“Is that . . . all there is?” asks Peggy Lee in her low, breathy voice, notes of cigarette smoke curling around the edges of the tones. “If that’s all there is,” she sings—to a fire, to a circus, to love, to death—“then let’s keep dancing.” Her nearly expressionless delivery in a recording of a 1969 performance of the song leaves one wondering whether it’s intended to be deadpan, sultry, or simply bored. She certainly doesn’t show much excitement about the booze and the dancing that are the song’s response to disappointment. Perhaps they’re simply a form of inertia; we are, after all, to keep dancing, not to start. Peggy Lee is no Emma Goldman. In fact, she sounds more like Nero, fiddling—no, dancing—while the house burns down.
Of course, Emma Goldman was no Emma Goldman, either. As James Thompson has pointed out, she never said the line so famously attributed to her, about dancing during the revolution. But she did insist on the importance of joy in activism and on “everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” There’s neither joy nor activism nor radiance in Peggy Lee’s song. So what are we doing riffing on her query by asking: “Is this all there is?”
I didn’t know what to do with the question at first. It seemed insulting, minimizing injustice and evoking the same ennui as Lee’s question. Is this all there is to violent Islamophobia? To unilateral war? To ongoing settler colonialism and the maiming of colonized bodies, lives, communities, lands?1 To domestic violence? To sexual violence? To homophobic murder, mass shootings, racist police violence? I wanted to pull my hair out, to shake someone, to scream. What the fuck do you mean, “Is this all there is?”
Then it sounded like the white liberal handwringing in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. “Is this all there is to our country?” I didn’t understand how anyone could think that way, could be shocked that so many of their fellow citizens—including some people of color, though admittedly not many—would be willing to vote for a man who engages openly in verbally violent racism, Islamophobia, and sexism, who admits openly to exploiting women. (Because it’s better to have a president who exploits women and doesn’t admit it? Think about that for a minute. How many presidents do you think the United States has had who didn’t exploit women sexually at one time or another?) I didn’t understand, that is, until I moved to Southern California.
I lived for over a decade in a rural town of about thirty-thousand people, where the racial segregation was glaring (some members of our mostly-white student body didn’t even know there was a Latino population in Walla Walla) but the class segregation less so. Since arriving in Riverside, I’ve been shocked by how often I’ve heard classist and regionalist slurs standing in for political commentary. I’ve been shocked by how extensively whites are segregating themselves from other whites along the purported lines of politics, which is coding in middle-class, urban/suburban, white liberal circles here for region and class. Over the past year I’ve heard repeated deprecating remarks about “rednecks,” been warned away from living in the working-class communities that border Riverside (granted, those communities are multiracial, but so is Riverside, so I think this is more about class), been told that Riverside “really needs” people like me to broaden its collective (hive?) mind, and received expressions of sympathy because of the “conservatism” of Riverside and its paucity of gay bars (“only” two!). Maybe it’s perspectives like these, which both stem from and lead to an odd self-segregation within liberal, mostly-white enclaves, that are part and parcel of blaming Trump’s election on rural white haters, whether the proposed response is to hate the haters or to empathize with them and try to fix what’s wrong that made them so angry in the first place. Maybe it’s these perspectives that led to the white liberal shock and disillusionment when so many people of color were asking, “How did you not know this was happening?”
Either way—bored dismissal or ignorant incredulity—I want nothing of it.
Then I thought about the song performatively. I wondered where it might resonate, how it might address oppression and injustice instead of dismissing them or discovering to one’s shock that they were under one’s nose all along. And I thought of Nathan Lane.
Not just Nathan Lane, though: Nathan Lane as Albert Goldman, as Starina, from The Birdcage. After all, this is a song—and Peggy Lee’s is a performance—that simply screams to be done in drag. Some drag performers poke fun at Miss Peggy,2 such as Craig Russell in a classic Amsterdam performance in 1980, while others like Jim Bailey approach the star reverently. But what would this song look like in the hands of Nathan Lane’s slightly tragic, slightly overwrought Albert/Starina? Might it become more like Charles Aznavour’s torch song “What Makes a Man (a Man),”3 where what appears on the surface of some performances to be ennui is instead an exhausted, perhaps resigned plea against suffering?
Or is it, in the hands of a different drag queen, another kind of torch song, a musical version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” sung not to an individual bully but to a bullying society? “Is that the best you’ve got?” sniffs the world-weary drag queen of my imagination, turning her back on the homophobia, the transphobia, the racism around her and crooning to her adoring fans within the confines of her theater. Jose Sarria’s “God Save Us Nelly Queens” it’s not,4 but that’s me trying to make this an Emma Goldman song again. It just isn’t, but maybe, just maybe, it’s a torch song.
When I first started thinking about what to do with this question, I imagined such a drag performance in front of a bitterly ironic montage of larger-than-life images dwarfing the performer that proclaimed, in effect, “Of course this isn’t all there is”—images of Black Lives Matter protests, of Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Reservation, of masses in urban centers around the world protesting Trump’s inauguration, of throngs jamming airport entrances with welcome signs after the announcement of Trump’s first attempt at his promised Muslim ban. Can the song be read differently in these contexts? Perhaps only as a setup for the real punch line; maybe Peggy Lee can be the “straight man” (all puns entirely intended) for this routine. Consider these hypothetical exchanges:
“Is police violence all there is?” “Hell, no. There are other options that keep all people safe and don’t rely on the violent suppression of people of color for the sake of illusory white peace of mind.”
“Is police violence all there is?” “Right now, yes. That’s why we have to change things, and there’s no time to lose.”
“What about state violence—is state violence all there is?” “Yes, at least for those who are target groups for state violence—and that’s an awful lot of people. That’s how a settler colonial state thrives.”
“What about state violence—is state violence all there is?” “Absolutely not. We can create more just futures.”
“Is oligarchy all there is?” “Well, it looks that way. So we’ve got to overhaul the political system. We have to make some radical changes before we lose all vestiges of democracy in our country.”
“Is oligarchy all there is?” “No! There are lots of other ways to make governments work. Even some of the people who serve in the government right now think so.”
“Is domestic violence all there is?” “No. There are ways out. You deserve better.”
“Is domestic violence all there is?” “Right now, yes. For some people. Not everyone can leave, for so many different reasons. That’s pretty fucked up. We need to change the culture so there are better options. We need to eradicate the power dynamics that support it.”
These paired examples—thought experiments, really, experiments in trying to make something out of a question that still strikes me as both dismissive and ignorant—seem to show that the answer to the question is dependent on the verb tense.
In the present tense, at least if one is attendant to issues of justice and aware of experiences outside one’s own, the answer seems to be consistently yes, either in an all-encompassing or a qualified manner. Yes, this is all there is, at least for some people, right now. This is the version of the question that echoes white liberal shock at Trump’s election. “What, racism is still alive and well even though slavery was abolished over 150 years ago? Is this all there is?” “Mm-hmm,” say many people of color. “Where’ve you been?”
In the future tense, on the other hand, the answer to the question seems to be a consistent or qualified no. No, this isn’t all there is, or at least it’s not all there could be. But we’ve got to change things. This is the version of the question that seems defeatist, that seems to express a dismissive disregard for suffering and injustice. “Oh, is this all there is? Police violence, corporate destruction of Native lands and waterways, violence against women?” “No!” shouts the activist in frustration. “But it will be if all you do is keep dancing.”
So why are we asking this question? I still don’t know. I think there might be much better things to do, like teach about the racism that doesn’t stop no matter who’s in the White House and about the sexual exploitation of women that many presidents in US history have engaged in without being as open about it as Trump is. Like get involved in changing things, keep adding our voices to movements that have been going on since long before we were born even though they change form with each new generation of activists.
Jasbir K. Puar offers a path-clearing analysis of maiming as a tool of settler colonialism in “The ‘Right’ to Maim: Disablement and Inhumanist Biopolitics in Palestine,” borderlands 14, no. 1 (2015), borderlands.net.au.↩
It’s irresistible to mention here that Peggy Lee was the inspiration for the Muppets’ sexist sendup in the character of Miss Piggy.↩
Sarria, an important figure in the founding of the International Court of drag performance and competition, performed in San Francisco throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He was known to close his shows with this song, to which he invited his audience to sing along.↩