities of the New York Subway. And the symbiosis of text and image is fragile: its not difficult to imagine an alternate universe where the caption proudly boasts, “THIS is what America looks like:” and the cynical right-wing jests that would follow.
For legitimately self-effacing liberal humor, we must turn to another unwitting source. To Pepsi.
If you haven’t seen the controversial “Kendall Jenner Ad” by now, it is embedded below. I sincerely hope its creator does not take steps to banish it from the internet, but if they do, it should instead be put on loop in the Whitney.
For a commercial, any length exceeding one minute is ambitious; 90 seconds is ambitious even for the Super Bowl. Clocking in at 2:40, Pepsi’s parade of creative millennials is an epic. What’s even more impressive is the sheer volume of recent tropes packed into the orgasmic narrative:
The hijab at 0:15.
The man-bun at 0:25.
The brunch bunch at 0:49.
I don’t want to map out the many punchlines – Stephen Colbert and others have already had a good run at that – so much as to acknowledge that Pepsi nailed it.
The über-color-conscious casting, the cut-aways to hip Muslims and trans-queens, the meaningless picket signs, the string-jam-plus-pop-and-lock bonanza – they nailed down perhaps our most thorny liberal dilemma: though well-intentioned, the aesthetic of diversity is hopelessly lame.
Pepsi’s vision is a campy corporate caricature, but more “serious” pro-diversity art does not look or feel much different. Take Shepard Fairey’s We the People series that hit the web (and the doors of ESL teachers everywhere) around the time of the Women’s March. The red-white-and-blue portraits are bold and attractive, yet compositionally they feel like an uninspired rehash of the “HOPE” posters of 2008. With the deliberate casting of a Muslim, Latina, and Black woman as the three subjects, the series makes America’s cultural and racial diversity its central theme. However, the three women are ultimately anonymous representations – attractive symbols, as opposed to real, recognized women with real accomplishments to their credit – and altogether the images look more like patronizing fetishes than proud portraits.
The pro-diversity aesthetic sells itself as a counter-vision to “Trump’s America”; naturally, it manages to be just as cloying and vapid as the old-fashioned brand of patriotism. Since the inauguration, I’ve noticed many houses in well-to-do neighborhoods of Portland sporting lawn signs with American flags printed on them. In the blue box, bold white letters: “In Our America.” Within the stripes, familiar platitudes: “Love Wins”; “All People Are Equal”; “Diversity is Celebrated”; “Black Lives Matter.” These signs are starting to become ubiquitous in local coffeeshops, typically alongside a very loud sign stating “WE WELCOME ALL RACES, ALL ETHNICITIES, ALL GENDER IDENTITIES… etc etc.” I’ve never been more aware that I live in one of the whitest cities in America.
Thankfully, given how reactionary these posters and yard signs and commercials are, they probably aren’t here to stay. What could be more permanent (and far more pernicious) is an unwillingness to concede that a more diverse, liberal society won’t always behave as we want it to.
By far the most controversial moment of Pepsi’s ad is its climax, when Kendall Jenner confidently hands a white police officer a can of Pepsi, and he pops it open and slurps it down with a grin. On Twitter, no one – left or right – failed to locate the cringe-y irony of this post-Black Lives Matter gesture. The hand-off is not only the ad’s most unrealistic moment (and this includes the moment off-screen when the cellist decides he is going to lug his cello on his back for a mile-plus march to an unknown destination) but also the most awkward. There is absolutely no hesitation between Kendall Jenner or the cop, which is a bit odd given that most people – especially police officers – would react with measured skepticism when handed a soft drink from a stranger. Even more baffling is the inclusion of the police line in the commercial at all: the ad’s three-act narrative reaches a much more natural conclusion around the 1:30 mark, when Jenner decides to join the cute cellist and “join the conversation.” We don’t even see the police until 1:43, with an economic cutaway that quickly establishes them as frumpy white foils to the ecstatic, multi-ethnic parade. However, in Pepsi’s mind, such a long advertisement would not be complete without an epoch-defying pièce de résistance, a moment where law enforcement turns from antagonist to ally with the help of a bold, youthful heroine. So I believe the company’s claim that they were “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” and I fully agree that they “missed the mark.”
“Tone-deaf” has been the internet’s epithet-of-choice for Pepsi’s tacky epic, though a more generous observer could argue that the commercial is “utopian” or “apirational.” The ad’s most vociferous critics have been Black Lives Matter sympathizers, and perhaps the most popular meme spawned by the backlash is a photo juxtaposing Kendall Jenner with Ieshia Evans, a black woman arrested by heavily-armored policemen in Baton Rouge after the killing of Alton Sterling.
Maybe it’s too obvious or too redundant to acknowledge that the event on the left is fantasy and the event on the right is reality. On the left is a hammy dream of how things could be, on the right is the status quo: policemen armored like videogame characters charging an unarmed civilian. So is it a contradiction to aspire to the fantasy image on the left, while working diligently to rectify the factual world of the right?
The answer from the Black Lives Matter crowd seems to be a resounding yes, perhaps because the movement is less vocal about concrete efforts to repair community-police relations and more interested in drawing attention to an indefinite game of vilification and victimhood between black lives and police. Doing my part to “Never forget Ieshia Evans” (who, by the way, is not dead) I Googled her, and found an opinion piece that she published in the Guardian following her arrest. The tone is aggressively cynical:
People call us African Americans. But really we are Africans living in America. How can we call ourselves Americans when what is supposed to be our national constitution did not recognise us as human beings? We were not people – we were property. And despite the amendments, things have not really changed.
Maybe I’m missing something, but how can you in good conscience claim that “things have not really changed” since the late 18th century, since slavery? Since the 1950s, even? If not a failure of imagination, a failure to contextualize history seems to be the trademark of recent Black Lives Matter rhetoric. Evans’ fraught historical analysis finds a frustrated echo in this anti-free speech treatise penned by students at Claremont-McKenna College, who successfully de-platformed the Black Lives Matter critic Heather Mac Donald:
The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.
Again, that last sentence. The logic is so fallacious – it just doesn’t make much sense. Neither does the most widely quoted excerpt from their letter: If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Yeah, I don’t know about that.
Oh, and their list of demands, which begins quite cryptically: we invite you to respond to this email by Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 4:07pm (since we have more energy to expend on the frivolity of this institution and not Black lives).
4:07 pm. Got it.
I actually clicked-through to the story, and her pithy assessment didn’t add up. Somehow, the use of non-lethal force by police magically becomes “state terror,” and naturally, Hearns fails to mention that the reason for the stampede was an erroneous rumor that the man being arrested was an active shooter. All of that gets you “Abolish the police,” which is about as nihilistic a political statement as anyone could make.
While I understand that Hearns’ sentiment in no way neatly represents the feelings of the Black Lives Matter at large, this brand of fatalism seems very common. Scrolling through Hearns’ Twitter page, I found a link to safetypinbox.com, a site that features all the typical trappings of a Kickstarter-friendly social justice charity page. Here is their mission statement:
Safety Pin Box is a monthly subscription box for white people striving to be allies in the fight for Black Liberation. Box memberships are a way to not only financially support Black femme freedom fighters, but also complete measurable tasks in the fight against white supremacy.
Accepting donations is one thing, but I’ve never heard of an organization that charges volunteers for their labor. Or more specifically, only charges white people. Or offers no specific information about its efforts without a $100 /month subscription.
Notice, too, how their goal is “Black Liberation,” not social unity, equality, understanding, or even the vaunted “justice.”
The common thread woven through the rhetoric of Evans, Hearns, and the Claremont protesters is the insistence that institutions like universities, public schools, courts, police departments, and legislatures are incapable of moving past their histories of racism or oppression, and should either be abolished or offer concession after concession (if not reparations) to the historically marginalized. Presumably, the goal of social justice is total social equality, yet its tipping point seems more eminent: a continued frustration that seeks glorified tribalism instead of social cohesion. If we can fault Pepsi’s vision for being too glowingly benign and illusory, Black Lives Matter can also be faulted for promoting a divisive rhetoric that is not many shades away from Trump’s inaugural address.
I hate when people use the phrase “Trump’s America,” as though he owns us, as though liberals have no agency in defining the zeitgeist. It has recently occurred to me that societies as monstrous as America’s do not simply go backwards all at once: the incredible number of people who turned out for the Women’s March is a testament to that. Yet while civic engagement and liberal activism are at a record high for my lifetime, I don’t think it has ever been more hip, more fashionable, or more subversive to be conservative. Just look at Milo Yiannopoulos: comparing him to Oscar Wilde is not that outrageous (though, of course, Wilde made masterpieces, and Milo mostly makes noise).
Pepsi has done liberals a tremendous service: they’ve demonstrated that the counterculture are now mainstream, and reminded us just how lame the mainstream can be. And in the process untapped a wellspring of humor.
It is not more jokes that liberals need, though, but a better sense of humor. We need to be able to actually poke fun at ourselves, at the dubious claims of radical movements, at our excesses and double standards; to question our ideas and those of others with a balance of incisiveness and levity.
Why is it totally ok to lampoon Mormons, but taboo to joke about Muslims?
What is wrong with white women having cornrows?
What is the future that we want?