I was busy doing work stuff last week, mostly end of term conferences, student meetings, and faculty meetings. I didn’t get a chance to write a regular blog post, but I made sure to collect some links along the way.
First up, a terrific column by Caleb Crain on the debate over American PEN’s decision to honor the Charlie Hebdo staff (there is a shorter version at the LA Times as well). There has been much heated conversation on both sides, completed with high-minded and not so high-minded rhetoric. Crain cuts to what I think is a crucial point of departure for the two sides:
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were captioned in French, and they depended for their meaning on memes that won’t be familiar to anyone who isn’t a regular reader of French newspapers and watcher of French television. I can read French, but I don’t keep up on French domestic politics, and I draw a complete blank when I first look at most Charlie Hebdo cartoons. In the past week, many people have said they aren’t funny, and yeah, I have to agree. They aren’t funny. I think there are two reasons. First, they’re puerile—pitched at roughly a Mad Magazine level of sophistication—and in the American ecosystem, editorial cartoons are usually a little more tony, and don’t seem to have as broad a permission to engage with racial imagery as movies and comics do. Taste is to a great extent learned, and I’m afraid that an American reader of my ilk just isn’t likely to find vulgar and puerile cartoons about politics much to his taste. But second, and more globally, Americans can’t find these cartoons funny simply because the cartoons always have to be explained to us. We don’t recognize the political figures being caricatured; we don’t know the political slogans being tampered with; and we haven’t surfed the particular waves of enthusiasm and disgust that have been flooding French political life lately, and on the surge of whose waves these cartoons sprang into being. In America the waves that flooded us were a little different.
By this point, I’ve probably tipped my hand, and I’ll go ahead and lay my cards on the table: I don’t happen to think Charlie Hebdo is racist or bigoted, and I think that some of the American writers who have condemned it must have had the subtitles off while they were trying to make a determination that can be tricky to make even about an American message designed for American consumption. More than three million French citizens rallied in solidarity withCharlie Hebdo a few days after the January murders. Were those marchers complicit with racism or bigotry at the newspaper, or unwilling or unable to recognize them? Maybe, but I doubt it. There’s a debate worth having about whether the French policy oflaïcité is a sufficiently merciful and flexible way for a democracy to handle the separation of church and state, but I strongly doubt that there would have been such a broad outpouring of support forCharlie Hebdo in France if it had been a French analog of the Westboro Baptist Church. When it comes to telling whether a French newspaper smells sweet or sour, I think the French are likely to have the more discerning noses.
While we all recognize aspects of humor that are universal, we are often less aware of how cultural contextualized humor can be, and especially how much the boundaries of what is funny (as opposed to offensive) are set by cultural norms. I find that USians in general are less comfortable with satire than some other cultures, and many of us don’t do discomfort in humor well. Many comics will tell you that comedy has its roots in anger, but I’m not sure how many audience members fully appreciate that.
This particular debate is further confounded (as so many are, really) by the number of people within the targeted minorities who don’t like Charlie Hebdo’s approach. Many don’t, but many others do. So majority-group members’ appeals to minority-group authority don’t help to make the general case nearly as much as they think they do.
Next up, there have been a number of excellent articles on the mother who dragged her son away from the Baltimore protests. Here’s one I found early on by Miriti Murungi at Fusion, which nails the key points in a few well-chosen words:
In fact, the major issue in black, inner city communities isn’t the lack of caring parents like Graham; it’s that despite the actions of millions of parents like her, infrastructures and state institutions — from schools to law enforcement to legislatures — have failed them at every step along the way.
This is why calls for “more heroes like Graham” bother me so much. As I watched the tape of Graham’s intervention, over and over and over, I didn’t feel like I was watching a superhero, but a parent, and a desperate, scared one at that. (That sense of desperation registers in almost every quote she’s given to the media, like this one: “There are some days I’ll shield him in the house just so he won’t go outside. And I know I can’t do that for the rest of my life. He’s 16 years old, you know.”) Graham’s anointment as a “hero” unfairly shifts the burden from absent, broken or ineffective institutions to the shoulders of individual parents; it is also a reflection of America’s lazy crutch of using singular, strong black figures as a Band-Aid solution, instead of, once again, developing and deploying infrastructures to assist entire communities.
My first thought when I saw that clip was “you go!” and my second, almost immediate followup was of how terrified she must have been. Last year at the height of the Ferguson protests I worried every day for my neighbor, a big, sweet, caring teenager. I’ve watched him grow up, and for months I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling him to be careful. And I’m not even his mom, just a mom-aged neighbor who tells him to put on his gloves when it’s cold out. Being a young black man in a major US city is tough. Being that man’s mother may be even tougher.
Another post on Baltimore and protest more generally is this striking one from Derek Clifton (click through for the photographs):
As Mic‘s Zak Cheney-Rice noted in January, these rioters are usually called “revelers,” “celebrants” and “fans.” They’re not even called “rioters” in many cases. They’re not derided as “criminals,” “thugs,” “pigs” or even “violent.” Those descriptors, as events in Baltimore Monday night reveals yet again, are only reserved for black people. They’re the ones who need to be quelled by militarized police forces. They’re the ones who need to be off the streets, immediately. They’re diminishing the validity of their cause. Yet somehow, reckless behavior over a sports team, not a systemic matter of life and death, is viewed as a costly nuisance.
One can only wonder, with the current state of affairs — if the same tropes and police treatment deployed against black people were used when white people take to the streets, how would the general public have treated any of these following situations?
One report from Reuters called [the violence after the SF Giants won the 2014 World Series] “fans taking to the streets.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline noted “40 arrests, two shootings in Giants fan revelry.” Couches burned, buildings were hit with graffiti and businesses were vandalized. But neither story characterized the incident as a “riot.”
I think most of us know that sports riots are portrayed differently in the media than political riots and protests are, but seeing the juxtaposition of the photos really brings it home. What’s especially telling to me is that sports-event violence results in huge amounts of property damage, but while it’s deplored in the abstract, perpetrators are rarely asked why they’re doing this to “their own neighborhoods” the way they are during and after political violence.
One possibility is that sports violence is seen as a one-off, something that starts big and tails off, whereas political protests build in the opposite direction, so it’s seen as more strategic. More importantly, if we subjected both kinds of participants to the same scrutiny, we might have to ask ourselves why violence is a semi-acceptable response to a joyous event but completely out of bounds as a way to express legitimate anger about exclusion from the political process.
To end on a lighter note, here’s a post by Dayna Evans of Gawker about what happened to her Twitter handle when she deactivated her account:
It turns out that the Twitter account previously associated with my name, @hidayna, has been taken over by someone—or something—who goes by the name Amazing Slut. The very first result when you search “dayna evans twitter” is the Amazing Slut page. Should you click on the Amazing Slut page, you will find this (NSFW if you scroll down, but you probably already have so I’m sorry):
Amazing Slut is “your most beloved adult celeb.” Amazing Slut has not yet tweeted. If I don’t want to miss any updates from Amazing Slut, all I have to do is sign up on Twitter with my former Twitter name, which is impossible because Amazing Slut has taken it. If I want to know what Amazing Slut is up to, I have to manually check in with her whenever it occurs to me to do so.
An extremely unreliable source (former Valleywag editor Sam Biddle) explained to me that when Twitter accounts with a semi-substantial number of followers get deleted, eagerly-waiting bots scoop up the discarded handles as a way to promote their pursuits. I could take a guess as to what Amazing Slut is promoting, but I won’t know for sure until she tweets. Without doing anything but ostensibly preying on my forgotten handle—a piece of slimy, useless trash I didn’t even want anymore—a new enemy in my life has emerged. An amazing slut. An amazing slut with nothing to say who is trying to co-opt my identity. Amazing slut though I might be, this amazing slut I is not.
We think of Twitter handles as personal, but they’re only ours as long as we stay on the platform. My original handle, @sunita_d, was scooped up by an egg within weeks (or maybe days) of my account deletion. My second one, @sunita_p, appears to have a person behind it, but who knows? She doesn’t tweet. She is, however, fully clothed, unlike The Amazing Slut.