The Gag Reflex

No one gagged – but this is Hollywood. Everyone is exempt from everything out here in Hollywood, where every day the Spiderman impersonator chats with the guy dressed as Jesus, in front of the Chinese Theater, across the street from the Hooters and the old Masonic Temple, where Jimmy Kimmel tapes his show each day, late in the afternoon, even if it’s supposed to be “Live from Hollywood” – but no one really cares. It airs the same day. That’s close enough. Rules and conventions are noted out here, and used as key plot devices in every screenplay ever written, but out here they’re just raw material – something to riff on, a curiosity. And that makes Hollywood a place that’s once-removed from the rest of America, a place where our culture kind of stands off to the side and looks carefully at itself, a bit bemused. That 1939 movie with Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler fussing and feuding, and Tara and the Civil War and all that, where Atlanta burned, spectacularly – which was, as much as anything, an examination of the heart and soul of the South – was shot at the old MGM Studios down in Culver City. The true nature of things becomes clearer from a distance, but then there’s actually living here, day in and day out, at a certain distance, an ironic distance actually, from what everyone else takes so very seriously. Being exempt from that can be a problem. It’s too easy to assume that, because no one takes certain things seriously here, that no one takes them seriously everywhere else.

No one gagged when they saw us, the interracial couple leaving the Korean restaurant, the white guy and the black woman – but we’re old friends from way back, and this is Hollywood, and it’s not like this was a funky counterculture thing. Hell, she’s a lawyer who used to be a corporate human resources director, who now consults on labor law. We’re both kind of boring actually, each in our own way. That’s why that disembodied voice from the crowd was odd – “Man, that’s a beautiful thing to see!”

We both laughed, because there was nothing to think about really, one way or the other, at least out here. This is where everyone is exempt from the racial stuff too – that’s for the deep and meaningful movies they churn out, year after year, at the major studios, over the hill or down in the flats. You know those movies – the noble white guy stands up for the opposed black man, saving the black man, or if not, saving his own soul. Atticus Finch lives – that movie was the template. If white folks want to feel good about themselves, as seems to be the case, Hollywood is happy to oblige, and take their money. So that voice from the crowd was just a kook shouting out – and probably not a local – but no one gagged either. Why would they?

Ah, but Hollywood is not America. This is meta-America, a superset of commercially useful ideas about America, one level above the thing itself. It’s just that those of us who have lived here for twenty years sometimes forget the thing itself, which can lead to some surprises, and one of those just popped up in the Washington Post. Richard Cohen offered his commonsense perspective on the newly elected mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who is married to a black woman and has two biracial children:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled – about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York – a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts – but not all – of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

Yes, Bill de Blasio, won in a landslide – and he’s Sarah Palin’s worst nightmare, not a Real American at all. He’s not only a city boy, through and through, but look at the pictures – he’s a rather pleasant and calm and reasonable white man, happily married to a quite attractive black woman, with a drop-dead gorgeous mixed-race teenage daughter and a poised and handsome teenage son, who proudly sports a big Afro haircut worthy of Jimi Hendrix or Angela Davis, with his father’s obvious approval. It’s no big deal, and yes, Republican heads are exploding – but Cohen argues they’re not racists, really. They gagged, but it’s more generalized than that.

Richard Cohen obviously doesn’t live in Hollywood, which makes it hard for him to step back and look at things from a distance, and particularly hard for him to look at racial matters here in America. The week before Cohen also wrote a column about a hot new movie12 Years a Slave – and he was impressed. That movie really opened his eyes, because he had never before realized that “slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks” – like in the 1939 movie with Scarlett and Rhett perhaps. Everyone should go see it. Who knew?

Actually everyone knew, and he was ripped to shreds in the media for that comment, and rightly so. Cohen actually should have written about what was really new about the new movie. Hollywood, this time, offered no noble white guy who stands up for the opposed black man, saving that black man, or if not, saving his own soul. This black guy, smart as a whip and noble all on his own, saves himself, breaking all the Hollywood rules. White folks don’t get to feel good about how noble and good they are, not this time. Atticus Finch finally died.

There’s a pattern here. In July, Cohen wrote another column on race – you see, George Zimmerman was justified to be suspicious of that unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, because Martin’s hoodie was a “uniform we all recognize” – and you shoot people in that criminal uniform – but that has nothing to do with race. Everyone should calm down. That whole thing wasn’t about race, really – young black kids, those who aren’t criminals, should wear something else. It’s that simple.

Maybe this is conventional wisdom, something the Washington Post likes to put on their op-ed page as a kind of culture comfort food for readers distressed by this current event or that. Richard Cohen offers a big bowl of warm and gooey mac-and-cheese for lunch on a cold and dismal day, but ThinkProgress offers a long list of this guy’s problematic commonsense comfort food, including these tidbits:

Cohen’s race problem dates back to 1986, when he defended store owners banning black boys from their places of business. For fear of crime, you see. The black community launched a massive wave of protests, the Post’s executive editor apologized, and even Cohen later admitted his critics were “mostly right.” …

He’s all over racism against white people – or, as it’s more commonly known, affirmative action. Because “for most Americans, race has become supremely irrelevant” [and] “it was not racists who were punished [by affirmative action] but all whites.” …

In his column defending Roman Polanski, he refers the 13 year old girl who the filmmaker raped after deliberately getting drunk as a “victim” (his quotes). Cohen concluded that there was “something stale about the case” and that he “dearly wishes the whole thing would go away.”

The Steubenville rape case was a “so-called” rape and more a matter of “decency” than criminality. It was also Miley Cyrus’ fault. …

In 2005, his column blamed the spread of AIDS on “not only reckless but just plain disgusting” behavior by gay men. “It is the determination of some gays,” Richard Cohen determined, “to disregard all the rules for safe sex because being gay, they think, means you don’t have to follow any rules at all.”

Anticipating the charge of victim-blaming, Cohen wrote that “sometimes the victim needed to be blamed. This is the case now with gays when their behavior is both stupid and reckless.” No other causes of the spread of the plague beyond the perfidy of gays go mentioned in the piece. …

His 2009 column on Obamacare isn’t about healthcare reform so much as how much healthcare reform bores Richard Cohen. “For me, health-care reform is Missiles Redux – specifically the Reagan-era disputes over SS-20s and such.” Cohen complains about being “expected to know something about such matters, being a Washington columnist and all, but I could never keep the damn terms and numbers straight.” So he just throws up his hands: “The Soviet Union collapsed anyway.”

That’s just a part of the ThinkProgress survey of this man’s conventional wisdom and common sense, and the whole thing, with links to all the items cited, is rather damning, but Fred Hiatt, the guy in charge of the Washington Post’s editorial page, jumped in and righteously defended Cohen’s current column – but Hiatt said that he could have edited it “more carefully” of course:

Anyone reading Richard’s entire column will see he is just saying that some Americans still have a hard time dealing with interracial marriage. I erred in not editing that one sentence more carefully to make sure it could not be misinterpreted.

People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex? He’d change a few words, but it’s too late now, and Hiatt maintains that Cohen is a fine fellow, and his heart is in the right place. Cohen also defended himself in a Huffington Post interview – he’s not a racist, and it really hurts to be called one, and, by the way, most of the Tea Party crowd aren’t racists either, just a few of them, so everyone should calm down, and get off his case.

Maybe, but at Slate, J. Bryan Lowder looks at the details of the Cohen column:

The offending paragraph is embedded in a longer segment about the mindless, reactionary social conservatism of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats and how nasty their insurgence was for a more moderate Democratic Party back in the 1948 election. Cohen calls the similarities to contemporary tea-partying Iowans “ominous,” and warily eyes the trenchant, anti-modern (and politically costly) attitude that can emerge when a group of people perceive their “way of life under attack and they [fear] its loss.” Now, it’s true that he doesn’t condemn this faction as forcefully as he might, but my takeaway from the piece as a whole was that Cohen is none too pleased with what their ascendancy bodes for mainstream conservatism.

So far so good, but not quite good enough:

Of course, a few highly ambiguous phrases (that probably should have been edited out) in the “gag” sentence make this reading harder, but let’s try. “Conventional” is the most unfortunate word choice, with its connotations of “common sense,” “widely shared,” or “unremarkable”; as many critics have already pointed out, studies show that disapproval of miscegenation is none of those things today. But recall that Cohen has been describing a limited, if still very much extant, mindset that (he at least wants us to believe) is not his own; in that worldview, dislike of interracial marriage is very much conventional, as is dislike of former lesbians – these are literally the conventions of that social group.

Lowder wants to cut Cohen some slack, but the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps because he’s black, or maybe because he’s just sentient, is not as forgiving:

The problem here isn’t that we think Richard Cohen gags at the sight of an interracial couple and their children. The problem is that Richard Cohen thinks being repulsed isn’t actually racist, but “conventional” or “culturally conservative.” Obstructing the right of black humans and white humans to form families is a central feature of American racism. If retching at the thought of that right being exercised isn’t racism, then there is no racism.

Context cannot improve this. “Context” is not a safe word that makes all your other horseshit statements disappear. And horseshit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed.

There’s no forgiving this:

Richard Cohen’s unfortunate career is the proper context to understand his column today and the wide outrage that’s greeted it. We are being told that Cohen finds it “hurtful” to be called racist. I am sorry that people on the Internet have hurt Richard Cohen’s feelings. I find it “hurtful” that Cohen endorses the police profiling my son. I find it eternally “hurtful” that the police, following that same logic, killed one of my friends. I find it hurtful to tell my students that, even in this modern age, vending horseshit is still an esteemed and lucrative profession.

Other than that, it was a fine column, although Heather Parton (Digby) has a real problem with Cohen’s core contention, that the Tea Party crowd isn’t really racist:

It’s just that they want to throw up at the sight of interracial marriage and biracial kids, especially when one of the Negroes in question is a deviant. And can you blame them? Their world is changing and it’s upsetting to them. Look at their president. He’s one of them. It’s enough to make them projectile vomit just thinking about it. What could be more conventional than that?

We should feel sorry for them. Back in the good old days we had Operation Wetback and Jim Crow and we made little children participate in religious ceremonies for their own good. This was before Big Government decided that the “avant-garde” had all kinds of special rights. They’re understandably upset because there are only so many rights to go around and every “right” assumed by these other people is a right that’s taken away from conventional people who deserve them. Why they hardly have any rights left at all.

Thank goodness we have compassionate, understanding liberals like Richard Cohen out there explaining their needs and wants to the avant-garde (even though they hate him too.) Where would they be without friends like him?

She’s not happy with all of this, but she writes from Santa Monica, not all that far from Hollywood. Out here, not out there, we are removed from the “conventional” and exempt from much of its passionate nonsense. We just look on, and make movies about it, and as for Cohen being a compassionate, understanding liberal, Salon’s Alex Pareene clears up a few things:

Here in the real world, in 2013, the vast majority of Americans “approve” of interracial marriage. Majorities have approved since the mid-1990s. Seventy percent of people over 65 approve of black-white marriage. The “conventional” view, now, is that multiracial families are normal. “People with conventional views” are much more appalled by unreconstructed racism than by seeing a white man and a black woman raise a family together.

Keep in mind, Richard Cohen is only in his early 70s. He is in his early 70s, and he is from New York City. He is a secular liberal Jewish New Yorker who was in college, in New York City, at the height of the counterculture and New Left and civil rights movements. He did not grow up in the South during Jim Crow, or the lily-white rural Midwest. New York is one of the few American states that never even passed an anti-miscegenation law. If movies are what it takes for Richard Cohen to learn to see people of other races as human, I can only wonder why he didn’t see “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which came out while he was attending Columbia University.

Yes, that 1967 film might have been useful – Spencer Tracy, in his last role, plays the white father who somehow learns to accept the idea of a black son-in-law, played by the immensely dignified Sidney Poitier, who, in the movie, is a hotshot doctor for UNESCO or something, not some street thug. The movie was, however, quite daring for its time.

Richard Cohen must have missed it, which leads Pareene to offer this:

The trouble with [Cohen’s controversial] paragraph is the use of the word “conventional” instead of, say, “retrograde” or “archaic” or “racist.” What kind of mind, and person, says “conventional” there? What kind of mind, and person, just automatically thinks of “conventional” “people” as reactionary, racist whites? Neutral, normal people, for Cohen, are always reactionary whites; remember how black kids in hoodies are wearing a “uniform we all recognize”? That “we all” there was doing the same work the “people with conventional views” is doing here. Those choices reveal a man very much out of touch with this era and deeply discomfited by it. (They also reveal a man who is terrified of black people.)

That can mean only one thing – this man wants to be fired:

Richard Cohen is begging, perhaps subconsciously, to be bought out and allowed to retire. Today it’s obvious that whoever edits him has the same desire. I’m not sure how someone other than Cohen could have looked at this column and thought that “people with conventional views” was a normal, acceptable way of describing a minuscule minority of racist white Americans. Please, Jeff Bezos, take heed. People with conventional views – people with conventional human empathy – must repress a gag reflex when reading nearly anything Richard Cohen writes.

Jeff Bezos, the man who invented and now runs Amazon, did just buy the Washington Post, and Matthew Yglesias offers him some advice:

I’m not sure what, if anything, Jeff Bezos will do to try to turn around the financial fortunes of the Washington Post. But Richard Cohen’s column today suggests one small step that the owner of the daily paper in a majority-black city could take – reconsider whether regularly publishing racist op-ed columns is a wise business strategy.

The blogger BooMan also has a suggestion:

This bit of cultural wisdom was offered, mind you, as part of an explanation for why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will have difficulty attracting the support of Iowan conservatives should he seek to compete in their presidential nominating caucuses. It’s not immediately obvious why Chris Christie will be punished for the New York mayor’s miscegenation, nor is it clear why Iowa was singled-out as the home of the neo-Dixiecrats. But this is what happens during the Tertiary Stage of syphilis. People stop making sense, and they may even begin blurting out racially insensitive remarks that have no logical or temporal connection to anything.

I recommend that Cohen pursue a prolonged treatment of intravenous penicillin, followed by a comfortable retirement. Watching the cap on his career is more painful than prolonged exposure to Charlie Sheen.

BooMan also agrees with Yglesias and Pareene:

The Washington Post’s habit of providing lifetime sinecures assures that even once-decent columnists will eventually sully their names and destroy the paper’s reputation, because public dementia and writing opinion columns are two things that do not go together.

And Richard Cohen has not been a decent columnist for at least thirty years. Somewhere, there is a pasture calling his name.

That’s harsh, but this is a tragic story in some ways, or a comic one, which means that it might make a good movie. Someone out here should start working on the screenplay this week – The Richard Cohen Story: Befuddled in America – but then it’s unlikely any studio would green-light production. There may be no audience for such a thing. Still, this is Hollywood – meta-America, that superset of commercially useful ideas about America, one level above the thing itself – and looking at all this from a distance, and exempt from the rules about what’s supposed to make conventional people gag, some studio could make something of this, and make some money. It would sure beat another Spiderman movie, and that Spiderman impersonator chatting with the guy dressed as Jesus in front of the Chinese theater is pretty damned irritating. He should get a real job. So should Richard Cohen.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Gag Reflex

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    Great post, Alan. One of your best.
    It is further proof, if any was needed, that Washington, D.C. — Our Nation’s Capital — is not a great cosmopolitan city, but is still a provincial southern village. Sad.

  2. Rick says:

    Alex Parenne:

    “I’m not sure how someone other than Cohen could have looked at this column and thought that ‘people with conventional views’ was a normal, acceptable way of describing a minuscule minority of racist white Americans.”

    Okay, I’m apparently way off the reservation today, but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about.

    Granted, I didn’t have time to read Cohen’s full column, but the excerpt you presented does not seem all that racist to me, in that he seems to be describing somebody else’s point of view, which is not necessarily his own. Yes, he probably slightly overstates the case when he calls these conservative views “conventional”, but it can’t be THAT miniscule a segment of the population if many if not most of those who oppose Obama are widely speculated to be doing so on secret “racist” grounds.



    “Thank goodness we have compassionate, understanding liberals like Richard Cohen…”

    Huh?!? In what universe is this guy a “liberal”? His history — defending racist shop owners, defending Zimmerman, blaming the 13-year-old rape “victim” (in quotes) of Roman Polanski — doesn’t paint him as an “understanding liberal”. In fact, where’s the evidence of him ever writing anything even vaguely liberal? (Yeah, I suppose maybe one could cite his comments on Israel, but you find liberals and conservatives on both sides of that issue, so that doesn’t really ever count.)

    But whatever. Sometimes I think all my fellow liberals have a screw loose and it’s somehow got itself wedged up their collective ass.

    In fact, here’s Josh Marshall on this:

    As you can see, it’s more of the same. I mean, I really like and respect Josh Marshall and Digby and those others, but I just pretty much disagree with them on this.

    For example, Marshall says, “Given Cohen’s history of racially charged columns, Cohen seems to have a thing for transgressive racial comments…” If this is true — and I suspect it is — then, once again, in what way is Cohen a liberal? If he were a liberal, he wouldn’t HAVE a “history of racially charged columns”.

    Okay, I guess I need to go read Cohen’s whole column. Be right back.

    Okay, I’m back, and having read it, I reiterate:

    Cohen was not giving his own views, he was talking about other people, just as you, Alan, sometimes start talking all ironical, in the voice of people you disagree with.

    When Cohen spoke about “People with conventional views”, he was not saying their views are actually conventional, he was saying that these people think their views are “conventional”. Maybe he should have put that in quotes, or maybe used the word “traditional” in its place. And when he says they “must repress a gag reflex”, he wasn’t saying they’re justified in doing that, only that they feel that way.

    In fact, while I gather that this guy (who I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of before) occasionally writes some pretty outrageous things — and which, from what I read in his Wikipedia article — favored the Iraq War; called the prosecution of Scooter Libby “political” — puts him at least slightly over to the right. This particular column seems pretty unoutrageously analytical, leaning neither right nor left, most of which I agree with — which once again leads me to ask, so what’s the big whoop?

    And, by the way, I repeat my previous expressions on whether or not the Tea Party folks are racist or not. Maybe some of them are, but I think anyone who states categorically that they are all a bunch of racists (along with those who claim Tea Partiers are stupider than the rest of us, when surveys show, counter-intuitively, that they’re actually better educated than most people) is probably missing what they are all about, and would also have to explain the popularity among the Tea Partiers of Herman Cain, Alan West, and that foot-in-mouth black surgeon who Fox News is always having on to talk about Obamacare, the name of whom constantly escapes me.

    In fact, the Tea Party seems to count way more prominent black people among their numbers than the whole Democratic Party does. Not that I think that’s important, but there’s obviously some irony in that.


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