“Saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”

A century or so ago, G. K. Chesterton said “Journalism consists largely of saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.”  Social media has made that sort of journalism a pastime in which all of us may share.

On 12 June, the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a part-time college instructor named Rachel Dolezal, a person whose name, up to that point, may perhaps have been known to as many as 200 people outside the Spokane area, was revealed to be a white person passing for African American.  Suddenly, Ms Dolezal became the most discussed person on Twitter and Facebook.  Melissa Harris-Perry conducted a not-unsympathetic interview with Ms Dolezal, setting off a secondary social media firestorm from people upset with her for granting Ms Dolezal a platform.   Countless right-wing voices equated Ms Dolezal’s “transracialism” with the lives of transfolk; some right of center pundits showed themselves surprisingly perceptive in critiquing this equation.   Lefties objected that Ms Dolezal’s behavior trivialized the oppression that African Americans suffer.  Some expressed that objection in a gentle way (see Keith Knight’s cartoon on the subject,) some in an angry way (see Tak Toyoshima’s cartoon,) and some with frank mystification (see Andrew Stewart’s essay.)  Left, right, or center, gentle, angry, or confused, no one seemed to be able to keep quiet about this person who had been so obscure so short a time before that some commentators who had already said a great deal about her had the sudden, uncomfortable realization that they’d never actually heard her name spoken aloud.

One of the reasons so many rightists were eager to make a connection between Ms Dolezal’s racial passing and transgenderism was that the same US media that suddenly filled with Ms Dolezal’s story last week had, the previous week, been dominated by coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she no longer wished to be known as Bruce.  Most of this coverage had been quite celebratory of Ms Jenner as an individual and ostentatiously supportive of transgenderism in general.  Many social conservatives were upset that something which they regard as so unwholesome was receiving so much favorable publicity.  What struck me as strange was the fact that the long-retired athlete formerly known as Bruce Jenner was receiving so much publicity.  After all, the last newsworthy thing she did was win a track and field competition in 1976.  I suspect that if you had asked a thousand Americans, a couple of months ago, what Bruce Jenner was up to, the most common reply would have been “Who’s Bruce Jenner?”  Certainly everyone under 40 would answer that way, unless their parents were antique dealers specializing in old Wheaties boxes.  The second commonest reply would probably have been “Didn’t he die years ago?”   All I can figure is that someone decided it was time to have a major transgender celebrity, and if the best they could come up with was a minor celebrity from decades ago, they would build that person up with all the force they could muster.

Day before yesterday Ted Rall wrote an essay on this general topic of “celebritization.”  It begins: “Even if you’re a news junkie, you probably never heard of Dave Goldberg or Beau Biden before they died. Yet both are at the center of a national mournathon.”  That’s a bit of an exaggeration; as a military lawyer, Beau Biden was deployed to Iraq in October 2008, while his father was running for vice president, and that was very big news at the time.  Granted, that was almost seven years ago, but I think most people who were paying attention to that campaign would remember it.  Certainly it would be at least as fresh in the public memory as the 1976 Summer Olympics!  And Dave Goldberg’s firm SurveyMonkey, which Mr Rall calls “a relatively obscure Silicon Valley startup,” has been a significant part of life in the Acilius household for several years, since Mrs Acilius is a sociologist who uses SurveyMonkey all the time.  Still, it’s true that not a particularly large percentage of the US population were in a position to have experienced the deaths of either Beau Biden or Dave Goldberg as a personal loss.

Mr Rall goes on:

What’s weird – and make no mistake, it really is strange – is to see the deaths of unknown people elevated to national events simply due to their relationship with the rich and famous. If Biden died, I’d expect a state funeral. Sandberg merits an eighth of a page obit. Biden’s son and Sandberg’s husband? Not so much.

Until 2014, high profile deaths followed high-profile lives. Now, you don’t have to accomplish anything, at least anything that makes a public impact, to be grieved by the public.

[snip]

If you want to be sad about someone you never knew about, much less knew, that’s your business. But I’ve got a question for you: when the celebrities go on and on and on about how fabulous the dead man or woman in question was, how on earth do you know if any of it is true?

I’d put the sudden celebration of the, until then, long-forgotten Ms Jenner and the outrage over the, until then, totally obscure Ms Dolezal in the same category as the mourning over Messrs Goldberg and Biden.  I’m inclined to be happy that so many people responded to Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction of herself to the world with warm expressions of support for transfolk, but how can we take those expressions seriously when they are bound up with the patently false idea that Bruce Jenner was still famous as late as this year?  I’m inclined to share the concerns that left of center commentators have expressed about Ms Dolezal’s performance of race, but how seriously can we hope that public understanding of those concerns will deepen when they are attached to a figure whose prominence is so obviously ephemeral?

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What are political parties for?

Click on the image below to see Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles in readable form.

This suggests a different view of US politics than did one of his recent (th)ink comics:

The whole premise of the first comic that the Republicans and Democrats in official Washington might be expected to “solve America’s problems.”  I see no evidence that either party is interested in doing anything that could meet this description.  On a whole range of issues, the two parties are much closer to each other than either is to the mainstream of US public opinion.  In regard to trade policy, tax policy, health care, foreign policy, labor law, immigration, etc, the two parties represent a coordinated program to subsidize capital ownership and penalize wage labor.

The premise of the second comic is that the Republicans’ main goal is to attack the Democrats and that there is no point in the Democrats’ attempts to work with them.   If this is true, and if it is also true that the Democrats represent something good, then a Democratic leader who said that his or her party’s chief goal was to rid Washington of Republicans  would not be neglecting “America’s problems,” but tackling one of America’s biggest problems.   I don’t doubt that Knight sincerely believes that that Republicans are hopelessly bad, and that the Democrats are far better.  I am surprised that he doesn’t accept that Senator McConnell and his supporters are equally sincere in the contrary belief.

Funny Times, June 2010

They haven’t posted the cover for this month’s Funny Times online yet, so I’ve put up this Keith Knight cartoon with a link to the magazine’s homepage. 

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” quotes Emile Capouya on the high school teacher’s mission: “A high school teacher, after all, is a person deputized by the rest of us to explain to the young what sort of world they are living in, and to defend, if possible, the part their elders are playing in it.”  That’s one of many reasons I rejoice in not being a high school teacher. 

Matt Bors wonders what people really mean when they say “teach the controversy.” 

Zippy the Pinhead wishes he could to travel back in time to the year 1885.  He changes his mind when a disembodied head with a neatly waxed mustache announces that in that year, “schoolchildren were routinely flogged, pigs ran loose in th’ streets, and heroin was sold over the counter as ‘cough medicine.'”  In related news, I now wish I could travel back in time to 1885.   

Click on the image to the left to see a genuinely funny installment of This Modern World from April.   

Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown calls on the state of Virginia to “Let Confederate History Month be the festival of self-loathing it should be.”  I hold no brief for the Confederate States of America or for Virginia’s official commemoration of it, but I’m decidedly against all festivals of self-loathing.  For one thing, self-loathing usually seems to be a form of narcissism.  That same cartoon shows how that is.  Dangle depicts a bunch of yahoos waving Confederate flags and exclaiming “We used to own human slaves.”  Well, they didn’t, did they.  Perhaps their great-great-great-grandparents owned human slaves, but a great-great-great-grandparent is after all a very distant relative.  Beating yourself up over the misdeeds of someone so remote is merely a way of keeping attention focused on oneself rather than others.  If your ancestors created a system that continues to privilege you and to do injustice to groups of which you are not a member, staging a festival of self-loathing may be the very worst thing you can do.  Your privilege puts you in the spotlight, your self-loathing just keeps you there.

Terrible Freedom

Yesterday’s Ferd’nand strip:

Ferd'nand, 16 March 2010

I wrote something here several weeks ago remarking on a tendency I’ve observed in myself.  I’ve often thought that the reason I’m more relaxed outdoors in a natural setting than inside my apartment or my office is that when I’m in a space that belongs to me, my eye constantly lights on things I might control, or that I have controlled, or that I should control.  There’s the computer; I might control that, and do any number of things.  There’s a bookcase; I bought those books and put them into order on the shelves.  There’s a pile of papers; I should file them in an orderly way.  Outdoors, I see the trees, the soil, the sky; they get along quite all right without my control.  I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who is bothered by an urge to take control of my environment, to put things in order.   

Here’s an xkcd from a couple of weeks ago:

xkcd 706

This also reminds me of something I’ve observed in my own psychology.  Many years ago, I was in the dentist’s chair, having a cavity filled.  They didn’t give me one of those contour pillows that usually cradles your neck at the dentist’s.  I became aware that I could, if I wished, turn my head abruptly to one side or the other and cause myself great pain.  Not that I wanted to do that, of course, but the sensation of freedom, the realization that nothing was stopping me from doing that, was quite unsettling.  Back in 2007, Keith Knight did a whole cartoon about just this point:

Click for full size

One of our first posts on Los Thunderlads was a link to this strip.  That post is titled “The Imp of the Perverse,” a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s story of the same name.  Poe’s story includes these paragraphs:

We have a task before us which must be speedily performed.  We know that it will be ruinous to make delay.  The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action.  We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire.  It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow; and why?  There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle.  To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay.  This craving gathers strength as the moments fly.  The last hour for action is at hand.  We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us, – of the definite with the indefinite – of the substance with the shadow.  But, if the contest has proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails, – we struggle in vain.  The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare.  At the same time, it is the chanticleer-note to the ghost that has so long over-awed us.  It flies – it disappears – we are free.  The old energy returns.  We will labour now.  Alas, it is too late!

We stand upon the brink of a precipice.  We peer into the abyss – we grow sick and dizzy.  Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger.  Unaccountably we remain.  By slow degrees our sickness, and dizziness, and horror, become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling.  By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape, as did the vapor from the bottle out of which arose the genius in the Arabian Nights.  But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape, far more terrible than any genius, or any demon of a tale, and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror.  It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height.  And this fall – this rushing annihilation – for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination – for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it.  And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the more impetuously approach it.  There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him, who shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a plunge.  To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot.  If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

Examine these and similar actions as we will, we shall find them resulting solely from the spirit of the Perverse.  We perpetrate them merely because we feel that we should not.  Beyond or behind this, there is no intelligible principle.  And we might, indeed, deem this perverseness a direct instigation of the Arch-Fiend, were it not occasionally known to operate in furtherance of good.

I’m no psychologist, but I wonder if there is a connection between the urge to take control of our environment that makes Ferd’nand unable to rest if he can see his unmowed grass and untrimmed hedge-row and the impulses Knight, Poe, and xkcd’s stick figures who enjoy math describe.  Seized by the imp of the perverse, we might find ourselves doing any of an endless list of things.  If we act “merely because we feel that we should not,” there is no telling what we might do.  Likewise, at the first moment we are seized by the urge to take control of our environment our subsequent behavior is highly unpredictable.   If we act merely because we feel that we should, we confront a list of possible actions that is just as endless as the list of things we should not do. 

Not only do the imp of the perverse and the urge to take control of our environment resemble each other in that we become unpredictable when we first succumb to either; they resemble each other also in their characteristic outcome, which is that we accomplish nothing.  Occasionally the imp of the perverse may lead us all the way off the precipice, all the way to punch the other person, all the way to scream from the audience during the stage play; but far more often we simply shift in our seat, uncomfortable to recognize such an urge in ourselves.  And occasionally the urge to take control of our environment will lead us to complete one task after another and put a space into good order; more often, I would say, it distracts us from each task, preventing us from completing anything satisfactorily.

Venue

Keith Knight’s latest K Chronicles cartoon:

Some recent comments by Barack Obama, and a little joke about them:

In an interview with NBC News, Obama said those offended by the legal privileges given to Mohammed by virtue of getting a civilian trial rather than a military tribunal won’t find it “offensive at all when he’s convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.”

Obama quickly added that he did not mean to suggest he was prejudging the outcome of Mohammed’s trial. “I’m not going to be in that courtroom,” he said. “That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury.”

 The president then elaborated: “I’m not going to be on the jury that will report its guilty verdict at 3pm on September 11, 2010, nor will I be the one who administers the lethal injection that will kill Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a week before Election Day 2012.  I used to teach constitutional law, so I can tell you that it would be a violation of due process for me to do those things.”   

In fact, I do believe that they can find an impartial jury in New York City.  I would go so far as to say that Manhattan is probably the one place in the USA where it would be easiest to empanel twelve jurors who can judge the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on its merits.  That’s not only because the island is a bastion of liberalism, but also because the further you go from Ground Zero the more Americans you find who feel they have to prove that 9/11 was an event in their own lives and not just something they saw on TV.  If as Knight sarcastically suggests they did set up a temporary courtroom on the former site of the World Trade Center, the attacks would have a definite reality for the jurors- they would be real events, with specific causes, specific consequences, specific forms that could be examined empirically.  Go a thousand miles away, and the attacks become a symbol with an infinite variety of overpowering emotional associations.  That’s part of the reason why the Bush-Cheney administration had an easier time using the attacks to sell its agenda to voters far outside of New York than to those in the city in those first years of the “War on Terror.”

Funny Times, November 2009

funny times november 2009The highlights from recent editions of Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird include a story from the  30 August collection about an alternative lifestyle catching on in Japan.    Some Japanese men and a few Japanese women have taken to carrying dolls around with them and identifying these dolls as their significant others.   One man “said he would like to marry a real, 3-D woman, ‘but look at me.  How can someone who carries this doll around get married?”  The 6 September collection included this story under the heading “can’t possibly be true”:

The August issue of Gourmet magazine highlighted the apparently high quality of sushi prepared and sold at a BP gas station near the intersection of Ridgeway and Poplar in Memphis, Tenn. A sushi chef works on-site and reportedly sells 300 orders a day. [Commercial-Appeal (Memphis), 7-23-09]

This issue includes some jokes that are old, but genuinely funny.  For example, “Planet Proctor” includes these old warhorses:

“If you try to fail and you succeed… which have you done?”

“The Tao does not speak.  The Tao does not blame.  The Tao does not take sides.  The Tao has no expectations.  The Tao asks nothing of others.  The Tao is not Jewish.” 

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” column preserves some funny lines this month as well.  From William “Blackie” Sherrod, “”If you bet on a horse, that’s gambling.  If you bet you can make three spades, that’s entertainment.  If you bet cotton will go up three points, that’s business.  See the difference?”  From C. Wright Mills, “Nobody talks more of free enterprise and competition and of the best man winning than than the man who inherited his father’s store or farm.”  From Ambrose Bierce, “Finance is the art or science of manging revenues and resources for the best advantage of the manager.”  Bierce’s point is made more emphatically by Fred Schwed: “A out-of-town visitor was being shown the wonders of New York’s financial district.  When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor.  He said ‘Look, those are the bankers’ yachts.  And over there are the brokers’ yachts.’  The naïve customer asked ‘Where are the customers’ yachts?” 

M. D. Rosenberg makes some points.  For example: “Whenever someone says, “I’m not book smart, but I’m street smart,” all I hear is, “I’m not real smart, but I’m imaginary smart.”  And something I’d never thought of: “I wonder if cops ever get pissed off at the fact that everyone they drive behind obeys the speed limit.”  Also a question that I’ve been trying to answer for the last few decades, “How the hell are you supposed to fold a fitted sheet?”  I’ve seen it done- I saw my mother fold a fitted sheet neatly, so that it looked like it did when it first came out of the package.  That was in 1977.  She hasn’t done it since, and I’ve never come close.   

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Car Violence

Keith Knight is writing about Los Angeles (the city he’ll soon be leaving, perhaps for Seattle), but might be writing about any number of places in the USA.  Including, unfortunately, Seattle.  

keith-knight

Keith Knight quotes a figure from American history

rustin1

Funny Times, December 2008

currentcover_small0812I’ve never objected to corny jokes, and this issue includes quite a few.  The corniest are to be found in Richard Lederer‘s “Blessed be the Children,” a collection drawn from his “Revenge of Anguished English” of startling things children have said about religious topics.  Some of the funniest:

A teacher was explaining the story of Noah and his ark to her young students.  She asked the class if they thought Noah did a lot of fishing during the Flood.  “No,” said a bright boy, “he only had two worms.” 

A woman was trying hard to get the catsup to come out of the jar.  During her struggle the phone rang so she asked her four year old daughter to answer it.  “It’s the minister, Mommy,” the child said to her mother.  Then she added, “Mommy can’t come to the phone right now.  She’s hitting the bottle.”

A friend of mine took her four year old daughter to a baptismal service at her church.  Later that night, her daughter took all of her dolls into the bathtub with her and held her own “baptism.”  As she dunked each doll under the water, she repeated, “Now I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and hold your nose.” 

These may be true stories, they may not be.  It scarcely matters.  One case where it does make a difference is the first item on the list:

A little boy’s prayer: “Dear God, please take care of my daddy and my mommy and my sister and my brother and my doggy and me.  Oh, and please take care of yourself, God.  If anything happens to you, we’re gonnabe in big trouble.”

If you actually heard a little boy saying this prayer, it would be very funny.  But it sounds so much like a joke a preacher would make up to open a sermon that the phoniness gets in the way of the laugh. 

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” column has some good quotes on the topic of work.  Robert Benchley: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to bedoing at the moment.”  Benchley made this claim decades ago, but in the last 12 years the world’s bloggers have established the truth of it beyond doubt.  Don Marquis: “When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him ‘Whose?'”  Well, ask away- I doubt you’ll get much of an answer.  Robert Frost: “By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be the boss and work twelve hours a day.”  Lane Kirkland: “If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.” 

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Funny Times, November 2008

Many columns and cartoons this month ridiculing Wall Street and its enablers in Washington for the financial meltdown and the bailout that followed.  The “Minister of the Treasury of the Republic of America” joke email is included.

“Curmudgeon” gives a series of quotes about gluttony, fatness, and dieting.  The best is a line from P. G. Wodehouse: “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.'”

Keith Knight asks how the corporate media would treat Sarah Palin if she were black anda Democrat.  Here’s his scenario: