political correctness

You Don’t Have to Be Charlie, But You Must Fight for Those Who Are

Je_suis_Charlie.svg

Last Saturday night (or, well, I suppose by then it was Sunday morning) I found myself in the kitchen of a Parisian apartment, in the genial company of wine, music, and conversation, and as the latter found its way through the former to the infamous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, I took the opportunity to enjoy what may be the most pleasant form of argument– one with someone who agrees with me, but perhaps doesn’t agree with me enough.

By the time I arrived in France, in the week following the attack, the drama of the event had already concluded. The killers were dead, the public had rallied, and all that remained, so it seemed, for the return to business-as-usual in a free society was the million-strong publication, on schedule, of the “journal irresponsable”’s next edition.

I hadn’t written on the subject, and didn’t intend to, because I thought it was well in hand with others. The coverage was thorough, and the case for free speech against such a blatant and obvious foe was well-enunciated by all. I shared common cause, indeed, but it seemed opportunistic to snatch at the low-hanging fruit by echoing what everyone had already demonstrated that they knew, and somewhat hollow simply to issue my praise to the French for their displays of solidarity and support (well-deserved though that praise would be).

But now I think there is something left to be said, in particular to those who equivocate their support for free expression in society, and who nurse an embarrassment over what other people do with it. As always, the radical position must criticize the liberal position.

My friend had submitted, somewhat murkily, that it was a question of different values, and in the lull of our agreement, when I tested the waters by saying, “Yes, but we shouldn’t be afraid to assert that our values are the correct ones,” he winced slightly. He had taken the position that, horrible and intolerable though the attack was, the cartoonists had brought it upon themselves by going too far; “[they] crossed the line,” and worse, they did it “too many times.” I countered with the idea that, however important these “lines” may be to individuals, whether in terms of religious sanctity or of social propriety of any kind, it’s a free society’s job to maintain that no such lines exist, and that these codes of piety can’t be enforced on the group. This much he conceded, but he was still uncomfortable with the idea that the sanctity of other people’s religious faith had been compromised, and he seemed to wish for an admonished societal correction after which we all would be more polite.

When it’s media outlets refusing to reprint the cartoons in question (something that Charlie was brave enough to do with the Danish cartoons in 2005), or a feeble politician failing to assert the values of the society they represent, it’s appropriate to see this position as cowardice. But when I put it directly to my friend whether the capitulations of political sensitivity are motivated by concession or fear, and he said, “concession,” it was true. He was one, like many, who admired religious devotion in itself, and who felt alienated from a society that allows the objects of that devotion to be denigrated.

But it’s different for an individual invited into the home of a religious person, over tea or dinner, perhaps, than it is for a public magazine. Yes, Charlie Hebdo frequently said things that you might not say in the polite company of a devout religious person, things that even I might not say in the same situation. Yes, if we approached the subject we might handle it more gracefully, more delicately for the sake of the person with whom we were speaking. But just because we find such decorum admirable in individuals doesn’t mean we can demand it from society.

Perhaps it’s an effect of the personalized tone of media and advertising, the way mass communications are almost unfailingly directed at the impersonal “you”, but people seem to volunteer the idea that the existence of blasphemous materials in media is the same as running into a mosque and interrupting a prayer service to wave incendiary cartoons in people’s faces. I assure you, it is not.

A secular society doesn’t demand that no one is religious, or that no one treats archaic objects and texts with the reverence for which they were designed. In fact it specifically makes room for, and guards from discrimination, those who do. It simply demands that no one is compelled to do likewise, and that’s what this whole thing is about.

Pluralism, the right to live and let live, is one of our values, and the likes of the murderers in this case and jihadis of all types are not fighting for the right to be treated pluralistically. They are not fighting to exclude only the most acerbic mockeries from public consideration. They are fighting for the day when a death sentence for any criticism at all will be the norm. They are fighting, if their own words can be believed, for the day when their beliefs are the singularity.

That’s what gets lost in the question of sensitivity and the self-flagellation over the fear of some kind of cultural collateral damage. For the thoughtfully and authentically faithful, the brash and pointed satire of this kind may be a nuisance or, at most, a challenge. For the idealized, good-hearted Islamic grandmother who doesn’t care what other people believe and wouldn’t hurt a fly, at worst it might be an undue insult, for which we all must be apologetic. But for the would-be dictatorial administrators of theocratic fascism, it’s the clearest way of saying that their day will never come, and that is too important to do without.

We have to preserve the right, in principal and in practice, to treat these things without sensitivity, without grace, and without a respectful, enlightened, congenial tone. In short, we have to preserve the right to be crass. When it is sinisterly and bullingly implied that we all should genuflect before someone else’s god, we have to say then more than ever that the appropriate response isn’t, “No, thank you.” It’s, “up your nose with a rubber hose, you dirty son of a bitch.”

You don’t have to be Charlie, but in order to maintain the backbone of a free society, you must fight for those who are.


Incidentally, I can report that the demand for that new issue I mentioned has been very high; a lot of places have started waiting lists and many people have been placing orders for copies in advance.

Also, as I searched for images of the cartoons I found I was unsure of which to post– it appears that, unlike the case of the Danish cartoons which were about a specific set of drawings, the killings were in response to Charlie Hebdo’s Islamic cartoons in general; I have reposted what appear to have been the greatest offenders below, and I’ll update the post if I find any that I’ve left out.  If you haven’t seen them yet, this is what all the fuss was about:

All images property of Charlie Hebdo.

The Great 20th-Century Funnel – On the Gulf Between Television and the Internet

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You might be thinking that it’s just a question of time.  And in a way you’d be right.  There really is a significant difference between what can be said and done in three minutes and what can be said and done in nineteen.

Anyone who has ever spoken at length in front of a group of people, or anyone who knows anything about performing for an audience can tell you just how long those minutes really are.  Comedians “die” in a matter of minutes, singers miss a note or actors flub a line in a matter of seconds, and if things should go off the rails it can feel like forever before they get going again.

On TV, time is at an even greater premium, because there are a lot of big interests paying a lot of money to see how it gets spent.  People take for granted these days that peppered throughout a story line or interspersed throughout a conversation or a game, about every five to ten minutes there will be a string of five or six 30-second spots, and suddenly we’ll be talking about medicines and syndromes, the new car from Honda, stain-fighting laundry detergent, triple-strength toilet paper, low fixed-rate mortgages, and at least one kind of beverage, before we get on with whatever it was that was going on before.

And that’s the way it’s always been; advertising is what TV was built on.  Take for example, this episode of What’s My Line?, a popular game show during the 1950s:

The show was sponsored by the Kellogg cereal company, and they sure weren’t going to keep quiet about it.  In the first thirty seconds, you’ve literally seen or heard the word “Kellogg’s” a full 82 times, and once the show gets going it sits right there, emblazoned in big proud letters beneath Arlene Francis, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Bennett Cerf, along with two life-sized boxes of Special K.

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[You can see an earlier video here, from when they were sponsored by Remington Electric Shavers.]

And What’s My Line? was hardly alone in this.  At the time it was very common practice (see this episode of another popular game show, To Tell the Truth, proudly sponsored by Geritol).  There was The Chesterfield Supper Club, a musical variety program put on by the cigarette company (as well as a mystery series called Chesterfield Presents…), there was the Goodyear Television Playhouse, the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, the Colgate Comedy Hour, and at least a dozen more similarly branded shows in the 1950s alone.

But you’ll notice, if you watch the video, that they do manage to get on with it.  The ad is blatant and obvious, of course, but it doesn’t really get in the way.  Commercial breaks are relatively short, the pacing is relaxed, and in general there’s an incidental, almost dismissive air about the necessary evil.  It’s not subtle, but it is, in a way, rather reasonable.

But that was more than 60 years ago.  These days there’s often an almost panicked air when they say “we’ve got to go to a commercial now,” as if there’s some commercial-fiending monkey off camera that will have a fit and start smashing the place up if they don’t.  The brand names have dropped out of the show titles now, but they’ve come to envelop the networks themselves.  When the shows I mentioned were on the air, there were only three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC).  Now there are more than 50 over-the-air broadcast networks, and hundreds of cable and satellite networks, each with their own “family” of shows and sponsors.

So it seems that transmissibilty in general has increased right?  The total bandwidth is much bigger, so surely it stands to reason that they can delve more deeply into subjects, there ought to be more variety, and that ultimately there’s a lot more content out there right?  Well, no, no, and not quite.

To take them in reverse order, a 2009 study found that, “An average hour of monitored prime-time US network TV programming… contained seven minutes, 59 seconds (7:59) of in-show brand appearances and 13:52 of network commercial messages, for a combined total of 21:51 of marketing content,” which makes up 36% of the hour.  But prime-time is not the greatest offender; the same study found that late-night talk shows were nearly 49% marketing, and at least one other show managed to reach almost 75% (for the curious, it was America’s Toughest Jobs).

There’s a squeeze on the legitimate variety as well.  It’s fairly well known today that, of those hundreds of networks, nearly all (about 90% of American media, including print and radio) are owned by just six companies— CBS, Comcast, Disney, Newscorp, Time Warner, and Viacom.  These companies have advertising contracts to hock products from the ten biggest product corporations, and they program content that goes along with their products’ brand identity; SPIKE TV shows ads for Axe Body Spray, Lifetime shows ads for Dove, Unilever makes and sells them both, and Viacom and Disney get money to keep making TV shows that are designed for people who like Axe Body Spray and Dove.

So the advertising influence has become more subtle while at the same time becoming greater in scope.  Even if we assume that this connection is a bit overstated, and that it only tangentially affects the content of the programming, the sheer volume of advertising (as stated above) means that there’s about 35-50% of the time where you’re not watching the program you selected, you’re watching the same ads as everyone else.

But just for fun why don’t we run for a minute with the idea that Newscorp, via 21st Century Fox, via FX, via FXX just might have their own ideas about how real topics of interest that affect our culture and society ought to be handled, and that all down the chain they distribute power and influence to people who, even if they don’t conform through coercion and enforced corporate mandates, are in line from the outset with with the views and ideas of that corporate interest.  To put it another way, suppose that they don’t bother bullying people into saying what they want, they just hire people, fund enterprises, and acquire properties that will discuss these things in terms that they can accept.  Perhaps it isn’t that they promote one set of ideas or another, but that they simply maintain an atmosphere where those ideas are not far from consideration.  (If this sounds a little far-fetched to you, it may help to take a cursory glance at another Newscorp property, the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.)

Before we get to the representative examples, by which the writing of this whole piece was prompted, it’s important that I make one particular point about the relatively recent technological shift to wholly digital transmission– some of you might remember that back in the days of analog TV, whether from the networks or on basic cable (if you were over at a friend’s house), there would sometimes be a little pause in between when one show or one commercial would end, just before the next one began.  It was just a beat, really, a little breath that went between globs of decidedly non-stereophonic sound as the cuing went on down at the TV station.  Sometimes, every once in a while, there would be a little skip in the pacing and that beat would hang for a few seconds, and you could imagine some frantic programmer trying to fill the dead air.

Those days, my antiquated brothers and sisters, are over.  The beat is gone.  The hang is miles away.  They’ve now got it all under control.  Modern broadcast television, with its digital boxes and fiber optics and orbiting geosynchronous satellites, has become a perfectly engineered slaughterhouse of time.  It’s digital baby, and no foolin’.  If you take out all the lags, trim down the programs and the time between breaks, inch everything in slightly, you can fit a few more commercials throughout the day here, make it a little more punchy there.  They’re paying to broadcast for 24 hours, and 24 hours is what they will get.

This subtle shift is a transition bought and paid for by the big media interests (and lobbied, because let’s not forget, we’re talking about FCC broadcast policies and regulations, not just industry standards).  It’s a business move, toward efficiency, and toward being able to use the methods and practices of these service providers to offer advertising interests more attractive contracts in terms of total media impressions.  It’s the last step in perfecting the mechanized advertising distribution service, save for abolishing that pesky content.  I mean, once some of these damned fool consumers actually get interested in something they can go hours without paying attention to a single thing they can buy.

What you have on television nowadays is a drooling, rabid, relentless stream of cuts and transitions, and the entire thing smacks of how impatient the men behind the curtain are to get you looking at products, and developing opinions of products and brands, and making mental notes about what you’ll be choosing the next time you’re at the store.  It shows how annoyed they are that they have to bother waving these sports and dramas and comedies and news in front of you before they can even begin preparing you to put your money where it belongs.

It varies of course, to account for the broadest range of demographics.  I’ll grant that there’s a difference between C-SPAN and Fox News, that PBS is one thing and TBS is another.  But I’ll wager that within a fair margin of error, there’s a fairly clear inverse relationship between the calibre of discourse of a given show and its advertising budget; C-SPAN may air parliamentary debate and conduct in-depth interviews, but I’m guessing it doesn’t move a lot of Bud Light.

And the budget goes with the viewing figures– I give you path of the lowest common denominator.

And what effect does this have on the discourse?  What distortions can be observed when you take something from the real world and try and represent it in that tone of voice?  I think it has to be said that, however blind or how calculated, however emergent or how intentional, there’s no getting around the fact that if they want you to focus on something as trivial as which breakfast cereal has the most raisins in a few minutes, you probably won’t be getting to the upper echelons of conversation between now and then.

But especially when it comes to social or political issues, the Raisin Bran rule applies in spades.  You get “both sides of the issue,” as if there are only two, they keep it loud, fast, and bombastic, and ultimately it ends up trivializing everything.  It’s just enough to get your attention without inflaming your imagination; just enough to wet your appetite while doing nothing for your intellect.  This is why cable news is a sham, why those inexplicably popular police procedural dramas can wring 40 minutes out of the story equivalent of a bald tire, and why they won’t let you watch more than two or three minutes at a time of any given sporting event.

Let me tell you, if you watch television yourself, and you’re thinking, “Could it really be that bad?,” I’m about to show you the intellectual equivalent of a side-by-side between a runner’s lung and a smoker’s.  Behold:

Excellent, am I right?  The video above was produced for the YouTube channel of a now-canceled FXX show (isn’t it great that they never cancel YouTube?), Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.  I had been browsing through their videos with pleasant surprise, thinking it was one of the more interesting and thoughtfully written shows of its type, and when I came across this one I was simply floored.

For a start, I’ve seen this issue presented a few times, and this is the first time I’ve seen it discussed by people of differing opinions from within the group that’s supposed to be so affected, and you might be surprised to find that that discussion tends away from racism and hurt feelings and pride, and leans instead toward questions of identity and what it means to be offended, what it means to be portrayed, and on the relationship between image and reality.

For another thing, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard said .in a public forum that maybe it isn’t as respectful as white people think it is to decide that everyone of a certain description should be called “Native American”, as if that concept would ever have existed without Manifest Destiny and the colonial expansion, and that it’s more appropriate to describe someone as a member of a particular tribe than it is to categorize them wholesale as being somehow vaguely indigenous.

What’s more, both of the program’s guests get the opportunity to say that whatever they feel or don’t feel about the imagery and its uses, they have their own personal senses of dignity and identity that are beyond the cartoonish forms with which they are connected, and which, frankly are one of the very few things on which they as a people are routinely invited to comment.  It shows the better side of reasoned and thought-out activism, which relies on honor and culture, rather than pity and anger.  It demonstrates that there are real, down-to-earth human beings that have considered opinions and ideas about issues that in the mainstream are only discussed in terms of buzzwords and caricatures.  And it shows that people affected by these issues have stories and thoughts and ideas beyond the ones that the mainstream media are willing to tell (one of the video’s best moments is right at minute 19:00, where Elder Andy Thundercloud of the Ho-chunk Nation says that he wouldn’t wear a Redskins jersey… because he’s “from Packer country”).

Whatever you think of the issue itself, you have to admit that that discussion represents a far greater level of thoughtfulness and candor than the subject is usually afforded, which sadly, is probably the reason why it didn’t go out on the airwaves that way.  The channel calls that video an “Extended Web Exclusive”, which I suppose is one way of saying it (although I’ve since learned that a cut and watered-down version did actually make it to broadcast).  Instead, the following was the treatment of that subject that was specifically developed for general cable TV:

Same subject, same show, same producers, but two very different approaches. And it’s fairly typical of the usual treatment (see, for instance, this similar bit on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart); invariably it’s drawn in terms of offended Native American activist groups vs. usually half-drunk sports fans who don’t get the point and who basically don’t take the question seriously.  And it is one version of the story, or at least one way of telling it.  But clearly, as the previous video illustrates, not only is there a lot more to the issue, there are a lot more interesting and productive ways of talking about it.

And it’s not unusual for the more thoughtful and interested programs to post more in-depth content on the web, and really that’s what separates the two bodies of content.  On the sprawling, meandering tubes of the internet, you can focus, at a high level, for hours on almost any topic you choose, without a single commercial interruption (if you play your browser’s cards right), and most of the time you can get to about as much content as you could possibly want to work with, across dozens of types of media, all for free (or nearly, depending on what you have to pay for access).

Again you might be thinking that it’s just a question of time, that when you’re using the internet you might have hours to spend and you can choose your own level of involvement, that network programming is under pressures and constraints, and that they’ve got a lot to get through.  But who says?  Who calls the shots for this kind of thing?  The answer is ultimately uninteresting, but the real point is that there isn’t the slightest reason that they have to.  If TBS can stand to program a 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon for Christmas Day, there ought be at least one network that can drum up a real following for thoughtful, in-depth, long-form intellectual content, and that can stand to program it consistently for whoever cares to watch it.  There ought to be at least one network that will program what ought to be shown, not just what it’s good business to show you.

Until then there’s just the internet, and I guess we’ll just have to keep making it up as we go along.  Maybe that is good enough.

We Need to Talk About “The ‘N-word'”

Ladies and gentlemen… *sigh*…  nigger.

Some of you are offended right now.  Some of you were offended when you saw the headline.  Some people are just plain offended, in a general sense, but I’ll assume for the sake of getting anywhere that you, dear reader, are a reasonable and thinking person who is not already in the process of writing an angry comment that accuses me of being a racist.  The point is, I just wrote down the word.  I didn’t use it to berate or degrade anybody, I didn’t shout it at someone in the street, and I certainly didn’t pour it out in gasoline and burn it into somebody’s lawn.  I just wrote it.  In some contexts I might even say it out loud.  And context is what it’s all about.

Richard_Pryor_-_That_Nigger's_Crazy_front_coverYesterday morning I was listening to a segment on NPR, an otherwise thoughtful and candid look at the life and comedy of the great Richard Pryor through edited clips of his material along with the discussion of a new biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, with the book’s author, Scott Saul.  Naturally, both host and author avoided saying the word, because (understandably indeed) it’s not the kind of thing that you want going out on the airwaves of a liberally-inclined national radio station at 11 o’clock in the morning.  For the most part their conversation was only passingly affected by this reserve, the way is any such dialog today, but it began to satirize itself when Fresh Air host Terry Gross began referring to Pryor’s 1974 album as “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.

Now, Richard Pryor never cut an album called “That ‘N-word”s Crazy”.  The album is called, “That Nigger’s Crazy” (as you can see emblazoned proudly on the album’s cover, above).  And it’s rather obvious that the phrase is used in this context as a play on the demeaning quality other people’s perceptions, in the sense of race yes, but more broadly in the sense of wholesale judgment of a person based on the absurdity of their lives and circumstance, a sentiment which is very much at the core of Pryor’s comedy.  But the point isn’t to dissect the effectiveness and existential significance of the album’s title.  The point is, that’s what the album is called.

That means that that album title is a point of common human reference, just as much mine or yours or Terry Gross’ as it is anybody’s.  That is the name by which that work is known to the U.S. Copyright Office.  That’s how it was referred to in promotional materials at the time.  Most importantly, that’s what that artist wanted the album to be called.  It’s an example of someone claiming an epithet as their own, and using it against the ideas that produced it, not some shameful throwback headline that was leveled against them, and it’s condescending to clip the word from discussion in some misguided feat of political correctness; by attempting to preserve racial dignity they ended up neutralizing one man’s act of personal dignity.

What am I to do if I want to quote Muhammad Ali saying, in reference to whether he would go to fight in Vietnam, “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger'”?  A powerful statement, and worthy of examination.  It speaks to the idea that multiple wars were being fought at the time, one by the establishment and one against it, one military and one social.  It speaks to Ali’s sentiments about what was worth fighting for, as a man of his position, in his day and age.  Am I supposed to undercut and neuter that sentiment by saying “No Vietnamese ever called me ‘N-word'”?

What about when I listen to Hurricane, one of the all-time, best ever protest songs, and Dylan sings, “To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum/And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger/No one doubted that he pulled the trigger”, a searing and accurate depiction of the real paradox that beset a wrongly convicted man, running down a focused melody with a driving rhythm, and one of the most emphasized passages of the song?  The entire song is about a real man caught between what people though of him and what he was capable of because of his race and his reputation.  Am I supposed to belittle and diminish that experience by asserting that the people from whom he was alienated thought of him as “just a crazy ‘N-word'”?

In all three of these cases, it isn’t “nigger” that’s disrespectful, it’s the euphemistic attitude, and the idea that it’s one person’s responsibility to decide what’s appropriate to say about the ideas and experiences of another.

But I’ll take it a step further and acknowledge what everybody thinks a story like this is about: the double standard.  Richard Pryor was black, Terry Gross is white, and to a lot of people that means that there are just some things that Richard could say that Terry isn’t allowed to.

For starters, I don’t believe that black people possess a historical prerogative that I do not.  And again, some of you are offended.  But that’s not the same as discounting the difference in our various historical narratives and lineages, or the idea that people have a right to feel however they do about their connection to the past.  I just don’t believe that that connection, whatever it is, should be allowed to define the present.

It isn’t just that I don’t think slavery gives angry black people or sensitive white people the right to be word police, I don’t believe in the individualized historical prerogative, full stop.  I don’t believe in the divine right of kings or blood feuds between families that are passed on for generations.  I don’t think ancestry gets you anything, politically speaking, whether it’s a right to be sensitive or a claim to a thousand year Reich.

And that cuts both ways– it also doesn’t get you what is wrongly called responsibility, but what is really a kind of moral culpability for bad mistakes, even atrocities.  I once had someone who is French, and a dear friend, say to me upon seeing the logo on the package of American Spirit cigarettes that I was smoking at the time, how ironic it was that we (Americans) put them (Natives) on our cigarettes, despite the fact that “you killed them all!”  The circumstances dictated that I responded rather more politely, but I almost shot back that I had killed the Indians about as much as she had surrendered to the Nazis.

In that case it was nationalism, but that’s the gist of identity politics today.  We’re all just proxies for whatever matches us in history, and that is a truly bizarre form of tyranny.  It’s as if I get berated and denigrated because before I was born I failed to go back in time and influence the actions of other people, who were apparently my responsibility because their skin matches mine.  It’s a lot to ask of a fetus, if you want my opinion.

And it all boils down to the central fallacy of all racism, that the only identity you’re allowed to have is that of your category (or some variant subgroup thereof),  that everyone is exactly representative of their category, that categories are homogenous and universal.  It reduces a person to what you already think you know about people like them, and reduces their liberties to the ones you’re willing to allow people like that.

I don’t believe that I should be prevented from using a particular word because I’m white any more than I think someone should be prevented from using a particular water fountain because they’re not, and for very nearly the same reason.  Language is a common resource, and to me it is among the most sacred.  Words and ideas are some of the freest and most flexible commodities we have, and they belong to anyone who can understand them.  It isn’t true just of words that can be used nastily, it’s true of words that liberate and inspire, like “freedom”, “dignity”, “respect”, and “rights”.

People act like the problem with racial tensions in this country is that there’s a word floating around out there with too many letters– if we could just chop off the “-igger” part of it, if we could just lock that string of letters away and only refer to it by proxy, then things will get better and once we’ve all gotten used to it, then hey sesame, no more racism.  But racism isn’t a problem of words.  It’s a problem of phrases, of clichés, of attitudes and suppositions, of prejudice, of synecdoche, of stupidity!  But not words.

The test of it all is how the word is used.  Of course we should decry racism, and lash back against someone who uses “nigger” or a word like it at someone.  But using a racist word isn’t enough to tell whether someone is a bigot.  You have to listen to the rest of the sentence.