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An Open Letter to Time

29 Jun

by Jess

An inappropriate roof

Dear editors,

I believe I may be unclear on Time’s editorial concept for opinion pieces. I was under the impression that they are meant to add something salient and insightful to national discourse, but Joel Stein’s column “My Own Private India” seems designed to highlight nothing but Joel Stein’s racism and his self-satisfaction about it. While I appreciate being warned that I should under no circumstances attempt to, say, respect or admire or interact with Stein in any way, I didn’t think Time’s journalistic mandate involved helping me steer clear of smug bigots. If you’re planning to give print space to everyone who is loathsome so that we’ll know to stay away from them, may I respectfully submit that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? And if that wasn’t the idea, then what in God’s name was?

I confess I can’t fathom the string of editorial decisions that led to someone actually publishing this piece. Stein’s lack of self-awareness isn’t a big secret, but surely there are editors there who are supposed to keep him from embarrassing himself and the magazine. Did nobody at any point consider that “I have many racist opinions about people from India and I think these opinions are very funny” is not a Time-worthy thesis statement? I realize you’re not exactly the New Yorker (believe me, never have I realized that more keenly than I do right now) but “not blatantly and obviously racist” isn’t really a high hurdle to jump before something is considered publishable.

I suppose it’s possible that everyone on the masthead is under 20 years old, and that they therefore think flagrant racism is edgy and provocative. In that case, stay in school, guys! Don’t do drugs! And I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but racism is still a very present and destructive factor in our lives — in the lives of people like Stein, who allow their racial privilege to turn them into apparently irredeemable jerks, but more importantly in the lives of people like Stein’s Edison neighbors, who face his kind of hatefulness and disdain every day and in every aspect of their lives. Racism is edgy and funny like the Gulf oil spill is edgy and funny to a bird. You don’t get to have ironic distance on this; you’re soaking in it.

Sincerely,

Jess

(Okay, that’s what I actually wrote to Time, but now that I’m presenting it as a blog post I would be really remiss in not also linking to this post at Sepia Mutiny, which sets a new standard for quality in spluttering outrage.)

Like rain on your wedding day

2 Jun

by Jess

I’ve just gotten around to reading the profile of Andrew Breitbart that appeared in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. For various reasons I don’t want to make this an overtly political space right now (I mean party politics — for some reason it’s become a political statement to say “women, non-white people, gay people, trans people, disabled people, and fat people are all people,” and that sort of “politics” will continue to appear), and I’m definitely not interested in doing a What I Hate About Andrew Breitbart post. I object to the type of punditry that amounts to a power trip, regardless of political content, and let’s leave it at that. But I was struck by his attempt to characterize House member and renowned civil rights activist John Lewis as a racist for walking in front of people who might sling epithets at him:

A few days later, Breitbart once again went after the Congressional Black Caucus. In a Big Journalism editorial headlined “2010: A RACE ODYSSEY—DISPROVING A NEGATIVE FOR CASH PRIZES, OR, HOW THE CIVIL-RIGHTS MOVEMENT JUMPED THE SHARK,” he wrote, “It’s time for the allegedly pristine character of Rep. John Lewis to put up or shut up. If you provide verifiable video evidence showing that a single racist epithet was hurled as you walked among the Tea Partiers, or you pass a simple lie detector test, I will provide a $10K check to the United Negro College Fund.” Breitbart also described the congressmen’s walk through the crowd, “in and of itself,” as an “act of racism meant to create a contrast between the Tea Party crowd and themselves.”

Let’s get this out of the way quickly, because apparently I can’t resist trying to hit the popinjay: Breitbart says that the racial slurs never occurred, because Tea Partiers have recording devices and someone would have taped them. Evidently, in Breitbart’s mind, members of a group that openly carries racist signs would be utterly shocked and bent on discrediting at all costs members of their own group who shouted racist things. Oh, but surely they know to keep it written and photographed, not vocalized: “This is 2010. Even a racist is media-savvy enough not to yell the N-word,” Breitbart says. If you read the article, in fact, you start to get a pretty good idea how a media-savvy racist behaves in 2010.

Anyway, but what I’m interested in is the part where talking about racist catcalls — or signs, or T-shirts, or, you know, policy positions — in the Tea Party means that you yourself are a racist. We see this a lot in discussions about race: If you even recognize racism, perhaps by trying to correct decades of injustice, you are the racist one! And in other discussions: If you try to carve out a space for women or refuse to be sufficiently impressed by [BONERS], truly, the sexist is YOU! It’s not just the “the real discrimination is you discriminating against me by not allowing me to discriminate against you in this one particular instance” argument, though that’s the one I see most frequently. There is also, for instance, the pervasive meme that Democrats are all secretly filthy rich and extravagant, and Republicans are all having seamy gay affairs, and Al Gore’s house wastes tons of energy. (Grains of truth, all, but let’s leave that aside.) Oh, and on a smaller scale there’s “you accuse me of trolling because I am trolling you, but you’re being so mean to me  — aren’t you the real troll here?” As a person with very little patience for bullshit arguments or silencing techniques, I see that one a lot too.

Certainly it’s both dramatically and intellectually satisfying when our enemies can be conclusively shown to be hypocrites, and I would hate to deny the world moments like the truly epic last quote from this article. But this fixation on irony makes Alanis Morissette’s version seem smart. Wanting your dissenters to defeat themselves is the very definition of intellectual laziness. If the best you can muster is “ah, but aren’t you doing the exact same thing you just argued against?” then it may be time to come up with an argument of your own.

Sometimes people don’t become what they hate. Sometimes they just become what you hate. That’s okay — you can disagree with people without needing them to also disagree with themselves! Self-contradiction is not the only way for someone to be wrong — it’s just the easiest way, and the way that requires the least commitment from you as an interlocutor. (After all, you never have to say “I think you’re wrong” if you can make do with “you think you’re wrong.”) If someone has a decent argument and puts in a smidgen of effort, they should be able to muster something beyond “well you did it too.” If they can’t, they’ve either got nothing or they don’t care enough to bother.

(My fellow logic nerds, of course, know that I could have skipped this whole post and just said “the tu quoque fallacy: fuck that.” Then I would not have had the opportunity to ramble about shit and get that Alanis Morissette song stuck in your head, of course, and what fun is that? But because I love Latin names for logical fallacies I do want to slide this one in there.)

The eye of the beholder

17 May

by Laura

This woman is not beautiful. I mean, obviously.

Clearly a loser in the game of beauty

That’s what Fox News says! Rima Fakih (aka Miss USA 2010) is the beneficiary of “the whole PC society” that has promoted a Muslim American in a bikini at the expense of nice white ladies in bikinis. Apparently the crowning of a Muslim Miss USA is a sign of the end times to some conservatives; our all-American beauty pageants are promoting a pernicious form of affirmative action that says that women of color can be just as pretty as white women. What nonsense, am I right?

Even queer women who vote in polls on the internet know that very thin white women with long hair and slightly open mouths are the sine qua non of beauty. Especially if they are wearing no pants.

Obviously, this post has so far been a petty exercise in sarcasm. There’s something profoundly absurd in complaining that your meaningless contest to rank women according to extremely strict patriarchal beauty standards failed because it didn’t pick your idea of the prettiest woman. Clearly. But the idea that a woman who looks like Rima Fakih needs any extra help winning a beauty contest is even more astonishing. It reveals, to quote the brilliant Silvana, that

we were all the victims of a sick joke. A despicable charade where so much is demanded of women, so much compliance and poking and prodding, so much effort to make ourselves beautiful and radiant and perfect, so much forcing of square pegs into round holes, just so we could meet it all, do it all, get close to the apex of perfection and still be worth nothing.

Apparently Rima Fakih is also suspect because she once won a faux stripping contest in which she wore substantially more clothing than she does in the above photo, which is officially commissioned by the pageant. In other words, here is a woman who has devoted herself to the male gaze so effectively that she is both a prize fake stripper and Miss USA — but in so doing, she has revealed too much of her own effort, since the only way you win at the beauty game is to hide all the effort you put into it. As a woman of color, Fakih’s effort is always visible, because current beauty ideals are racialized. Thus we get notable minds such as Fox’s Gretchen Carlson (herself a former beauty queen) complaining that the Miss USA contest is rigged. Rigged, I tell you!

Look: there are no contests that are not rigged for somebody or other. And most of them are rigged in favor of people who are already winning. The world of official beauty is so damnably narrow that Rima Fakih is seen as an obvious outlier by some people, who either don’t realize or don’t care that they are revealing themselves as stone cold racists. And it’s so damnably narrow that I’m tempted to celebrate Fakih’s win as a thumb in the eye of the beauty standards, even though she looks like she stepped right out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.

You might have heard of the current MoMA exhibit of performance artist Marina Abramovic — and if you haven’t, bear with me for a sec. I haven’t seen this exhibit in person (though Jess has!), but it has resulted in a photo gallery of many, many people gazing enraptured at Abramovic’s face. When I first saw some of these photos online, I was mesmerized, too, because I had forgotten that faces could be so different. Of course I see people in my everyday life who look very different from movie stars and models, but I’ve been trained — and you have too — not to look at them too long, not to spend time gazing at their not so beautiful faces. Abramovic’s work, by contrast, features a concentrated gaze that is available to anyone who wants it (and for some, that is apparently an intensely emotional experience). And it turns out that people are really wonderfully diverse in their beauty, not because of some affirmative action of sentiment but because that’s what people look like.

Holding contests to rank women on an absolute scale of beauty is an absurd exercise, the sole purpose of which is to enforce a certain ideology of beauty. Of course, for the Rima Fakih haters, that’s not a surprise, but rather the acknowledged goal, and that’s why to them crowning a Muslim woman as Miss USA, no matter how nubile and light-skinned she may be, is an outrageous and obvious offense. If white people can’t even win beauty pageants hands down, then how can they keep convincing themselves of their natural superiority to all people of color?

Right.