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On Thursday, June 21, Melania Trump made a surprise visit to an immigrant children’s shelter on the US-Mexico border. As she left Washington, she donned a Zara jacket with the text, “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled across the back.
Much has been written about the now infamous jacket. The President tweeted immediately that it was referring to “fake news.” The first lady’s office countered that, saying it was “just a jacket.”
Fashion critics, academics, historians and TV personalities have weighed in: Troy Patterson at The New Yorker speculates on its significance here. Professor and aesthetic critic Rhonda Garelick of New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” writes discerningly on meddling with meaning here. Sean Hannity of Fox News makes a point of chastising “fake news” sources for overshadowing FLOTUS’s generosity by obsessing about the jacket here.
In Overland Journal, Giovanni Tiso outlines an important history of Mussolini’s “Menefreghismo” or “I-don’t-care-ism,” connecting the all-too-apparent dots between Melania’s outfit and the Fascist slogan.
There’s no evidence linking Melania’s jacket to Mussolini’s Blackshirts, but it’s hard to imagine that someone who grew up in Slovenia — a country whose population was subjected to violent Italianization under the Mussolini’s regime — would be completely unaware of the slogan.
The line “non me ne frego” appeared in song, speech, and on garments during the 1920s as a call to arms for a new lifestyle: a proud rejection of all things at odds with fear, self-doubt, and the nationalist state. The phrase had (and still has) a vulgarity to it that might be closer to ‘I don’t give a shit’ or ‘I don’t give a fuck.’
One need only skim Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism” from 1927 to be reminded how this uncaring philosophy can play out:
It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity; harmonizing their various interests through justice, and transmitting to future generations the mental conquests of science, of art, of law and the solidarity of humanity. It leads men from primitive tribal life to that highest expression of human power which is Empire; it links up; through the centuries the names of those of its members who have died for its existence and in obedience to its laws, it holds up the memory of the leaders who have increased its territory and the geniuses who have illumined it with glory as an example to be followed by future generations. When the conception of the State declines, and disunifying and centrifugal tendencies prevail, whether of individuals or of particular groups, the nations where such phenomena appear are in their decline.
I find it difficult not to associate Mussolini’s hubristic “menefreghismo” with Trump’s smug, cavalier dismissal of all things at odds with him and his agenda. Supporters of this Fascist doctrine, like supporters of Trump, might applaud its bold, uncompromising stance. Strength comes in determination. Strength comes in “telling it like it is,” not subscribing to the principles of easily-offended Generation Snowflake.
But “I-don’t-care-ism” also appears to take shape as an enormous autocratic machine, one that rejects differences, alternative ideas, individualism, and critical feedback. This organism doesn’t care for or about anything that doesn’t feed its appetite. Subscribe to its diet or die.
In The Rothko Chapel: Writings on Art and the Threshold of the Divine (2010), the late, great art patron, collector, and activist Dominique de Menil writes extensively on how a singular art space alike the Rothko Chapel serves as an active “no-man’s-land” for a host of ideas. As a uniquely non-denominational, non-religious environment, the chapel is an example of an “active neutrality,” hosting a radical hospitality, unwavering in its commitment to inclusivity. “It is not enough to understand the human reality,” writes Dominique de Menil, “something must be done to make it more real and more human.”
While there may be no escaping distorted formats or the distorted ways in which information is presented — the sea of spam, bullying Trump tweets, Zara jackets, real news, fake news, etc. — might we carve out some radical zone of inclusivity where language celebrates the differences among us, an encampment for voices silenced by neofascism’s insistence upon sameness?
There’s no room for others in the statement “I don’t care,” as branded by Mussolini and Melania. It revokes and refuses generosity. “I don’t care” is the verbal equivalent of hanging a “no vacancy” sign in front of the hotel. There’s not an iota of hospitality, of welcoming in strangers and travelers:
For the Fascist, everything is encompassed within the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, or even has value, outside of the State. (Mussolini)
What if we practiced a radical hospitality of language? Not simply writing, “I do care” on the back of a jacket, but something more rigorously conscientious. Something against the distorted formats of Trump tweets and spam email scams, something more than a quick switch of our social media profile to stand in solidarity with a bombing in France or elsewhere. If practicing radical hospitality involves true welcomeness, committing to a radical hospitality of language involves inclusive risk, without passport control.
How might this materialize? A few examples come to mind.
First, Tunisia’s entry into the 2017 Venice Biennale: “The Absence of Paths,” a project quite literally aimed at zero passport control. No artist represented the country; instead the country and curator Lina Lazaar put together a project involving three kiosks around the city of Venice issuing “Freesas,” universal passports hypothetically allowing people to “flow freely” between countries and continents. Like Olafur Eliasson’s “Green Light Project” from the same biennale, part of “The Absence of Paths” was operated by refugees and asylum seekers. Certainly the ease with which “Freesas” were produced and given away begets their impracticality, but the gesture initiates conversations about recalibrating borders, zones and communities.
Second, Pauline Oliveros. The late American avant-garde composer is perhaps most well-known for her “Deep Listening” practice. Performances of her work involve audience members and “untrained” performers to produce refreshingly unpredictable “sonic meditations” that are different with every performance. They are some of the most hospitable works I have ever experienced because of their radical inclusivity. You can listen to a remarkable one here and learn more about Oliveros here.
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