I’ve spent the last eight years pretty confident that George W. Bush would be the dumbest president I’d see in my lifetime. His sartorial blunders, which seem pretty tame now, were legendary and pop culture cornerstones for years. The “fool me once” bit or the “put food on your family” quotes struck America as much as, oh, say, faking reasons to start a disastrous war or ignoring floating black bodies in New Orleans. Bush, however, resurfaced last week with some quotes about the current administration, lambasting Trump for his racist policies, Muslim ban and attacks on the media. One quote, however, stood out to me the most:
“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy.”
One word stayed with me.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard Donald Trump use a word that complex in the years he’s campaigned or in the month since he’s become president. Trump’s Twitter feed will bare this out.
This caused me to go back and look at George W. Bush’s speeches. And for as dumb as we’ve pretty much accepted him to be, he sounds infinitely more qualified to be president than Donald Trump. The same Donald Trump who, on Tuesday, blamed former President Obama for current White House leaks, Jews for anti-Semitic abuses and soldiers for their own demise. Five hours later, that same Donald Trump read a prepared speech from a teleprompter, pointed at the widow of that same slain soldier and has spent the last 12 hours receiving praise for becoming “presidential.” This all despite the fact his speech was littered with blatant lies and misdirection.
All of this has revealed one depressing fact clearer than ever before: white men don’t have to reach a bar of excellence; the bar will find white men wherever they already are. Donald Trump is the ultimate proof. The bar he set for acceptability was simply reading coherent sentences written by someone else and receiving applause.
The speech was textbook Trump with more coded language. He still spouted falsehoods about “Islamic terrorism” and lies about immigration. But I guess it’s a win since he didn’t mock a disabled. Because, again, the bar moves for white men and not the other way around.
This week (and most of American history…but let’s focus on this week) has been about the minimal amount of effort it takes for white men to get praise. As I was absorbing the media’s newfound love of Donald Trump, I saw this tweet from Buzzfeed about Casey Affleck:
This is what “breaking his silence” entails:
“I believe that any kind of mistreatment of anyone for any reason is unacceptable and abhorrent, and everyone deserves to be treated with respect in the workplace and anywhere else,” he said. “There’s really nothing I can do about it. Other than live my life the way I know I live it and to speak to what my own values are and how I try to live by them all the time.”
Let’s assess things real quick.
- This isn’t “breaking his silence.” He said literally zero things about remorse or regret. “There’s really nothing I can do about it” is as abusive a statement possible for someone accused of sexual harassment.
- White privilege is being able to wait until you’ve won every major award before having to confront a history of abuse, and even then not really having to actually confront that abuse.
But yet here we are with Affleck getting to claim he “broke his silence” and confronted his crimes while not really even having to. The bar met him at the place that’s most convenient for him.
Affleck isn’t the only Oscar news story benefiting from white male grading curves. The producers from La La Land are suddenly America’s foremost humanitarians for rightfully acknowledging they didn’t win an award and giving the stage to the people who won the award. When the Oscar producers let the La La Land crew know they didn’t actually win the award for Best Picture, Jordan Horowitz grabbed the mic and Warren Beatty’s card to scream that Moonlight needed to be on stage. It was a gracious move, no doubt — which also overshadowed the other producer deciding to give his acceptance speech anyway before blurting out “we lost by the way” in a less than gracious tone, but Horowitz has been showered with praise for being some sort of malevolent truth-teller and a hero.
Not only that, the losers of the damn award get to share magazine covers with the winners, guiding Barry Jenkins through to the promise land like some angelic overseer.
“Angelic” is not overstatement either. The cover line says “Amazing Grace.” It’s as if the Oscars, and America as a whole, just had to squeeze the white savior narrative blood out of a black ass stone that was perfectly strong without needing any help. As a result, Moonlight got robbed of its spotlight, Oscars speech and the praise it rightfully deserves as a classic and revolutionary artistic achievement. Instead, the story is the heroism of whiteness.
But here’s what the La La Land crew, Casey Affleck and Donald Trump have in common: they found the most basic ground-levels of human decency and are waiting for society’s bar to take the elevator down to meet them. Acknowledging the rightful winner, mentioning in passing a vile sexual harassment accusation and reading prepared words about the widow of a US soldier are literally the least these men could do. And somehow we’ve gotten to the point where barely reaching levels of civility has become enough to crown white men as barometers of greatness.
The lower the bar gets for white men, the more the phrase “work twice as hard to get half as much” becomes dated. Because the exchange rate for everyone else’s work compared to what we get back seems to be shifting by the day. At this rate, working twice as hard and getting half as much seems like a bargain. The goal posts seem to keep moving, but no matter what, white men don’t have to go anywhere to reach them.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and editor based out of Atlanta (but it’s still WHO DAT all day). He’s an adjunct professor at Morehouse College. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Playboy, CNN Money, The Source, Complex.com, ESPN’s The Undefeated and wherever people argue about things on the Internet. He’s a New Orleans Press Club award recipient and has been cited in Best Music Writing. He’s also a proud alum of Davidson College.
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