Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Check your privilege at the door, this joint is really jumpin

Image via Hand of Ananke.

I wasn't going to write anything about the Jonathan Chait political correctness pity party, because everybody I like had such great things to say about it already, but then there was this other thing I never got around to that ties in, from Jonah Goldberg's New Year's Eve piece (I wrote a lot about that sucker, too, but there's still more):
Frank Rich, the former New York Times columnist and theater critic, recently interviewed Chris Rock for New York magazine. He wanted to know why right-leaning comedian Dennis Miller isn’t as funny (at least according to Rich) as Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. He asked Rock, “Do you think that identifying with those in power is an impediment to laughter?”
It was a hilarious and revealing moment. Stewart — who recently had to turn down a pleading request from NBC to take over Meet the Press — has long identified with liberals in power. Moreover, he’s easily one of America’s most powerful liberals, routinely creating and enforcing liberal conventional wisdom (much as Rich had done from his perch at the Times).
It is hilarious and revealing that Jonah doesn't see any reason to reproduce Rock's response:
I’ll say this. Poor people laugh harder than rich people. Especially black people, they laugh with their feet, too.
What, the black guy said something? It's as if Jonah can't understand the whole point of an interview with Chris Rock is to get Rock to say things. He's reading the piece as a fascinating sequence of questions which this comedian is continually permitted to interrupt, probably because Rich is so "politically correct".

In answering the question with a comparison between the rich and the poor, to Jonah, Rock is changing the subject; he ought to be talking about liberals and conservatives, and of course liberals have all the power because conservatives only have Congress and the Supreme Court and the Washington Post and Fox and CNN, whereas liberals have the presidency and most of NBC, to say nothing of Comedy Central. Jonah can only imagine the question to be about people who might have power, those who have it now and those who will have it next election. His inability to identify with poor people or black people, with people for whom lack of power is a defining characteristic, is so total that he can't even reliably remember that they exist except as an impediment to his own conversation with Frank Rich.

I don't think Jon Stewart "had to" reject a "pleading request" from Meet the Press. I expect what Stewart himself says is more or less true, that Stewart was just one of a lot of totally unsuitable people they were looking at, because that's how inept NBC is:
"My guess is they were casting as wide and as weird a net as they could," he says. "I'm sure part of them was thinking, 'Why don't we just make it a variety show?'"

Stewart says he never seriously considered taking the gig. "I felt like that was one of those situations," he says, "where someone says, 'We really like what you do. Why don't you come over here and do something different, maybe something you don't do as well, for us?'
When we say Stewart's humor doesn't identify with the powerful, we mean that it empathizes with the subjects Chris Rock was thinking of, poor people, black people, women, scientists who can be shouted down at a congressional committee hearing by ignorant louts, serving soldiers whose families are on food stamps because the pay is so shitty and veterans who can't get adequate health care. It identifies with Obama when Obama can't close the Guantánamo prison camp because Congress, with no clear idea why, won't let him, but still more with the prisoners (as represented by the pathetic hand puppet Gitmo); when Obama is improvising an immigration policy because Congress is unable to act, Stewart's jokes tend to identify not with Obama but with the immigrants whose bewildered lives are at stake. He doesn't do it all that regularly or systematically, and he fails to empathize or even inform himself quite a lot, out of anxiety to be seen as impartial and bothsiderist, and that makes him unfunny. But when he's really funny it works from an understanding of who suffers and who's to blame, as when he wryly acknowledges his whiteness:
I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land. Jon Stewart
Here, by contrast, is a Dennis Miller joke. It's the most offensive one I could find in a three-minute search and it really ought to have a trigger warning:
The White House looked into a plan that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the United States. The plan called for a million Mexicans to marry a million of our ugliest citizens. Dennis Miller
What the fuck? That's not a joke at all, just unmitigated bile and spite against those too weak to fight back.

So one of the oddest things Chait did was to base his essay on the vocabulary of "political correctness", a twenty-year-old concept that nobody uses any more except reactionaries longing to call people sluts and ni-KLANG so on, instead of the vocabulary of privilege and privilege checking we use today. I imagine it's because that's when he was putting his arguments together, whitesplaining everything under the sun around the dorms at the University of Michigan, and his resentment has never died, but the fact is that the discussion has improved since then, in the sense that instead of putting all the burden on the common language, ruling words out of bounds, we now put it on the person, who has to ask himself, or herself, if he is or she is using language to overpower somebody of a weaker status.

Chait doesn't feel he needs to ask that question: he's one of those totally honest people—just ask him—who talks the same way to everybody. But it's really about good manners, almost the way my grandmother would have seen it, that you shouldn't use your language to overpower those of a less privileged group than your own. Even though the Constitution certainly allows you to. I suppose even-the-liberal Chait would be startled to find himself filed in the same drawer with Jonah, but in this irrepressible desire for permission to be rude to whomever he likes that's who he resembles.

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