“So what?” is a two word retort that, deployed properly in the correct instance, I’ve long considered to be perhaps the best rhetorical disarming maneuver available in the English language. Two words, two syllables, paired with the exact right combination of inquisitive cadence and matter-of-fact inflection, capable of sweeping an opponent’s most powerful thrust – even the killing blow! – aside with such casual confidence so as to leave them stumbling, stunned, bewildered at their inability to land the blow and (ideally) at a loss for what (if anything) they should do next.
The key, as with any good parry, is to wait them out and let them make what they are sure is their masterstroke – to “hit their finisher” in the parlance of combat sport: Give them the room to make their case, tell their story, argue their point and paint what they fundamentally believe is a vivid picture of not simply their own righteousness but your wrongness. Let them indict you. Let them brand you a villain and your goals malevolent. Let them construct the reality whereby you win the argument and all the world is ash as a result. Let them feel the presumptive stirrings of triumph in having so thoroughly proven you wanting. And then… “So what?”
In other words: “I’ve chosen to reject what you took as a given was the damning end of the argument, so elaborate on why what you just described is supposed to be bad – or bother me? Or bother someone else?” Used properly, there is terrifying power in the rejection of presumed standards, and though seemingly simple; the proper use of “So what?” requires two substantial strengths to execute: The ability to commit absolutely to the projection of certainty that you have no idea why what’s been suggested would be “all that bad” and a willingness to “own” at least the theoretical result you’re performing the possibility of comfort with.
It can, of course, be used for evil as well as good.
As you may have guessed (one of the) points of this would end up being, President (lord, but that hasn’t gotten any easier) Trump is a particular master – or maybe “savant” is the more appropriate term – of “So what?,” which is the broader sense can be described as the power of shamelessness. As is the case with most neglected, unloved children who grow into sadistic bullies, Trump has always been an almost cartoonishly thin-skinned thug of a “man;” hyper-sensitive to the point of violent outburst with insecurities as to his intelligence, wealth, weight and especially his appearance (an infamous excerpt from his first wife’s autobiography alleged he brutally attacked and sexually assaulted her in a fit of pique over the recovery pain associated with scalp-replacement surgery.) But as public figure and now politician, he long excelled at performing a glib, smug detachment from the very idea that whatever behavioral taboo or societal norm he was in the midst of violating – leaving those not equipped for such tactics flustered and frustrated.
To be fair, he’s hardly the first political figure (or B-list 90s pseudo-celebrity, or combination of the two) for whom this was the key to success: Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern were to socially-conservative and secular-snarker pioneers of the form on the radio. Al Sharpton essentially made his name with the “I don’t care if how I do things bothers White people” variation prior to his reinvention from organizer to politician to pundit. And, like it or, Trump can’t lay claim to being America’s first “So what?” President – Bill Clinton beat him to it by two whole administrations. To paraphrase George Carlin, Clinton’s “Slick Willy” was rooted in leaning into the sense that where other politicians proclaimed “I’m an honest man!” even as everyone scoffed “Nah, you’re full of shit;” he declared with a wink and smile “I’m full of shit!” …at which everyone marveled “At least he’s honest!”
And, of course, it was Clinton who laid out the blueprint for what you’d have to imagine The Founders might’ve considered the “nightmare scenario” of a Presidential impeachment showdown; choosing not to resign when impeached in the name of preserving the honor of the office (and his own) but rather to dare Congressional Republicans to try and push him out with a stare-down where his case amounted to: “Yeah I did it, but so what? it’s not like I killed somebody and plus the economy is kickin’ ass, global order is pretty stable and voters like me better than Gingrich.” Donald Trump, of course, is not Bill Clinton and “obstruction of justice and potential high-treason” are not “intern adultery,” but such things are worth considering in a sweep-of-history sense.
Given all this, and the general dark pall that’s been cast over my country and these times were live in by our second “So What President” (and, by the same token, the similarly irony-encrusted nesting doll of “why so serious??” 4chan/gamergate smugness that informs the global White Nationalist “populist” sludge-wave rising in parts of Europe to compliment him), one might think I’d be inclined to dial back on “So what?” in general; or rethink it’s value in my own lexicon. But if I’m already resolved to not let Republicans, submental Trump Cultists tiki-torch Nazis “claim” general symbols of Americana I figure it’s not a bridge too far to also resolve that they can’t have “So what?” either.
To that end, this particularly nauseating clip of Fox News gremlin Tucker Carlson (whom I’m old enough to remember doing this schtick on actual networks in an unironic bowtie) attempting to hand his allegedly-human viewer base something resembling an official #MAGA-branded “yeah but” to continue justifying their tacit support for what the Trump Cult somehow thinks they can get thinking people to see as anything other than ethnic-cleansing child-prison concentration-camps is what actually got me to thinking on these lines:
With apologies for the violence done to your eyes and ears by that… thing; what Carlson is doing here is actually fairly enlightening in the “Wow, that’s terrifying – but at least now I can see it!” sense. This is, effectively, out-and-proud White Ethno-Nationalism stopping only a few steps short of Carlson simply reading “The Fourteen Words” (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” for those who’ve not had the displeasure) straight off the page; and as such it comes as close as you’re going to get on what’s (still) pretending to be a a “real” news channel to see the brain-diseased final devolution of American Conversatism give up “the game” as to what anti-immigration paranoia and the Trump Administration push (masterminded by Steven Bannon acolyte Stephen Miller and cheerfully enforced by Trump’s Chief of Staff and Kirstjen “Ilsa: She-Wolf of DHS” Nielsen) to build an U.S./Mexico border wall, ramp up deportations and switch to “merit based” immigration policies are really all about: Slowing, halting and possibly even reversing the demographic shifts currently on track to make the United States no longer a White-majority country within a generation or two.
If you’ve spent as much time as I have – both for work reasons and general “know thy enemy” masochism – over the last two decades watching the evolution of the Far Right, none of the dogwhistles and catchphrases in Carlson’s monologue are new. The “imported voters” conspiracy theory (summary: Democrats have purposefully weakened and/or slacked-off on enforcement of immigration laws in order to create a crisis-point that will have to be answered with amnesty that creates a huge “third world welfare-state underclass” that will likely vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in electorally-insurmountable numbers) has been a Republican-hardliner talking-point going all the way back to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (aka “The Hart-Celler Act), which dramatically altered the previous immigration quota-systems that had been designed in part with maintaining a White European national-identity majority. The only thing “new” about this is how much fairly recent cache it’s found on the darkest fringes of farther-than-Far Left; where immigrant-activism is sometimes framed alongside feminism and LGBTQ rights as another “identity politics” distraction propped-up by Neoliberal Corporatists to continue the marginalization of the so-called White working class.
What’s newer (and, if any of this is “new” to you, should be more troubling) in terms of coming from a pseudo-mainstream media personality is the outright conflation of that older “demographic math” paranoia with vague, ominus concerns about “changing out culture” and the disdain of “elites” for “the family.” It’s straight out of actual pre-WWII Nazi/Fascist agitprop (“rootless cosmopolitans” destabilizing traditional family/social structures and values to create a vacuum to be filled by communism and/or “Zionism”) of course; but also well known to the Men’s Rights/Dark Enlightenment/”Incel” internet petri-dish Bannon scraped the likes of Stephen Miller out of – a toxic feedback-loop of projection and self-pity that connects the “Socialist Conspiracy” to empower The State by deconstructing the (supposedly) “self-sufficient” father-dominated nuclear family through feminism and racial/cultural diversity to a belief that feminist-empowerment liberating women from having to settle for less than ideal men for security has deprive them of romantic partnership they’d have enjoyed in earlier eras.
Tucker Carlson’s disgraceful monologue here, then, is an explicit and implicit signal to the the varied “clued-in” and clueless layers of the Trumper voting base that not only is what’s going on here “not all that bad” – it’s actually an unfortunate but vital necessity: If we don’t “do something – now!” about immigration rates from the southern border, the culture and “face” (literal and figurative) of the United States will change: We won’t be a fundamentally White culture, we won’t build our societal ideal around the model of the Nuclear Family, we may not be a “Christian nation,” we’ll look increasingly less like the homogeneous Small Town Americana ideal (that hasn’t really meaningfully existed in decades anyway) and more like the more diverse tech/culture/art/commerce centers thriving in and adjacent to the metropolitan coasts, where upwardly-mobile economic and career prospects increasingly favor intellectual, financial, tech/science and creative pursuits versus the traditional labor force. A fundamentally different sort of country, one where the kind of person who’d enthusiastically vote for a President Trump promising to hold all that back probably doesn’t have a place in (or much room for “social mobility”) without opting to – for lack of a better term – “evolve” into a much different sort of person.
To which I would only offer: “SO WHAT?”
I’ve been hearing about some version of an “immigration crisis” involving the U.S./Mexico border my entire life (I’m 37) from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Lyndon LaRouche, Pat Buchanan and now Donald Trump and his mugging acolytes of Faux News – but not once has anyone managed to articulate exactly what about any of this constitutes a “crisis” as opposed to the inevitable ongoing difficulties of two economically-disparate nations sharing an extensive land border. “Illegal immigration” is not a serious crime under United States Law. It’s a misdemeanor, not a felony, with broad enforcement protocols available at the discretion of law enforcement. It doesn’t become serious unless you’re committing an additional crime as part of the unauthorized crossing (trafficking, for example) and it’s not occurring now – nor was it occurring before Trump’s draconian make-America-White-again hardline policies – at a level or frequency anywhere near where it was in the 80s or 90s where calling it an “epidemic” would’ve still been a stretch.
There is no mad, crushing rush to the border, no unsustainable mass of people arriving at once and no specific more serious additional threat being cited… not even the onetime go-to boogeyman of slipped-in ISIS sleeper agents. Instead we hear endlessly about “The Cartels,” whose power and influence was already absurdly high in both countries (and the idea of them being curtailed by these immigration maneuvers reads like bad comedy) and MS-13, a violent predominantly El Salvadoran street gang that is indeed a serious law enforcement problem that nonetheless is only well known to most Americans as generic recurring villains on various Donald P. Bellisario and/or Dick Wolf network TV schlockfests …and who are also already well-established here in part because they originated in the U.S. prison system (oops.)
It’s a tough situation, yes, the kind of “open wound” geopolitical situation that does end up mostly being handled via selective enforcement (“catch and release”), occasional big moves (the Reagan Amnesty in the mid-80s) and other methods until there’s some kind of mutual tipping-point… but the idea that the U.S. has an immigration “crisis” apart from the one being currently created by the barbaric way the Trump Administration has elected to manage the border is a plainly-visible complete hyperbole. The only way the United States’ immigration situation – both current and projected – can conceivably qualify as being a serious crisis that needs to be contained, averted and thwarted by immediate harsh action is if you regard the prospect of the above-mentioned demographic evolution of the U.S. to a non-White-majority nation to be in and of itself something to be feared, resisted and fought against.
And if that is what keeps you up at night? There’s a word for what you are: You’re a racist. If you think an acceptable solution to this “problem” is to start loading separating people from their families into camps and processing centers to be “removed” in one way or another? The Germans had a word for what you are then.
So what… is supposed to be done, then?
I don’t know, and I don’t know that it’s my job to know – I’m a film critic, not an immigration policy expert. I feel I can speak to what I spoke to above because I don’t think one needs a particular level of expertise in anything other than being an emotionally-functional, intellectually-healthy human being to know that turning a converted Walmart into a child concentration camp as part of an ethnic-cleansing policy is a bad thing. If I did have to venture an opinion, it would be that the U.S./Mexico border situation isn’t going to be “solved” without some kind of fundamental change in the working relationship between the countries, likely in the direction of greater unity economic and otherwise; and that until then a return to the imperfect but manageable situation of accepting a certain level of (largely) harmless “illegal” migrant-labor coming and going in order to keep law enforcement focus where it belongs on serious trafficking and cartel activity without resorting to mass human-rights abuses like the Trump administration is now carrying out. Also, we should abolish ICE. It’s an unnecessary relic of post-9/11 overreach and (shocker!) “Hey, would you like to be a cop – but only for the racist stuff??” doesn’t generally result in a great crew.
To be perfectly frank about it, what’s been done here already represents such a despicable abdication of basic human decency on the part of the U.S. government that – assuming the United States survives whatever form the end of the Trump era takes relatively intact; it’s hard to imagine it not being suggested that America owes the people this was done to at least amnesty just as the beginning of making amends for what we’re going to have to grapple with as a historic wrong. This is bad. This is really bad. This is one of those things that even if you didn’t vote for it, resisted it, protested it, fought against it… we (meaning Americans) are going to own this and feel bad about it for a long time. There’s no reset button that let’s us go back to being the people who “could never let this happen.”
There are worse things in the world than having something to prove, and if the world thinks we deserve another chance after this horror-show of a Presidency, we should be grateful for that. I remain optimistic that we are capable of getting out from under this gruesome mess, and choose to believe even further that we are capable of not merely stopping our current decline but setting ourselves back on the course of forward evolution to a much better, freer, open, globally-minded, culturally-forward, intelligence-centric, superior America we were still on not even two years ago. Or we can go the other way… because the reality is that no matter how much the kind of backwards-looking person who supports a Trump-like presidency because of policies like these thinks getting rid of immigration can “bring back” he world where they felt like they mattered, all they really end up doing is making a country that no one wants to immigrate to – or stay in.
Up to this point there hasn’t been a lot of longform posting at this blog, mainly as a time issue and also because it can be difficult to monetize written pieces that don’t end up as spoken-word scripts (which this still may, time dependent) beyond the obligatory reminder to please consider a contribution to The MovieBob Patreon. Plus, there are projects I should be putting more immediate effort into when I have the time.
But, the particular swirl of current events of the last couple days kept me more glued to the news flow and posting to social media than usual, and happenings that are this infuriating have a way of getting my “dander up” in a way that I recognize is not always becoming in the “250 character fire-off brain-blast” format that is Twitter etc. I seldom end up saying anything I genuinely regret or feel I’m “wrong” about, and I’m certainly not losing any sleep over the myriad euphamisms I’ve managed to conjure from the bile when it comes to The GOP, the political wasteland of “Red State” America and the Trump Cult in particular. I’m well aware that not everyone likes the fact that I won’t pretend to have patience for “economic anxiety” or the supposed marginalization of “Rust Belt Whites” as excuses for plain-to-see bald-faced racism, and if nothing else “The Obsolescents,” “Mayonnaise Ghouls” and “Trashlings” are more fun to work with rhetorically than just constantly heaving an exasperated sigh followed by “Look at this fucking asshole!”
Have I stepped too far here and there? Sure, it happens. I’m passionate, I didn’t have a great filter when I did have a full-time contract job with certain expectations of behavior whereas I’m (currently) a freelancer and otherwise self-employed and sometimes when you’re waiting for a file to render, water to boil or multitasking between audio and typing a raw-shout hitback about something especially galling in the social feed can be cathartic. And if the big worry is the danger I might hurt the feelings of the kind of person who can rationalize child concentration camps but doesn’t want to earn a nasty nickname for it? “So what?”
On the other hand… for a variety of reasons, I don’t spend a lot of time lately in what you’d call a “default happy” mood in general. Therapy helps, trying (even when not 100% inclined) to be social and connected with people helps, exercise helps, learning that it’s “okay to not be okay” helps, but suffice it to say it’s a process and there are good days and not-so-good days. What becomes difficult is that a lot of the go-to “get happy” hobbies and distractions don’t have the effect they used to, and as an overall result I notice I don’t do nearly as much sharing and posting about things I’m enjoying (apart from direct connection to work-related productions) and I can tell that if you follow me mainly though Twitter etc you’re probably seeing more angry-at-the-state-of-the-world stuff than almost anything else.
And while I take the whole “use your platform to boost important things” aspect of social media seriously, there’s such a thing as negativity overkill especially when you find yourself being angry about the same bullshit over and over again; and there’s a point at which that becomes not only an unhealthy place for me to stay, it’s downright “opposite of helpful” for me to be blasting out raw anger that doesn’t necessarily have a depth to it beyond the anger itself to everyone else’s feed – what good does that do? So my thought was: Maybe try not to spit every rant right off the bat, think on things and get it down longform here and there.
So the above is, I guess, a stab at that. We’ll see how it goes. Again – I’m not going to stop “Tweeting angry,” there’s value in “This is enraging and you need to know about it!” But maybe paragraph-sized thoughts belong in essays. Or not, we’ll see. Like I said, there’s a time-is-money issue – so if you’d like to see more journal-style blogging like this, tell me – and please feel encouraged to spread The Patreon around.