Tuesday, January 8, 2013

not what you think but what you are

I criticize the vague, toothless social liberalism that is shared by the large majority of those in the media not because I disagree with the sentiments, but because those commitments are absolutely empty, abandoned with the slightest pretense. Dividing social liberalism from economic reform has always been a boon to the ruling class, and an impediment to actual social justice, as nothing will improve the lives of the oppressed without structural economic change. But even beyond that, the typical commitment to these principles-- anti-racism, feminism, gay and transgender rights and acceptance, etc.-- tends to be paper thin. And even those whose commitments I don't question have a tendency to abandon them when it suits them. I love Alyssa Rosenberg and her work, but Louis CK could spit on Emmett Till's grave and she'd find some tangled explanation to excuse it. (Here's CK making with the comedy! You see, it's funny because it's a white guy repeatedly saying "nigger.")

So take Slate, and Daniel Engber, and the charming headline "Don't Bury Mike Shanahan at Wounded Knee." You see, this is hilarious, because there's a controversy surrounding the decision to play quarterback Robert Griffin III despite his knee injury, and he plays for a team called the Redskins, and hundreds of innocent Native Americans were brutally slaughtered in a racist massacre and thrown in a  mass grave. What profound whimsy! Nothing like brutal savagery meted out in the commission of state-sanctioned genocide to tickle the funny bone! I can't wait to see Slate's headlines riffing on Kristallnacht and the Middle Passage.

Of course, Engber and all of Slate's editors would insist that they care very much about the history of American Indian oppression and the horrors of Wounded Knee. And, hey, it's just a little joke, can't you take a harmless jest, on the serious level we care about this stuff.... What you have to have the courage to say-- despite the fact that they will do everything to undermine, dismiss, insult, and belittle you-- is that, no, in fact, people who make these kinds of jokes don't actually care about what happened at Wounded Knee, and don't actually care about the unspeakable atrocities that were inflicted on this country's native people. No one who is willing to look that legacy in the face could make such a casually cruel joke.

Look, I know exactly how this sort of thing goes over. If these things matter to you in an existential way, rather than as fashion, you'll be considered a bore, and a scold. It's inevitable. What you'll encounter in your life, if you hold onto these commitments not only when they are socially acceptable but when they aren't, is people who claim to agree on the principles while they simultaneously make a thousand excuses and insist on why this particular instance is the exception. Many people who are ostensibly concerned about this stuff live in those exceptions. And if you're interested in my advice, then it's simple: if you want to work to make the world better, don't live in the exceptions. Embody the principle. No matter how often they call you joyless, or pretentious, or holier-than-thou.

I get the accusations all the time. People ask me, Freddie, why are you so self-righteous. And I say, I'm not; it's only the contrast that makes you think I am. I just happen to really believe this stuff. I actually believe it, and so there's no room for exceptions. That's all.


mord said...

"nothing will improve the lives of the oppressed without structural economic change"

really, nothing? how about all the social changes that have improved the lives of the oppressed without radically upending (or even strengthening) the capitalist hegemony? you could only believe that if your history of capitalism is solely a history of white men.

Freddie said...

"Improve" is a term with some wiggle room. But you knew that.

Rasmus Xera said...

Regarding that sports headline (which seems to have been changed), at least when the Onion takes a shot at the same topic it doesn't have to sink to such sad depths. Then again, it wasn't defending Shanahan either.

And, by the way, even its sports section offers brilliant social commentary every now and then.

N. Eugene said...

"You see, it's funny because it's a white guy repeatedly saying 'nigger.'"

I found that funny. I imagine that would've been funny if a black comedian had done it. I don't know if that makes it less problematic to you, but your characterization of the joke is wrong.

"I just happen to really believe this stuff."

Implying that everyone who calls you self-righteous doesn't "really believe," whatever the fuck that means. Sounds like self-righteousness to me!

Anonymous said...

I want to ask a sincere question that might sound insincere. Are you literally saying that the Louis clip isn't funny, period, or that people who take these issues seriously shouldn't defend it, regardless of whether it's funny or not? I have a difficult time gauging literalness when someone says something isn't funny. It might be a subtle point, but it's genuine.

I would love for someone with your point of view to write about dark humor, though I know it's sort of a random topic and I would understand not wanting to take much time/effort to get into it.

Mr. No Account said...

Great clarion call, Freddie.

I certainly know what it's like to sit at an (ostensibly) socially liberal table, and wind up being the only person upset when someone makes an offensive comment. After which, I am told that the same table is "not the place" to confront the offensive comment.

cian said...

I usually push it the other way when somebody does that. Make a different kind of offensive comment that I know will piss them off, and then raise an eyebrow when they complain. I tend not to get invited back to many dinner parties...

Black humor is a problem if you're mocking, or belittling, a community with less power than you. If you're not sure, you should probably pick another joke.

zencomix said...