The Clickbait in Our Language

I.

I asked my friends a little while ago collect racist Trump quotes. I got a lot of links, and of course they were all pretty horrible because saying horrible things is, along with going bankrupt and landing on his feet, Trump’s metier. But although Trump is clearly xenophobic and anti-Muslim, it’s hard to catch him being overtly racist. On the other hand, he sure sounds racist.

This article  for example, called Trump out for saying “the blacks” (“I have a great relationship with the blacks”). If he’d said “I have a great relationship with black people” or even “I have a great relationship with blacks,” Politico would have left it out. But he used a definite article and so said something identical in meaning but sounding weird and kind of old-fashioned, which then sounds racist. “The blacks” is what your great-uncle Jimbo would say; none of your friend would say that!xxtrumpler

We all know that most linguistic taboos are shibboleths to signal ingroup status and/or bids for power. Trump’s failure to keep up with evolving tumblr norms is hardly evidence that he’s racist.

(The claim that Trump keeps a book of Hitler’s speeches “by his bed”I tend to dismiss because:

  1. keeping a beloved book by your bed or under your pillow is an old topos, but is rarely supposed to be taken literally. In the earliest occurrence I know of, Plutarch asserts that Alexander the Great keeps a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow, which I find suspicious when you consider how bulky a scroll would be required; people ever since have slept with or near books more in metaphor than in reality.
  2. Trump doesn’t read books.)

Trump’s main villains, Mexicans and Muslims, aren’t races. They are, of course, groups who tend to be composed largely although not exclusively of “brown people” (as we say nowadays, using a term that twenty years ago would have gotten as sideeyed in progressive circles as Trump’s “the” does today). It possible to draw a schematic in which Trump is using racist metonymy, but these groups also model as (although not in all cases being) “foreign”; and it’s weird that Trump, who has such a “great relationship” with other races, such as “the blacks,” would choose to be so selective in his hatred of “brown people.” It’s less weird for Trump to be xenophobic (since no one, I think, thinks he isn’t.)

But there’s another schematic, in which racism is a complicated set of institutionalized power dynamics; Trump elects to reinforce these power dynamics by targeting marginalized groups and thereby perpetuating a system of privilege that preserves racial inequality. I’m not saying I agree with this view fully, but it does help explain why Trump comes across as racist without making me feel like I only think he’s racist because I’m a snob and he’s “trashy.” xxdukeThe problem is that if you want to prove to your great-uncle Jimbo that David Duke, for example, is racist, you can point to his Klan Wizard character sheet; if you wanted to prove that Strom Thurmond was racist, you could point to his long support of segregation; if you want to prove that Trump is racist, though, you need to send Jimbo to get a master’s degree in sociology.

886825Trump may be racist and he may not be racist, but there is a weakness in presenting his cryptoracism in the same breath as the racism as David Duke. One is obvious (although Duke unpersuasively denied it); the other is  a Shakepearean anagram, a result that is present but only possibly relevant.

But who cares about weaknesses? Calling Trump racist is somewhat close to the truth, and also exciting!

II.

I recently read an article calling out the Kipling’s Jungle Books for being “imperialist garbage.” If you strip out the pulse-pounding title and the self-righteous posturing, the writer still makes her point, after a fashion, but the point is: It is possible to construct a reading of The Jungle Books that presents them as a racist and colonialist narrative. Yeah, a lot of things are possible.

xxjumboBut it’s hardly the most obvious or striking part of the book. In a world of Tarzan and Sheena and Bomba and Nyoka, Mowgli’s is first and foremost a jungle story with a native hero; reimagining it as an allegory in which Indians are whites and animals are Indians is convoluted.

I’m not here to defend Kipling’s writing (I do that over here), life, or attitude. But The Jungle Books, specifically, are 95% about not imperialism. I can see how an I.A. Richards-style close reading of text could unearth hidden messages therein. I can see how your dissertation on Said might inform your reading of Kipling’s presentation of India. You could send Uncle Jimbo to get a master’s degree in English, but if you don’t, your insistence on forcing Kipling’s text to subvert itself will seem somewhere between misguided and silly.

I keep seeing this, though: a more-or-less tortured extraction of meaning from a book or movie followed by a complete dismissal, as though one possible “bad” reading was all it took. “I figured out a way to read things so that they seem safe and understandable” is perhaps the truest gloss in most cases. And the reading isn’t exactly wrong, is it? It’s pretty close to right, and much more fun!

III.

Fifteen years or so ago, when everyone was talking about Jack Chick, I , too, used to talk about Jack Chick; and one thing everyone was saying, in passing, was that Jack Chick was racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic (at the time, the progressive consensus was that anti-Semitism was bad). None of these charges are false, exactly, but they are all correct in such different ways as to be misleading.

  • Jack Chick is homophobic in the sense that he believes gay people are evil predators who should be actively persecuted. 4940141-supp
  • He’s sexist in the sense that he supports traditional gender roles.
  • He’s sort of anti-Semitic in the sense that he thinks all Jews are damned, although he’s also a pro-Jewish and pro-Israel Zionist who believes anti-Semites are literally cursed by God. (The tract “Support Your Local Jew”, later retitled “Love the Jewish People” (I’m not making this up), is his work.) index
  • He’s sort of racist in the sense that he does not support the destruction of entrenched structures of privilege.

Chick would openly say “I can’t stand gay people” (he may or may not phrase it more politely); he would be horrified if you suggested he similarly couldn’t stand “the blacks,” say. His best artist and long-time collaborator, Fred Carter, is black. Trying to explain privilege theory to Jack Chick is an unenviable task.

xxchick

Fred Carter art

Trying to explain queer theory would just have Chick nodding his head and saying, “Yes, yes, I know all that. They’re sinners. Haw haw.”

Equating Chick’s racism to his homophobia is so far off base as to be irresponsible. Remember, this is someone who tried to be pro-Semitic by saying “support your local Jew”; this title is as tone deaf as Trump’s “the blacks,” but it’s not irony, and Chick is no ironist; he means it literally. He’s not going to know the latest way to signal his racial tolerance. He’s too busy writing a comic that associates homosexuality with incest, drugs, and, most puzzlingly, torture/murder.

xxchick4

 

IV.

It can be hard to guess what will come across as sensationalistic. When unprincipled P.I. William Dear investigated the disappearance of the drug-addicted suicidal gay child The_Dungeon_Masterprodigy James Dallas Egbert in 1979, he chose to emphasize only that Egbert played Dungeons  & Dragons! This stroke of genius made Dear’s fortune (Egbert’s story has a less happy ending).

If our goal is precision, then we have this problem of language, that it has no resources to distinguish between Chick the pro-Semitic anti-Semite and someone who’s “traditionally” anti-Semitic.

Even where these distinctions once existed, the cultural momentum is to erode them; the word sexist has been replaced with misogynist in online discourse. There’s a clear value in distinguishing a sexist like Jack Chick or Uncle Jimbo from a misogynist like Dave Sim or the Roosh, but if we call Chick misogynist, as we would nowadays, we lose this distinction. It’s easy enough to craft an argument that even so-called benevolent sexism is at its root misogynist, but obscuring roots and branches is hardly clearing things up for anybody.

image004.gifI was confused, last year, by a friend talking about Trump courting white supremacists. White supremacist had been, in my experience, a term for a small, marginal subset of racists, the Stormfront skinhead  contingent. I was somewhat behind the times, and didn’t know that white supremacist just meant, in this context, someone who thinks Latinos belong to gangs. This is bad, but it’s hardly the same (in terms of numbers, or the Overton window) as glorifying Hitler and fantasizing about racial purges. (Ultimately Trump would also (tepidly) court literal white supremacists, which is a weird thing for a presidential candidate to do, but that happened later on.)

If our goal is precision, I said above. But our goal is never precision. The suicide rate in 1980 (when Egbert ultimately died) especially among young gay men and drug addicts would have offered an enterprising crime writer any number of sad cases to write about, but Dear called his book The Dungeon Master and put a maze on the cover and got famous with a hit book that unfortunately came out too late to tie into the Tom Hanks TV movie Dear’s press releases indirectly inspired. (His more recent work includes O.J. Is Guilty but Not of Murder 220px-MazesMonstersVHSCover.jpgand O.J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It. Little trouper never stops trying.)

We recognize what Dear is trying to do, just as we recognize why an article about the Jungle Book is going to use the phrase “racist fuck” in the title. There are many ways of baiting for clicks, but throwing out the most sensationalistic lure is a tried and true one. A meteorologist gets handed a sweater on air and Jezebel decrees: “Shoulders and Arms Are Now Illegal in the State of California.” That’s not true, of course, but it hints towards something that happened, which is close enough. It sure is exciting, though! Dear and Jezebel have an exciting game going; if only we could play along.

We can, of course, and we always do. I understand the desire to tar people we don’t like (such as Trump, or, for me, William Dear) with the worst word we can find, which is why we consistently call Orson Scott Card a “moral monster” for supporting Obama’s position on gay marriage slightly longer than Obama himself. (I’m aware that I just said that in a way that is misleading and inflammatory but not exactly wrong; I should make it a headline.) Calling Trump a racist is a fun shortcut; calling him a white supremacist is even better. Similarly, calling the Jungle Books colonialist garbage is a quick and forceful way of saying that you are uncomfortable with Kipling’s politics.

Without straining the analogy to clickbait headlines too much, we can still see the price we pay for this bit of fun. The more people you call white supremacists the more you debase the coinage. If Trump is a white supremacist, what is David Duke? What is Timothy McVeigh? Number three will no longer surprise you. My jaw no longer dropped.

Presumably our goal is, at least overtly, not to normalize behavior we disagree with. Let’s hope our goal is also not to create a linguistic slurry in which meaning is subordinate to demographic signaling. Let’s hope we’re at least trying.

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