Notes on Feeling Good, August 2016

Television commercials are generally unbearable, but one in particular has been provoking me to throw things at my TV lately. “What’s on my to-do list today?” it begins, sans-serif black capital letters against a white background, clean and modern-looking and vaguely Silicon Valley-esque, an aesthetic one associates with Apple products. A series of smiling, mostly young-ish, ethnically diverse people share their answers, their names and job titles superimposed on the screen. “Mapping the oceans,” answers one John Blum, Ph.D, Earth Scientist; “Protecting biodiversity” responds Rina Batra, Chemical Engineer; “Defeating malaria,” declares Deena Buford, M.D., Physician; “Improving energy efficiency,” says Briana Smith, Civil Engineer; “Reducing energy poverty,” begins Artis Brown, Civil Engineer, and Kirti Parmar, Computer Engineer, finishes his sentence, “in the developing world.” And so on, concluding with a smiling Stacey Wilson, Chemical Engineer: “And you thought we just made gas!”

Guess what, guys! It’s an Exxon Mobil commercial. Its closing tagline: “powering the world responsibly.” As if that weren’t transparently bullshit, given that Exxon has known about and been covering up climate change for decades: funding climate skeptic groups, lobbying against environmental regulations, and exerting a major and detrimental influence over US politics. “Powering the world responsibly” is exactly what ExxonMobil hasn’t been doing for the past 30-50 years.

What really worries me about this ad, though, is its cynical appeals to American liberals via what we might call Diversity™.[1] This ad is for us, y’all. It doesn’t look like Paul Ryan’s widely mocked, blindingly white Republican intern selfie. It’s careful to include people of color, women scientists, people with accents. Hey, everyone, it seems to say, Exxon cares about diversity. It cares about you, women in STEM. It’s modern! Please do not look over there at the terrifying drought and water shortages threatening people in southern African countries; ignore the South and Central American women and children affected by Zika; and for heaven’s sake, don’t think about the water wars that are likely to keep the Middle East ensnared in violence for decades to come. Climate change probably isn’t real. Look here instead, at the gentle, non-threatening multiculturalism of our commercial. Let it softly wash over you, letting you feel good about filling up your tank.

I’ve been seeing this ad during the Olympics, and I hate to say it but it’s perfectly tailored to that time slot. Let me preface my killjoy argument by admitting, I’ve been enjoying the hell out of the Olympics. I’ve been genuinely moved many times: Simone Biles’s all-around win, Katie Ledecky’s record-smashing 800m swim, Wayde van Niekirk winning gold and setting a world record from lane 8 in the men’s 400m run, Simone Manuel’s gold medal in the 100m freestyle, Usain Bolt being Usain Bolt once again. It’s inspiring, and I think it really matters that kids can watch Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, Manuel, Ledecky, van Niekirk, and so many other great athletes, and see themselves. That wasn’t the case in the era of Jim Crow and apartheid, and it’s worth celebrating.

But.

Amid all the feel-good stories, the athletes who have overcome so many hurdles to achieve something great, and the beautiful diversity of human beings, I don’t want to forget that the Olympics aren’t great for everybody. They haven’t been great for the people displaced from their homes in Rio to make room for the Olympic park. They haven’t been great for Rio’s poorer residents, whose needs have been ignored in favor of Olympics-related building and transportation projects. And they haven’t been great for Brazil’s economy; the state of Rio de Janeiro is now broke, despite the routine, routinely false promises that hosting the Olympics would bring in revenue. As Joe Nocera puts it, “after the Games end on Aug. 21, almost three weeks after they begin, most of us will move on. The people of Rio will be left to pick up the pieces.”

It would not be fair to say that the Olympics are equivalent to that awful Exxon commercial in using sunny diversity optics to distract attention from their slow violence against poor and marginalized people. But it wouldn’t be realistic to completely deny any connection either. Diversity can be co-opted, made into Diversity™; it can be used as a shield or a mask, covering for real harm to real people, as we smile and feel good about ourselves and how far we have come.

(Small letters because this part makes me nervous: I’m talking about ExxonMobil and the Olympics right now, but I’m also talking about the Democratic Party. Watching the DNC last month, too, I felt genuinely moved by the diversity of the speakers and the vision of a better America it conjured. Khizr Khan’s speech made me cry; Hillary Clinton’s shout-outs to disability rights made me pump my fist; Tim Kaine’s speech enveloped me like a warm, fuzzy sweater. And I also felt prickles of suspicion. Is any of this real, or is it just a way to lull progressives into complacency so that we’ll vote for Clinton and let the Democrats carry on business as usual? Are we really going to reform our racist criminal justice system, for example, or are we just going to buy the police body cams and then ignore their footage? Are we actually going to take in a significant number of refugees, or nah? To what extent is the Democratic Party invested in change, and to what extent is it invested in telling people, “Look over here at these balloons, not over there at that bad stuff”? I honestly don’t know.)

Representation matters; athletic achievement matters; the chance, every two-to-four years, to feel like a world citizen matters. The good feeling people get from inclusiveness matters, especially in a year where exclusion and hate have become planks of the Republican presidential campaign. I think, in fact, that these things matter too much to be turned into cheap marketing gimmicks, instruments deployed to pull the wool over our eyes as capital preys on the most vulnerable world citizens and the environments they inhabit.

[1] My thinking about diversity optics as at once necessary and insufficient is informed by a number of scholars writing about diversity in university settings, notably Sara Ahmed and Sofia Samatar. Samatar writes, “University life demands that academics of color commodify themselves as symbols of diversity—in fact, as diversity itself, since diversity, in this context, is located entirely in the realm of the symbolic.” A similar logic, of course, is at work outside the university too, in politics, commerce, sports, and other arenas.

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