We keep loving this country. But this country doesn’t love us back.
FOR ALL HIS INTERROGATIVE ACUITY, it is when he talks about black America’s unrequired love–“this country doesn’t love us back”—that Rivers comes closest to breaking down. Rivers’s proximity to tears and affective dissolution, a potential public opening up of the athlete that holds within it the risk of self-upending, a potentiality detectable in Webber and Smith, is not the consequence of “Doc’s” illusions about American racism. It is not false consciousness, as such.
The depth of Rivers’s feeling, rather, registers as shock. As disbelief. It is borne out the recognition of perpetual vulnerability. Love, contextually rendered, as the right to equal protection under the law:
My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We’re not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We’re trying to get them to protect us, just like they protect everybody else. I didn’t want to talk about it before the game, because it’s so hard, to just keep watching it. That video, if you watch that video, you don’t need to be black to be outraged. You need to be American and outraged. How dare the Republicans talk about fear? We’re the ones that need to be scared. We’re the ones having to talk to every black child. What white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over? It’s just ridiculous. It just keeps getting . . . It keeps going. There’s no charges. Brionna [sic] Taylor, no charges, nothing. All we’re asking is you live up to the Constitution. That’s all we’re asking, for everybody, for everyone.1
Rivers’s discursive struggle, his grappling toward a language that can bear an intellectual weight dispersed over several key phenomena. These include his specific call for police reform, his love of country (patriotism seems too generalized a term), his existential fear (“We’re the ones that need to be scared.”), his deep sense of racial injustice (“We’re the ones having to talk to every black child”) and a pessimism that pervades his inveighing. Rivers’s entire discursive apparatus, however, hinges upon a sense of betrayal that itself betrays an “original” fidelity to, faith in, the “Constitution.” In this regard the political philosopher Charles Mills’s argument for a paradigmatic understanding of the law—for a sociopolitical explication of the context in which the law does its work—bears engagement. For Mills, “normative debates about right and wrong, justice and injustice, typically involve not merely value disputes but competing narratives of what has happened in the past and what is happening right now, alternative descriptive frameworks and interpretations.”2 In a word, Mills distills the difficulty that Rivers is confronting: “competing narratives.” There is no place in the white supremacist narrative for Rivers’s legitimate “fears,” for his incomprehension that those who perpetrate violence simultaneously claim the right to be “scared”—of the black body, inter alia; the white supremacist narrative is intent upon, U.S. Constitution or no, retaining for itself the rank of first among equals. The problem, however, with giving credence to “alternative descriptive frameworks and interpretations” is that it presupposes (at the very least, it creates the impression) that each of the “competing narratives” and “alternative descriptive frameworks and interpretations” are equally valid. That is, each can make an equal claim upon truth.
This is clearly not the case. There are only facts. “Alternative facts” is, at best, an oxymoron, at worst, a blatant lie. Rather than pitting the virtues (such as they are) of one “competing narrative” against another, the only way to proceed is to entirely deny the grounds of untruth. And to do so declaratively. Instead of piecemeal refutation, untruth should be met, in its very first articulation, with denunciation and refusal. To engage piecemeal is to invite further obfuscation, dissembling, and, at its worst, peroration. Because of his incomprehension (justifiable as it might be), Rivers—inadvertently, in a moment of pain and anguish—assumes, unwittingly, the burden of explicating the other (the police, police unions, white America), and, in the process, Rivers makes himself responsible for “narrativizing” the (black) self. More precisely, trying to make sense of the other’s untruths. Best to dismiss it, outright. Better still to proclaim it, in the clearest possible terms, racist.
Held Hostage by the Constitution
It is in Rivers’s expectation that, if American “lived up” to the terms of the “Constitution,” he, as a black parent, would be spared the dreaded conversation about police brutality—“about being careful if you get pulled over”—and if the “Constitution” were adhered to there would be justice for “Breonna Taylor.” Rivers understands the U.S. “Constitution” as the condition of possibility, so that the problem is not with the document itself but because it remains willfully unfulfilled by white supremacy. For his part, Jameson names the “American Constitution” a “counterrevolutionary document” that poses “unique problems.”3
One of the main problems that the “American Constitution” presents is that it, as Jameson places a conceptual—we could also say intellectual—limit on how to reorganize society. The intention of any postrevolutionary document is to concentrate power within the new elite, to create bureaucratic structures that implement, exercise, and extend (if possible) this power, and, in so doing, to establish the founding document (enshrined as the virtuous articulation that marks the new beginning) as the (only) touchstone capable of redistributing, however minimally, power. Without threatening the enfranchised classes or enfranchising a new elite.
The “Constitution,” as such, marks the limits of Rivers’s imaginary, an imaginary faithful to the representative democracy, an imagination seeking to reform rather than undo power as such. Again, if we follow the logic of dual power, then it is entirely plausible to simultaneously endorse—loudly—Rivers’s call for “constitutionality” while also working to antiquate the document by creating a new set of precepts by which to live differently. After all, if America is an “experiment” in social organization, if it is an “idea” of the nation rather than Blut und Grund, why should the number of “experiments” be curtailed, why should the possible array of ideas be restricted? If anything, does not the failure of the now in fact call for, urgently, a “revolutionary” rather than continued subscription to a “counterrevolutionary” document?
If the black athlete undertakes, with fortitude and stringent critique, to reform the system, then does the work of an-other imagining, an imagining of what a revolution of/in the now might look like, what might constitute it, fall to the philosopher (a task Jameson and Sloterdikj, each, in their own way, seem ready to take up)? Or the poet or artist? Is the time not now for such a division of labor, born out of the need for a struggle marked by its concurrence and possible convergence? Is that the promise of dual power, a more pointed definition of subreption? That one form of resistance and struggle recognizes its place—its function as a temporary placeholder, as an enabler, if you will, rather than primary agent—in order to finally do away with the corruption that is representative democracy. The athlete and the philosopher or the artist work together, concurrently. However, they proceed along distinct—and, hopefully, complementary—tracks. The first in the service of the second, because it is in and through the second alone that the goal can realized. There is no reason that, say, the artist and the athlete cannot swap places; that is, it is the athlete whose governing logic is utopian—the best of all possible worlds, however, would be for them to be aligned from the beginning.
In this moment, however, the black athletes have gone much further than the poet or the philosopher.
In fact, we can go so far as to say that the black athlete has been sorely underserved by the would-be Leninists. (It is entirely possible that the Leninists, those in our moment who advocate for the strategy of dual power so that we can move beyond reformism, could be birthed out of pure utopian need. Following this, we can then say that it is out of the athletes’ absolute need for a new society that a contemporary Leninism may emerge, in whatever guise such a latter-day Leninism may arise.) Poets, artists, philosophers, creative minds of all stripes need to do their work so that the lag in conceptual imagining—one that is free to leave representative democracy far behind—can be redressed. As Jameson suggests, our dystopia may be exactly the moment in which the call for utopian thinking is stronger than it has ever been. Dystopia, as the Icarians, Fourierists, and the Perfectionists well knew, is in dire need of nothing so much as a utopian imaginary.
Only a utopian can save us now.
The athletes have, in truth, freed the artists and the philosophers to imagine to their hearts’ content. The work of the black athlete deserves a complementary effort. At the very least.
Undoing dystopia is difficult and laborious, but absolutely necessary, work.