Brief Reflection On #CancelColbert

28 Mar

What most agitates me about this brouhaha is that it already happened on a somewhat smaller scale last October when The Onion took a far more provocative stab at satirizing the same guy with essentially the same joke.

I have an acute memory of noticing The Onion’s inflammatory headline in my twitter feed the morning the article was posted. And I remember immediately taking a depressingly sibylline inventory of who would be dripping with scornful outrage, who would be saying “I appreciate your concerns but I’m also okay with this style of humor,” and who would use it as an occasion to indulge their gluttonous appetite for cruelty by gleefully antagonizing vulnerable people.

Dan Snyder—the intended target of the lampoon—and his qualitatively more egregious offenses were secondary here because they’d already been etched into the national conversation. Already at that juncture, as per our discursively preoccupied political culture, it would feel redundant for bloggers and tweeting micropundits to keep up visible apoplexy over Snyder. In the realm of social media, even the squares and politically apathetic old people were more-likely-than-not to have already gotten wind of the debate over a football team’s beloved racist iconography and taken a fixed position on it.

The appearance of antisemitic language on the homepage of a smart and increasingly leftist (fake) news outlet with considerable cachet, however, was striking—and it was something new to talk about.

On the woefully fissiparous Left, riven more than ever by the growing fashionability of neo-Mau Mauer posturing via twitter and tumblr—what, for better or worse, Mark Fisher has dubbed the Vampire Castlewe know what happens when a proud Castlevanian catches sight of a hip publication stepping into the ambit of a controversy and onto terrain that, prima facie, bears any resemblance to The Wrong Side. Namely, she perceives an opportunity to assert her social media-anchored, outrage-fueled identity. (Often, said identity is imbued with some quantum of careerist ambition: it’s hard not to see Suey Park, whatever her merits, in this light.) If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck—viz. the kind of duck that makes cavalier use of ethnic slurs—then there will be a widespread impulse on the cultural Left to seize on it full bore, even if it seems obvious that any intelligent person (and I’d never dispute that the Castle crowd is generally a bright one) would have to squint and plug their ears to maintain the conflation.

The truth hiding in plain sight is that in neither this instance nor yesterday’s Colbert controversy has the energy investment on display in the social media blow-up been easy to square with how one imagines a seriously committed activist would spend her time in the struggle against racism in American society (a manifold phenomenon, to be sure). Listen, I know what concern trolling is. But the disparity here between any serious triage of racist injustices and what thousands of twitter activists apparently deem worthy targets for hours of teeth-grinding dissent and resistance is so immense that it’s amazing one has to point it out at all.

Accordingly, I judge this intervention to be much too long already (and myself to be more bound up with Castlevania’s social ecology than I’d like to admit). That said, I won’t pretend I’m entitled to a posture of repose, as one sitting in judgment at a healthy distance above the fray—as if I didn’t also reflexively fall into one of the three predictable camps, as if being Jewish really allows me to have no stake whatsoever in prominent appearances of antisemitic language—so I’ll lay my cards on the table directly (even though you’ve already correctly placed me in your own mental inventory): both times I found the over-the-top style slightly grating, but wholeheartedly appreciated the spirit of the satire. I think it made better use of the same caustic outrage at injustice it inevitably attracted. And regardless of what might be problematic in this position, it bears asking why a position on something so relatively trivial should matter so much on the Left.

Update: The extraordinary traffic this post has generated with scarcely any self-promotion (and the giddy buzz said attention ineluctably generates in even the most staid blogger’s ego) inclines me to believe my cynicism is well-founded: that is, outrage-oriented “twitter activism”  primarily runs on attention-seeking and careerist brand-building desires. Enlightened thirst for justice and political change are indisputably in the mix, much in the same way that Jason Newsted’s bass tracks are indisputably in the mix on Metallica’s …And Justice For All album

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