Whiteness Killed Ashli Babbitt: A Note on White Vulnerability
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
I had intended my site's first blog post to be a reflection on the phenomenon of sexual nostalgia, currently under research by social scientists at New York University, according to a piece in the February issue of Psychology Today. However, in light of recent events, a topic on negotiating my own penchant to romanticize past partners at the expense of a current partnership seems ill-timed.
Reading about and secondhand witnessing the fatal Capitol police shooting of a Trump loyalist and QAnon devotee during Wednesday's near-overthrow of a democratically sound presidential election shifts my focus to another strand of nostalgia. A kind of in-group racial dynamic that is the rage among white nationalists whose ideology of racial supremacy revolves around the restoration of a glorious Anglo-Saxon yesterday.
According to news reports, Ashli Babbitt was a 35-year-old white woman whose own anti-immigrant and pro-isolationist fervor was fueled by the right-wing propaganda to which she adhered. In an article published by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, cultural historians James Deutsch and Levi Bochantin explain the "folkloric roots" of the QAnon conspiracy. They trace Q-theory to themes organized by category in the Motif-Index of Folk Literature which includes references to child abduction, child sacrifice and killing children for blood -- all contributing motifs to the lore of ritual murder that is part and parcel of QAnon rhetoric.
"Based on the false belief that Jewish people have used the blood of abducted Christian children for ritual purposes, it is a legend that keeps reemerging—around the Greco-Roman Mediterranean in the first and second centuries BCE, throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, and revived in Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s," Deutsch and Bochantin report, adding: "QAnon’s belief that wealthy elites are abducting, trafficking, and abusing children in order to siphon their adrenochrome is not only rooted in the blood libel, but also utilizes contemporary political unrest and societal instability to attack an established 'other' that represents an increasingly diverse and multicultural nation."
Inherent in this mythic thrust toward white Christian racial purity is an ideological belief in a Satanic "Deep State" that has roots in folklore which scapegoats Jews. Galvanized by social media, Q-adherents take it upon themselves to safeguard what they hold to be their rightful place in a social order that has repeatedly stripped them of political power. They are the purveyors of light in a Biblical battle against darkness for which Donald Trump is heralded to lead the helm -- hence the white storm on the Capitol, Wednesday.
Babbitt was one of these believers, forsaking her body for the sake of a cause with no factual bases for its touted claims. As her Twitter history reveals, she is one of a swath of Americans whose "aggrieved entitlement," as sociologist Michael Kimmel calls it, gives them license to kill what they deem an affront to American (read white) citizenship. Such blatant, state-sanctioned arrogance is the byproduct of folklore threaded into a collectively woven web of yearning for a past that never was. The "MAGA" cries evidence of this mobbish longing.
And so it goes: Babbitt will be deemed a martyr by many, a vigil to honor her memory at the Washington Monument today. She will be elevated on the altar of sacrifice despite her life's disposability in the eyes of a bunch of white men terrified of losing their power but who will feign sympathy for a life lost to their whims.
I do not celebrate her death. Rather, I mourn the loss of her humanity to a conspiracy theory that seduced her conscience, looking as it was to be seduced. Unwilling to deal with the uncertainty of what it might mean to acknowledge her vulnerability as a woman, for instance, and, further, tap into this vulnerability as a source of empathy for and mutual understanding of the "other," she exorcised it altogether. In deed, Babbitt did what white racists do best: She willfully denied it.
Even more, she displaced it through a classic shirk of white culpability in the formation of a social caste that relegates non-whites to the realm of non-being, to the anti-space of homo sacer (i.e. "sacred man") in the sense of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben -- that is: to the status of one whose destiny is foretold in a political arena where life is worth neither sacrifice nor rescue.
"Homo sacer can be wrecked, killed, etc., but mustn’t be elevated to the place of sacrifice," my friend and colleague Dan Olson, a philosopher himself, noted in an email to me recently.
To do so would create a state of exception for lives deemed otherwise worthless by a governing body (a sovereign) that, in the context of Trumper Republicanism, cares little for human life and the democratic processes to protect its rights.
"For Agamben, the moment we begin to see human life as Zoe (pure biological life) versus as bios (political and social life governed by some concept of the Good) is the moment we prepare for fascism since we begin governing bodies versus humans."
Echoing Olson, ideally, in a democratic society, the sovereign is the people.
And it was sovereignty — her own and that of murdered children believed to have been stripped down to the state of homo sacer themselves (as Q cosmology would have it) — that Babbitt was trying to defend against the threat of foreign invasion. This, even as her life was being decided for her by Q propaganda and the politicians touting it in order to maintain their own state of exception as sovereign, as the ones who decide who lives and who dies.
She thus foisted vulnerability upon the backs of the non-deserving so she wouldn't have to face the uncertainty of being white in the "twilight of white religion," as race scholar Christopher Driscoll dubs the contemporary moment. This, only to prove in bitter paradox the sovereign's power over her own possibilities and potentialities, her life stripped down to mere biological fact in a political numbers game in which her fate was always already decided. QAnon further radicalized Babbitt's racial uncertainty, mystifying her with folklore that empowered her to salvage, through violence, whatever she felt she was forfeiting in an emergent non-white America.
At the end of the day, she lost anyway.
And what does Whiteness actually care? Babbitt was a pawn to do its pitiful bidding.
What we all learn in the process of remembering her name, if we so choose, is the following axiom: White people die.
The myths Babbitt lived by might have had her otherwise convinced, and judging by the confused and stunned reaction of her fellow "revolutionaries" in video footage of her murder, she is not alone. This is how historical Whiteness works: It instills an inflated sense of self-worth, a "psychological wage" as W.E.B. Du Bois says and which social historian David Roediger expounds, that falsely reassures white might.
Fearful of racial equity's assault on her authenticity as non-slave, as natural-born citizen, she found emotional and mental refuge in wholesale credence to a dogma that works to the best advantage of the wealthy elites she, like her compatriots, decries. The tragic irony: Babbitt, in key with the warped logic of Tea Party principles from which Trumper Republicanism emerged, voted against her own best interests as a woman of middle-class means. As with other whites feeling besieged by affirmative action and immigration, she propped neofascist politicians who don't give a goddamn about her -- a multi-toured Air Force veteran from Southern California who ran a pool service and supply company -- except to feed their nihilistic narcissism. In other words, they just want power and they know how to exploit white fear in order to get it.
Having said that, Babbitt's denial of her white vulnerability was her own undoing.
According to a recent Washington Post piece giving a glimpse into her life as a 10-year military veteran -- including six years in an Air National Guard unit responsible for defending the Washington region and respond to civil unrest -- Babbitt had a checkered history of erratic, aggressive behavior, in and outside of the Air Force. She was violent toward her husband's ex-girlfriend and struggled to keep her pool business afloat. Trump and the populist groundswell of support that grew around him pulled Babbitt it in with its cunning, capitalizing on her instability. It gave her a cause after leaving a frustrated military career with at least one demotion, the WP reports.
"Babbitt would eventually share more than 8,600 tweets, offering a vivid account of her descent into a world of conspiracy theories and delusion," WP reporters write, noting the libertarian once voted for former President Barack Obama, "but her first message was addressed to Trump, the man she believed was destined to rescue her country."
A close read of the subtext of her political rants, echoed by her comrades, discloses an economic insecurity tinged with racial anxiety at play in Babbitt's psychodrama.
In her despairing rage, betraying a deeply seated wound, Babbitt bought in to a structure, a system, built on a white habit of refusal that Q-inspired falsehoods only serve to fortify. It confirmed she was special, that she was deserving over and against the "other" -- to the point where she donned invincibility like the Trump flag she was wearing as if a heroine's cape. Rather than accepting the truth of her shared humanity with the "other," she preferred the psychological wage of believing she was somehow "not-them." "Build the Wall" she spewed on social media. "Stop the Steal," she screamed at highest decibel on the steps of the Capitol.
Problem is: There never was a steal and the wall, well, it has no stability. Which is why, in the face of failure and loss, racist whites and their prophesied leader of the "Great Awakening" cling so desperately to the lives and livelihoods they are paranoid of losing. What the Great Awakening really translates to, then, is a collective ego inflation -- a compensatory measure for what Whiteness envies in the "other": power, prestige, the privilege it believes ripped from its divinely mandated stranglehold.
And so, as people debate whether or not a cop should be sent to jail for killing a defenseless white woman or whether or not this white woman deserved to be shot, the better avenue of approach may be an accurate assessment of the racial mythologies that emboldened this ex-"Capitol Guardsman" to masquerade with super-human disguise and, in her final act, die for a lie: the supreme invulnerability of Whiteness.
As the white racial imaginary would have it, white womanhood is perpetually fragile and therefore subject to white male protection and control -- as if to say white men are themselves impenetrable, thus making white women doubly so. Wednesday's attempted coup gave witness to the failures of this white projection in a wild display of fragility in general, indicating in no uncertain terms that the white body is immune neither to physical nor social death -- and that white maleness is no guarantor of protective shield.
Just ask Donald Trump. Or the Q-prophets among us.