I started writing this while sitting on the side of the road in Northern California. Sunlight dappling its way through canopies of leaves, falling onto the grass in gentle rusts of dark, then darker. There were many words churning through my mind, but two in particular kept showing up—no then yes, then no, then yes. And within them I was seeking a foothold—something more than just a bridge. Something that could sparkle when caught by light, refracting into perpetual tangibility. Something that could feel alive.
I’ve driven through the out-of-reach parts of Nevada too many times to not understand how different parts of the heart of this country hum—drop-down TRUMP banners cascading at least six feet wide over balconies and typed manifestos decreeing “The End of Christian America” pegged to the doorways of shuttered windows. I’m not saying this is everywhere—just that it exists. That it’s ripe. I first learned who George Soros was during one such trip a few April’s ago, while stopped at a gas station in Eastern Nevada. According to the pamphlet given to me by the station’s attendant, he was The Jew in charge of America’s decline.
And now, according to the Twitterverse created by a certain sect of Trump supporters, he’s The Jew bankrolling the “ANTIFA terrorist” movement and bussing paid activists to #fakeprotests in order to spray paint “Kill Whites” onto city buildings. All this language, and its corresponding ideas, have a way of cycling through itself. In closed places that extend outwards and back.
I’m a writer, I pay attention to language. I read Trump’s Twitter, click on the links he uses for sources, go to the websites that they send me to, and then I read those fucking comment sections. I don’t recommend it. But it does tell an important story.
A story of dysfunctional communication — dialectic divides that are only getting wider and more full of sharpness. A story about language stolen, reshaped, retooled, oiled, and then exploded. A story about propaganda, about social media, about the internet: weapons cocked and loaded, words as ammunition. I’m telling you: pay attention to memes. They are the greatest gift Fascism ever received. There’s nothing more violent than using a good joke as cover.
Maybe part of antisemitism is shame in even bringing it up.
The anxiety, for me, about naming or claiming antisemitism is that its very existence as a “real” thing is contested. Namely: the joke has become the schleppy Jewish character “complaining” about minute moments of antisemitism while other, more realer and visible oppressions run rampant. As though oppressions don’t work in concert: As though anti-blackness and vigilante nationalism aren’t part of the same virulent antisemitic ideology of domination through othering. Yet, most people don’t make that connection. It’s not just that it gets left out of the conversation, it’s that it has become the butt of the joke. In America, where oppression is conceptualized around axes of skin color and representation, no one quite knows what to do with it.
The it I refer to is a wound. A wound that Western Christendom has organized itself around since times in utero. Namely: how is it so easy to convince people that Jews are non-beings? Demonic. Devilish. There has been so much historical glee in the killing of Jews. Where does that glee come from? It takes only a few minutes on 4chan, or in the Breitbart comment sections, to make my body chill: jokes tossed back and forth about the “lol oven apartment” and “the media elite.”
Antisemitism is nearly the only kind of hatred that Trump doesn’t name directly; instead, he feeds into white supremacist codes more subtly, by referring—constantly—to fake news, the dishonest and untrustworthy media, the greedy and immoral liberal elite. These codes, whether known to him or not, have been around for centuries. With Glee.
And what underlies them isn’t funny. From a flyer found in Berkeley a few weeks ago, written by the National Alliance (a white’s rights group based in Tennessee):
“They hate our flag. They hate our monuments… They control our mass media — for now. They control our corrupted elected officials through bribes and intimidation… But more and more of us refuse to accept extinction and genocide.”
Who do you think the “they” is? Perhaps the same “they” that was being referenced in Charlottesville, when the white men torched their way through the streets chanting, “They will not replace us.” Could it also be the same “they” running rampant on DT’s twitter?
And, in all of this, a silence about who and what is actually being talked about. And in that silence, only jokes. An evasive language that is purposeful. Everything in such gross exaggeration, white minds teeming with insecurity: millions of illegals, millions of voter fraud, millions of media elite, millions of lizard people, millions of ANTIFA terrorists, millions of transgenders.
A confusion around quantity, around language, around what is possible, what is real.
Everything in such gross exaggeration, white minds teeming with insecurity: millions of illegals, millions of voter fraud, millions of media elite, millions of lizard people, millions of ANTIFA terrorists, millions of transgenders.
This rhetorical strategy creates a haunting. Creates an environment where Trump is able to dismiss the claims of trafficking in antisemitic stereotypes and employing antisemitic tropes with the response, “I’m the least antisemitic person you’ve ever seen in your life.” To that being the beginning and the end of the conversation.
On the morning of inauguration, I chained myself to a door in San Francisco along with hundreds of others and together we blockaded nine buildings—which included Trump’s one property in SF, Wells Fargo, Uber, CalTrain, and the Israeli Consulate. The energy was tremendous. There was a place for me to put my fear and anger—together we held hands and we sang and we chanted and we said no to what was going on and yes to each other. When I got home, exhausted and exhilarated, I asked my roommates if they had heard about it. The big blockade. All of them shook their heads. They hadn’t. There were images on Instagram and Twitter, pulsing through a schematic of specific hashtags, but if you didn’t know where to look, it wouldn’t show up for you.
There had been a physical resistance—people had locked their necks together and stood in front of a CalTrain—folks were late to work, train lines were shut down, banners were dropped. But because we don’t inhabit public space the way we used to, because our reality is filtered to us through a skeleton of hashtags rather than our bodies taking up space alongside each other — it existed and then stopped existing alongside the news cycle. That morning had been one of the most exhilarating of my life, and it took nearly one day and no representation for it to completely fade. If I remember correctly, the story that the news did focus on was whether Sean Spicer had lied about DT’s inauguration numbers.
Similarly, the Women’s March came and went. People showed up, felt unified (and divided), took pictures, posted them on feeds, and then kept scrolling.
NO is a strange small word that, in turns, can mean a lot or nothing at all. It caught my attention early last year—covered in glitter and painted onto a huge cardboard sign followed by a big exclamation point. A few folks were walking around Oakland with it, everywhere. NO! in silver, sparkling. Every time I saw it, I felt something in me. Even though it was so supremely and pointlessly absurd—that word floating down the street while I was walking to get a morning bagel—it was also, in those moments, exactly enough.
That sparkly cardboard NO! kept popping up: at protests, at the airport, when we went to go shut down Milo at UC Berkeley. Everywhere around me things were fumbling to contain themselves, but that NO! was providing continuity, comfort. I decided I wanted to try and find and photograph it, that word—NO—somewhere in public space every day for the duration of Trump’s first 100 days in office. A group of artists in San Francisco were running a project called “100 Days Action” that featured an 100-day calendar of “resistance art,” acting as a counter-narrative to Trump’s 100 day plan, and I wondered if working with them might provide me some sense of footing. So I decided to utilize the activity of searching for NO as a way of counting. Marking the governmental shift through an activity that required me to challenge myself visually — shift the way I saw the streets around me, pay attention to the things that usually go unnoticed. Like street signs. And graffiti. And space. To push myself to include the act of finding and creating while working through the trauma of his election. Each day I posted it on Instagram, because I was lonely, because I was seeking some kind of archive that lived outside of my own library, because I wanted to help others keep count too.
On day twenty-three, I wrote in my journal: the only routine I’ve had since Trump was inaugurated is taking a picture of the word NO every day and posting it on Instagram. God, that sentence makes me cringe.
And yet, there was something that felt weirdly appropriate about it: activism and art and social media, all hopelessly blurred. Isn’t that how so much of this all happened? Through bots buying ads on Facebook and Twitter, through fake news spreading viral lies about Hillary Clinton, through dirty memes that had a way of sticking? We’re all just beginning to learn the extent to which Russia manipulated internet content to sway the hands of American voters, and I imagine it will continue to unfold in deep, scary ways. Because, we’re addicted to the thing. The internet, I mean. It’s a space we all inhabit like moths to a flame—we can’t move away from it, we’re encompassed by it, consumed. Addicted and dizzy and always feeling less-than. It never felt good to post the NO’s on Instagram, but that also felt like part of it—part of nothing feeling good and everything feeling stuck, and getting adrenaline rushes from being liked anyways.
The surprising part was that people responded to the project. As in, they would bring it up in real life. People I had thought I wasn’t in touch with reached out to me to tell me that the NO’s were helping them find footing in what was going on. Helping them feel less alone in their anxiety, more empowered in their desire to show up. A bunch sent me NO’s they had found on their own—I remember NO’s coming in from rooftops and billboards and the palm of a sweaty hand. A scrabble board. Someone’s poncho. All sliding into my DMs.
This isn’t to say that my project was anything more than what it was: a metaphor, a process, small and image-based. Rather, I’m interested in it as an example of how our lives on the internet and our lives in our bodies are haplessly connected. That the things we scroll through are just as real as the things we touch. That we have to stop drawing this inane divide between the two, because then we miss the larger picture of: how reality gets shaped.
Trump won the election because of a large confluence of factors, many of which relied on his manipulation of our social media dysphoria. He didn’t invent “post-truth”—we were already living in it—he just knew about it and contorted it to his advantage. Used it as padding. Cuz if nothing was really true, then he couldn’t actually be as bad as he was. Right?
And all those angry people who supported him were just on the internet, right? They were just blowing off steam and making jokes in chatrooms, right?
I will speak for myself here and maybe you will see yourself in it. My life has been shaped by whiteness. My Jewish parents grew up in New York as working-poor immigrants’ children and then, because of their conditional whiteness (allotted to them through the shifting boundaries of our pigmentocracy), were allowed into college, into medical school, into the job market. As they accrued money, they were then able to buy a house.
I will speak for myself here and maybe you will see yourself in it. My life has been shaped by whiteness.
This is what it means for those of us who are white-passing Jews to benefit from white privilege. This doesn’t mean that we’re safe or that the world can’t turn against us again, as it has again and again. What it does mean is that we have been fortunate here. And that fortune fuels the lightness with which antisemitism is brought up. The frequency with which antisemitism is used as the base of a shitty meme, a coded 4chan joke, an alt-right flyer. So: hiding in our whiteness does not make us any less visible. In fact, it puts us in more danger. We can’t let our fear of being “different” turn us straight and quiet and abiding because we’re never not going to be different—at least not in Trump’s KEK-America.
I think the phrase I’m searching for is: unregulated. How in this age of unregulated digital propaganda, it’s hard to find footing in meaningful resistance. It’s hard to see how LOL humor is being used to spread white supremacist toxicity/to undercut our attempts at earnestly and sincerely coming together/to mandate that we only get heard if we are “cool” or “in on the joke.”
And in this age of unregulated digital propaganda, the question becomes: how to be?
I spent one hundred days wandering our country searching for the word NO in all its formations, looking for a foothold.What I didn’t realize at the time is that what was catching my attention wasn’t the word NO, but rather the space next to it. Providing the room and context for possibility. For answers. Because NO can only ever be a beginning. And there are a fuckton of NOs floating around, with very little direction being offered by any of them, other than fodder for cruel jokes and anxiety about whether or not we’re doing it right.
When all we say is NO, we leave no space for us to consider what we actually want, what we need, what we’re working together to build. We’re locked into a dichotomy of violence with the thing we’re against, always reactive, always reifying. NO is a necessary foundation, it’s how we find space for roots. But, where will those roots take us once they start growing? Maybe the word that can take us there, from No to Yes, is the small word and.
As in: and I want, and together, and I’m here, and will you be here too?
I think we should write it on protest signs and billboards and rooftops. A sweaty palm. A scrabble board. Someone’s poncho.
And we have our work cut out for us.
Because the only times that I’ve felt okay this past year have been when other people were holding me or I was holding other people. When we were allowed to be sad and terrified and grieve. When we didn’t try to wipe away each other’s tears, but instead held out our shoulders and let ourselves get wet with it. When we showed up—again and again and again even when we felt like it was all meaningless and going to shit. When we danced together—at the protest, in the basement, in the bookstore. When we challenged each other. When we were discerning. When we cared. When we were open. When we let ourselves feel sick. When we asked for help. When we weren’t afraid to not be in on the joke. When we made our own jokes.
We have to do our work to unwind from our generational trauma and the ways in which it impacts our relationships: turning them toxic, imbalanced, violent. We need to learn how to say NO to things that aren’t working and move into the plentiful, shattering, constructive reality of what comes next. Refracted sunlight and being in relation to one another. And if that means locking arms with all the people you love in front of a construction truck at the San Diego border, than that’s what it means. And if that means creating a Muslim-Jewish-Alliance group at your parent’s synagogue and delving even further into the violence of Christian Normativity, then that’s what it means. And if that means taking a discerning look at what you have and what you need and redistributing what’s left over, then that’s what it means.