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November 01, 2002
Saving Blackface

Eugene Volokh just can't help it, weighing in with further thoughts on the blackface incident at the University of Tennessee: "Even if the question is simply one of public condemnation rather than official sanctions, is it really so bad to wear blackface? After all, if a non-black is going to dress up to a costume party as a black, he has to use something like blackface (or perhaps a mask, but what would be any different about that?). Is it really per se offensive, racist, immoral, or what have you for non-blacks to dress up as blacks to a costume party?"

I'm speaking as a white person here, and not even a particularly racially sensitive white person, but in a word: Yes.

Or, with more nuance: Yes, it can be.

Why? Well, to me, the key is the word "blackface."

Volokh asks if non-black people dressing up like black people is really any different than non-Hasidic Jews dressing up like Hasidic Jews, or non-nuns and non-priests dressing up like nuns and priests. (Why the religious component to all the analogies? Does Volokh believe being black is a kind of religion? Or that all blacks dress in a clearly identifiable uniform or style, as Hasidic Jews, nuns, and priests tend to do?)

Ever open-minded, Volokh says:

Matters might be different if the costume intentionally exaggerates stereotypical black or Jewish features, at least beyond the normal exaggeration present in any costume party outfit.

Leading me to wonder: if there were a cultural tradition called "jewface," would Volokh find that offensive?

In other words, "blackface" has a history attached to it, namely minstrelsy, in which white entertainers "blacked up" in order to caricature blacks in, as Volokh might put it, exaggerated and stereotypical fashion.

Minstrelsy may no longer exist today (Spike Lee might argue otherwise), but it had a long run in the U.S., starting in the 1820s, and remaining popular through at least the 1920s, when Al Jolsen was wowing audiences with his blackface performances as The Singing Fool.

While its history is complex, an obviously racist component informed blackface from its inception. As this short history explains: "Laws began to discourage biracial celebrations and blacks were driven from festivities. By the 1830s, common celebrations had been eliminated. It was just as Black performers and celebrations had disappeared, that blackface became prevalent."

Of course, ethnic caricature in popular entertainment extended beyond blacks. Caricature acts depicting Irish, Jews, Italians, and "rubes" (aka, rural whites) were all Vaudeville staples.

But none of these forms seemed to be nearly as prevalent as blackface minstrelsy, and none came with the loaded backstory (aka slavery) that minstrelsy did.

So you know what? Even without exaggerated stereotypical features, non-blacks dressing up as blacks, and especially as groups of singing blacks, like the Jackson 5, does seem a little different than a non-Hasid sporting a yarmulke, or a non-nun donning a habit.

Which isn't to say I think it should be illegal to dress up in blackface. But it does seem pretty clueless to suggest that it's the same thing as the other examples Volokh cites.

One final note: Volokh presumes that the blackfacers were going to a costume party, but there's no evidence that suggests that this was the case. The article he cites simply says that they were going to a "party." And the initial article explains that the blackfacers had actually blacked up for a fraternity-related air guitar competition, and then attended a party afterward. A "costume party" is never mentioned in any account of the incident.

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:32 AM
Premature Speechification

The Knoxville News reports: "A University of Tennessee fraternity has been suspended because of an incident last week in which white members painted their faces to look like the black pop group The Jackson Five."

And the blogosphere leaps into action: "MORE SPEECH SUPPRESSION ON UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES," warns indefatigable campus speechifier, Eugene Volokh.

Volokh's concern: "the First Amendment gives people the right to be uncivil, unharmonious, and not terribly respectful of racial harmony. What's more, it means that when you sanction people, you are violating the Constitution, and can be and should be sued and held financially liable."

Of course, such concerns become concerns only if the University actually sanctions the fraternity.

Or as Volokh puts it:

(Note that if this were simply a case in which (1) the national fraternity suspended its local chapter, and (2) the University only recognized fraternities that were recognized by their national body, the situation would be different -- the national fraternity is a private actor, and is free to set up whatever rules it pleases, and the University's hypothetical rule wouldn't require the University itself to judge people's speech, and would thus be likely permissible. But judging from the newspaper article, it appears that the University is planning to take it on itself to punish the fraternity, and its members, for what they said.)

It appears that the University is planning to take it on itself to punish the fraternity? Well, what does the newspaper article actually say?

Even if the national Kappa Sigma organization reinstates the UT Lambda chapter, UT might not choose to recognize the group, according to Crabtree. "We will require the leaders and members of Kappa Sigma to demonstrate a commitment to uphold our expectations for civility, ethnic diversity and racial harmony," Crabtree said. Crabtree indicated that individual students involved in the incident might face university sanctions once the investigation is concluded.

At this point, there are still a lot of "mights" in there. And the statement "We will require the leaders and members..." is pretty ambiguous too. Will this "requirement" involve attending some kind of class or something, or taking an oath of some kind, as Comrade Reynolds speculates? Or is it just the kind of meaningless we-have-to-say-something-to-express-our-concern statement that officials often issue in such situations?

Ultimately, Crabtree has said the University might do this, and might do that, and will require this...but in effect he hasn't really said anything commital at all. Nonetheless, Volokh says that "it appears that the University is planning to take it on itself to punish the fraternity."

And there's one other thing to consider too: the University hasn't finished investigating the incident yet. The Knoxville News account makes it sound relatively harmless - some guys donned blackface for a party - but what if there's more to the story than that?

Maybe there isn't. (An earlier article in the Knoxville News gives pretty much the same account as the most recent one.) And maybe the university will indeed go on to somehow punish the students and the fraternity, or at least attempt to do so.

But right now, even though the University has yet to act in the case, and even though Volokh doesn't definitively know the full facts of the case, he has reached his conclusion: "MORE SPEECH SUPPRESSION ON UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES."

Posted by Greg Beato at 08:11 AM
October 30, 2002
The British are dumbing! The British are dumbing!

TMFTML writes: "Right-wing nutcase Andrew Sullivan on how the British are dumbing down America. Loathe though we are to agree with him, he make a pretty compelling case. Hey, Beato, you want to field this one?"


Sullivan: "It's something of a cultural turnaround, this British dumbing-down of the United States. Though the trend has been gaining momentum for years, it still hasn't quite been recognized by Americans."

This is the kind of thing you write when you are late to a story and you need to try to bully your way into prescience and timeliness. Or to put it another way: Benny Hill? Monty Python? The English have been importing lowbrow culture to these shores long before Felix Dennis cross-bred the Howard Stern Show with a Victoria's Secret catalog.

Sullivan: "And there are few things more dear to Americans than the notion of Britain (or, more accurately, England) as a halcyon place of tea, crumpets, and generations of aesthetes who went to tony private schools and know much of Shakespeare and Milton by heart."

What a great example of Sullivan's breath-taking self-regard (or, more accurately, self-delusion). Off-hand, I can think of precisely 3,225,445 things I hold more dear than the notion of the Disneyfied England-land that Sullivan describes, but give me five minutes and I will think of a few million more. And for the record, I'm not really that interested in England as it actually exists either.

Sullivan: "The image is kept afloat by stray, elevated English exports that always find a market and appeal particularly to culturally insecure Americans--The Economist, any film by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, the Harry Potter novels, The New York Review of Books pieces by Simon Schama, a new PBS production of The Forsyte Saga (now breathing new life into that flagship of civilized Britannia, 'Masterpiece Theatre')."

Also those English spanking videos. And English muffins.

(Note to self: if you ever decide to write an essay about the virtues of populist media versus the vices of condescending media, remember to avoid making sweeping declarations about precisely why people like the media they like, as some people probably do enjoy The Forsyte Saga for reasons other than its utility as cultural security blanket.)

Sullivan: "The most powerful British influences on American culture today are ferociously crass, unvarnished, unseemly--and completely unapologetic about it."

Except for the Rolling Stones, who are pretty varnished these days. Of course, in their heyday, they were certainly considered crass, unseemly, and unapologetic about it. The Beatles too. And they had a much bigger impact on American culture than The Weakest Link did. As did that tea-sipping, crumpet-eating aesthete Johnny Rotten. If only Sullivan had gotten to this story 40 years earlier...

Sullivan: "The money at stake [on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?"] was far higher than in all previous game shows and the sets and staging far more aggressive."

We need to call in an economist on this one, to convert the 1950s dollars of "The $64,000 Question" to the dollars of today. Of course, the most important point to make here is that the game-show as prime-time spectacle is not a recent English invention, but rather part of the foundation upon which American television culture was built.

Sullivan goes on to explains how "The Weakest Link" veers from the traditional game-show values, which require "hearty congratulation to winners, gentle support to losers, and prizes all around." But of course it was the great Chuck Barris who really pioneered the game-show as theater of cruelty, with "The Gong Show" in the 1970s.

Still, it's here where Sullivan finally reveals the true purpose underlying this embarrassing display of pop-culture cluelessness...

Sullivan: "Americans, by contrast--especially in this hypersensitive, culturally diverse era--are desperate to steer clear of confrontation and avoid putting others down publicly."

For 200 years, Americans have been stereotyped by the English as uncouth and unmannered. But now that we finally done got civilized, we're worse off than we ever were. Bollocks!

Sullivan: "It's not just television. The U.S. print media have similarly received the gospel of brutishness from a host of British missionaries. Some of the big tabloids, such as Star magazine, are now largely run by Brit imports."

This time, Sullivan is about 30 years late. Australian Rupert Murdoch founded the Star, then called The National Star, in the early 1970s, and staffed it with people like fellow Australian Steve Dunleavy and English journalist Larry Lamb. The Star was never run largely by Americans. And thanks to the Star's eventual success, most of the other major supermarket tabloids began hiring more and more Brits too. Then, in the mid-'80s, middlebrow Brits like Tina Brown and Anthony Haden-Guest began injecting lowbrow tabloid energy into American glossies like Vanity Fair...

Sullivan: "Needless to say, [Maxim is] one of the fastest-growing magazines in the United States."

You mean we're not so civilized and politically correct after all? This is the contradiction Sullivan's theme rests upon: we're so politically correct we have no desire to produce our own lively, bawdy, rude pop culture anymore - but we have such a taste for it we import England's. What this thesis fails to acknowledge: Howard Stern, professional wrestling, Jerry Springer, South Park, Eminem, Jackass, Girls Gone Wild, Crank Yankers, a thousand morning-zoo DJs, the Farrelly brothers, When Animals Attack!, and, on the more sophisticated end of the spectrum (but no less lively, bawdy, and rude), the Sedaris siblings, The Onion, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In short, lively, bawdy, rude pop culture is as American as American Pie. Always has been, always will be.

Sullivan: "But lowbrow as Maxim may be, it's hard not to be impressed by its energy, humor, and irreverence."

Actually, as long as you're not writing a forced essay about British populism as the antidote to American liberal puritanism and elitism, it's easy to not be impressed by Maxim. Of course, if irreverence means celebrating "great gear!" and figuring out a way to peddle cheesecake without losing mainstream advertisers (as Playboy does because it features nudity), then, sure, Maxim is as irreverent as they come. Which is not to say it's not a brilliant concept, because it is. But its execution has been consistently mediocre - Comedy Central's The Man Show is a much funnier take on the same basic premise.

Sullivan: "He's completely integrated into the cultural establishment--wowing the crowds at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and performing for the Queen at Buckingham Palace--but is a deeply anti-establishment figure, a man who could break the rules at any time."

Sullivan on Ozzy Osbourne? Or Sullivan on Ozzy Osbourne doppelganger, Andrew Sullivan?

Sullivan: "Say what you like about Tina Brown, the erstwhile editor of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk Magazine; for all her faults, she never passed herself off as some grand crusader for social justice or great journalism, as understood by Columbia J-School types. She was an impresario of entertainment that could include, but was not exclusively geared toward, writing-for-the-ages journalism. Reading her magazines or watching Ozzy or listening to Cowell berate teenybopper wannabes, the one thing you don't feel is that you're being condescended to. Try watching PBS or reading GQ or listening to Peter Jennings, and you'll see what I mean."

Oh, yeah, when I watch This Old House, or animals fucking on Nature, so much condescenion radiates from my Sony that I have to build a wall out of old Talk Magazines to protect myself from it. As for GQ, if you wade through the fashion and grooming advice and the ads, and stick to the (non-celebrity) features and arts coverage, it's actually a surprisingly good general-interest magazine. Of course, to know that, you'd have to read it.

But Sullivan's penultimate paragraph isn't about honest criticism; it's about giving one last shout-out to anti-PC populism. (Note to self: if you ever decide to write an essay about the virtues of populist media versus the vices of condescending media, remember to avoid using leading, proscriptive phrases that tell the reader what to think and how to respond, like "the one thing you don't feel is..." or "you'll see what I mean.") (Also: why doesn't Sullivan have a gig with PBS yet?)

In the end, like most cultural critics, Sullivan ends up telling us far more about himself than his ostensible subject. He looks at, say, Tucker Carlson, and thinks he sees America. And because he can't see past the bounds of his own extremely insular world, he ends up writing a deeply stupid essay. Had he stuck to the notion that England is now producing livelier media thanks to its "deregulated, post-Margaret Thatcher media universe," and that America is importing lots of it to satiate its own long-standing, never-flagging appetite for lowbrow fare, he would have written an honest piece. Instead, he saw a chance to score a few points against PC liberal elitism, and ended up looking opportunistic, transparent, and disingenuous.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:38 PM
October 29, 2002
Looking for an Angry White Liar?

"I had a bet with both my wife and my assistant that the perp would be an Islamic terrorist."
--Mark Steyn, The National Post, October 29, 2002

"I bet my assistant a hundred bucks that the sniper would turn out to be a Middle Eastern terrorist, and that bet's looking better every day."
--Mark Steyn, The Jerusalem Post, October 22, 2002 (No free link available.)

UPDATE: The latest Steyn column is too good to just excerpt once. So here's some more...

Steyn: On Thursday, after being informed that the two suspects were a black Muslim called Muhammad and his illegal-immigrant Jamaican sidekick, The New York Times nevertheless reported in its early editions that the pair were being sought for "possible ties to 'skinhead militia' groups."

The Times has not archived any articles that include the phrase "possible ties to 'skinhead militia' groups," so beyond the quote Steyn excerpts, it's difficult to determine what the article actually said. On the St. Petersburg Times site, however, there's this: "An alert for a car presumed to be carrying the two was issued at 10 p.m., calling on area police to be on the lookout for a 1990 blue or burgundy Chevrolet Caprice bearing the New Jersey license plate NDA-21Z, the New York Times reported. A federal official said the two were being sought for questioning about possible ties to 'skinhead militia' groups, the newspaper said."

Given the way Steyn punctuates the excerpt he includes, it's pretty clear that he's relying on the St. Petersburg Times account -- that he is in fact just grabbing the phrase "possible ties to 'skinhead militia' groups" from the St. Petersburg Times article. Leading to the question: did he ever actually read the NY Times version?

In any case, notice how he conveniently leaves out the "a federal official said the two were being sought for questioning about..." part. Why this omission? Maybe because by omitting it, it's easier to make it sound like the NY Times was engaging in willfully deluded speculation, rather than simply reporting what a federal official told a reporter.

Next, Steyn engages in what appears to be some deluded speculation of his own:

Steyn: "But in the early hours of Thursday morning, the Times wasn't ready to give in: C'mon, there's gotta be some angry white male National Rifle Association right-wing redneck Second Amendment gun-nut neo-Nazi militia types in here somewhere, preferably living in a compound Janet Reno can come out of retirement to surround and torch."

Why deluded speculation? Well, because, again, there's no evidence that Steyn actually read the NY Times article. If he did, wouldn't he have quoted from it directly, rather than quoting from the St. Petersburg Times' account of it? there any chance that the NY Times article said anything about the National Rifle Association, or right-wing rednecks, or gun-nuts? Sure, maybe. But I would bet that it didn't. And indeed, if anyone can prove that it did, then I will happily send $100 to Steyn's wife.

Next, Steyn turns to CNN...

Steyn: "Thus, CNN finds it easier to call Mr. Muhammad 'Mr. Williams,' a formulation likely to be encouraged by the guy's lawyers..."

And here he's got me: I searched, and everywhere you look, it's "Williams this, Williams that." (Note: due to some weird typographic design quirk, the word "Williams" looks a lot like "Muhammad." But don't be fooled by this.)

SECOND UPDATE: Reader James Hunter informs me that the front page of the "New England Final" version of the October 24th edition of the New York Times includes the sentence: "A federal official said the two were being sought for questioning about possible ties to 'skinhead militia' groups." Click here to see a GIF of the relevant section.

So, it looks like the St. Petersburg Times grabbed that sentence straight from the original NY Times article. Meaning: I was wrong to say that "it's pretty clear that he's relying on the St. Petersburg Times account." Since the significant part of the sentence is identical in wording and punctuation in both the New York Times and the St. Petersburg Times articles, it's certainly possible that Steyn read the account directly in the New York Times. At the same time, I'll point out that this doesn't change the fact that he omitted the part about "A federal official said..." in an effort to make it appear that the Times was engaging in some willful delusion about the sniper's identity. In addition, I asked Hunter if there was anything in the text of the article he read, other than the one-sentence reference to a possible "skinhead militia" connection, that supports Steyn's flight of fancy about angry white males, the National Rifle Association, right-wing rednecks, Second Amendment gun-nuts, neo-Nazi militia types, and Janet Reno. Hunter replied: "I didn't find anything especially exciting in the Times article that might have set him off, except the one 'skinhead militia' quote."

. According to blogger Diane E., this NY Times article once contained the "skinhead militia" sentence...but as for any other material in the article that might have fueled Steyn's flight of fancy, the closest thing is this: "The officials would not discuss the possible motive for the attacks, but said that they were continuing to explore the possibility that the attacks were an attempt to extort money from the government or might have been fueled by government hatred. But they said they had not connected either man to a known antigovernment group." Hardly seems like the angry white male wishfest that Steyn suggests the Times engaged in...

Posted by Greg Beato at 04:56 PM
Bullshit in Context

Daniel Pipes, writing on the "Snipers in Context": "It came as no surprise to learn that the lead suspect as the Washington, D.C.-area sniper is John Allen Muhammad, an African-American who converted to Islam about seventeen years ago. Nor did it surprise that seven years ago he provided security for Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March." Even less does it amaze that he reportedly sympathized with the 9/11 attacks carried out by militant Islamic elements."

I'm not completely uninclined to buy Pipes' second sentence, and having bought that, maybe even the third. But why was it so not surprising that the sniper was an African-American convert of Islam? As the case progressed, there were no eyewitness reports of an African-American suspect, nor was there any specific evidence found that suggested an Islamic connection. Unless it is standard procedure now to believe that any unsolved crime is the work of an African-American Muslim, then surely there was some surprise regarding the sniper's race and religious affiliations. Even amongst the people who suspected a terrorist angle, I don't remember anyone saying "I bet it's an African-American convert to Islam, with ties to the Nation of Islam and Al Qaeda sympathies!"

Pipes continues: "All this was near-predictable because it fits into a well-established tradition of American blacks who convert to Islam turning against their country," Pipes continues.

If you're a near-lazy writer and a near-lazy thinker, "near-predictable" is an extremely valuable word. Its meaning: "Now that we know the facts, we can tell you what just happened with a judicious pretense of foresight that we didn't really have a week ago."

Or to put it another way, if none of this was at all surprising to Pipes, then I imagine he must have been on the phone to Chief Moose every day, telling him to look for an African-American Muslim with Nation of Islam ties. And if Moose wasn't listening, how come Pipes didn't take his theories to print until after the sniper was found?

Pipes continues: "Of course, this is not a universal pattern, as some of the roughly seven hundred thousand African-American converts to Islam are moderate and patriotic citizens."

It certainly is a relief to learn that this is "not a universal pattern." Indeed, if every one of the 700,000 African-American converts to Islam that Pipes claims there are were a bloodthirsty sniper like Muhhamad, imagine the horror that would follow: mass killings, more propaganda for the anti-gun nuts, and around-the-clock Jonah Goldberg commentary.

Thankfully, that isn't the case. Indeed, even though Pipes apparently believes (or maybe only near-believes) that lethal sniping is the near-predictable end-point of African-American faith in Islam, he cites very few examples to back up his thesis:

African-Americans who adhere to normative Islam also have a pattern of alienation from the United States. After breaking from the NoI, Malcolm X proclaimed, 'I'm not an American.' Jamil Al-Amin, once known as H. Rap Brown and now in jail for murdering a policeman, wrote that 'When we begin to look critically at the Constitution of the United States...we see that in its main essence it is diametrically opposed to what Allah has commanded.' Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a National Basketball Association player, refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem on the grounds that the American flag is a 'symbol of oppression, of tyranny.' Imam Siraj Wahhaj, one of the country's most prominent Muslim leaders, calls for replacing the U.S. government with a caliphate...The U.S. attorney for New York listed Wahhaj as one of the "unindicted persons who may be alleged as co-conspirators" in an attempt to blow up New York City landmarks. Clement Rodney Hampton-el of New Jersey returned home from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and joined a gang that in February 1993 bombed the World Trade Center."

Obviously, some of these examples are egregious instances of moral equivalence: is refusing to stand during the National Anthem a crime on par with mudering 10 people and wounding three others? Is saying "I'm not American" as bad as aiming a rifle at a 13-year-old boy and shooting him for no reason?

I'm going to answer "no."

And I'm also going to suggest that a handful of examples, culled over four decades, doesn't really constitute anything like a pattern, universal or otherwise. Could Pipes have cited more convincing examples than anthem-sitting to prove the African-Anti-American Islamic menace? If he could have, why didn't he? Is he keeping us in the dark again when lives are at stake?

It goes without saying that Islamist terrorism is a genuine threat now, in America and around the world. It's also seems safe to assume that some American Muslims (African-American and otherwise) harbor anti-American sentiments and pro-Al-Qaeda sympathies, and may act on those beliefs.

But Pipes is saying something much different. He's saying that a handful of violent acts, committed by people with varying degrees of involvement in Islam, over a long period of time, constitutes a "well-established pattern of alienation, radicalism, and violence among black American converts to Islam." And while he acknowledges that "some of the roughly seven hundred thousand African-American converts to Islam are moderate and patriotic citizens," his implication is that many aren't (although he never bothers to even try to quantify, or near-quantify, how many). Plus, he suggests, you can't really trust any African-American Muslim, because even the ones who practice "normative Islam" exhibit chronic anti-Americanism.

In other words, they're all dangerous! Every last one of them!

Which to me seems like saying that because a certain percentage of people who own guns commit murder, there is a "well-established pattern" that gun ownership leads to homicide. But would any gun advocate ever buy such reasoning? My near-prediction? No.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:28 AM