A Few Thoughts About Milkshaking

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Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones more than half a century ago, the milk shaking craze has finally crossed the Atlantic. Rep. Matt Gaetz got milkshaked. It started a few weeks ago when Tommy Robinson got milkshaked in Warrington by a man named Danyaal Mahmud. Robinson is a UK version of what we call the alt-right in the US – all the same mix of anti-immigrants, white nationalist politics combined with various kinds of “free speech” preening. (His real name is actually Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon.) It quickly expanded to other rightist figures like Nigel Farage and soon enough left wing activists were bringing either milkshakes to rallies to troll far right figures or even symbolic, effigy milkshakes like this woman below.

Here’s the Robinson/Danyaal incident …

Let me share an unpopular opinion. I’m really not a fan of these milkshakings. It’s probably characterological as much as anything. They’re akin to throwing whip cream pies at people: dramatic attacks designed to cause no injury or pain but serve as a kind of ritual humiliation and tacked on dry cleaning bill. I have found myself a bit bashful about sharing this opinion. Because there are certainly far worse things going on in the world.

My argument against it is really two fold. First, I have little doubt that if I saw some far right protestors throw a whip cream pie or a shake at Van Jones or Elizabeth Warren I wouldn’t find it funny at all. I’d probably find it menacing, if not for the thing itself but as a threat of more injurious attacks.

More to the point, we’re at the end of a centuries long evolution in our attitudes toward the human body, particularly the dignity of the human body. It’s a fascinating historical development to study. Go back a few centuries and punishments for certain crimes involved not just execution but the slow tearing or cutting apart of the body while the guilty party was still alive. Torture was commonplace. Today even supporters of capital punishment agree that it should involve as little pain and mutilation as possible. This shows up in more subtle ways as well. We prohibit all sorts of touching that causes no physical injury. Our concern over privacy, though often honored in the breach, is part of a common cultural evolution. Getting hit with a milk shake is certainly low on the list of worries. But at least in aspiration, if not always in practice, we place a great deal of societal importance on creating a line between words and physical autonomy, the right not to be touched – let alone injured – or have the privacy and dignity of our bodies transgressed. It’s an impulse we shouldn’t set aside simply because we find someone loathsome.

Do you want to have a milk shake thrown on you when you’re out in public? I certainly don’t. I doubt you do either.

And yet, it’s just a milk shake. And these are public people.

I hadn’t seen the dynamic quite captured until I saw this brief thread from Amanda Marcotte on Twitter this morning: the milkshaking trend is perfectly designed to capture the intense grievance politics and victim preening of the contemporary far right. My uneasy, conflicted bashfulness about milkshaking was indeed umbilically tied to the resonance of the milkshaking craze.

Whether you agree with milkshaking or milkshaking, Amanda is right on target for why it’s caught on. The contemporary far right and an increasing swath of the right is a militant victim racket in the service of grievance politics. Milk shaking throws this all into a certain high relief. The Robinsons and Farages are, paradoxically, like moths to the milk shake flame.

Matt Gaetz response captures some of this …

The original incident I noted above brings some of this into high relief. Danyaal Mahmud’s milkshaking of Tommy Robinson was fortuitous as best we can tell. He was invited by a group of activists to join them protesting Robinson, a brave move for Mahmud considering that Robinson’s followers are militantly anti-Muslim. Robinson and his followers starting jeering and verbally attacking him. Nothing happened in the first confrontation. They went after him again later in the day which prompted Mahmud to toss his milkshake on Robinson, after which Robinson and his toughs threw a storm of punches at Danyaal. He just happened to have one – the original incident happened outside a McDonalds. (You can see videos and a description here.)

Subsequent milkshakings are all homages to this ur-incident, though it has clearly now taken on a life of its own.

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