TW: racism, heterosexism, cissexism, sexism, classism, police brutality, appropriation
This past Veteran’s Day, the American Civil Liberties Union did something strange. They paid Macklemore to appear in an advertisement for ACLU membership – a $35 dollar card that, according to their newest representative, is a literal ticket to certain political freedoms.
There’s a number of ways of understanding this video, but let’s start with what’s happening on the surface – a musician is promoting an organization that will protect people from disenfranchisement and state policies that don’t effect him, as if they do. Following the awkwardly staged I-was-just-finishing-a-track introduction, Macklemore explains that “being beaten with a club, pepper-sprayed, and tased for expressing my political views would really slow [him] down”. He then name checks marriage being reformed to be more inclusive of queer people and regulations on cisgender women’s sexuality.
The ad is fundamentally an extension of Macklemore’s primary means of self-presenting himself – as someone who either directly experiences the difficulties a perceived audience faces or who at least deeply understands those issues. It then builds up from that an ACLU membership as a solution to those problems. The slip of paper the ACLU mails you in return for your support “lets [his] gay friends marry the hell out of each other” and apparently tells cis women “it’s your vagina”. Except, of course, if you live in one of the parts of the US where state governments have seen fit to limit those and other rights.
The liberties listed as needing to be shored up in this ad are presented as negative – freedoms from intrusive government policies – and yet, no level of government is mentioned at all. The distance that Macklemore has between him and these various issues does seem to matter here, because at least in how he’s presenting the issue, the mere act of support for these liberties is what matters. It seems that what he believes (and what he wants this ad to convince others of) is that the act of supporting the ACLU resolves inequalities and oppressive attitudes inevitably. This ad is very much a political assertion on his part that, in a word, simply identifying as an ally or advocate means something, contrary to all evidence otherwise.
(On the left, Macklemore, a straight and White rapper. On the right, Le1f, a queer Black rapper who has alleged that Macklemore plagiarized his work, from here.)
Admittedly, the ACLU does sometimes spend money and time on issues pertaining to queer liberation and reproductive freedoms, but those are part of a larger pie. It also works with events like Stop Watching Us, tinged as they are with islamophobic implications, and defends free speech rights to an honestly implausible degree at times. That long history of supporting and financing racist speech is perhaps alluded to by Macklemore’s concern that he might face repercussions for his “political activism”. His other primary means of presenting himself to the public is of course as part of the gaining trend of White musicians who speak in code about people of color being materialistic. Even when showing himself as an ally, however, he often implies that heterosexist rhetoric is a fundamentally Black phenomenon.
The initial concerns he displays in the video about being subjected to brutality, presumably by the police or “community safety volunteers” seems tone deaf in light of the events of the past year. A few months ago George Zimmerman was acquitted for the death of Trayvon Martin and just within this week the grisly murder of a young Black woman faced speculation about whether her murderer would even be charged with a crime. For Black people in particular (and people of color generally), you don’t have to be saying or doing something “political” to face extreme violence, you can just be walking home from the store or knocking on a door asking for help after an accident. Before it ends, the video includes Macklemore asserting his right to call the president, the US’s first one of color, a dick if he wanted to (which he quickly says he doesn’t).
In a nutshell, it seems vital to ask what freedoms the ACLU and Macklemore thought they were promoting here. It seems that what they think of as promoting certain queer and feminist causes is tied up in self-aggrandizing attitudes in almost total isolation from the lived experience of dealing with heterosexism and sexism (to say nothing of the cissexist way that trans* people are excluded from the conversation). What they seem to think of as promoting freedom of speech and freedom from surveillance inevitably tracks back to tacit acceptance of racism and the quintessential embodiment of it among “liberals” – a sort of self-important ignorance of what their complaints sound like to communities that are targeted at the drop of a hat.
Their concerns are also decidedly libertarian – in that they’re exclusively about freedom from (usually) state intervention in daily life. There aren’t constitutional guarantees to the freedom to work without facing discrimination, for marginalized communities to be given additional assistance, or for economic redistribution to be political policy at all, and the ACLU and Macklemore’s framing here highlights that almost reflexively anti-state libertarian attitude that won’t serve many benighted groups very well.
This is not political activism which draws on the wants and needs of groups dealing with oppressive attitudes and actions by the larger society. This is an advertisement through and through which is working to sell you membership in an organization which potentially is designed to advance your rights in a way that won’t actually benefit you.