The Breath of the Dragon

California seemed like a good idea at the time, 1981, and Manhattan Beach was cool, in its funky way, but it wasn’t a serious place. A few years later it was a condo in Culver City, not far from the old MGM studios – but MGM peaked in 1939 when Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz were both in production at the same time, on opposite ends of the lot. It was downhill from there, and what used to be MGM Studios is now Sony Pictures – but they got hacked by the North Koreans, for a rather sloppy movie that made fun of their Great Leader, and Sony may never recover. Everything about how they ran the place, and what they were planning, and all the financials, became public, and they haven’t built themselves a secure new computer system yet. They were politically incorrect, as the North Koreans saw it, and they paid the price. Sony will probably sell the place – the parent corporation in Japan will cut its losses – and Culver City will get even shabbier. It is just strip malls and low stucco apartment buildings.

After Culver City it was San Pedro – the gritty little city down at the Port of Los Angeles, across the water from Long Beach. That place was actually “authentic” – a town of stevedores and longshoremen, with a small fishing fleet too. No one was pretending to be anything but what they were, and the wife was finishing up her degree at Long Beach State, so it was convenient, and the rents were cheap. But of course the marriage ended – these things happen – and it was off to Hollywood, the center of everything, or at least the center of popular culture, such as it is, in the western world. Tourists from all over the world come here to stare at the bronze stars in the sidewalk and ride around in little open busses to see the homes where the stars live, or where they died. John Belushi died from a drug overdose in a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, just down the street here. Does that mean something?

After more than twenty years here the answer is obvious – no – but Hollywood can seep into your thinking. This seems to be a place perpetually consumed with deciding who’s hot, and who’s not – for financial reasons of course. Hollywood markets personalities. Talent is secondary, if it’s necessary, but lack of discernable overwhelming talent never stopped, say, John Wayne. One only need be iconic, but icons keep shifting, mysteriously. Paris Hilton was hot, and then she was a joke, and now she’s mostly forgotten. Kim Kardashian will always be a joke, but she somehow remains iconic, to some. This is a mystery, but in 1963 Jack Landis came up with the Q Score – the first careful statistical measurement of familiarity and appeal, broken down demographically, and the next year set up his firm by Marketing Evaluations, Inc. These things can be measured. That’s where the money is.

That’s not how people in Hollywood think. The Q Score was always secondary information, because everyone knows who’s hot and who’s not. Any Brit in Hollywood is automatically hot – maybe it’s the accent – and the hottest Brit in Hollywood right now is Benedict Cumberbatch – who’s popping up in everything. He’s now Alan Turing breaking the German Enigma Code and winning World War II for us, and on television, Cumberbatch is currently the new BBC Sherlock Holmes – not the American one where his Watson is a strong and smart and gorgeous Chinese-America woman – and through motion capture he’s Smaug – the deadly and flamboyant dragon in Peter Jackson’s latest three Hobbit movies. Cumberbatch can do anything, brilliantly. Everyone loves him. He’s the go-to guest on all the late-night shows.

That might change, because being politically incorrect in Hollywood, and maybe everywhere, can ruin everything. Smaug the Dragon can say anything Smaug wants. Dragons don’t care about hurting your feeling – they actually enjoy it – but Cumberbatch only plays a dragon in the movies. Cumberbatch has to watch what he says:

Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch has apologized for calling black actors “colored” during an interview on PBS’ Tavis Smiley Show. The remark came up during a conversation with “The Imitation Game” star about the difficulties black actors face working in his native Britain versus in Hollywood. “I think as far as colored actors go, it gets really different in the U.K., and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the U.K., and that’s something that needs to change,” he said.

Cumberbatch was immediately criticized for his use of the outdated term – with a spokesperson for anti-racism group Show Racism the Red Card telling The Independent: “Benedict Cumberbatch has highlighted a very important issue within the entertainment industry and within society. In doing so, he has also inadvertently highlighted the issue of appropriate terminology and the evolution of language.”

Show Racism the Red Card? What’s this, a soccer game? Never mind. Cumberbatch apologized:

I’m devastated to have caused offense by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done. I can only hope this incident will highlight the need for correct usage of terminology that is accurate and inoffensive. The most shaming aspect of this for me is that I was talking about racial inequality in the performing arts in the U.K. and the need for rapid improvements in our industry when I used the term.

I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have. I apologize again to anyone who I offended for this thoughtless use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects friends of mine and which I care about deeply.

That’s a pretty good direct apology. At least he didn’t give the standard American political apology – “I’m so sorry that you were so stupid and pathetically oversensitive that you were offended by the totally innocent and quite true thing I said, so maybe I should have said it a different way, but it’s still true and you’re still a fool.”

Everyone is used to that, so this was refreshing, but it might have been ironic. Something else was implied. I was using the currently outmoded terminology? What are you people, crazy? Weren’t you listening to what I was saying? Pay attention, folks!

That was only implied. He’s a Brit after all – the actual meaning is always in the irony – so Lanre Bakare in the Guardian explains things for us:

This is what he said (minus the offending “colored” bit): “a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in America] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change”.

In other words, one of the most successful actors of the last five years is calling for change in the clearly biased industry in which he operates. Cumberbatch was adding a rare white voice in support of the growing number of black actors who are trying to encourage change in a sector which sorely needs it, yet seems incapable of achieving it without relentless pressure and coercion.

Bakare then launches into a discussion of the efforts of individual black actors trying to drag Hollywood into the real world, where Cumberbatch is their ally. It’s a sad story – but we’re used to movies where the heroic white savior, like Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, swoops in to save the black man, who has a minor role, really. Atticus Finch doesn’t succeed, but he tried. He was a good man.

That sort of thing gets a little tiresome. Cumberbatch agrees. He was just saying it’s even worse in the UK than it is here. Oh well. He apologized anyway. It’s what one does – but political correctness is tiresome too.

The odd thing is the same day brought us Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine saying that very thing – in almost five thousand words of argument and example framed this way:

The recent mass murder of the staff members of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was met with immediate and unreserved fury and grief across the full range of the American political system. But while outrage at the violent act briefly united our generally quarrelsome political culture, the quarreling quickly resumed over deeper fissures. Were these slain satirists martyrs at the hands of religious fanaticism, or bullying spokesmen of privilege? Can the offensiveness of an idea be determined objectively, or only by recourse to the identity of the person taking offense? On Twitter, “Je Suis Charlie,” a slogan heralding free speech, was briefly one of the most popular news hashtags in history. But soon came the reactions (“Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie”) from those on the left accusing the newspaper of racism and those on the right identifying the cartoons as hate speech. Many media companies, including the New York Times, have declined to publish the cartoons the terrorists deemed offensive, a stance that has attracted strident criticism from some readers. These sudden, dramatic expressions of anguish against insensitivity and oversensitivity come at a moment when large segments of American culture have convulsed into censoriousness.

After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned. Some of its expressions have a familiar tint, like the protesting of even mildly controversial speakers on college campuses. You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California–Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). Or when protesters at Smith College demanded the cancellation of a commencement address by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, blaming the organization for “imperialist and patriarchal systems that oppress and abuse women worldwide.” Also last year, Rutgers protesters scared away Condoleezza Rice; others at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam; and those at Haverford successfully protested ­former Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who was disqualified by an episode in which the school’s police used force against Occupy protesters.

And there’s this:

At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach “trigger warnings” to texts that may upset students, and there is a campaign to eradicate “microaggressions” – or small social slights that might cause searing trauma. These newly fashionable terms merely repackage a central tenet of the first p.c. movement: that people should be expected to treat even faintly unpleasant ideas or behaviors as full-scale offenses. Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody-Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students. UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas. These sorts of episodes now hardly even qualify as exceptional.

Chait ends with this:

That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.

That leaves out many thousands of Chait’s words, but something odd is going on here, and Betty Cracker at Balloon Juice tries to distill this down to its essence:

Chait divides libtards into two camps: Radical leftists (black hats!) who are the intellectual heirs of Marx; these social justice warriors infest Tumblr and other platforms and try to win the day by shutting down opponents. The second group, Classic Coke liberals (white hats!), are the heirs of Enlightenment traditions. These free speech advocates try to win through application of reason.

This is how Chait puts that:

Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach.

DAMN the internet, but Jia Tolentino at Jezebel sees more:

I have to say, I disagree. Pedants aren’t cool. Literally nothing less cool than popping up into someone’s Twitter mentions and being like, “Uh, I believe that your casual use of ‘balkanized’ was a microaggression towards people whose families may be actually dying from sectarian violence in 2015, and not to be grammatically ablest, I think you put a colon where a comma needs to be.”

I mean, what is more “The Worst” than that – a 4700-word column by a liberal white man about the dangers of political correctness on one of the biggest magazine platforms in the country? Not even. Twitter pedants are THE WORST.

But the point that Chait is deliberately missing for the sake of his argument is that there’s a significant difference between people who combine progressive priorities with a great love of being offended as well as absolutely no sense of what matters in terms of the real world of action and structural discrimination … and the far larger and more consequential group of people with progressive priorities who are, at base, willing to hear why other people feel hurt.

The former category exists mostly on the internet; the latter contains multitudes of people with legitimately differing values who continue to engage in the relationship between popular nomenclature and real-life power dynamics with good faith despite – as Chait says, and perpetuates – everything about this process being exhausting…

But Chait’s whole point is that liberals have to do the exhausting stuff, because liberals are the good guys who are tempted to try to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, on principle. The conservatives don’t give a flying-fuck about hurting anyone’s feelings – consider Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party, and Dick Cheney, and so on and so on. They were the ones who we always screaming about political correctness – angry they couldn’t use the word Nigger anymore and whatnot. They were Smaug. Chait thinks liberals have to learn from them:

Political correctness is a term whose meaning has been gradually diluted since it became a flashpoint 25 years ago. People use the phrase to describe politeness (perhaps to excess), or evasion of hard truths, or (as a term of abuse by conservatives) liberalism in general. The confusion has made it more attractive to liberals, who share the goal of combating race and gender bias.

Liberals were attracted to a very BAD thing:

Political correctness is not a rigorous commitment to social equality so much as a system of left-wing ideological repression. Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism. Indeed, its most frequent victims turn out to be liberals themselves.

I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind.

Fine, but what does that matter? Salon’s Joan Walsh has a few things to say about all this:

Chait is over the terms “mansplaining,” “whitesplaining” and “straightsplaining,” as he thinks they’ve become efforts to silence or subdue men, whites and straights. He hates the whole concept of “micro-aggressions,” and I will admit here, I have my own ambivalence about the term: There ought to be a better word for the myriad slights from white people that undermine people who aren’t white. The label mocks itself; if they’re really “micro,” shouldn’t we be spending our time on our bigger problems? Like so much rhetoric from the left, it’s best used preaching to the choir: I’m not sure anyone who isn’t already comfortable with the notion is going to have his or her mind opened by it.

But in his obsession with attacking ideas like “micro-aggressions,” Chait seems unaware that what he is seething about is just his own version of a micro-aggression. Because, really: If you want to dismiss the necessary project of making white people aware of their own racial subjectivity, and privilege; if you want to reduce that project to its smallest and most easily mocked components – well, you’re as fragile a flower in your own way as the women you criticize.

Maybe Chait is whining here, and there’s this:

There’s the debate over the best way to protest the Charlie Hebdo attacks. While Americans on the left and right were united in revulsion and outrage, it’s true that a division within the left opened up about the slogan “Je Suis Charlie.” Some people wanted to be able to express outrage at the violence without having to identify with the magazine, which sometimes seemed to punch down at France’s lower-income, marginalized Muslim community.

Of course, nobody of any stature was defending the attacks on Charlie Hebdo; they were merely reserving their own right to protest in the way they thought made sense. It seems to me another form of political correctness to suggest that if you wouldn’t declare “Je Suis Charlie” you were insufficiently devoted to the cause of free speech.

She sees her friend has produced a muddle here:

Chait says a few things I agree with, including this: “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree.” And yet I fear that in his revulsion at what he sees as a p.c. backlash, he’s going in the other direction, using ridicule and righteousness to mock ideas he doesn’t like. I wouldn’t charge him with trying to make his opponents “afraid to disagree,” as I don’t think that’s his goal. But the tone of outrage and even disgust isn’t marshaled in order to change their minds, either. …

I’m not prepared to dismiss Chait as hopeless, or put him in the enemy camp, though we mixed it up over his last opus on race and politics. I think he’s been wounded personally in some of these scuffles over race. And I understand: I write as someone who’s also been scuffed up in these sorts of battles. I’ve lost friends, or “friends,” over these issues, and it has sometimes been painful. But I decided I had more to learn than to complain about, and I’ve hung in there, not ready to equate attacks on me with an attack on free inquiry, or on liberalism itself. I hope Chait comes around.

He may, but then there’s the Rude Pundit:

Inside and outside the college campus, one reason why people dig in and call out every instance of potential offense is that it’s a way to have some power in a time when power is being consolidated by fewer and fewer members of society. You might not be able to vote some sexist asshole out of office because you can’t afford a Super PAC, but if, say, Todd Akin says something about “legitimate rape,” you can make his life a living hell, for good reason. Speech in this way is an equalizer. Hashtag advocacy may seem facile, but its potency cannot be denied. And if you have carved out a space where your voice matters, like the classroom or a Facebook group (one of which Chait describes), then you are going to defend that, sometimes even to excess. The solution would be more power in general going to a more diverse and larger group of people, in our politics, our business, and our lives.

Chait didn’t consider that. That’s only 164 words but may get to the heart of the matter. There’s a reason people are upset by blunt talk, usually meant to wound as much as explain, or by Benedict Cumberbatch using that outmoded “colored people” terminology. There’s seldom if ever a way for most people to talk back, as if they matter, because, structurally, they don’t matter. And you want to talk back, to engage the issue. Tell so and so that they shouldn’t say that thing, or not that way, and tell them why. That’s not telling them to shut up. That’s challenging them to go all the way with their convictions, if they dare. In fact, that is a dare. That would open things up, not shut things down. Chait has it all backwards.

Of course Benedict Cumberbatch did apologize, even if it was with a hint of a wink and nudge, but that’s the problem. Chait is wrong. Political correctness isn’t the problem. Apologies are. And here is Hollywood Cumberbatch is hot at the moment. Everyone knows this. An apology wasn’t necessary. An explanation was. Yeah, but who can explain Hollywood? After more than twenty years here it’s still a mystery.

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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 Breath of the Dragon

  1. You’ve got me thinking in circles on this one, and I appreciate it. There really are no right answers, but I certainly prefer apologies, explanations and mistakes as fodder for wild debate across all dinner tables each evening — and am grateful my small role in this over exposed world holds no reason to have a camera in my face during my evening meal!

  2. Rick says:

    I have a hard time making sense of the disagreement between Joan Walsh and Jonathan Chait.

    I finished reading all this Chait stuff, and found absolutely nothing to disagree with. Am I missing something? Am I like all those conservatives who watched “All In The Family” and thought Archie Bunker was the hero of the piece?

    In any event, I am an old fart liberal, which may be why current campus ideas like “micro-aggressions” leave me “macro-annoyed”:

    “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I — one example of many “perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.” A theater group at Mount Holyoke College recently announced it would no longer put on The Vagina Monologues in part because the material excludes women without vaginas.”

    The main problem with college students, bless their little hearts, is virtually none of them have yet reached the age of twenty-five, an age biologists tell us the brain has fully developed. Not that that disqualifies them from expressing their opinions, it’s just that it cautions us to take those opinions with a grain of salt. And I suppose we shouldn’t even be discussing brains, since that thoughtlessly excludes all those who don’t have them, but you just know that any student who protests a professor’s correcting a student’s spelling of the word “indigenous” with an uppercase “I” is an Idiot, spelled with an uppercase “I”.

    I bet that Benedict Cumberbatch, in the confines of his own mind, didn’t really use the word “colored”, I bet he was thinking “coloured”, he being British, which should excuse him at least partially from committing a mostly American speech-crime. They seem to see all of this from a slightly different angle over there, according to the BBC’s explanation of the controversy to their own constituency:

    In the UK the term is, at best, seen as old fashioned and “something your gran might say”. … In the US, because of the country’s recent era of racial segregation, it is among the most offensive words for describing a black person.

    And even over here, especially for those of us old enough to have lived through it, what is considered offensive has a history of changing before one’s eyes.

    I remember, back in early 1968, an unusually frank (at least for its time) conversation with a “homosexual” co-worker in which he told me (unsurprisingly) that his people were offended when “straight” people called them “fags” and “queers”. Of course, I replied, but then asked him what term they preferred, and he said, “We’d rather be called ‘Gays’.” Thinking I’d heard him wrong, I asked him to repeat that, and he said, “Gays! We want to be called ‘gay’ people.” I asked him why, but he said he didn’t know. I later told my friends about this; nobody believed me, but soon thereafter, we all were calling homosexuals “gay”.

    It was about that same time that terms of race were in transition. Back before the late sixties, nobody expressed offense when called a “negro” or “colored”, but it was considered highly offensive to call anyone an “African” or “Black”.

    Then things changed: “Black” became the new “Negro”, and then, in a quick turnaround, “Afro-American” became the new “Black”, but then “African -American” replaced “Afro-American.” For a while, plain old “Afro” was okay, until it became the name of a haircut, and then it was out when referring to a human being. And once it became clear that, for people of all races, “African-American” rolled off the tongue like a brick, “black” became acceptable again. It was all quite exhausting.

    In fact, even in the old days, everyone would point out that the word “colored” was ridiculous from the get-go, since everybody is colored, it’s just some of us are colored “black” (or, more accurately, “brown”) while others of us are “white” (or, more accurately, “pink”). Yatta yatta.

    “Nigger” was, of course, still out back then, although then it came back, even if only when used by a black person referring to another black person, usually in a song, and not always ironically — although, as a white person, I wasn’t in a position to judge such things. I remember the controversy surrounding Jennifer Lopez using the word in one of her songs, which she defended by saying it was okay for her since she, as a Latina, was a member of a non-white minority. I think some people bought that while others didn’t, I don’t know, since it had nothing to do with me.

    (A year or so ago, after hearing my teenaged kids speak of the “N” word, I was shocked to later learn that, to their generation, the “N” word was “Negro”!)

    But what really illustrates the height of all this absurdity is that — and while things change so often, I can only assume this is still true — instead of using the term “colored actors”, Cumberbatch might have made a clean getaway had he merely called them “actors of color”!

    And exactly why is that okay? Beats the hell out of me! I think I gave up keeping track of all this long before we had sunk to that level.

    Rick

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