Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Reading

Phil Robertson’s America — Ta-Nehisi Coates on the world as seen by Duck Dynasty.

I’ve yet to take in an episode of Duck Dynasty. I hear it’s a fine show, anchored by a humorous and good-natured family of proud Americans. I try to be good natured, and I have been told that I can appreciate a good joke. I am also a proud American. With so much in common, it seems natural that I take some interest in the views of my brethren on the history of the only country any of us can ever truly call home:

I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field …. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word! … Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.

That is Robertson responding to a reporter’s question about life in Louisiana, before the civil-rights movement. I am sure Robertson did see plenty of black people who were singing and happy. And I am also sure that very few black people approached Robertson to complain about “doggone white people.”


That is because governance in Phil Robertson’s Louisiana was premised on terrorism. As late as 1890, the majority of people in Louisiana were black. As late as 1902, they still lived under threat of slavery through debt peonage and the convict-lease system. Virtually all of them were pilfered of their vote and their tax dollars. Plunder and second slavery were enforced by violence, as when the besiegers of Colfax massacred 50 black freedmen with rifles and cannon and tossed their bodies into a river. Even today the Colfax Massacre is honored in Louisiana as the rightful “end of carpetbag misrule.”

The black people who Phil Robertson knew were warred upon. If they valued their lives, and the lives of their families, the last thing they would have done was voiced a complaint about “white people” to a man like Robertson. Ignorance is no great sin and one can forgive the good-natured white person for not knowing how all that cannibal sausage was truly made. But having been presented with a set of facts, Robertson’s response is to cite “welfare” and “entitlement” as the true culprits.

The belief that black people were at their best when they were being hunted down like dogs for the sin of insisting on citizenship is a persistent strain of thought in this country. This belief reflects the inability to cope with an America that is, at least rhetorically, committed to equality. One can clearly see the line from this kind of thinking to a rejection of the civil-rights movement of our age:

Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” [Robertson] says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

This is not just ignorance; it is a willful retreat into myth. And we must have the intellectual courage and moral strength to follow the myth through. If swindlers, goat-fuckers, and gay men are really all the same—disinherited from the kingdom of God—why not treat them the same? How does one argue that a man who is disfavored by the Discerner of All Things, should not be shamed, should not jeered, should not be stoned, should not be lynched in the street?

Further retreat into the inanity of loving the sinner but hating the sin—a standard that would clean The Wise Helmsman himself—will not do. Actual history shows that humans are not so discriminating. Black people were once thought to be sinners. We were rewarded with a species of love that bore an odd resemblance to hate. One need not be oversensitive to be concerned about Phil Robertson’s thoughts on gay sex. One simply need be a student of American history.

It’s An Outrage — In a new book The Outrage Industry, Jeffrey M. Barry and Sarah Sobieraj examine the growth of right-wing journalism and how it went out of control.

Fire and brimstone political inflammation was first brought to mainstream American media by a Catholic priest, Charles Coughlin, who captured the rapt attention of an estimated third of the country during his radio show’s peak in the 1930s. Remarks such as “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing” remind us that the vitriolic personalities we know today are not the first of their kind. And yet, Coughlin’s work came long before outrage could be understood as a genre.

For his time, Coughlin was more aberration than exemplar. American mass media have not always delivered an abundance of such voices. The new popularity of today’s outrageous political personalities comes in the wake of a golden age of journalism when the most visible voices in political television were known for their sobriety rather than their sensationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s political information was dominated by the three broadcast networks and the leading newspapers, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which reached new heights in the quality and depth of reporting. Although news gathering by such organizations today is undertaken with leaner staffs and budgets than in the 1980s, the spirit of the work done in large conventional news organizations creates a product that remains profoundly different from the political information circulated by the colorful giants of political opinion media.

It may seem unfair to draw this contrast—there is, after all, an important, if blurry, distinction between news and opinion and people certainly still get news from traditional news organizations. Access to conventional political reporting has become ever easier in the Internet era and more people today read content produced in a newspaper newsroom than at any time in American history. But political news and commentary must be discussed side-by-side as both make up vital pieces of our broader political curriculum via the media, and the information, arguments, and stories presented in both venues work their way into public political discourse, becoming part of the cultural landscape even for those who do not tune in directly.

Political news and commentary were born and remain in dialogue with one another. While it is not necessary to revisit the entire history of American journalism, we see the history of network news as a particularly important point of reference for placing contemporary political commentary in context. Unlike early American newspapers, which were born teeming with opinion and persuasive content (having pre-dated our socially constructed notions of journalistic objectivity and, indeed, pre-dated even our notion of journalism), broadcast news was mindfully presented as unbiased from the outset. This attempted objectivity had little to do with the new medium but rather reflected a complex history of postwar anxieties about the use of newspapers as political tools. Journalists and editors began to frame their profession in general, and news products in particular, as objective in order to build their credibility. This commitment to neutrality was then canonized through the growing ranks of journalism schools, professional associations, and awards, most notably, the Pulitzer Prize. In the process, value-neutrality became not only the hallmark of high-quality news but also a requirement for ethical reporting. This objectivity imperative transferred to both radio and television news.

Carl Hiaasen — Silent Flight

An absolutely true news item: The Federal Communications Commission is considering a rule change that could allow airline passengers to use their cellphones during flights.

Good morning, everybody, and welcome to Jet Miserable. Please take your seats as quickly as possible so we can close the cabin doors and be on our way.

I see that many of you are already taking advantage of our nonstop cellphone connectivity, but please give me your full attention for a few moments.

Hello? Hey, look this way! See my arms waving?

Ok, I’ll crank the volume and try again: YO, MOTORMOUTHS! LISTEN UP!

That’s better, thanks.

While major airlines such as Delta, JetBlue and Southwest have decided to remain cellphone-free, we here at Jet Miserable have dedicated ourselves to you, the obnoxiously talkative traveler.

Please hang up and take a break — HEY, PADRE, THAT MEANS YOU! TELL THE ARCHBISHOP YOU’LL CALL HIM BACK! — while I review the new safety procedures and regulations.

If for some reason the plane loses cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically drop from a compartment above your seat. Before strapping on the mask, you must first stop talking and put down your cellphone.

Let me repeat: The oxygen mask is not designed to fit over your mouth, nose AND phone. If you’re traveling with children, gently pry their phones away from their faces before attaching the breathing masks.

In the event of an emergency that requires a water landing, let me remind you that your cellphone is not a flotation device. I don’t care if you spent $79 on a waterproof case — let it go, people, and use the seat cushion.

As a convenience, Jet Miserable has divided the cabin into separate sections, according to the various ways our passengers like to use their cell phones. Please check your boarding passes now to make sure you’re seated in the right place.

Rows 25 to 30 are reserved for those needing a little extra privacy, such as dope dealers, Ponzi schemers, mob bosses, undercover cops and anyone who’s in the middle of breaking up with somebody else.

Rows 20 to 25 are designated for our anxious flyers who are constantly on the phone with incredibly tolerant family members. If you check the seat pockets on those rows, you’ll find reassuring statistics about the safety of air travel, along with some useful tips on the appropriate dosages of your favorite sedatives.

If you’ve flown with Jet Miserable before, you know that the middle section of the aircraft, Rows 10-20, is always set aside for our loudest, rudest, most unbearable passengers.

I can say that over the intercom because they’re all babbling on their phones again, totally ignoring me.

Doonesbury — Not ready.

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