Monday, April 14, 2014

Suey Park and the Good and Bad of #CancelColbert

I read the Salon interview with Suey Park, comedian and social activist, who started the Twitter campaign to #CancelColbert in response to an ill-advised tweet posted on The Colbert Report's own official Twitter account. The tweet inspired controversy for a variety of reasons but principal among them was it offended many in the Asian community. I found Park's conversation with Salon enlightening. It was a phone interview, too, so I think it needs to be said that she was probably not at her most lucid or eloquent, at least if she's anything like I am when talking on the phone. So let's get to it. Here's what I think:

Firstly, I think certain leftist folks did successfully get taken in by Park's "trolling" or however you wish to refer to the CancelColbert hashtag (I get the sense, from what I've read in the interview, that "trolling" might be exactly the verb Park would use to describe her #CancelColbert Twitter campaign). All of this is to get to her bigger point, ripped from the context of anything related to Stephen Colbert (and the admittedly pretty weak Twitter joke and somewhat better but still weak Colbert sketch from which it was derived), that so often minority groups' histories of discrimination (and particularly East Asian and Indian Americans) are used with the ostensible hope of inspiring greater cultural awareness through irony (something Dave Chappelle found had exactly that effect on mainstream audiences when used on his eponymous television show -- people everywhere learned it was ok to use the n-word in whatever context they desired, or wait, no). So not to be that lefty, but worse than white liberal comedians' co-opting minority discrimination for ironic effect is mainstream American culture's inability to pick up on irony of practically any kind, as a general rule. But I can't ignore that Park's criticism of white liberals for borrowing too freely from minority groups' and the insults they've endured is completely spot on. I think it's also worthy to note that when the humor is employed successfully (i.e. the joke is funny, the satire hits precisely its intended target and without any obvious collateral damage) nobody seems to mind terribly much. This is a lot harder to do thoughtfully with the use of age-old stereotypes (though I won't say it can't be done), no matter how much irony lies in their use. (An aside, the thing that really gets me is, Stephen Colbert's sketch was successfully (and humorously) destroying the Washington Redskins and their outreach to "Original Americans" well BEFORE he referenced "Ching Chong Ding Dong.")

It's also important to think about why maybe Suey Park's campaign ultimately fails, or what it fails to do. I mean, white liberals could have been more self-reflective when the criticism was first leveled, instead of going batshit and immediately scrambling to defend Colbert and condescend to Park with all their ensuing "Do you even know what satire is?" mansplaining. What's worse, white liberals have apparently been guilty of the same doubling down we supposedly despise in our conservative counterparts.  That said, by its very nature (and Park, to her credit, doesn't attempt to argue otherwise in her Salon interview) this is a divisive campaign. It's a negative campaign. It's meant to hold the mirror to white liberals' faces and say, see what you're doing. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You think you're so much better, so totally all embracing of difference, than white conservatives. But you fall into the same egocentric traps, and think of different racial groups in the same stereotypical ways. I sympathize with white liberals (obviously). I see how maybe this "holding the mirror up" could be taken too far.

And so this brings me to my main point. My main bone of contention regarding the CancelColbert controversy. The power structure continues to be strongest in the sense of class structure. I think that we all sound like babbling, sniping idiots at each other's throats when the real problem gets ignored. I suppose how I differ from Colbert and that satire that inspired the controversy to begin with is, I have no desire to "use" certain groups as pawns or placeholders for some class-oriented issue I find objectionable. I just want to point my finger in the direction of the biggest societal ills and those forces that are most responsible. Park says some frustratingly absolutist things. "Whiteness will always be the enemy," "[Whites] have never been here for people of color," and "... all of the big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable." Whether Park thinks it's pertinent or not (and based on everything she says in the interview I'd say she'd consider it, wrongly, irrelevant), I think it's worthwhile to note she's overlooking the true nature of who the "enemy" is -- that ever-dangerous label. In the interview Park also says,"... white liberals co-signed horrible things, like militarization, like drones, like stop-and-frisk." This to me is among Park's weakest arguments because it fundamentally misunderstands who white liberals are (indicating the danger of doing exactly what she is opposed to, broad categorization of an entire group of people based on things that have stereotypical or anecdotal truth to them). I think most liberals I know would be mortified to be lumped in with the Democrats of, at least, the last decade and a half or so (a party that has become nearly equal to the Republicans in its right-leaning economic policy). As Michelle Goldberg in Jacobin has noted, "The fact that those of us who consider ourselves on the Left must confront is that what the electoral options come down to are a choice between a neoliberal party that actively supports diversity and multiculturalism and a neoliberal party that actively opposes diversity and multiculturalism."

Do I think if everyone were equal racism and xenophobia would naturally, happily fall away, too? No. I think both (and many more societal ills) would still be huge problems. We have a way of becoming really clannish, as human beings. We're always trying to find that point of otherness, who's in and who's out. It appears to be an evolutionary safety mechanism but one rife with flaws -- for one obvious example, just because you look a certain way does not mean you're going to be anymore trustworthy than some other stranger whose difference is more apparent. I think that's where my culpability (or arguably cognitive dissonance) is completely obvious. Of course I don't see racism as the same problem as that groups marginalized by it do, and certainly not on any kind of regular basis. However, one thing I will add, I grew up with small eyes. This is stupid and a little beside the point, I admit, but it's true. I constantly was made fun of for "looking Chinese" so I know this shit is out there and it's fucking horrible. And to think there is any stigma for looking or acting a certain way outside "the norm" is insane and plainly wrong. But I still can't escape the fact that I see this divisive race-based stuff as a tool of the powerful. Distract those who look different with scapegoats, show them it's superficial differences that make us weaker as a society, ignore that people are living in greater class distinction than they have in a hundred years. And so with that, I would warn against white liberals co-opting stereotypes for some ironical and imprecise satirical end that plenty in audience are likely to misunderstand anyway (don't feel bad, Colbert -- Bertolt Brecht famously made the same mistake with his portrayal of amorality and greed in his play "Threepenny Opera"). But I would warn against minority groups (whoever they be) looking at everyone who is not with them as therefore being against them. "Whiteness" alone is not the enemy. Certain white liberals have revealed themselves to be horribly close-minded and to that end I hope this controversy has been a wake up call, but greater liberalism is on the side of the underclasses, whatever form they take. It's why liberalism is so easily maligned, the term itself turned into a dirty word. Powerful folks just seem to have an easier time getting their message out there. I suppose if I were allowed to offer any of my own advice to Park it would be this: when we stop hearing each other we all lose. The problem with radicalism found anywhere on the extreme ends of the political spectrum is, it often is too busy shouting for The Cause (admirable as it is, don't misunderstand me) than to allow for this self-reflection, this opportunity to consider how in some ways one could be wrong. That said, white liberals and comedians, let's avoid the race-based humor. It's going to alienate people, as we've seen time and again. Or don't and experience the consequences.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Oh Right, The Ultimate Warrior Was a Mega-Bigot Scum Ball

The Ultimate Warrior, born James Hellwig and legally changed his name to Warrior, died yesterday. I'm not among those who will miss him, not even a little bit. Go to the mainstream media obits if you're looking for people willing to remember him only for his pro-wrestling career.

Actually, and I'm not one to say things like this, I'm glad he's dead. Call him mentally unbalanced if you prefer to remember him fondly, but this lunatic ranted and raved about every number of subjects -- not the least of which being his hideously homophobic stance on gay rights. Yeah, he wrote this. Yeah, he was constantly saying bewildering things at various speaking events, things like "Queering don't make the world work" -- whatever that means, and I can hardly imagine a context in which it could be more lucid.

But perhaps more than any callous, disgusting thing Warrior said or wrote in his lifetime, I'm writing this post to repay Warrior for his thoughts on the death of Heath Ledger, whom he mockingly referred to as "Leather Hedger" -- presumably because of his role in Brokeback Mountain. (But honestly who really knows when we're talking about Warrior.) It was good that Ledger died, according to Warrior, because his young daughter wouldn't have to bear the burden of being raised by such a completely inept father, among other truly hateful things the guy said of Ledger. As I say, let me repay the favor, it's good that you died, Warrior, the world is better off.

Anyway, I'm also really happy I won't have to read anything more about one of his despicable, vitriolic rants gone awry.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Legend of Knifemouth’s Legendary Mouth Grows

In the small towns of central and southern Illinois there lives a very indecent sort of man. What makes this fella indecent is this: he will come for you in the night with his mouth all chock full of knife. It’s a peculiar affliction, having a good deal of knife in your mouth. They’ll tell you it came about from that knife accident. They’ll say that’s how come he’s got a long serrated knife wedged in the gap of his two front teeth, jutting for several inches out of it at a sharp decline, fang-like, which is a condition that leaves him with many cuts on his lower lip and chin, but what they won't be as quick to tell you is, Knifemouth's been dead so many years. I tell yer true.

Surely that isn't all there is to ol' Knifemouth, no sir. He also had that fiddle. That's how you knew he'd be coming close real soon. The fiddle was unusual, too. Made of metal and producing such cacophonous noise. Couldn't play it worth a lick, neither. Never learned on account of he picked it up after the knife accident, which I don't need to to tell you is what killed him dead. Hard to learn anything much when that's the case.

They say the knife accident itself happened one warm wintry night in Decatur or some such place. Knifemouth was at home fooling with his knife again, generally up to no good with all things knife. He probably imagined harming someone with it. Before Knifemouth was Knifemouth he was a man with a knife not in his mouth. This is essential to understanding Knifemouth, though it should be no surprise that before there could be a Knifemouth there needed to be a knife and a mouth, which is what he had. He used to laugh, putting the knife in his mouth -- the handle, not the blade. And this would be his undoing. Because when he did, he'd sometimes also do his jig -- imagining himself playing the fiddle that he couldn't play but did have in his possession. And it was the jig that proved fatal. What he never thought about was that he oughtn't leave his hands behind his back while doing the jig, and he certainly shouldn't have tempted fate even further by stringing that wire all about the floor for him to leap out of, for the reason of forcing him to really lift his feet as he jigged. And last, he was in a bad way if he thought banging his head around was ever a good thing to do in accompaniment of the jig. He was an unpracticed "headbanger" and it showed. It wasn't just the jig, then, but the strange way he evidently practiced his jig, that proved fatal. You can imagine, but I'll tell you, he tripped while head banging, arms pressed behind his back as he fell to the floor. The knife got slammed into the upper mouth area and his head banging was so forceful and reflexive that he about slammed the handle of the knife clean halfway through his brain. It's what got him on his way out of the life of the living, indeed. The bleeding that happened next took him all the way out of the life of the living.

You know something else? After they found the body, they lost the body, and you know, they never did find the body after losing it. Well. They found it again, near Foster's Landfill. But after they found it there, it got away from them again. They never did find it a second time. And probably this was directly because it had no desire to be found. Such is Knifemouth's will, and as ever will be.

But then there are those who think maybe just maybe that's the way ol' Knifemouth wanted it. That he wanted the knife where it was and he wasn't so bad at jigging as might have seemed to be the case. They never found the body, but there was so much evidence to point to its truth, that he had died in his jigging accident. Then there were all the strange instances of mysterious fiddling, fiddling so loud and so cacophonous that you couldn't hear your own brain scream at you to run and hide. And by the time the fiddling stopped and you could hear yer own brain again, well, by then it'd be too late, wouldn't er?

And of course there is the matter of the knife, how it fit in ol' Knifemouth. It fit in him scary as you in a small room with an ornery ox dressed in rattlers (the rattlers are guaranteed to be ornery on account of their already ornery constitution, meanwhile).

But it's on those moonlit warm wintry nights when the weather is strange that you're most like to find Knifemouth. You'll know him by his fiddle. And when he's fiddlin' and a knifin' you to death you'll know that actually it weren't you who find him but the other way around. And you'll never be seen or heard from again, until they find your body, which I don't need to tell you will be dead.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Totalitarianism And The Great Masses Fully Roused: Part II

I said I'd return to this post. It wasn't a lie. It's been a while, granted. And just how often I'll return to the subject remains to be seen, I suppose. I'm still fascinated by ideas of power, and the ways in which we willfully submit to power. I find myself submitting, deferring and otherwise overly aggrandizing the powerful all the time. I was meditating on this idea a lot the other day. Why? I get why, but still, why? What I do realize is, though there's merit to everything, once you find yourself in the esteemed position of someone like Malcolm Gladwell your obligation to a certain degree of scruples when disseminating your work is hardly what it was when you first started. You've been vetted. Your opinion carries more weight. You, in turn, are more important in the grand scheme of things. Tremendous. Wonderful. Congratulations, you. You did it.

People will continue to seek the upper echelon. In large part because Nietzsche wasn't wrong. There is a "will to power." I think its manifestations might be more nuanced than the desire for control over everyone and anyone who might try to undermine you, and so who you, in your turn, undermine as a result. In other words, in any scenario someone is going to need to be undermined, and it's up to you to decide whether that's you or that's not you. (It is possible that you'll have no choice at all, depending on your paltry little circumstances or lack thereof.) We're not quite that cynical, are we? On the whole? What I'm saying is we don't necessarily mean to force our own wills on others. It just sort of happens, a lot of the time, at least.

I was listening on the radio when a fragment of information appeared. The host was quizzing people on what wealthier folks are less likely to want to do than the rest of the population. The DJ said as you become wealthier you tend not to be willing to wait in line as much. I only have the anecdotal example of the many cars I see cruising along the shoulder of the highway, and that many of those cars are models that tend to be more expensive. Nevertheless, the notion seemed reasonable to me. My question was, and this the host did not elaborate on at all, are people who are wealthy that way as effect or is this tendency more causal in nature? In other words, do people who don't want to wait in line become more wealthy than the rank and file, and one aspect of this is their willingness to shove their way to the front of the line, probably on the flimsy pretense that someone else would do it if not them? If there is any justifying at all to the process. If it's not anything more than complete and unthinking entitlement. They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and it would seem the annoying patron with little to no social awareness or concern gets the conciliatory deals and compensation. People tend to get what they want, when they're of this mind: that for some reason or another it's what they're owed. That's not to say people don't complain for entirely justifiable reasons, and sometimes complain long and hard, giving the impression while doing so that they were probably driven to this point. I'm thinking of the infamous customer service call that leaked onto the internet last September, during which a man's harangue and the violent expletives included therein lasted for something around eight minutes. Here's a link to it, if you haven't heard it already. But somewhere along the way that carping seems to ring hollow. It seems the recourse of an untrustworthy sort, designed to fool the average you or me, who might hear it and find reasons to sympathize, no?

But it's that sleight of hand, good old misdirection. The masquerade that you're just a guy with a beef.

There's a lot about authority and absurdity out there right now. There's this article, which validates the notion that we tend to value absurd directives over more reasonable directives, because they seem to our thinking to be coming from a place of actual authority. The article is light on a few details I find myself curious about, though this is more or less necessary since there would be no way to objectively measure their presence. It's worth noting, though, that the answer could just be people tend to enjoy tearing stuff apart, when the opportunity is presented to them, when they're effectively told to just go nuts.

I think money and power is a vital theme, to be returned to as often as possible. They certainly go hand in hand in American society. They seem to go hand in hand the world over, too. With the U.S. Supreme Court's unsurprising recent decision to allow money to have even more say in American politics, we're really left with no other option but to conclude that your voice does matter more if you can afford it. That's not a democracy, or maybe more reasonably, we can define our founders' original government as a "constitutional republic." Still better than plutocracy, right? Oligarchy? What we're just about totally embracing these days. I'm not opposed to Scalia retiring. I think that much is obvious. Roberts, Kennedy, Alito and Thomas are all encouraged to do the same. You've earned it!

Robert Reich pretty masterfully skewers the popular talking point that the rest of us are simply envious of the wealthy, and that we should just stop being so envious already. It goes back to the great conservative - liberal divide: preserving the community (or, more cynically, the status quo) vs. the idea of universal equality. What the wealthy ought to remember is, actually, most people are fine not having what they have. Just because you spent your life maintaining or acquiring a fortune doesn't mean the rest of us desire that at all, or even a fraction of that. Certainly everybody desires the same right to "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." All three of which seem to be getting more and more difficult, not easier. (And when we're talking totalitarianism, it completely freaks me out because it's weary economic times like these, with a population under-educated and over-worked when the forces of totalitarianism are at their most viable.)

Plus the Boston Review's Claude S. Fischer has a great counterpoint to some seriously frustrating / obnoxious perspective from Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw. I think in Mankiw's "Panglossed perspective" of the so-called agreement between employers and labor we see perfect illustration of the ideological hold neo-liberal thought has on the greater academic world of economic theory. I will say, just as I think the humanities breed a more left leaning belief system, economics breed a more conservative one, I'll also be forced to note the apparent monetary incentive for such beliefs, too. I mean, it's a smidgen intellectually dishonest, and I have to believe Mankiw knows this (isn't that deluded), to suggest that employers and laborers are equal players in the deciding of what a fair rate for the laborer's labors is (tongue-tied after writing that one, myself). Power would dictate without an intermediary like the government, and power would favor those with money. Workers could come together and unionize, but with the way unions have been so successfully maligned in the past fifty years, it seems unlikely that's something that would get a lot of traction. Government is the last friend (and evidently a growing enemy, or at least impediment) of the average laborer, in my frank opinion.

I'll leave you with THIS LINK. My favorite "Shouts & Murmurs" piece in a mighty long time.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Speaking of Editing: The Latest SmokeLong Quarterly

I had a great time interviewing Bezalel Stern for SmokeLong Quarterly's latest issue, 43. You should check it out. It's a wonderful publication and I'm thrilled to have had the opportunity to guest edit, so thanks once again to the whole SmokeLong staff for giving me that opportunity.

I should also mention the awesome dude Ryan Werner has a piece in the latest issue, which you ought to check out as well. It's called "If There's Any Truth In A Northbound Train." Great title, I say. I had the wonderful opportunity to finally meet Ryan Werner during his trip to Chicago last Friday. He put together a reading that I participated in with my friend and Artifice head honcho, Peter Jurmu. It was at the Church of Templehead down in Pilsen. We talked DIY and the indie publishing realm, too. A lot of fun!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Taking on Fiction Editor Duties at Another Chicago Magazine

Hey all,

Happy to report, for the first time reporting on anything around these parts in a few months, that I'm the new fiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine. Can't say enough about how excited I am for this opportunity (although I tried over on the ACM blog -- Here) (many, many thanks to Caroline Eick Kasner, ACM's managing editor, for inviting me to join her staff). Another Chicago Magazine has been around and great for going on 40 years and it's just such an honor to be a part of this tradition.

Anyway, enough gushing. I want to read your stories, so send them to me. Please? Another Chicago Magazine is open. I'd be remiss not to mention the 3 dollar submission fee. I hadn't realized this before but Submittable's costs for a yearly membership seem to me increasingly exorbitant (despite the wonderful features they offer and the discount they extend to non-profit creative efforts like ACM). To have a fully functioning staff that can handle the volume of submissions ACM receives we need the money, I'm afraid. Know this, though, I take reading your submissions seriously and they'll get a fair and honest look (in more cases than not by both myself and another reader, at bare minimum), if not necessarily any personalized feedback.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Parabolic Turns

I like absurdist shit. Here's some absurdist shit I wrote awhile back. I posted it on Fictionaut, too, because I can post whatever I like there, here, everywhere that's here and there.

Parbolic Turns

There was a man dressed in stately attire. His name was Abacus, which maybe you find strange, but then keep this in mind: it is, after all, just a name.

He was eating a sloppy sandwich. It was probably brimming with meatballs, because he often ordered extra meatballs when he would order a meatball sandwich.

Occasionally, very occasionally, he would spill a meatball onto the ground where a scavenging city creature, a squirrel, a pigeon, perhaps even a rat, could get to it and be rather well fed. But he was usually very careful to make sure the entirety of the sandwich (all of the meatballs and everything) ended up in precisely the spot it belonged -- his mouth.

A spirited fellow chimed in, once, at the midpoint of Abacus' career, “Sir! I wanted to inform you, because I worry about the environment, sir, that you have in fact spilt a lot of what you are eating onto the ground. That is called littering. I hope you understand that I only mean well in calling you out about your littering. I want what's best for the world at large.”

“Most of what I've spilled is edible. The rest is wrappers that make up so little of the harm we do to our environment,” Abacus replied.

But the spirited fellow was vehement and persisted. “Sir, I must insist you clean up after yourself. I'm doing this for the environment. I don't want anything bad to happen to the environment. Ever. I want it never to happen.”

“Leave me alone. I'll discard my trash wherever I've trash to be discarded, even if that's not in a proper receptacle.” Abacus defied the spirited fellow. He noted the man's spiritedness but downplayed it by noting that he, Abacus, was indeed far more stately dressed.

“Then I should be the one to stop you.” And at that the spirited fellow and Abacus had a terrible row, till finally the spirited fellow's face was smashed with a rock, and he ran off cowering in pain. Abacus was somewhat relieved to have beaten his determined opponent. The spirited fellow's tie was blue, like that of a peasant. Abacus would remember it.

Later, many months later, Abacus was walking near an intersection where he was surprised to see a car crashing -- an odd parabolic turn leading its driver to hit and dislodge a fire hydrant, water from the hydrant become a geyser like you'll see in films. Abacus' dropped his trash on the ground, surprised. He thought about bending over to retrieve his trash but then decided he would not.

“I am back, sir. Good sir,” said that spirited fellow with the blue tie. He was wearing a cast on his arm from what Abacus assumed was an unrelated injury. “I'm for round two. Are you, sir? Are you going to pick up that trash?”

“You're trash!” Abacus shouted, proceeding to beat the man with an incidental log he'd found near his littered trash.

There would not be a “round three,” because this time Abacus beat the spirited fellow to death, strangling him with his blue tie for good if horrible measure. It was never discovered that Abacus was the murderer, though the spirited fellow's corpse was eventually found and reported to the authorities.