[Warning this post contains references to Judith Butler that some may find always objectionable and already incomprehensible. Fair enough.]
This week Rick Perry pulled up his boots and stepped in it once again delivering a divisive new ad that among other things appears at its face to be homophobic and launches a direct attack agains Barack Obama for operating a “war on religion.” The ad reads:
I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.
As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage.
Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.
I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.
Several issues persist with the internal logic of the video itself. First, the overturning of a discriminatory practice in the military is not a defacto attack on any religious set of practices. Moreover, no direct link has been made that argues Obama has, himself, forced any school anywhere to stop openly celebrating Christmas. The ridiculousness of such a claim was laid bare when Perry tries to defend it. When asked by Wolf Blitzer about Obama’s War on Christmas Perry responds with “I’m just giving you some examples of what we’re seeing from the left, of which, I would suggest to you, President Obama is a member of the left and, uh, substantial left of center beliefs.” In essence, he has no substance and is only able to launch a vague attack on the left. See a portion of the interview and Think Progress’ take on the interview here.
Perry’s ad and message smacks of desperation, playing on the social issues of God and Gays to rally support as his presidential campaign fizzles. Yet, it is these very issues that Timothy Egan argues are losing traction among the right. Regarding, Perry’s ad Egan writes, “This is Perry’s last gasp; in desperation, he shows how this particular balloon has run out of hot air. Poll after poll has found that Americans now overwhelmingly favor letting gays serve openly in the military — a sentiment backed even by a sizable majority of Republicans.” As Perry’s presidential ambitions dwindle his campaign and his ads enter a kind of farcical phase. Even his choice in wardrobe becomes subject to satire. To wit: This image, being shared on Facebook and other popular social networking sites point out the similarities in Perry’s wardrobe and the critically acclaimed cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain. The irony derived from both the film’s and Perry’s use of a rugged cowboy ethos for radically different ends suggests the fractures in the culture wars are beyond repair. Moreover, parodies of the advertisement are appearing all over the internet. Some even take on Perry’s logic directly and reverse his claims blaming people of faith for every problem this country faces. Take this parody from The Partisans for example:
All of this suggests to me that we may have seen the moment where Rick Perry’s campaign has jumped the shark. In its desperation to get back into the GOP primary race Perry went all in on social issues (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the War on Christmas/Obama’s War on Religion) that lack the permanence and vivacity to revive his ailing campaign. In a sentence, the ad is ridiculous. That does not, however, let Perry off the hook and we should remember that given the materiality of discourse we should consider how to respond to a rhetoric that attempts wedge a policy of hate and division for the purpose of political advantage.
It is here that I noticed, and was disappointed by, some of my friends and colleagues who desired to censor the ad instead of responding to it. Another image that I saw circulating with great popularity on Facebook asked users to go to youtube.com and (1) flag the ad as inappropriate, (2) for reasoning indicate that it contains hateful or abusive content, (3) indicate the ad promotes hatred or violence, (4) indicate the ad contains hate speech about “sexual orientation,” (5) then share these steps with others.
While I find Perry’s advertisement intellectually dishonest, desperate, disgusting, and one of the lowest forms of politics following the impetus to censor the ad is dangerous response to hate speech. First, we know that censorship stifles discussion, dialogue, and intervention in the dissemination of hateful ideologies. Stoping homophobic discourse from being expressed by political leaders will not make homophobia disappear because no act of censorship is a total act of discursive invisibility. As Butler argues in Excitable Speech
This view maintains that a text always escapes the acts by which it is censored, and that censorship is always and only an attempted or partial action. here, it seems, something about the text under censorship exceeds the reach of the censor, suggesting that some account is required of this “excessive” dimension of speech.(129)
Removing the ad from youtube will likely to shift the conversation away from the homophobic nature of the advertisement and poor quality of argumentation and instead agitate sympathetic media to report on the censorship of the ad and not the content of the ad itself. Not to mention that youtube is one of many places the ad has been released make the act, though symbolic, materially ineffective at removing the speech from the discursive field of contemporary American politics. It is of course ironic that the case Butler made in her analysis of censorship was the original institution of DADT and yet her I mobilize it to oppose those who wish to shout down a politician who wants to reinstate such a perilous social experiment. For Butler, however statements are performantive in that they have force in the material world. Given that framework, we ought not censor Perry and not allow his performative homophobia rest under the surface but instead be laid bare. The more we welcome his subjectivity into the realm of speakability the more transparent his politics become and the more efficacious our rhetorical responses can be.
In essence our impulse in the face of excitable speech must never be censorship, especially when words wound. Instead, it must be engagement with the material reality of living in a world where the flows of power operate to subject and oppress the majority of Americans to serve the interests of those who exercise the flows of power to their advantage.