Saturday, December 21, 2013

Getting Our Hate On

Of the myriad reasons not fleshed out the other day when I wrote that I would be writing less (and here I am writing three days in a row, because nothing makes more sense than that), one of them is a kind of helplessness in the face of millions of people spewing whatever sits in their brainpans out on the Internet.  Whether one peruses the comment threads on news stories or blog posts; the various and sundry left-wing, right-wing, moderate and fringe political sections of the internet; or even Facebook and Twitter; as far as the eye can see every sort of opinion is aired, without any sense that things on the internet are not private, and the whole world can see your words.

The past three days have brought us, first Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty saying some pretty horrible things.  I've said what I want about that.  This morning, this LGM post and this Edroso post "discuss" Jonah Goldberg's latest, in which he gay baits a character in a commercial.  The depth of disgust, projection, and seething hatred on display - and the comment section is a festering stew of foulness - is enough to put you off your waffles first thing on a Christmas season morning.

Yesterday, however, there was a display of worldwide, day long hate that was quite disturbing.  If you hadn't heard, Twitter exploded in a ragegasm of epic proportions over an insensitive, bigoted tweet from a young woman named Justine Sacco.  You can see the on-going phenomenon here.  She has deleted her account.  The Tweet Heard 'Round The World, quite literally, has been captured for all time:
Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!  
A PR executive at an internet holding company that owns OKCupid and other popular sites, Sacco was on a long international flight to Cape Town, South Africa and, for reasons that will probably never be completely explained, sent out three tweets.  The first concerned being seated next to someone who was deodorant-impaired; the second was a dig at the British; then the last tweet before boarding her 12-hour, wifi-free flight.  That her life would never be the same after landing became apparent early yesterday.  Her tweet went viral, and her followers exploded from a couple hundred to almost 8,000 by last evening/early morning in Cape Town.  She lost her job, discovered hundreds of thousands of people calling her all sorts of horrible things, and even had Buzzfeed digging through her Twitter account to find "The 16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets".

Far from defending the content of her Tweet, I think it displays a kind of ignorance and low-level bigotry that far too many Americans carry around with them.  The difference between all of us and Ms. Sacco is her Tweet got picked up and spread around the Internet, then to major news outlets like The New York Times, her company was forced to act, and she went from a successful business woman to international pariah in the amount of time it takes to fly from one great city to another.  I think losing her job was the correct action; a PR executive who tweets the things Ms. Sacco did displays a lack of judgment that is truly astounding; her former employers, IAC, do have to protect their image, after all.

On the other hand, I cannot endorse the deafening rage that continues to pile upon her.  Compared, say, to Phil Robertson, a figure in a television program, or Jonah Goldberg, a political columnist, Ms. Sacco is a private individual of whom no one had heard before yesterday.  The hours-long spewing of name-calling, conjectures about how intoxicated she might be, the sexist comments calling her a "bitch" and "cunt" was not only ugly beyond imagining; it was out of all proportion to the offense contained in her Tweet.  The pile-on was like Orwell's "Two Minute Hate".  I have to admit more than little compassion for Ms. Sacco, not least because her life became something upon which the whole world could create whatever it wanted without any knowledge the furor existed.

There seems to be some deep well of rage and hate within us.  We direct it at all sorts of targets only marginally related to anything of importance.  I think this is so not least because our political system is completely unresponsive to the demands for action the people express, regardless of party or ideology.  Precisely because ours is a nation of inaction, this seething, roiling cauldron of frustration needs to escape; Ms. Sacco, alas for her, was just in the way.  I have no idea how she will manage now; any future in her chosen profession, Public Relations, is certainly out of the question.  That thousands of people have called her every sort of foul name certainly can't help.  That she has become a stand in for very real and foar more entrenched structural racism is so sad; as at least one person Tweeted last night, "You know what's racist? The education system in Mississippi."  We have real, serious structurally racist matters in this country; the insensitivity of one mid-level corporate executive is, in the scheme of things, meaningless.

The outpouring of rage directed at her, however, is meaningful, if only in a disturbing way, for what it tells us about who we are.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Robertson Follies

After writing yesterday that I wasn't going to write that much, and that I couldn't care less about the whole Phil Robertson/Duck Dynasty flapdoodle, here I am writing about it.  I'm doing so because this nonsense has exploded far beyond any significance or importance, let alone relationship to anything that actually happened.

First, Phil Robertson had none of his rights violated.  He's an employee of a cable channel.  As such, he is under contract to do and not do certain things.  When that contract is violated, the channel can act.  Robertson isn't going to prison.  He isn't being stripped of his citizenship.  He hasn't been beaten, harassed, or been intimidated by police.  He certainly hasn't lost his livelihood; as the founder of the business at the heart of the program, he will continue to draw a hefty paycheck and live quite well.  He has been removed for an unspecified amount of time from a television program.

He was so removed because he said some pretty hateful things about gay folk, as well as some pretty ignorant things about the state of African-American life under Jim Crow.  Of course, in the midst of it all, he insisted it had something to do with his being a Christian, so all sorts of Christians are rushing to his defense, claiming persecution.  If Robertson had been fired after saying, "You know, as a Christian, I just don't think it's right that I'm getting paid $X while the folks behind the cameras barely make a living wage," I would probably nod my head in approval, at the very least.  What he did say was that people who are gay, because they are gay, are separate from God because of their sexuality.  Since, in traditional bland Christian orthodoxy "sin" is neither an act nor an essential part of the human condition, but a description of the broken relationship that exists between all creation and God, whatever else Robertson was saying, he wasn't talking about the Christian faith.  So, no, thank you, I won't defend his words as "Christian" because, simply put - they're wrong.

This piece by Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress captures just how fake the entire "controversy" is.  More than the ugliness of Phil Robertson's words, or that he claimed such ugliness as Christian, it is this that irritates me no end.  As Rosenberg says, A&E had to know who the Robertsons were and what beliefs they held.  That their image is manufactured, from their look to how they interact on the show, all of it is designed to sell a product: a wholesome, down-home American family from the heartland unchanged by wealth and business success.  Except, of course, that premise, being manufactured, is no more real than if Phil Robertson were an actor who played a fictional character with a different name and backstory.  That hundreds of thousands of Americans have been sucked in to the story, mistaking the image for the reality is a sad state of affairs.  It does not, however, give Robertson a pass when he says hateful, hurtful things under the umbrella of "Christian".  This is as manufactured as the rest, a bit of theater that is playing out precisely as scripted, including the support of viewers around the country.  All of it guarantees more money for A&E, for Duck Dynasty, and for the business the Robertsons own.

I do not nor will I watch the show.  I couldn't care less about the whole kerfuffle, except it, like Megyn Kelly's nonsensical white Santa/Jesus comments, reveals not so much a deep divide in America, as the lingering American Id, that part of our national psyche that lashes out at the Other - by turns gay folk, African-Americans, corporate executives, non-Christians in this particular case - without forethought or care for consequences.  If A&E lets Robertson back on the program, well, OK.  If for some reason counter to good economic sense they cancel it, well, OK.  In either case, the whole unfolding story is not about Phil Robertson or Christianity or censorship or rights.  It's about us, Americans, and our inability at times to tell reality from fantasy.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What Really Matters

Since the beginning of September, I've written 12 posts.  I used to write almost twice that in a week.  What's been going on?

First of all, life.  Since our move, our lives have become busier and more complicated.  You reassess priorities, and stuff that was important suddenly becomes less so.  Not that I don't enjoy writing and blogging; quite the opposite.  I miss it.  I also have other things that need doing, and so I continue to miss it so other things can get done.

With this priority shuffling comes the chance for reflection.  This autumn I also returned to Twitter, although in a more perfunctory way.  I rarely "Tweet" anything of my own, retweeting things others have shared, or leaving an appreciative comment.  While celebrity tweeting seems to be the big thing, the folks I follow most closely on Twitter comment on issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class, yet somehow manage to get the point across in 140 characters.  Some of them are quite amusing.  Unlike blogging or other forms of longer-form writing, there is an art to the good tweet, and I would rather share those that have mastered it than demonstrate my own incompetence at this particular form.

Yet, there is more to it than that.  Reflecting on my Twitter reticence and decrease in blogging, I have come to the conclusion that I, personally, am just no longer interested in what I have to say.  The explosion of the internet over the past decade, the democratization of communication and commentary thanks to social media, and the ever-higher wall elite commentary builds around itself all lend themselves to the odd phenomenon that, despite having the world quite literally at our eyeballs at the touch of a few buttons, there are fewer things of importance about which to write, and far too many people writing about them.  The noise-level in our public discourse is deafening, not least because at least some among my fellow Americans believe that volume equals both competence and a public following.  Personally, I prefer the simple declarative mode; if you like it, come on along, but if not, that's OK, too.  Far too many think it is necessary to TYPE LIKE THEY ARE SHOUTING IN ORDER TO MAKE SURE NO ONE CAN HEAR ANYTHING ELSE AND ALSO FOOL SOME FOLKS IN TO THINKING THEY HAVE ARE PART OF SOME LARGER SOCIAL OR POLITICAL FORCE.  Despite everything, the all-caps brigade continue unabated.

I've never wanted to be yet another voice shouting in the wilderness.  Now, the wilderness is far too crowded, and there are fewer things about which to write.  Take the past week, for instance: there's the report from the President's commission on the NSA; there's the surprise release of a new, pro-feminist album from Beyonce; one of the cast of Duck Dynasty was suspended after making some pretty awful anti-gay remarks; for some reason, Megyn Kelly of FOXNews insisted that a fictional character and Galilean Jew who lived 2,000 years ago are both white.  There's the nonsense over the website.  Every time Ted Cruz opens his mouth, news outlets race to put it in print and on the internet.

In the middle of all this, Pres. Obama gives a speech in which he says that rising inequality is the greatest challenge of our time.  The top 10% of income-earners in this country manage to rake in 42% of total incomes.  This has happened even as homelessness has risen; those depending upon food banks and other private support has exploded; there are 46 million Americans on Food Stamps, most of whom work either part time of full time.  For a socialist, Barack Obama is a pretty good oligarchical capitalist.  The real danger to our Republic isn't some fake businessman who wears a beard and spouts bigotry to make a buck from conservatives all too willing to fling money at people who say crap like he does.  Whether or not Beyonce is a "real" feminist isn't really all that important in the long run (although I'll grant the point that even raising the question masks persistent racism among some white feminists).  Beyond revealing her own racial blinkers, Megyn Kelly's nonsense is meaningless because, well . . . Santa doesn't exist and Jesus couldn't have been "white" in any way that makes sense.

None of this solves the problems of increasingly bad working conditions for too many Americans; corporations supporting their employment practices with public assistance in order to keep wages depressed and increase profits; a concentration of wealth in the United States that hasn't been seen since just before the Great Depression.  These are all things that are the result of deliberate policy choices of our government.  They are all things that can change, and should be changed in order for our country to remain politically stable as well as socially stable and economically vibrant.  They are things that are not going to change because interested parties have far too much invested in the status quo, despite its increasing untenability, to support even modest change.

People are far more interested in acting the church lady over Miley Cyrus or whining because a guy who pretends to look like a redneck says a redneck thing and then gets pulled from his fake show because he violated the terms of his contract than they are, say, in the fact that over a million Americans are going to lose their unemployment benefits next week.  Combined with a feeling that I just am not all that interested in what I have to say; my own preference for the work of others; and a very busy, different life than I've experienced before, my own blogging is going to continue to be sparse, at best.  There are things that matter, and concentrating on the those things has made the whole project of public commentary questionable.

Virtual Tin Cup

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