Friday, February 27, 2009

Calling a jackass a jackass

The controversy over the New York Post’s "monkey cartoon" reminded me of an odd incident from my high school English class. During a class discussion of Tale of Two Cities, one of my classmates described the scene where two characters robbed a grave, which Dickens described as "fishing with a spade." I think all of us grasped the metaphor fairly easily, so all of us were a surprised when my classmate interpreted this passage as "fishing with a black guy." This left most of us baffled, because we all had a pretty solid understanding that “spade” is a synonym for “shovel.” Most of us were apparently raised in homes without such a finely-honed knowledge of racial slurs, so about half my classmates had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. Even if you knew that "spade" is a semi-obscure racial epithet, it made no sense to take that passage completely out of context and then read in a racial interpretation of the language.

Looking back on it, there are two explanations for my classmate’s error. The first is that he had somehow managed to combine being well-read with being completely fucking racist, and "spade" had only one possible meaning to him. The second is that he was just being a jackass, and wanted to get a cheap laugh out of his buddies by sneaking a taboo phrase into the classroom. (I suppose the two possibilities aren’t exactly mutually exclusive.) In any event, he really had to go the extra mile to find attribute some racial character to an innocuous phrase.

I assume that the defenders of the Post cartoon would apply the same argument to the critics who were outraged about its racist connotations. If you think the Post cartoon was obviously just a reference to the New York police shooting a rampaging chimp, then the controversy is merely a case of people being oversensitive about what was intended as a harmless, if poorly-executed, joke. Supposedly, a reasonable person couldn't find the racial component to that cartoon unless, like my jackass classmate, you were straining to find one. Since the average American supposedly wouldn’t get how comparing a person to a monkey might have any racial connotation, the outcry over the cartoon is obviously the overblown hysteria of those damned politically-correct types.

This argument works if the reader wouldn't associate the stimulus bill with Obama, but that's a tough sell. Just about every news story characterized the bill as Obama's project, even if we know he wasn't the author in the strictest sense of the word.

Alternatively, the argument works if, for the average person, Obama's race is such a non-issue, and the use of "monkey" as a racial slur is so obscure, that the average reader wouldn't make the connection. The problem with this position is that it makes the average reader about as oblivious as the character in a scene from Clerks II. (As a warning, this video includes the repeated use of common racial epithets, and is most definitely not safe for any sort of polite company, let alone work.) In the scene, Randall repeatedly uses the term "porch monkey," sincere in his unawareness that the term is a racial epithet, while the other characters frantically point out that he's insulting every black person in earshot. The joke here is that Randall is so clueless that he never even knew the term was a racial slur and has no idea why everyone is freaking out. The humor of this situation comes from the fact that the slur is common enough knowledge that you'd think it impossible not to have picked up on the racial implications of the term.

Defending the Post cartoon relies on a Randall-esque oblivousness on the part of the authors or the intended audience. Some epithets are common enough that even if you’re not well-versed in the history of racial imagery, you have enough common sense to recognize when an image has unfortunate implications. Granted, the chimpanzee shooting was recent, and probably common knowledge on the part of New Yorkers, but since the Post reaches a national audience, the paper probably assumed a little too easily that readers outside New York would immediately think of the subway incident. Speaking for myself, I had no knowledge of the chimp getting shot -- my Google News trackers do not keep me apprised of errant monkey stories, and I tend to ignore news stories that have no chance of impacting me personally. Had I seen the Post cartoon before the public outcry over its connotations, I'd have no idea that it was referencing the chimp incident. Which would pretty much leave me with the "Obama is being compared to a chimp" interpretation, with all of its unfortunate implications readily apparent.

So, much like the case of my errant classmate those many years ago, I’m left wondering how the Post could have been this obtuse. And, just as I ultimately concluded that my classmate was just trying to get a cheap laugh out of sneaking an obscure racial epithet into the classroom, I’m pretty sure that the Post authors were jackasses -- they likely understood the potential racist undertones in the cartoon and got a kick out of trying to sneak it past the radar.

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