February 22, 2018

HAGOPIAN | Protesting Pollution by Not Breathing: How To Fight an Evolving Capitalism

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A pretentious person I know referred to this year’s batch of Oscar-nominated short films as a “mixed bag,” which in my mind means that they must be pretty good. My personal favorite, “The Eleven O’Clock,” is a delightfully original comedy about a patient of a psychiatrist who believes he’s the psychiatrist. The rest of them are nearly as good, albeit a deal more serious. “The Silent Child” tells the story of a deaf girl whose parents fail to get her the help she needs, while “Watu Wote” addresses Christian-Muslim conflicts in Africa. These serious films are so unabashedly serious that they almost come across as narrative-based public service announcements; each credit sequence is peppered with statistics, authentic footage and calls to action. I remain somewhat troubled by these nobly-intentioned solicitations.

I can’t shake the feeling that the rich folks are laughing all the way to the bank. I haven’t seen Black Panther or Wonder Woman, but I appreciate their significance. I believe in the power of representation, in the ability of art to change narratives, in all of that. But to quote an African business website, “Black Panther is just what it is — A Marvel superhero movie and a purely capitalist venture… all that money is going into the pockets of studio executives that are *cough* predominantly white men.” It’s the same thing with fair trade coffee; we’re told that the beans are grown by a single small farm in Colombia, so we pay a little more for our mocha java. It’s the commodification of morality, or more precisely, the commodification of anti-capitalism.

Now representation is more complicated than coffee because it involves subjectivity. The fair-trade phenomenon, as a primarily economic measure, can be numerically analyzed and straightforwardly declared to be bogus. It lines the pockets of big business, and it does very little to help small farmers. If you’ll forgive my capitalist phraseology, it simply isn’t worth it. How do you measure the impact of Black Panther on the psyches and ambitions of black children? Is it dehumanizing to even try? These are questions I don’t know the answer to. And at any rate, I’m not the right person to comment on the value of Black Panther because I’m not black and I don’t fully understand the black experience. But someone has to look into it.

These moral impasses are one of the major issues facing modern liberalism. A lot of gay men I know love drag queens. Queens are pillars of the gay community, and their shows provide safe spaces for people that might not feel safe in society at large. A lot feminists I know dislike drag queens; they consider them to be crude impersonations that turn women into the butt of a joke. These disagreements often devolve into a phenomenon derisively known as the “oppression Olympics,” wherein each group fights tooth and nail for the moral high ground. We as a political faction need to stop trying to make everybody happy.

Either drag queens do more harm than good, or they don’t. Either a superhero movie is worth cementing our dependence on the capitalists, or it isn’t. Let’s start carrying out some hard analysis and making some decisions, people. We live in the age of human progress, so naturally we think that if we work hard and rear enough Elon Musks, a perfect solution will present itself. This is, of course, not the case.

Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at ahagopian@cornellsun.com. The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester. 

The title of this column has been changed.