What could have provoked Roseanne, at this particular moment, to offer her racist comments about Valerie Jarrett? Roseanne, after all, would have seemed to have been at the top of the world. Her eponymous show was rated the third most popular on network television and had been picked up for another season. She should have been at the top of the world, right?
And yet she chose to lash out at Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Obama. Jarrett is not currently in a position of particular power. Obama is not in office. How, at this moment, was Jarrett a threat? Why would Jarrett have merited attack? Why did Roseanne need to bully someone and what made Jarrett a worthy target?
Certainly, the simple answer is that Roseanne’s outburst reflects a kind of commonplace racism. The odd juxtaposition of “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes” in Roseanne’s tweet suggests a kind of knee-jerk and thoughtless targeting and conjoining of Muslims and African-Americans.
But leaving that base and grotesque racism aside for a moment (as it has received a wellspring of deserved attention from a range of commentators), it’s enlightening to turn to Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel in relation to Roseanne.
The opening chapter of Gatsby offers some surprising answers to the question of why someone in power might be gratuitously cruel. As we read the opening pages of Gatsby, we meet Tom Buchanan, who, like Roseanne, would seem to be on top of his world.
He is wealthy and powerful, although unlike Roseanne, he was born to this position of power. We learn about his background: Yale. Tom has a heroic football background, “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven,” and enormous family wealth. When our narrator, Nick, meets Tom, it is at Tom’s “even more elaborate than I expected” house.
Yet with all this acclaim, money, and power, Tom is cruel. He has “a rather hard mouth,” “arrogant eyes,” and “a cruel body.”
Like Roseanne, the object of Tom’s cruelty in chapter 1 of Gatsby is people of color. For reasons that are never explained by Fitzgerald, Tom is obsessed by “The Rise of the Colored Empires” by Goddard (in real life Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy) and the idea that “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.”
To be clear, Tom, at the very top of the food chain, is worried that his kind are in danger of being utterly submerged by people of color. What? Why?
Why the paranoia and cruelty, why the insecurity and gratuitous vitriol from someone at the pinnacle of power? Why Tom? Why Roseanne?
Two units in our new volume on Gatsby may help you explore these timely questions. First, excerpts from Stoddard and Kenneth L. Roberts elaborate on the anxiety about whiteness and power expressed by Tom and other characters in the novel. Second, Paul Piff’s “Does money make you mean?” discusses a series of fascinating social psychology experiments that explore how wealth, power, and privilege breed greed, a diminution of empathy, and unethical behavior.
Such discussions may seem like a detour from your usual reading of Gatsby, but they offer an important opportunity to help your students use their critical thinking to make insightful connections between the past and the present and better understand the impacts of the various cultural and political discourses across the range of media – from Fitzgerald’s novel to social media – they encounter on a daily basis.