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December 21, 2010

Couple of Thoughts on Haley Barbour and Watermelons

1. I've never gotten how "Watermelon" and "friend chicken" began to get treated as high-level racial slurs. Yes, they are slurs, as they stereotype and demean (and that is the point, and why I discourage their use here), but come on, they're not big-time capital-R Racist slurs. I categorize them in the same class as calling an Italian a spaghetti-bender or ravioli roller, well, a bit higher in offense than that because Italians aren't discriminated against that much and there is a greater allowance for good-spirited racial/cultural joshing. We're not really there yet with blacks, or Hispanics.

Still, in the scheme of racial insults, stereotyping a group by the foods they prefer (or are thought to prefer) is pretty small potatoes.

1. a. I often employ the SNL standard as to what's permissible in edgy racial humor. SNL itself doesn't have a consistent standard here, and, like pornography, it's more of a know-it-when-I-see-it sort of thing, but it should be noted that while the SNL standard abhors watermelon and friend chicken jokes as retrograde, derisive, and, mostly, old and hack, it seems fine with fresher racial stereotypes along these lines. See Gangsta Bitch Barbie, for example, which stereotypes "Gangstas" (really urban blacks) as preferring Newport cigarettes.

That joke actually was common in the nineties, even among the enlightened urban liberal professional types that made up SNL's writers and performers. Grape soda, Kool cigarettes (any menthol brand, really) became fresh, and acceptable, replacements for "fried chicken" and "watermelon."

Why? I don't know. When you think about it, it seems the fresher insult should be more offensive, as it's novel and like novel things, more likely to elicit an actual reaction, while the older stereotype-insult should be comparatively less provocative. It's old, man, as they say on the internet.

I think the real distinguishing thing here is that the fresh thing is vibrant and new and therefore funny while the old thing isn't funny anymore. But that has nothing at all to do with attempting to avoid racial offense -- that's just following the rule of comedy to not do old, hack jokes. That is, it's not an ethical standard whatsoever, but a purely comedic one.

Though, I suppose, there is value in a funny joke, while there is little such value in a purely derisive racial slur, so one can say that funniness may mitigate the offensiveness of a racially-edgy statement, whereas if it's not funny it's just racial disparagement for the sake of racial disparagement.

In Haley Barbour's case, I'm guessing that at the time he said this, watermelon jokes were still considered funny (or at least not notably unfunny) in parts of the country, so... yeah, who knows.

1.b. The Kools/Newport/Grape soda gags wouldn't sell today -- they're now almost as hack as watermelon jokes; what was fresh and daring in 1995 is now pretty much just repeating tired old racial gags -- which suggests that a lot of this is simply context dependent, by which we mean culture and era dependent. Which leads me naturally to the more important point.

2. It always strikes me that there is a baseline of belief in any culture and any timeframe. You have to judge "progressive" or "conservative" or "good" or "bad" according to deviation from that baseline.

Liberals often malign the Founding Fathers as racist slave-owners and so on, which is true, but that's a vindictive standard made from such an entirely different vantage point as to be pretty meaningless. A more proper way to judge them is to the extent they deviated from the baseline and in what direction -- given that the culture was racist and slave-holding, how do they compare to the average (and normative) view that held at the time? If Thomas Jefferson, for example, treated his slaves particularly well, and also agitated to move away from the slave system altogether (even if he wasn't giving them up before the law required him to do so), doesn't that make him, in culture/era specific context, more on the "good" side of things than the "bad"? Now, it's hard to say he's an angel when it comes to slavery -- slavery is and always was an unmitigated evil -- but in context, being better than the average person actually in existence at that time and in that place puts one more on the good side of things.

This happens a lot now, as we look at politicians who came from racist holdout bastions in the Deep South. (And, I should say, what could be called the "Deep North," too.)

I think the occasional expression of something that sounds awful in 2010 sort of just proves they did come from the 50's and 60's Deep South. I think the right way to look at is how much they resisted a bad culture, and deviated from it, and were open to ideas of racial equality and etc., not that they perfectly mimicked the learned culture of a 2010 media-academic type.

2. a. But all of this is sort of a hard argument to make, so I usually don't bother making it, and instead just say "the game is not worth the candle" and write such candidates off.

2. a. i. The counter-argument that always gets made is that we cannot concede anything and must go into maximalist push-back mode, and refuse to accept their assumptions, and etc.

That's kinda true, but what is the point when the thing begin defended against is sorta bad? Even if it's understandably bad and not as bad as liberals say, isn't it still kinda bad? In other words, if I accept the assumption that we are not to accept the assumptions of liberals, I still have to ask -- well, which assumptions do you mean?

If you mean the vindictively-applied 2010 NYC standard applied, selectively, only to politicians of one party, despite the anachronistic nature of applying such a standard to 1963 Mississippi, I agree; but if you mean the basic assumption that racism is bad, m'kay?, I disagree strongly.

It's often very important to be very clear about which parts of an argument you are disputing, and which you accept. I don't think I can accept, nor would it be wise for anyone to accept, the notion that if liberals say that racism is bad, we must challenge that.

At the end of the day, I think it fair, if awful, to say the Citizens' Councils, while racist and segregationist, and, hard to argue, less-overtly-racist successor-organizations to the suddenly-disreputable KKK, were nevertheless an improvement over the KKK -- yes, it is an improvement when a wrongful idea is publicly scorned enough and driven underground enough that it has to be finessed covertly -- so I can understand, from Barbour's point of view in an earlier period, finding them to be relatively benign.

If liberals don't believe that a politician can be judged as flawed but not awful for having accepted a part of his regional/era-specific culture in a past time before disowning it, they should check out their own continued support for former two-time presidential candidate and Speaker of the House Richard Gephardt and his own courting of the CCC.

Did you think I was going to mention Robert Byrd? I decided against it, because liberals have full immunity from any mention of Robert Byrd. They just pretend he didn't exist. You can sooner get a liberal to admit that Robert Byrd, the "Conscience of the Senate," was a nasty, explicitly racist Klan member -- did I say member? I meant Klan creator and leader -- than you can get them to admit that they don't read books, they just read book reviews in the Sunday Times and they claim they read the book.

3. I always like to end on a liberal-bashing note, so let me do that now. A novel example of that has just occurred to me, in thinking about this issue. I think I'm a little clever for thinking of this.

Liberals, as I said, like to pretend that someone must be judged according to 2010 Manhattan Media standards rather than the prevailing culture they grew up in. Actually, it's pretty much a mix, as I've laid out above. You shouldn't ever give someone a full pass for a bad idea or malicious thought, but you can give them a partial pass, if they were comparatively innocent compared to the culture they grew up in.

But here's the less-delicious double-standard (we'll get to the even tastier one next): Liberals like to give criminals a pass -- limited or even full -- for having grown up in bad conditions -- poverty, broken home, poor role models, a prevailing culture that celebrates criminality and violence while disparaging achievement along a better path.

So why the double standard on Haley Barbour? If a criminals' actions must be judged according to the culture that made him, why is it only muggers and murderers getting this treatment?

Liberals are fond of blaming ills, but only ills, on "society." In the appropriate case, they feel whining about "society" lets everyone (except Republican political actors, of course) off the hook.

Actually, the right way to view this is yes, of course, poverty and broken homes and all that is in fact a major contributing cause to criminality, but we cannot act as if that does anything more than lightly mitigate the crime, because to do otherwise would be to normalize that crime, and establish a new normative standard of behavior in which crime is justifiable and excusable. It's one thing to know in your heart that a black-hearted criminal probably didn't just choose entirely of his own volition to be so black-hearted, that yes, in all likelihood, he suffers from a mix of bad upbringing, bad genes, and bad chemicals in his head; it's another thing entirely to enact that idea as precept in criminal justice.

But anyway, and here's where I begin to get clever: Why is it only social ills that are so attributed to "society"? Why should it not also be the case that social goods are attributable to society/culture as well? If social ills can be traced to society and culture, why can we not also say that benevolent social dispositions are similarly largely rooted in society and culture?

Here's the answer: Because liberals like to imagine that they are actively choosing to do "good," that a whole host of options were presented to them, most of them "evil," and they choose to do the good thing, because, well, they're just enlightened and intellectual and good, that's why.

To a liberal, his own social choices are made entirely without reference to the prevailing culture of his age/region -- to acknowledge the importance of the latter would be to demean his own ego. That is, no liberal wants to admit that the reason they will cry in horror at the slightest racial joke (or mention of Christmas, for that matter) is largely just a product of stuff they absorbed in growing up in a liberal culture. That it's not, in fact, really a choice they made, so much as a path of least resistance they simply failed to avoid.

They want to believe they believe the right things because they're so smart and concerned, not just because by happy accident they were born and raised and schooled in Rumson, New Jersey.

To suggest their politics/ethics are anything but of their own Heroic Choice would be to undermine the entire purported moral superiority which is the whole point of the game from the jump.

And, of course, it would require them to give a little leeway to Republican politicians from another era and region. Which they won't do. (They do of course understand that Robert Byrd was only a KKK Kleagle because he came from the "hollahs" of West Virginia.)

But I think that's an intersting context, right there, revealing a double-standard, and a racially-condescending one to boot: Rich white liberals choose their own social mores without inputs from the prevailing cultural standard, but poor black kids have no agency whatsoever and are entirely made by their culture.

Racism, Northern and Southern Style. The topic has brought about the inevitable game show, Who's More Racist?, which is fine.

I'm only mentioning this because one post wrote something pretty funny. This is probably old, but I hadn't heard it put like this.

[Northern white liberals] love blacks, and hope to meet one someday.


That reminds me of a contretemps pushed by Politico about the big Tea Party gathering over the summer. One guy had sent out an email to people coming down to DC for the event, advising them to stay away from certain stops on the Yellow and Green lines, because the neighborhoods were bad, and we all know what that means.

Liberals got one day's worth of Racial Mileage out of this. White! Tea Party! Conservative! Telling people which neighborhoods were bad, which is to say-- minority!

I remember at the time having my own good laugh about this. Because all the guys at Politico, and half of the liberal bloggers writing about this, lived in DC... in the "good neighborhoods" (by which we mean -- mostly white).

And yet here they were chuckling over this email, as if it were some great coincidence-- luck of the draw, you know -- that they all just happened to live in mostly-white neighborhoods and hadn't chosen their own apartments based on that criterion.

I wanted to, but didn't, email one of Politico's writers to ask him, "Hey, which stop on the Green Line do you live on? Oh wait, you live in Adams-Morgan or Georgetown or Alexandria, right? Right."

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posted by Ace at 02:04 PM

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