The Silliest Take of the Week: 6/18/2017

Hello, all!

After last week’s themed week, we’re moving back to the general project, and folks have sent me some good ones! Let’s get to work:

Most Inexplicable Sexualization of a Political Figure

Lizzie Crocker, “James Comey is the Sex Symbol America Needs Right Now,” The Daily Beast, 6/11/2017.

Former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Community about a week and a half ago. A few people apparently took to Twitter to suggest that Comey was attractive. Now, maybe there was a lot of Comey-lusting on Twitter, but this writer cites only two examples, each of which is pretty tame. Nevertheless:

“By the end of his public testimony, James Comey was not just hot; he was eminently fuckable.”

What follows is a quick examination of why James Comey could possibly be a sex symbol, given that he “has a somewhat peaked complexion and under-eye bags that look like half-inflated tubular balloons.” Along the way, we get comparisons of Director Comey to Mr. Darcy, John F. Kennedy, Casanova and Mata Hari. We get a brief discussion of how left-wing politicians are sexually fetishized by fellow liberals, from Trudeau to Obama. Trudeau and Obama might be conventionally handsome, but even us uggos get some love:

“Former French president François Hollande, a stout, balding man with squinty eyes, somehow managed to seduce uncommonly beautiful women like Valérie Trierweiler and Julie Gayet.”

The Hollande bit seems particularly odd, given that the women cited were not adoring fans sexualizing the man on Twitter but, rather, women who actually dated him. Also, didn’t we all hate Comey less than a year ago? Crocker acknowledges that:

“After all, Comey most definitely wasn’t seen as a sex symbol when he helped torpedo Hillary Clinton’s election chances just a few days before the election. The public winds of approval–the perception of heroism or doing good or speaking truth to power–must be blowing in the right direction for a moment to erupt as it did on Thursday, when suddenly all the feels were for Comey.”

Remember: Crocker cites all of two tweets for this notion that there’s some vast groundswell of sexual attraction to Comey. Nevertheless:

“Seeing him in a position of power, with the future of our imperiled democracy depending in part on his testimony, was enough for many of those watching his testimony to crown him a sex symbol. It may not last long, but as with many things that are unexpected this moment of collective Comey-lust is one to savor.”

what the hell is going on

Most Execrable Everything

Christine Flowers, “Cosby taking the hit for men who’ve wronged women,”  Philly.com (The Philadelphia Inquirer), 6/13/2017

Bill Cosby was on trial over the last few weeks (and will be again, since the first trial ended in a mistrial) for sexually assaulting a woman. (Technically, the charges are for “aggravated indecent assault.”) This has caused a lot of people to feel weird, given that Bill Cosby played sitcom fathers and beloved goofballs for some fifty years of American media. How is it possible for Cliff Huxtable to be capable of such horrible things? It is entirely reasonable to feel weird about this, and to struggle with one’s own deep attachment to The Cosby Show in light of the fact that Cosby appears to have done terrible, horrible things. It is not entirely reasonable to try to solve this personal tension by spewing abject, hateful nonsense all over the Internet.

Here are some thoughts that this writer apparently decided were worth sharing with the world:

“If I had my way, we’d never come to verdict on this case.  The greatest damage has already been done, and that is the shattering of beloved myths and comforting relationships by the proxy of television and nostalgia.  Bill Cosby is Cliff Huxtable, regardless of what the critics say. We are all made up of perception and reality, fact and fiction, aspiration and confirmation.  It is ridiculous to argue that a man who was capable of creating the character that fathered a generation did not, at some deep level, possess those nurturing characteristics.”

Remember, the “greatest damage” is not the harm done to the woman he’s accused of assaulting, it’s the “shattering of beloved myths.”

“He has confessed in a secular confessional to betraying the trust of his wife, and perhaps of the women who considered him a mentor before he moved them to another spot on the sliding scale of human interaction. “

“Moved them to another spot on the sliding scale of human interaction” sure is a weird way to say “drugged them and assaulted them while they were asleep.” Also, cheating on your wife is bad, but maybe adultery isn’t really the point when the man has been accused of sexual assault.

Ah, but Flowers doesn’t believe he did these things, because of reasons:

“But I am allowed to refuse to believe that it includes rape. I am entitled, at least while this jury is out and well beyond, to craft a different narrative from the bits and pieces of complaints and testimony of women who waited years — decades — to come out of their own self-imposed shadows and say ‘me too, listen to me, too.’

You can believe or refuse to believe anything you want, Ms. Flowers, but this feels oddly desperate. This paragraph is Take-Writer for “I am choosing to stick my fingers in my ears and scream until all of you inconvenient people go away.”

Oh, and why does Flowers think Cosby is on trial? Because:

“Bill Cosby is an easy target, able to stand in for all the men who might have mistreated us in a distant past, and a cautionary tale to those college frat boys who might take advantage when we lie supine and drunk on the floor in the future. After a year of leaked commentaries and conversation, evidence and prognostication, we are left with the words of one woman and one man, and yet it’s as if the tidal wave of feminist history is set to engulf that one man as some kind of vindication for all the women who’ve been wronged. The 50 other accusers, like a finger-wagging Greek chorus in the back of the courtroom, stand in for the wronged women of the past. Gloria Allred leads them in righteous chant, and we look on.”

That’s right: Cosby is on trial to act as a sort of Biblical scapegoat, made to suffer for all the sins of other men. All those rotten feminists have decided to crucify him as an act of public vindication for the feminist narrative.

Look: it’s good to maintain some skepticism about the guilt of those who find themselves in the crosshairs of criminal prosecution. The approach is supposed to be “innocent until proven guilty,” after all, and people are sometimes tried for crimes they didn’t commit. But that healthy skepticism should only extend so far. Once you find yourself treating criminal charges filed against an entertainer you like as a scurrilous conspiracy without citing any more evidence than that the entertainer must have had some “nurturing instincts” because of a character he played in a TV show, you may have overdone it a tad.

In other words, perhaps the reason you think you will be called a “slut shamer, a cruel skeptic [and] the reason that rape victims hide their shame in silence,” Ms. Flowers, is because you are a slut shamer, a cruel skeptic, and the reason that rape victims hide their shame in silence.

Most Useless Non-Response

Sandra Shea, “Controversial Cosby Column: Christine Flowers’ Editor Speaks,” Philly.com (The Philadelphia Inquirer), 6/14/2017

The above column, about Cosby, apparently generated some angry comments. (I can’t imagine why.) The editor of the Opinion section of the Philadelphia Inquirer decided she should write a response to these comments, and it deserves special mention as a Silly Take in its own right.

Shea (the editor) describes herself as a “left-leaning, second-wave feminist, pro-choice, gun-hating editor,” and thus felt the need to justify her continued publication of Flowers, who apparently writes stuff like the Cosby column all the time. So she seeks to tell us how she “made peace with Christine Flowers.” How did she make peace with Flowers? Well:

“The Daily News, where [Flowers’] column originated, calls itself the ‘people paper,’ and was an early believer in giving voice to those usually ignored, or marginalized. And people responded to Christine Flowers’ columns. For a while, we measured that response through letters to the editor and paper sales. Now, of course, we measure digital audience, and hers remains consistently impressive. The ratio of the outraged to the grateful is usually even.”

That’s right: she makes her peace with Flowers because of clicks. This, at least, is honest, though it’s hard to say whether or not it’s defensible.

“I know she has hordes of people who agree with what she says and is grateful she has a voice as public as hers is. There are still plenty of instances when I cringe when reading her work, and if I still had the luxury of living unchallenged in my peaceful and liberal alternative universe, I would have silenced her years ago. But I don’t, and I know the universe is more complex. And besides, there’s another luxury that I find harder to live without: outrage. She provides ample opportunity for that (okay, maybe we have enough of those opportunities now) as well as a reminder that many, many people disagree with me and my views.”

Or: “I continue to give a platform to a mushy collection of incoherent rambles because people keep reading those rambles and because I like getting angry.”

But it’s the penultimate line of the piece (this ends the above paragraph) that I really want to focus on:

“But if we truly believe in democracy, all voices should get an equal opportunity to be heard.”

This is true insofar as we are talking about voting. It is asinine insofar as we are talking about being published in newspaper columns, which is, in fact, what we are talking about. Saying ridiculous and hurtful things in newspaper columns should not result in being disenfranchised, nor should it result in being prosecuted. But we are under no democratic obligation to pay people to say horrible, silly things in our newspapers.

Conversely, if you really believe this, then when’s my newspaper column in the Philadelphia Inquirer?

The Silliest Take of the Week: 6/11/17-6/18/17

Kenan Malik, “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation,” The New York Times (Opinion), 6/14/2017

“Cultural appropriation,” as a term, refers to a very complicated set of questions about cultural identity, ethical practices in the arts, and the relationships (and boundaries) between different cultural groups. These questions have attracted attention from a number of very intelligent people, many of whom have said a lot of very smart things. It has also attracted a number of goofballs from the darkest parts of Tumblr and Reddit, such that the average conversation about cultural appropriation on the Internet is a mess of miscommunication and Apocalyptic Shouting.

Not content to be outdone by angry 15-year-olds, Malik has written an article for the New York Times that purports to defend the practice of cultural appropriation, and boy howdy does it make me tired.

It opens thus:

“It is just as well that I’m a writer, not an editor. Were I editing a newspaper or magazine, I might soon be out of a job. For this is an essay in defense of cultural appropriation.”

Or: “BUCKLE UP, BUCKOS, WE’RE FLYING STRAIGHT TO THE DANGER ZONE, AND I’M NOT WEARING MY SEATBELT”

Please don’t open articles like this — it suggests that you’re doing this mostly to be a contrarian, and also implies that you have an inflated sense of your own self-importance.

Malik’s primary concern is that getting mad about cultural appropriation will create siloed, gated communities within the world, which will neither help combat racism nor create good art. A full discussion of cultural appropriation is well beyond the scope of the Silliest Take of the Week Project, and anyway, I don’t have anything terribly interesting to add. Suffice to say, however, that whatever the merits of Malik’s concerns, there have to be better ways to present them.

After mentioning that much of Elvis Presley’s fame was built on styles of music first pioneered by African-American artists, Malik asks this:

“But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle — the civil rights movement — to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.”

This is annoying and disingenuous. First of all, nobody is meaningfully “preventing” anybody from doing anything — nobody is prosecuting white people for wearing war bonnets, they’re just calling them names when they do so. Second, no reasonable person has ever suggested that calling out cultural appropriation is going to somehow end racism or fix whatever the modern equivalent of Jim Crow is. “This wouldn’t have solved Jim Crow” is true as such, but it’s meaningless as a criticism. It is possible, I promise, to simultaneously object to cultural appropriation while also campaigning to fix more foundational structural problems with America. I can complain about the fact that I stubbed my toe without somehow losing the ability to go to the doctor for my broken arm.

Malik is also worried about cultural “gatekeepers,” and analogizes thus:

“The most potent form of gatekeeping is religion. When certain beliefs are deemed sacred, they are put beyond questioning. To challenge such beliefs is to commit blasphemy.

The accusation of cultural appropriation is a secular version of the charge of blasphemy.”

Like a lot of recent writers discussing cultural appropriation, Malik focuses on a recent painting of the body of Emmett Till by a white artist, Dana Schutz. Schutz’s painting is based on a photograph of Till’s body, and some African-American artists and critics have suggested that, as a white artist, it was inappropriate for Schutz to profit from this depiction of a famous moment of African-American suffering. Thus:

“To suggest that she, as a white painter, should not depict images of black suffering is as troubling as the demand by some Muslims that Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ should be censored because of supposed blasphemies in its depiction of Islam.”

“Somebody told this white artist her work was inappropriate, and suggested the painting should be destroyed. This is just like the time a theocratic dictator put a death sentence on a guy’s head for writing a book he didn’t like.”

Malik ends this nonsense bout of false equivalences by claiming that “Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects.” That is outrageously ridiculous: even the most aggressive Tumblr warriors would never say anything like this. The criticism of Schutz wasn’t that she had the audacity to paint a black person, it was about the specific black person she was choosing to depict, and the manner in which she was depicting him.

“Cultural appropriation” is a difficult concept that lies at the center of a host of very complicated concepts. This conversation is important, and it is absolutely not helped by ill-informed, disingenuous Silly Takes like this one. Please stop publishing them.

EDIT: Immediately after posting this, I found this article by Zadie Smith for Harper’s about the Schutz portrait, cultural appropriation, and Get Out. It is very much the opposite of a Silly Take, and I wanted to highlight it as an excellent example of a piece that really digs into the sorts of questions Malik elides or mischaracterizes.

Thanks to Amanda, Tim, and Hannah for submitting Silly Takes, and I’ll see you all next week!

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