Wednesday, April 20, 2011

James O'Keefe and the Gendered Politics of Radical Publicity

He's like Saul Alinsky's worse nightmare in argyle. His ubiquitous presence offers that what counts as a "radical" politics might not always be associated with radical methodologies for social protest. His own form of conservatively bent but guerilla inspired political intervention certainly operates in with a pitch perfect ear for our current media environs, even if his escapades occasionally end up trading in subtle sexism if not outright misogynistic. If the fevered images of a frat boy gone political went mainstream, they would certainly bear a slinking resemblance to O'Keefe.

Two things interest me about this: 1) the link between O'Keefe's status as a young male and the recent dust-ups with respect to the sexist characteristics of fraternity hazing at Yale, and 2) O'Keefe's embrace of what Saul Alinsky calls the "Rules for Radicals," a play book of none other than the famed Chicago political scene thought to have birthed Bill Ayers, Barack Obama, and any number of other activist stalking horses for the political right. These two points are connected.

First, the gender issue. O'Keefe is a young, good looking man. He looks like your neighbor's kid, who probably weeded your garden for about 10 bucks a weekend until he got old enough to steal away in a moderate suburban sedan to try and sell his plans for world domination to his peers. He is straightforward about the nature of his political pranks. He espouses a philosophy that makes it clear that he believes liberal hegemony of the social is a fact. Keefe is marked as straight (at least, straight to the extent that he wants to protect the nuclear family from ACORN and he wants to seduce CNN reporters aboard the U.S.S. dildo), and I imagine the only thing that distinguishes him in the minds of many liberals from an investment banker are his level of notoriety and pay.

O'Keefe's "sex boat" scheme was deplorable and highly objectionable to say the least. Yet his other successful pranks continue to receive coverage, with nary a mention of how his pranky past is clouded by as much bad judgment as good. I think what we see here, as in the case of knee jerk reactions against feminist interventions against misogynistic chants by frat boys at Yale, is a clear case of how young masculinity receives certain freedoms and permits to "play", a kind of freedom that is not guaranteed for any number of other subject positions. If you "don't get" that O'Keefe's moves were pranks, you "just don't know how to have fun," and take everything too seriously. This language articulates very neatly to the standard set of conservative arguments against political correctness, which claim that the PC movement drains any fun out of social spaces, removing the charge and risk that comes with humor and sex in public and professional spaces.

I see O'Keefe, and I mostly am depressed that liberals keep falling for the hoaxes. But my depression runs deeper. Because I remember how many young men like O'Keefe loved movies like Fight Club, especially because those movies gave young white men a sense of being victimized (in the film by corporate capitalism, but in experience, it seems, that sense of anger and displacement may be easily transfered to other causes). I remember, how as a kid in college and a young masters student, how I sometimes chuckled at the various tales of internet celebrity Tucker Max, who was outright celebrated as a hero of sorts by a certain, mostly male, subset of the university population, for his "winning" stories of casually misogynistic behavior. And indeed, I shudder at the strange embrace of Charlie Sheen, a clear perpetuator of domestic violence and probably sex slavery, for having the "courage" to produce a public persona that says NO to discourses of therapy. And lest you believe that I mistake the popularity of his insanity for actual support it is worth mentioning in our digital environs that in this economy of celebrity circulation, a retweet is akin to giving the figure a certain kind of currency.

Second point: O'Keefe embraces a radical leftist/guerilla sensibility when it comes to his pranks. He and his film crew insinuate themselves as real people, seeking support from ACORN or Planned Parenthood, in order to eviscerate these organizations of their credibility. His mechanisms play upon the social trust that these organizations have to give to those who come to them, the trust of sincerity. But I confess: when each prank is revealed, my blame and concern is not generally for O'Keefe, it is rather directed at those who fall for the tricks of the camera crews. Because what O'Keefe's performances reveal, clearly, is that nobody is perfect. For every ten legitimate pap smears or dozen pieces of sound advice given to a confused young sexually active woman, there are undoubtedly instances in which the actors located within Planned Parenthood fail to act responsibly and in civically defensible ways. Of course this goes both ways: not every troop in Iraq went "Abu Ghraib" on interned Arabs. The point is that it takes a long time to build up social capital and trust, but it takes very little to erode these, whether this is trust for public, semi-public, or private institutions. Just as community organizers who were inspired by Alinsky's tactics would sneak rotting fish into safety deposit boxes at the end of the close of the business day to protest bank takeovers, so to do O'Keefe's take advantage of the open ethos of organizations that provide a public service.

The key in this case, however, links my first and second points. O'Keefe has not only appropriated radical methods and put them into action, but he has done them in a social and political climate where the straight white male is thinkable as a victimized subject (the recent controversy at the University of Iowa over Conservative Coming Out Day is just another example). Ultimately, the more questionable tactics that O'Keefe takes can be excused, because critics "take all the fun out of everything." The political successes he scores, however, count as palpable hits because they reveal the possibilities of institutional failure that underwrite criticisms of big government. They are visible. A video of a woman receiving a pap smear would not be newsworthy, nor is it even possible to succintly put together into a 10 second video clip a sound bite that explains how because Suzie wore a condom, she got her BA in four years. But these stories are the other side of O'Keefe's interventions. In this case, however, the clean cut, educated, straight white male has again ventured over to the "dark side" to reveal that the dark underbelly of liberalism is, to take another pundit's words, "what we thought it was." His full on embrace of radical and misleading political methods (somewhat creepy and carrying odd violent implications in the case of the "bondage dungeon" stunts) reads as so much white noise to the conservative base because the hypocrisy that he reveals hits home. O'Keefe is a crusader for a victimized American-ness, and his embrace of radical political tactics well suited for the 60's only hammer home that indeed, the American tradition is one in crisis, one that calls for a temporary suspension of the conservative criticism of "radical" methods in order to expose the real truths of the political left.

All this being said: Planned Parenthood needs to report sex slavery. That is true. It is also true that what O'Keefe does reproduces a certain set of normative beliefs about America that contribute to a potentially problematic political environment, by eliminating through quickly promulgated video-ready enthymeme much good work done by institutions for people in need.


  1. Also worth pointing out that the "Fuck off Republicans" comment was sent to a female leader (and good friend) who was responsible for the planning naming and organization of said event.

    Al Hiland

  2. 1. Too hasty on the Sheen comment, in my opinion. The whole Sheen fiasco oscillates between his characterization as a public spectacle of broken thinking and sexual misconduct, and the celebrity resulting from the courage to say "No!" as a fiercely liberal individual resistant -as you say- to "the discourses of therapy."

    2. Frankly, the sympathies you may have had for such a character may indicate that a logic of gender conquest continues to be reproduced as a way for prankers to 'impose the rules' of the prank-game onto those pranked. The fact remains that there are some trusts which do need to be violated, and real harm that needs to be uncovered. The WikiLeaks scandal is a good counter-point, as unnamed whistleblowers like Bradley Manning are applauded by those on the Left as a necessary, civic act of subterfuge. WikiLeaks is similar, in that it places into question whether hegemonies reflect the will of their people through a necessary breach of State trust. Your endorsement of a WikiLeaks-like organization (if you do) obliges you to understand the force of social decay as somehow vital to democracy (vis a vis publication).

    3. You place the 'decay' of the social trust in terms of the Right 'having found' the smoking gun that they were looking for. As I said - it seems that the real problem is with the fact that the Right is establishing the rules of whose privacy can be and cannot be intruded upon. The victims of the pranks stand in as synechdocal representatives of necessary failures internal to the system. It is important to note, however, that the public mistrust of itself arises equally out discourses of the Left and Right, and often with necessity. The problem, as always, is the victim politics that produce a common sense of (jouissance)pleasure for having found the miscreant actors we knew we would find. The truth of the matter is - as you say - we know that sexual slavery happens. And although my politics are far more Alinksy than O'Keefe, the problem is (stealing from Copjec) the displacement of desire for the drive.

  3. @Al: Yea I think that Lewin's email response was inappropriate. I follow a logic of both/and here: the conservative appropriation of "coming out" for political purposes is objectionable, and Lewin's email is also noxious.

    @Atilla: Yea the Sheen thing is more playful. As to Wikileaks....I think I agree that Wikileaks and O'Keefe operate similarly. And I think I approve of the "form" of both, in the sense that they operate to disrupt the functioning of publicity. I think I mostly wish "my team" had a few more O'Keefes.

    Have to think more about this last point.