Saturday, September 24, 2005

The fact that I'm stupid and uncharitable, proves that you're racist

I had ignored the minor flap over Oliver Willis's painfully childish, malicious, and outright dumb attack on Captain Ed, because...well, what exactly do you expect from Oliver? I haven't wasted time on the poor guy's site in a long, long time. But then some of the discussion over at All Things Beautiful triggered a train of thought:

If ever we needed to know why sexual harassment laws that ignore intent are a terrible idea, Oliver has just given us an unmistakable object lesson.

I don't think Oliver should be rewarded for his bile with extra site traffic, so for background purposes, here is Captain Ed's original quote:

I had the good fortune to see Steele speak in person to the Republican convention in 2004, and the man will provide Democrats with nightmares on the stump. Articulate, knowledgeable, passionate, and humorous, he embodies the communication skills of a Ronald Reagan with a keen grasp of policy.

That may sound like a compliment to you, you naive honkey, you, but listen, Oliver pities the fool who sees only the surface meaning and fails to understand that Captain Ed is really a Card-Carrying Racist. Captain Ed's true meaning is helpfully provided to us by Oliver:

Aw lawzy! That Michael Steele is sho nuff one of them “articulate” negroes. One of “the good ones”, you know?

If there were a law against "hate speech" that defined hate speech as "something that makes somebody else in the room uncomfortable, whether there is any inappropriate intent on the speaker's part or not," then Captain Ed would be legally vulnerable to punishment for racism -- for the grave and unforgivable crime of having said that an African-American man was "articulate."

Didn't somebody famous once say, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar?" (Oh, wait, maybe that was Bill Clinton...sorry, bad example.)

At any rate, I do think that a reasonable person tries to avoid obviously insensitive language with a notoriously racist history -- such as referring to a particular political figure of Jewish extraction as "filthy Wolfowitz," as Oliver once did. That does not change the fact that it is nothing short of insane -- and intellectually suicidal -- for a culture to decree that a speaker has a greater responsibility to try to avoid misunderstanding than a hearer has to try to discern, and react to, the speaker's original intent. It is impossible to utter any speech on any meaningful and important topic whatsoever without making it possible for those who wish to be offended, to find a excuse for their self-righteous outrage (and there's no question that Oliver finds pleasure in believing that white people who disagree with him, are racist). The only recourse is silence on all significant topics -- and if we do that then the Oliver Willises of the world will decide that silence is a clear marker of racist contempt.

Note that in the original post, Oliver does us the favor of translating Minnesota-based Captain Ed's statement into its "real" meaning -- which Oliver thinks has to be rendered in an absurd pseudo-Southern accent. By the very act of making Captain Ed say, "Aw lawzy" and "sho nuff," he implicitly admits that the kind of attitude he imputes to Captain Ed is an attitude characteristic of a white subculture to which the Captain patently does not belong. But we're still supposed to attribute that subculture's attitudes to the Captain, with no evidence whatsoever that the attribution is valid other than Oliver's intransigent malice against persons Republican. By the time the comment thread has taken off, someone can say, "I’m saying the writer meant well but ultimately fell victim to unconscious structures beyond his control" -- and apparently think he's defending Oliver in so saying. But Oliver's point was precisely that the writer meant evil. (And if Oliver wants to tell me I'm wrong and that wasn't his point...well, that would imply that it's my job accurately to understand Oliver's intent, which is precisely the responsibility Oliver himself failed to exercise. Good luck workin' your way out of that one, Ollie me lad.)

Look, even on the most favorable possible interpretation of the position of Oliver and his defenders, what they think all Republicans are obliged to do, is to stop when they're about to offer any African-American a sincere compliment, and run through a mental list of compliments you're not allowed to pay to African-Americans. If you're complimenting a white guy, you can say whatever you want. If you're complimenting an Asian guy, you can say whatever you want. If you're complimenting a black guy, some things are off limits, because some compliments are really insults if you're talking about a black dude. And if you don't follow this rule -- if you simply call people articulate when they are and refrain from calling them articulate when they aren't without paying any attention to their skin color...why, then, you're a racist bastard.

Meanwhile, Willis himself came out and accused Captain Ed of being a racist. Then when he was called on it, he defended himself by saying that it was Captain Ed's job not to make Willis think Captain Ed was a racist. He accused Captain Ed of racism, and when he got called on it, he defended the proposition that Captain Ed was insensitive. At no point has Willis given even the slightest evidence of showing that he is aware that it was his responsibility to try to figure out what Captain Ed actually felt before accusing him of racism -- and Willis didn't accuse Captain Ed of insensitivity; he accused him of racism. I would submit that no honest and charitable person could have given five minutes' thought to the question of Captain Ed's intent and not decided that it was entirely free of racism. Willis is intellectually dishonest, and when I decided some time ago not to waste time on his site, it was an eminently sound decision. End of story.

UPDATE: I got to thinking about it and decided I didn't do a great job with this comment. So I tried again. I like this try much better.


At 2:11 PM, Anonymous North by Northwest said...

What is it with these discussions. We know they won't change anything; we know they are not changing anybody's point of view; we know they are not open-minded; and most importantly, we know they most likely become unpleasant, end up placing us in an invidious position, often leaving us with a foul aftertaste. So, why do we bother? Beacause inactivity yields the floor:

Rupert Murdoch had that figured when he started Fox Network and charged Barry Diller with ushering in the era of 'Bevies & Butthead' and the likes such as 'The Jerry Springer Show', aka reality TV. Mass audiences, the majority in every nation, are defined by the lowest common denominator. Appealing to the largest numbers ensures generating the most cash. So far for the basic economics.

And it's the OW's of the bloggosphere who are pandering to this lowest common denominator. The smart ones do it conscoiusly the not so smart ones do it because they can't help themselves. And they are doing a good job too.

And? So what! Sure there is a lot of anger out there, a lot of injustice and hardship. Everyday struggle to make ends meet. Domestic violence, rape and abuse. But prior to the bloggosphere, awareness creation was largely passive. Now it's interactive, up-close and personal. And that's fantastic. That's why I jump in; that's why I appreciate the OW's of this world with their commentators and all.

Because, maybe, just maybe a difference can be made; understanding can be furthered; positions can be shifted and viewpoints altered - there's some insight to be found in OW's thoughts - even if it only serves to realize how deep the paranoia is still embedded, how large the chips on the shoulder still are: Remember Igor: "Hump, what hump?"

And maybe, it serves to highlight areas where there's no paranoia but real injustice. That's surely worth it!

Tallyho! (that should wind them all up...)


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