The Non-Mask of the Red Death: A Deadly Necropolitics Hits Home

A Trader Joe's shopper goes on a tirade after being asked to wear a mask. Screenshot of video: @ItsRellzWorld/Twitter

The shade of Edgar Allen Poe will perhaps forgive me for misappropriating the title of his chilling short tale. It does seem apt to evoke Poe’s tableau of carefree revellers who keep hearing the ominous chime of a gigantic clock but continue to waltz away while ignoring the presence of a spectral Red Death until it’s too late.

At least Poe’s revellers keep their masks on. Ours do not, even when death stares them directly in the face. Just over half of Americans surveyed recently report that they wear a mask when they leave the house, but mask wearing varies dramatically by region, with the lowest level of masking centered in the South, Southeast, and Southwest. You could overlay the non-compliant sections and the Bible-believing sections and you’d have a pretty good match.

God will decide is the mantra of many of the folks who refuse to mask up. But what kind of God might this be? That’s my question.

This may be a propitious moment to recall the work of Achille Mbembe, whose penetrating Necropolitics met with international acclaim a few years back. Mbembe investigates the ancient pedigree of necropolitics. It wasn’t invented in North America. But the white colonizers here—most notably the Christians whose righteous God demands sacrifice and suffering—became extraordinarily effective death dealers along the lines that Mbembe lays out. 

Their world-transforming project required these white Christians to reduce indigenous peoples, indentured servants, and (most importantly) enslaved Africans to a status lying “between life and death.” The staggering wealth of this continent—and of this entire hemisphere—could not have been extracted absent this monumental effort to destroy and dehumanize others, and that effort swiftly dehumanized the colonizers themselves, as D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, and many others have observed.

Here is Mbembe’s summary description of what happens to people who practice a thoroughgoing necropolitics:

[I]n the power to manufacture an entire crowd of people who specifically live at the edge of life, or even on its outer edge—people for whom living means continually standing up to death …. This life is a superfluous one, therefore, whose price is so meager that it has no equivalence, whether market or—even less—human …. Nobody even bears the slightest feelings of responsibility or justice towards this sort of life or, rather, death. Necropolitical power proceeds by a sort of inversion between life and death, as if life was merely death’s medium.

Nobody even bears the slightest feelings of responsibility or justice towards this sort of life, or rather, death: that about sums up the attitude of the employers and elected officials who feel free to put others in harm’s way in the midst of this perilous time.

Mbembe’s framing makes it easier to grasp how a widespread embrace of death and its politics, very much including a willingness to drive others to death, blooms so triumphantly in today’s United States. I mentioned the anti-maskers in their millions. These are largely the selfsame people who deny climate change and support politicians who flaunt their contempt for science. Many of the “God will decide” folks will refuse to be vaccinated when and if a credible vaccine comes along. They will not have been vaccinated for the flu, thus multiplying by tenfold the danger to themselves and others.

But because Mbembe specifically relates necropolitics to the operations of power, we cannot simply focus on the unmasked death-dealing multitudes without considering the architects and legitimizers of such widespread contempt for the lives of others. Names that come to mind at this moment range from Betsy DeVos to Alex Azar to Brian Kemp. 

But it’s important to be clear that what Trump and his minions bring to this moment is entirely consistent with the rich vein of death-dealing ideology lying at the center of the white American project. This is, after all, the “godly” culture that gave us the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, the waterboarding of Filipinos, Wounded Knee, Manzanar, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the carpet bombing and napalming of Viet Nam. We can grant that Trump’s thugocracy is an exceptionally crude one, but no one can say that Trump and Trumpism lie outside of the American grain. There’s a reason why Trump keeps Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the Oval Office wall.

“God will decide.” The theology sounds innocent enough, if only because it’s so familiar. It flows, or pretends to flow, from an exalted idea of divine sovereignty: a keystone of Calvinist thought. The God in question is a jealous God, not “slow to anger” but just the opposite. It’s the God who orders the complete extermination of the Amalekites—women and children included (I Samuel 15.3) in order for the Israelites to dominate Canaan.

But what about the other God evinced in the same holy book—the God of boundless lovingkindness, the God who desires mercy, not sacrifice? (And don’t for a minute try to map “Old Testament” and “New Testament” onto these competing conceptions of God. It just ain’t so.) In this fallen world people get to choose which of God’s faces they prefer. How God is imaged is famously contested territory for the “people of the Book,” and no one can seriously expect today’s champions and worshippers of a wrathful male sky god to grasp how elements of Moloch got woven into this conception of the godhead during the earliest phase of Israelite religion.

Equally problematic in our particular culture: the champions and worshippers of a fire-breathing Yaweh never quite see how a cold-blooded and anti-empathic masculinist cruelty shaped this god’s North American “career,” so to speak, of sanctifying the slaughter of the indigenes and the torture of the enslaved. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz rightly points to the significance of the Scots-Irish Calvinist thread that unites the leading Indian killers and the most abusive slavers (e.g., the aforementioned Andrew Jackson, who was both) during the course of our bloody history.

So where does this leave us? The preacher in me wants to insist that “love wins,” but the reader of history in me isn’t so sure.

I don’t doubt that the current surge in necropolitics can be defeated, but I doubt that the bad religion behind it can ever be uprooted. It’s just too potent; just too deeply inscribed in the white American psyche. The good news (politically, if not morally) is that the reckless ones, the defiantly unmasked, are digging their own graves and not just driving others to theirs. Not to mention how this country’s toxic whiteness is slowly getting backed into a corner under the pressure of a still-rising Movement for Black Lives.

But as this struggle continues, we damn well better worry about the ongoing fury of the angry-God worshippers and the force of an entrenched necropolitics. We dare not forget that from the very beginning of the project right down to this very moment, holding life cheaply has been the essence of the American Way.