Trump’s Conflicts of Interest: What Are They, and Why Do They Matter?

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The fact that President Donald Trump has taken office with an unprecedented number of conflicts of interest, which he has failed not only to resolve but even to properly address, is a matter on which prominent critics from both parties can agree. His ascension to office has been a particularly fraught one—according to an analysis by USA Today, Trump has been party to over 4000 lawsuits in the past 30 years, and is currently embroiled in about 75 ongoing suits. All of this is a distraction from the many other issues plaguing this administration, and the issues that threaten the wellbeing of the American people.

Why aren’t more people talking about his conflicts of interest? Trump was elected because people perceived him as both a savvy businessman, and as someone who (against his previous record) would fight for the rights and livelihood of blue-collar voters. But surely his refusal to separate himself from his many money-making ventures is an indication that he still has his own financial interests very much at heart, at the expense of his constituency. Even without the ethical entanglements of his many conflicts of interest, the fact that he is still going to, for example, be an executive producer on The Apprentice is a clear sign that he is not exactly prioritizing the duties of the highest office in the land.

Below, a layperson’s summary of his conflicts, and why they pose a problem not only to his administration, but to the interests of the American people Trump is supposed to serve:

The Emoluments Clause
It’s in the Constitution, folks. (Remember the Constitution? We still care about that, right?) Article I, Section 9: prohibits an elected official of the United States from accepting any gift, office, title, or present from a King, Prince, or foreign State. This clause was written into the Constitution by our founding fathers (Republicans! Remember how much you claim to revere the founding fathers?) as a response to the threat of foreign influence on the United States, then a young and fledgling nation. It was intended to prevent private financial interests from holding sway over the decision-making of elected officials. On this we should all be able to agree: opening the door to foreign influence through monetary channels will lead to vast potential for corruption, weakness, and bias. With Trump and the Trump Foundation, there’s a finger in pies all over the world, many of which we don’t even understand clearly because Trump has maintained a shroud of secrecy over much of his finances. What we do know is that his personal financial interests both create a dependency on foreign states and their economic interests, while also allowing for foreign states to buy influence or access to him. President Trump stands to benefit personally from financial decisions made by foreign governments and their economic agents. Given that he has refused to divest himself from these personal stakes, he will almost certainly use his political office to benefit himself—a temptation that would sway a far more ethical man than Trump. He will also open himself up to influence from foreign state agents who can sway decisions that will affect his personal finances. Below, a few examples of potential violations of the emoluments clause, from a report by the Brookings Institute:

  1. “Mr. Trump’s businesses owe hundreds of millions to Deutsche Bank, which is currently negotiating a multi-billion-dollar settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, a settlement that will now be overseen by an Attorney General and many other appointees selected by and serving at the pleasure of Mr. Trump.”
  2. “The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—owned by the People’s Republic of China—is the single largest tenant in Trump Tower. Its valuable lease will expire, and thus come up for re-negotiation, during Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
  3. Foreign diplomats who stay at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC perceive it as a direct line to presidential influence, and can spend millions of dollars booking its suites and ballrooms. Even if Trump donates these profits to the US Treasury as he has promised, the fact that foreign dignitaries spent the money creates an opening for them, and a sense of obligation on the part of the Trump Foundation. Ultimately the issue at stake is influence and access, not just fair-market-value.
  4. President Trump will be a producer on NBC’s The Apprentice. While this is far from his largest conflict of interest problem, it is perhaps his most undignified. One would assume that the President of the United States and proclaimed leader of the free world has better things to do with his time than run a reality TV show, but even his cozy association with the network and the multinational brands sponsoring the show raise questions (and eyebrows).

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The bottom line?
Well, political decisions will now affect Trump’s bottom line, and his bottom line may very well affect his political decisions—especially since his transfer of management to his children is an inadequate response to his violations of the clause. Ultimately, ownership of these financial ventures still rests with President Trump. Handing things over to his sons is hardly distancing himself. If he, his sons, or the company that bears their name could personally benefit down the line from a small (or large) adjustment to national policy, he might well think: why not? Indeed, this has already been the case: in a rather absurd turn of events, it’s been reported that “Mr. Trump opposes wind farms because he has decided that they ruin the view from his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland. Recently, Mr. Trump openly lobbied Nigel Farage—a British political ally of his—to oppose wind farms in the United Kingdom, an issue that does not otherwise appear to be of relevance to American foreign policy.” You might think wind farms are not, in the end, the biggest deal to the American public. But Trump has used his position to influence even a matter that seems to come down to mere aesthetics. This indicates that he will not hesitate if the stakes are more real for him.

It is impossible that his decisions as President will not be affected, in ways both large and small, by the stakes that he personally holds in a tangled web of multinational financial interests governed by foreign states. Has a particular foreign government dealt fairly with one of his businesses? Does he stand to benefit from a particular policy, if it is enacted? These and other considerations blur the boundaries, to say the least, between his sworn duty to act in the best interest of the American people and his own personal gain. And as we know, President Trump has never been shy about how proud he is of those gains, and how much he prizes them. His refusal to disclose his personal finances is a clear sign that he doesn’t plan to stop prioritizing them anytime soon.



Note: This article was jump-started when I heard an episode of Fresh Air featuring Norm Eisen (special counsel on ethics and government reform under President Obama) and his friend Richard Painter (former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush). You can see more sources, and more of that conversation, below:

Ethics Lawyers on NPR

http://www.npr.org/2017/01/20/510616166/as-trump-takes-office-he-still-faces-questions-about-conflicts-of-interest

http://fortune.com/2016/11/15/donald-trump-conflicts-interest-ethics/

https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/gs_121616_emoluments-clause1.pdf

On Trans Ally-ship and the Ethics of Visibility: a conversation

Tyler is a lot of things: brilliant set designer and master carpenter, comrade-in-arms in various D&D campaigns, athlete and mentor-coach-athlete for the Special Olympics, dedicated employee and fiercely loyal friend. But last weekend, we sat down to talk specifically about allyship, his journey as a transman, and his role as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQA people everywhere.

Among the things to admire about Tyler is his iron-clad belief that his openness about his experience as a transman will make future transgender people’s lives a little easier. Two noble beliefs lie at the root of his advocacy strategies: 1) that when given the chance through education and dialogue, people are capable of being kind to and accepting of another and 2) that his willingness to discuss parts of his life outside of the realm of polite conversation will have real, tangible, positive consequences in the world. Tyler carefully considers the ethical dimensions of his decisions about his “outness” as he debates whether or not it’s “right” for him to stealth when he knows that his ability to pass as a man makes him less visible, which he recognizes is an option many transgender people, especially transwomen, don’t have.

Our conversation spanned a variety of topics but continually came back to the central theme of education and communication as ways, not to erase difference, but to render it at once more visible and more celebrated on all levels.

Tyler is a lot of things: brilliant set designer and master carpenter, comrade-in-arms in various D&D campaigns, athlete and mentor-coach-athlete for the Special Olympics, dedicated employee and fiercely loyal friend. But last weekend, we sat down to talk specifically about allyship, his journey as a transman, and his role as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQA people everywhere.

Among the things to admire about Tyler is his iron-clad belief that his openness about his experience as a transman will make future transgender people’s lives a little easier. Two noble beliefs lie at the root of his advocacy strategies: 1) that when given the chance through education and dialogue, people are capable of being kind to and accepting of another and 2) that his willingness to discuss parts of his life outside of the realm of polite conversation will have real, tangible, positive consequences in the world. Tyler carefully considers the ethical dimensions of his decisions about his “outness” as he debates whether or not it’s “right” for him to stealth when he knows that his ability to pass as a man makes him less visible, which he recognizes is an option many transgender people, especially transwomen, don’t have.

Our conversation spanned a variety of topics but continually came back to the central theme of education and communication as ways, not to erase difference, but to render it at once more visible and more celebrated on all levels.

On ally-ship and appropriate questions:

KS: So let’s cut to the chase: what’s an ally to you?

TR: I think for me allyship is about not judging and encouraging others not to judge. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to have been there, just live and let live.

KS: Recently Kurt [my husband] read an article slamming Amy Schumer for an apparently insensitive interview with a transwoman. One summary cited her asking about physical anatomy which the author considered a rude question. But, as you know, cis people have questions about trans people that are not politically correct. Do you think there is any space for those questions in conversation?

TR: I hadn’t heard of that! Well, I would say that if you’re doing an interview with Amy Schumer you should probably know what you’re getting into [i.e., she’d probably ask overly personal questions of anyone]. I just wish that as a society we were more transparent to differences in general [and that it was okay] to ask about cultures, preferences, and misunderstandings without the perception of being racist and sexist. Like, I wish I could walk up to a Muslim and be like “So, Ramadan. Can you explain your holiday a little bit?” without it seeming like a rude question. Being afraid of offending someone and being easily offended closes the door to conversations. Openness leads to being accepted. [Tyler’s Note: After having watched the interview, I think that Schumer does show some of the kind of blind stumbling that a lot of cis people feel when trying to relate to trans people. What it comes down to however, is again, that need to educate. Bailey does just that a number of times. What bothers me more is the author’s problem with the way Bailey is presented, but nothing is mentioned about portrayal of transmen in similar situations. Take this January 2015 interview of Buck Angel, for example. He was asked similar “inappropriate” questions… how does he pee, about his sex life, sexual orientation. Where’s the frustration? Is it because transmen can choose to stealth much easier than transwomen? Is the assumption that all trans people are searching for invisibility or assimilation? Is it because it’s not offensive to ask men about their genitalia? They’re the questions that everyone want to know the answers to, and we’re only doing ourselves favors by being willing to talk.]

KS: How about questions surrounding a transgender person’s past? Off-limits?

TR: So that’s a really personal thing that’s different for every transperson. I will be able to “stealth”, which eventually hides my past [living as a woman]. But you have the opportunity to talk about your past [which can then open up more important conversations]. We can stealth if we want to, but that’s a decision. A lot of trans people don’t like talking about it…what they looked like, their birth name. It can trigger a lot of dysphoria. Simply put, it can make them feel really uncomfortable in their own skin again.

On gyms, bathrooms, and stealthing.

KS: What is “stealthing?”

TR: Stealthing is what some people call passing, but to take it one step further, it’s also the idea of not being out about being trans. Not necessarily closeted, but about not telling people.

KS: Are there places you want to do that more than others?

TR: The gym. I almost blew that the other day by dropping my ID on the floor. But I also recognize we live in a really liberal area and so it would probably be okay. But there was a transgender 17 year old killed in Alabama last week. Florida is considering legislation that makes it illegal to use bathrooms other than the one that corresponds with your birth-assigned gender.

KS: But how do they actually enforce that without violating your privacy?

TR: The short answer is they can’t.  I guess they could check your ID, but that won’t even work in all cases…my ID will reflect my new name and gender in a week. But it often constitutes illegal search and seizure like when Arizona was stopping anyone who looked hispanic to ask for papers. That begs the question….what does “transgender” look like? Being in a bathroom is not a crime until you start to do something creepy. You shouldn’t be able to legislate who can and cannot use a bathroom based on genitalia. On any given Saturday, I’m more likely to see naked coeds running down this street [we’re sitting at one of our old undergrad haunts] than I am in a men’s bathroom or locker room .

KS: Yeah, for some reason we seem to think bathrooms are sexualized spaces.

TR: Yeah, just like breastfeeding a baby is not a sexual act…breastfeeding a 30 year old man, different story. People just want to use the bathroom—not ogle other people.

KS: Though, didn’t you say you got hit on at the gym the other week?

TR: More gay guys hit on me now. This one guy was doing bicep curls in the mirror while looking intensely at me [Tyler demonstrates this amusingly]. I think gay men are the all-knowers of the male body. They both have a male body and are attracted to a male body, so if I can pass for them, I’m doing well.

MJ: Does being hit on make you feeling weird?

TR: I milk it.

~~~

On supporting a person as they begin their transition:

KS: So starting from the beginning of the process…

TR: Yes, generally speaking, discussing [a person’s] reasons for transitioning are conversations to be held with close friends and therapists—it’s not an ally’s job. [The other thing to consider] is that if a transperson is coming out to you, it may be sudden for you, but it’s not sudden to them. I remember talking to you for the first time that time we were driving to [one of our college friend’s] house and almost died in the storm.

KS: Yeah, and that was what, [does a bunch of math revolving around which one of our friends has lived in which city for how long] a good two years before you started transitioning?

TR: Yeah, people do not throw themselves out against social norms willy-nilly. For example, for my dad [my transition] seems really sudden, but it’s actually not.

KS: Do you think it’s weird that society kind of expects you to “come out” even though it’s really no one’s business?

TR: Society wants to know when you’re “normal,” and right now cis-hetero behavior is the norm and they want to know when and why you’re doing other things. But I didn’t officially come out everywhere, like work for example. I told a manager and a few close coworkers, but everyone still “knows” (and is remarkably supportive). People will surprise you sometimes. I’m just like “I’m going to talk about my fiance like you talk about yours and the gender doesn’t matter”.

KS: Does coming out “officially” offer you anything [advantages]?

TR: My biggest hang up about it is that people feel like it’s their business [when it’s definitely not]. But I also know that it’s a chance to explain and open up a conversation which will hopefully help future generations avoid the struggles I go through. Also, for trans people, at least at the beginning of the process, it’s how you get called by your chosen name and pronouns. Now I can introduce myself to someone as Tyler and they never bat an eye, but I had to come out so that people knew I wanted to be called Tyler and he.

KS: Like, maybe someday there will be a point where trans people don’t have to come out?

TR: Yeah someday… but we can’t even get racism right [i.e. there’s still institutionalized racism]. There will always be somebody who will be a dick about it.

KS: Ugggh, so true.

~~~

Things allies can do to support transgender people:

KS: Okay, so what’s one really important thing that trans allies can do to support transgender people?

TR: With trans people allies need to be good about sticking to pronouns, to try to reinforce and be consistent. At the Special Olympics [Tyler and his fiancee are both volunteers], all of our team had a lot of issues with pronouns (probably also related to their own cognitive issues, to be fair.) Our regional team coordinator told the team (who had known me pre-transition) about what to call me and which pronouns to use. One of our players responded “So she’s transgender, so what?” and then did not get names or pronouns right the entire season [laughs]. Yeah, they messed up pronouns and messed up names—but they were really trying, and [regional coordinator and Tyler’s fiancee] were really consistent to try to reinforce it. But my players were higher functioning so they had some fear that I was going to get mad if they messed up my name. Melissa [Tyler’s fiancee] assured them that,  No I would not be mad about that.

KS: What should you do if you don’t know about someone’s pronouns?

TR: Ask! What are your preferred pronouns? One of the reasons I chose a really non-neutral name like Tyler when I could have been Chris is because I don’t want there to be the potential for ambiguity. Some people do. Also, the kind of things people will do when your name doesn’t match your voice [Tyler works at a place that requires him to answer the phone using his legal name which is in process of being changed, so luckily this is a temporary issue!] I answer [in my now deep voice] Christina and people say back Kevin, Tristan, Ricky, “you mean Christian,” or sometimes just “bud.” There’s one guy who will treat me completely differently when I answer and he catches that my name is Christina—he’s a lot more formal and his pleasantries are different. But if he doesn’t catch my name he just talks to me about sports and guy stuff and is less formal. And he wishes me happy father’s day. [A guy walks by with a fantastically well groomed beard]. Wait, I want my beard to look like that guy’s beard. Classy beard.

KS: That’s a great beard. [discussion of Tyler’s impending beard, transitioning into a conversation of Halloween costumes for this year].

~~~

KS: What’s one issue that affects the trans community that cis people may not consider?

TR: [immediately] Healthcare. If you [indicating K.S.] bust your femoral artery, you’re probably going to expect to drop trou when you go to the doctor’s. Everyone in the operating room will cut off your clothes, expecting a vagina, and then seeing a vagina continue on with care. But for transpeople, [there’s a fear] that the doctor will be concerned about what’s between your legs [and whether or not it matches the expectation] rather than your femoral artery bleeding out. Like, I know of someone who identifies outside of the binary who had heart attack-like symptoms but delayed seeking care because they were worried about how they would be treated in the hospital [they were treated well]. Someone else I know who prefers male pronouns and is on the male end of androgynous went to the hospital and had no problems whatsoever after discussing his preferred name and pronouns.

KS: But stories about positive health care experiences aren’t the ones that are coming out in the trans community?

TR: No, people are just hearing about being denied care. Like, as a transgender person, or as a homosexual, or even as Puerto Rican, I understand that I can be denied service at certain places. But then I can choose not to buy the goods and services of those places and hopefully all of my friends will also refuse to go to those places. Those business have the right to not cater my wedding, but I have the right to lambast them. Medical professionals should not have the right to deny me care under their oath, and most understand that. I worry a little that we’re telling businesses that they can’t refuse our business through legislation.

KS: Because if we can legislate “morality” in one direction, we could also legislate it in another direction?

TR: Let’s be realistic: at some point I need to go back to my orthopedist. I haven’t been to him since I started testosterone, and he seems like a cool guy, but it is a concern that he won’t treat you again because of your change. We are lucky enough to live in a liberal area and I feel like if I had a medical emergency in Alabama, Texas….I’d probably venture somewhere above the mason-dixon [line] to get care because of concerns about quality.

The ethics of visibility (or how transgender people can be their own allies):

KS: You’ve told me that you’ve written about Caitlyn Jenner… [see Tyler’s post here]

TR: Caitlyn has done nothing to help other trans people. She was like “This is my Vanity Fair Cover. Deuces.” Aydian Dowling could have gone totally stealth and no one would have to know, but look what he’s done to stand up, draw us some positive attention and try to get things done for us.

KS: So do you think that celebrities who are transgender people have an ethical obligation to be advocates for the trans community?

TR: Caitlin has an ethical obligation to be aware of the way that her image affects other people. By putting themselves out there as celebrities, they accept a social responsibility. By putting herself out there, she’s got a social obligation not to make the rest of the community look worse. She makes it seem like [being transgender] is all about the attention and she has not addressed any [issue affecting the trans community] since her coming out. She makes it seem like it’s all about the attention: “hey everybody look at me,” [perpetuating the myth] that we all just want to be looked at. Also, she perpetuates an image of a transwoman that’s stealth, whereas transwomen have a lot more of a problem passing.

KS: So part of the problem is that she has not addressed the fact that her privilege, like her ability to get surgery to “feminize” her face is what allows her to stealth?

TR: And then it’s like “I guess if transwomen look like that it’s okay.”

KS: And the media just runs with that. Off topic, but apparently Rachel Dolezal came out as bisexual—which is fine—but it doesn’t excuse her from wearing tanning-salon blackface.

TR: What’s really interesting about that case is that people think about that in the same terms as trans people. If people can identify as a different gender than what they were born with, then people can identify with a different race than what they were born with. But to some extent, the LGBTQA and ally community has kind of brought that on itself by also refusing to recognize nuance and difference when they say things like “50 years ago it was illegal for a black man to marry a white man” as an argument for gay marriage. [Dolezal’s situation] raises a lot of interesting questions about feeling “what isn’t right.” I feel like I can’t say that she is wrong to feel like that [i.e. that she is actually black], but I can see where a lot of people are upset about that. We need to look as society at how we treat people different than us, instead of trying to say who can or cannot be different. Because, “Don’t shoot I identify white” isn’t going to work.

~~~

TR: I haven’t made a decision whether or not I want to be out for the rest of my life or eventually go completely stealth. I will be more privileged and less visible [as a transman] as I continue to transition.

KS: Have you noticed any differences in the way you are treated yet?

TR: I’m gaining white male privilege: People stop talking when I talk, expect me to pick up checks, hold doors. I’m trying really hard to not take advantage of this, especially because many transgender people, especially transwomen who tend to be more visible experience the opposite, a denial of privileges once had.

KS: Oh my gosh, you can now be accused of mansplaining!

TR: What’s mansplaining?

KS: Remember that time when [name omitted] corrected me about my views on high heels?

TR: Oh yeah. As a transguy I have experiences with women things. But if I were to be a stealth transguy—[my opinions/advice] will still be my experience, but it will come off to some people as if I were mansplaining.

~~~

TR: What it boils down to is…stop judging. Stop judging transpeople, or feminists, or gay people, or even white middle class dudes. Just stop. Different does not equal wrong. Right now, I’m really caught up in the moral element of stealthing—is it fair for me to go back and forth between being out and being stealth. For example, there are some situations [like an upcoming wedding that we are going to]. It’s probably the best option and there will only be a couple people [at the event] who knew me before. Maybe that’s a bad example—weddings are a special circumstance and it’s rude to draw attention away from the couple, but I’m still thinking it through. Like, is it ethical for me to stealth when I know that others can’t?

~~~

Tyler can be found blogging at https://chivalrysundead.wordpress.com/.

What We Mean When We Talk About Responsibility: Romance, Pleasure, and Politics

The question I want to ask, then, is this: what does it mean for pleasure to be politically correct or not? Romance as a genre has historically been the subject of a lot of angst over this very question. Its investment in normative gender and sexual politics is right on the surface. Its sub-genre ghettoization of stories about POC and simultaneous exoticization of white women—heroines with exotic raven hair and milky skin are common staples—is well documented. And its fetishistic fascination with class performance and historical moments that were less than kind to non-white, non-rich people is nothing to dismiss. And, unlike Tarantino, romance doesn’t get the cover of an avant-garde aesthetic that can justify the pleasure romance readers get from the genre…Romance is smut, and the women who read romance read it specifically because it scratches a particular itch. They are self-conscious consumers of the fantasies in these books even if the fantasies they consume are shaped by cultural forces that are less than politically correct. Just hit up the romance lists section of Goodreads, and you’ll find women and men who know exactly what their fantasies and desires are and discuss the mechanics of the smut they read in savvy and precise terms.

 Today I want to talk about romance, that much-maligned literary genre that conjures up images of Fabio’s pecs and housewives with a password-protected kindle. As a genre explicitly dedicated to pleasure, women’s pleasure in particular, romance occupies a vexed position. It is both wildly popular and easily sneered at, impugned publicly, often, by the same people who consume it in private. Romance reading is thought to signal a certain lack of imagination and intellectual laziness which is rarely associated with the kinds of smut thought to be consumed by men. This probably has to do with the fact that romance is a literary genre and is therefore held to standards that don’t apply in the world of Brazzers, but it also has to do, I think, with the standards that women’s genres and pleasures are held to more generally.

Frequenters of Acro Collective know that we believe that political work and vital thinking cannot be sustained without a corrective measure of self-care and a diligent investment in our own pleasure. That, in fact, a fervent yet critical celebration of pleasure in many forms—both our own and that of others—is central to the type of intellectual space we’re interested in creating. We not only believe that the kinds of communities that form around a shared pleasure can be deeply affirming and potentially transformative, but we’re also aware that pleasure itself can get lost in the work of critique. We sometimes forget that ideology does not meet people on an intellectual level but is embedded in layers of aesthetic and affective experience which cannot be discarded indiscriminately simply because of their proximity to political content.

But precisely because so many of our most crucial pleasures are intersected by politics, we also know that we cannot responsibly affirm those pleasures without an equal measure of critical engagement with them. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy difficult or ideologically impure things, but simply that it’s important not to split the cultural landscape into the politically correct and the politically compromised because nothing would ever land on the correct side.

Yet the angst over this problem is real, especially in young politically-conscious circles. A quick Google search for “liking problematic things” returns almost half a million results, most aimed at social justice types, reassuring them that it is, indeed, possible to enjoy all sorts of representations which we would not be so complacent about in real life.

It’s depressingly common in social justice and academic discourse to accuse a piece of culture of being “problematic” with a fantasy ideal in our minds of a cultural artifact that is pure, purely responsible. But purely responsible culture does not exist, and if it did, it would feel hollow, sanitized, and deeply unsatisfying. Think of those midcentury anti-communist propaganda films. Their attempts to hit all the appropriate political talking-points make them feel farcical in a cult-film kind of way, but render them pretty uncompelling otherwise. I am not saying that we should not bring political critiques to our culture, but rather that it feels massively unproductive, not to mention exhausting and joyless, to speak in terms of enough—is Lena Dunham feminist enough? Is GOOP vegan enough?

Because culture is an aesthetic project as much as an ideological one it can never be purely responsible. The waters are muddied from the beginning by pleasure. Our experience of a painting as beautiful or ugly or a film as dazzling or dull bears on, indeed produces, our experience of its ideological content. I find myself deeply uncomfortable with artists like Quentin Tarantino for this very reason. I recognize the stunning, sensational, ravishing allure of his aesthetic project and I recognize the pleasure I feel at its hands, and I see how the brilliance of his experiments can obscure the ickiness of his politics while standing in for something more progressive.

Once more, I am not suggesting that aesthetics exist beyond or without the political, but just the opposite. I want to point to the ways in which the political is overlaid and infused by aesthetic experience—the ways that pleasure complicates and challenges our ideological commitments. Why do so many ostensibly politically responsible people feel the need to ask Google if they can like problematic things? It’s because, I think, they can recognize the dissonance between how they envision their politics and how they experience their pleasures.

The question I want to ask, then, is this: what does it mean for pleasure to be politically correct or not? Romance as a genre has historically been the subject of a lot of angst over this very question. Its investment in normative gender and sexual politics is right on the surface. Its sub-genre ghettoization of stories about POC and simultaneous exoticization of white women—heroines with exotic raven hair and milky skin are common staples—is well documented. And its fetishistic fascination with class performance and historical moments that were less than kind to non-white, non-rich people is nothing to dismiss. And, unlike Tarantino, romance doesn’t get the cover of an avant-garde aesthetic that can justify the pleasure romance readers get from the genre.

There is apparently nothing to redeem the romance reader. They are condemned from both sides as both politically naive and tasteless. The pleasure they take in the romance genre is bad pleasure not only because it is incited by ideologically compromised representations, but also because the generic aesthetic does not justify or forgive that pleasure like it might for something like prestige TV (which is definitely not immune from squicky politics).

It doesn’t help that romance readers are exclusively thought of as women. Women’s genres have always, since the high/low culture split at the end of the 19th century, been accused of bad aesthetics and facile thinking. Meanwhile Jonathan Franzen, noted curmudgeon, can write any number of hacky neoliberal novels and his readers can still be contributors for the New Yorker.

It’s much easier to disavow a pleasure in which one does not partake. I, for example, cannot affirm the kinds of pleasures that many people experience in patriotism. In fact, I find those pleasures altogether unsavory as simply an affective mask for the kinds of violence perpetrated in the name of (white, masculinist) nationalism. So, then, why do I insist that the pleasures offered by romance are different than those offered by patriotism when they can undoubtedly be symptomatic of racism and rape culture? Partly, it’s because women’s pleasures have historically been dismissed as unintellectual, backward and perverse. Partly because people tend to be able to recognize and compartmentalize sexual fantasy as fantasy in a way that they cannot for fantasies of nationalism.

This combination of taste and politics makes the romance reader an easy mark. She is simply too stupid to know what she’s doing. And this is why I am an unrepentant apologist for books like 50 Shades of Grey. The women who read books like that one aren’t idiots—or, at least, there are no more idiotic romance readers than there are Franzen fans. They didn’t accidentally stumble upon 50 Shades and decide to swallow the gender politics uncritically.

Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)
Look at this pesky New Woman soaking up scandal via her novel-reading! | Painting by Albert Ritzberger, image via jamesjoel (Flickr)

Romance is smut, and the women who read romance read it specifically because it scratches a particular itch. They are self-conscious consumers of the fantasies in these books even if the fantasies they consume are shaped by cultural forces that are less than politically correct. Just hit up the romance lists section of Goodreads, and you’ll find women and men who know exactly what their fantasies and desires are and discuss the mechanics of the smut they read in savvy and precise terms.

I’m willing to believe that the overwhelming majority of people who read 50 Shades of Grey are well aware that the kind of consent represented in those books is imperfect and acceptable only within the world of fantasy. And I propose that instead of talking about romance and other politically incorrect culture as a zero-sum game in which representations are either “good” or “bad,” feminist enough or not, we spend more time talking about how our pleasures are solicited and elicited, and how to mobilize our politically incorrect pleasures towards a more progressive cultural landscape.

This might mean making room in our politics for self-conscious experiences of pleasure as well as using our pleasure as a critical tool to examine our political commitments.