Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Smirk of American Empire

Derek S. Denman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ethics, Law and Politics at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany.

During his questioning in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, newly minted special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, bristled at the mention of his record of lying to Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair and his cover-up of massacres by the Salvadoran military. Abrams’s reaction to his questioning was a familiar one of a powerful man being called to account for his actions: feigned consternation, outrage at a recounting of well-established historical record, and the treatment of substantive critique as personal attack. He first brushed off questions from Rep. Ilhan Omar about repressive policies he might support in Venezuela before settling on vague platitudes about support for democracy. As he cycled through the repertoire of obfuscation, something broke through his wall of misdirection. While a still doesn't fully do it justice, the video is clear as ever: His lips curl up, just barely, at each corner, revealing a smirk, before returning to his earlier scowl. This smirk tells an important story about the politics of empire.

In Aspirational Fascism, William Connolly includes facial expressions alongside gestures, postures, rhythms, and habits as vital elements of affective communication, working beneath the symbolic register of language. Specifically, Connolly draws attention to the affective infusions that subtend Trump’s fascist demagoguery. Trump’s facial expressions—variously smug, mocking, and grimacing—work at a visceral register, in concert with “grandiose bodily gestures … Big Lies, hysterical charges, dramatic repetitions, and totalistic assertions that only he can clean up the ‘mess,’” to activate support for individual and nationalist aggression (11).

Abrams’s smirk differs from Trump’s. Trump’s facial expressions are delivered to activate jeering crowds. He experiments with his face in front of his audience, seeking to amplify their glee for his violent fantasies directed at immigrants and protestors or his mockery of a reporter with a disability. Abrams’s smirk slipped through his rehearsed comportment of self-styled seriousness that allows him to shift between visionary promoter of democracy (when asked of his achievements) and hard-nosed realist (when faced with his crimes). It is the face of the imperial agent rather than the fascist demagogue.

What is behind this smirk? What does it signal to the neocons and Trumpists who witness it? And how do we understand the connection between this facial expression and the violent, repressive politics it embodies? We might begin to unpack the meaning of the smirk by focusing on it in relation to what Jon Schwarz of The Intercept identifies as Abrams’s “core competency,” his ability to combine “brutality and unctuousness.”

The brutality that Abrams facilitated—then later denied and concealed—is nearly unfathomable. He is perhaps best known for his denial of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, suggesting that reports of over 800 people murdered and dismembered by government forces were mere communist propaganda. From the support for the genocidal policies of Efraín Ríos Montt in Guatemala to the defense of the torture and execution of dissidents in Panama, it seems Abrams never found a right-wing death squad he couldn’t get behind, especially when it involved dissembling in front of Congress and the American public.

Abrams’s return to public life might be interpreted through the lens of the recent obsession with true crime and the particular fascination with serial killers. Will Menaker, a host of the “Dirtbag Left” podcast Chapo Trap House, suggests as much, when, in introducing a discussion of Abrams, he notes, "We have left out some of the more prolific mass murderers who have done all of their work ... from behind a desk." It is only appropriate for the Dirtbag Left to diagnose the political pathology that has led to the resurgence of Abrams. It takes a vocabulary of vulgarity to scratch the surface of the horror inflicted by Abrams’s policies, positions, and lies. Mere mention of the atrocities Abrams supported—the decapitations and corpses posed in dioramas of death—exceeds the language and offends the ears of those who are only able to speak within the confines of “civility.”

At one level, Abrams’s smirk is one of condescension. It suggests his defiant sense that he will never have to make amends for his crimes, the scale of which are so enormous as to be almost absolute, remaking the very fabric of life (and death) across Latin America and beyond. We’ve seen this expression before in his appearance on Charlie Rose in 1995. When the investigative journalist Allan Nairn recounted Abrams’s record of support for Guatemalan military atrocities, Abrams first engaged in his characteristic deflection, then laughed at the accusation, and, finally, as the camera lingered on him, settled into a smirk. Abrams smirks, then and today, knowing that he can hide behind the numerous government titles bestowed upon him by the Reagan, Bush, and now Trump administrations, each naming him a champion of democracy, human rights, humanitarianism, and diplomacy. The smirk tells us that he revels in the subterfuge provided by these accolades of empire.

At a deeper level, I suspect that the smirk is also one of sadistic joy. The smirk suggests that perhaps Abrams holds deep-seated delight in the suffering he has wrought. Today, refugees flee countries where he has propped up autocrats, only to be met by guns, walls, and razor wire at the US border, and still Abrams smirks. Empire takes many affective forms, and one of those is an overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction that wells up in its most ruthless agents.

The little-noted, half concealed smirk of Abrams follows a higher profile instance of a smirk dripping with colonial power relations. That moment came when a Covington Catholic student sporting a MAGA hat and attending an anti-choice rally smirked in the face of a member of the Indigenous Peoples March. Upon seeing video of the incident, many of us were rightly horrified by the students, weaponized for their school’s campaign against abortion rights and donning the marker of Trumpist white nationalism. And everyone’s eyes were drawn to the smirk. The event has oddly been treated as a sort of political Rorschach test, emphasizing the diversionary claims of “contextualizing video” instead of the tomahawk chops of the student’s classmates. However, even the most agnostic interpreters note the young man’s unsettling expression: “it’s true that a smirk is a smirk.”

I wonder if, in the moment of noticing the smirk, those of us who were unequivocally troubled by it saw not only our present—a facial expression of white supremacy—but also a future where that smirk had been hardened to conceal the crimes of imperial brutality. We were witnessing not only the undeniable coloniality of the present, but also catching a glimpse into a possible future where the next Abramses-in-waiting look down in condescension at the public for which they hold only contempt and gaze in self-satisfaction at their victims. It was evident to us that the control of public space through a sense of entitlement authorized by whiteness was on the path to becoming a sense of entitlement to remake global space through the power of para-military murder. We thought maybe, just maybe, if we insisted on an acknowledgement of the power relations embodied in this scene, we might avert the hardening of this expression into the smirk of empire.

- February 2019