The Trayvon Martin Bubble
The theme of this roundup of the week’s events is that people do not allow themselves to notice what everybody notices but does not name. Instead, real events are used as the basis for rhetorical poses that are, in the common parlance, pre-programmed. But that is not the correct way to characterize the mental process that is going on. Rather, the rhetorical pose is the heart of the matter, what people really want to find in and say about the moment.
One item for this week’s catalogue of cultural moments that reveal the nature of a cultural moment is The Rolling Stone cover that featured an attractive portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. There was outrage that this villain was shown as handsome. The Boston cop, Sean Murphy, who took photographs for the department, released some less flattering photos of Tsarnaev on the grounds that the man was a villain and so should not be seen “all buffed”. Murphy got suspended for what he had done. What was it that had so outraged someone who was a professional photographer and so is, I presume, more savvy than most about aesthetics?
Think about what getting outraged at that cover requires you to do with your mind. You first of all recognize that how a person is portrayed is a convention, which means that it is a custom of art rather than an accurate or not portrait of the person and that the editors decided to do it this way rather than another. So you are stipulating, immediately, the fact of cultural selection and deciding that this portrait is an unacceptable one because it pays him too much homage. But does it pay him any homage at all? Is this cover the first literary or artistic rendering that suggests that bad people may not look bad or that at one time they were not bad? It is as if no one remembers that Judas had once been a disciple and only became a betrayer. It is to forget that O. J. was a hero and then a comedian before he became a murderer. Certainly everybody knows these things but under the pressure of the moment or whatever you choose to call it people forget the making of comparisons.
But there is more to this matter than that. In fact, commentators immediately pointed out that the articles inside the magazine discussed just what a villain Tsarnaev was, and so there could be no mistaking the cover of the issue and yet people mistook it. They preferred their anger. People disregard what they know so that they can express themselves. An alternative explanation seems less likely: that people do not all know those elementary things about artistic presentation that we ordinarily assume that every child who watches Sesame Street understands. Children know the difference between a puppet and a person and our granting to the puppet some kind of reality for artistic purposes. And, similarly, adults know that the Rolling Stone cover is just a picture, not a person, and the picture is being played with to make a point. What is the point? That is different from saying it can have no point but to give offense. The critics of the cover might say they were dealing with content rather than their own senses of outrage. The editors of Rolling Stone are bad people. This is a way out there magazine, not to be trusted to do the moral thing any more than are museums that show pornographic pictures or liberal congressman who want to take your guns away from you. Editors and liberals are perpetrators of a kind of crime, one against public decency and the other against fundamental rights, and so to be dealt with appropriately, except that it is not circumspect to say so for fear of repercussions. But that sense of things, that depth of outrage, is probably reserved to very few people.
What would Murphy say if I raised these questions with him? Would he step back and say he overreacted but that it was still wrong to portray the villain as attractive? He might regard my questions as beside the point or obnoxious or offensive in themselves or just having nothing to do with anything. I don’t know and I am not sure anyone would be a reliable interviewee about their views on how to take pictures or whatever else is inside a cultural moment.
Anger in the face of artwork is an easy gambit because it is so available rather than behind the scenes skullduggery. I know Washington is corrupt because television programs create fictions of it as corrupt and there are deep seated reasons that go along either with cultural ignorance or with the inability to make elemental literary distinctions that encourage the belief that Washington is corrupt. I want my farm subsidy; damn those who would get food stamps as part of the package. That leads to giving up my farm subsidy just to make sure that the poor don’t get their food stamps. Anger is very satisfying and the art of making a critical judgment, of looking at a portrait and noticing it as a portrait that has a point other than the one to which I associate it, is satisfying only to some people.
That people do allow themselves their outrage is a phenomenon of everyday life and so it should not make me angry, as a student of everyday life, to notice particular instances of that phenomenon. But I too am a creature of everyday life and so am maddened by what I know people to know but refuse to own up to because it is easier not to for reasons not at all easy to understand.
My second instance of a cultural moment is the new Texas abortion law. Consider an observation made from outside the bubble. A limit on abortions at twenty weeks, which is what was at the core of the Texas bill, is not so bad an idea. Only one percent of abortions occur after that date and that is as good a cut off as any for when fetuses should be regarded as human beings. It certainly gives a pregnant woman enough time to decide whether she wants the baby or not. The pro-choice people could have negotiated a deal to trade off that deadline for allowing all those abortion clinics to remain open. That would have met the Bill Clinton principle that abortions should be rare, safe, and available.
But neither side wanted to negotiate and give up their principle, which is to regard all abortions as either good or bad. That is a cultural moment that has cast its hold for forty years, ever since Roe v. Wade. Feminist commentators say that to give in an inch is to give too much because it might mean there would be no end to restrictions on abortions. That is the same argument made by the gun lobby. There can be no limits on gun ownership because any limit is only the beginning of any number of limitations. I do not know what will break the cultural bubble that holds pro-life and pro-choice people together in their struggle against one another.
The Trayvon Martin case also plays itself out within the cultural bubble of the standard way to talk about race relations in this country. It is self serving for Eric Holder or an NBC Vice President to say that they were stopped by a cop for looking suspicious because they were black. Holder was a Federal Prosecutor at the time, which meant he could easily enough put the cops in their place, and the NBC Vice President was at Yale, which is enough cause for anyone to feel entitled. Nobody is talking about the propriety of stopping those people. What is being talked about is Trayvon Martin who may well have swaggered and who had been suspended from school. Those are obviously not justifications for executing him, but they show that there is more to racial issues than assuming black people are never guilty or that racial profiling doesn't work to deter crime. It does in New York City.
The issue, rather, is vigilante justice. Civilian policing groups are not to be trusted. Maybe ordinary citizens in Florida or elsewhere can be trusted to carry around loaded weapons, but not members of neighborhood watch organizations. They should be required to patrol without guns, only with cell phones, or else not admitted to those organizations. Merton was wrong in thinking that prejudice is just the application of a generalization about a group to every member of the group. Prejudice is applying the generalization to the wrong segment of the group. It is prejudice to stop the young Eric Holder; it is not prejudice to stop the young swaggering youth from the projects. Doing so may save the life of some other youth from the projects whether he is a swaggerer or not. Allow yourself to notice what everybody notices but does not name--in this case "swaggering".
Meanwhile, everyone calls for a conversation about race, but only one side engages in that conversation. If they other side engages in the conversation, they are denounced as racist or having, at the least “misspoken” and so not to be blamed too harshly for what was said. That is what happened to Richard Cohen when he called attention in one of his Washington Post columns to the fact that there is a lot of black on black crime. Even colleagues said he might decide to recant the column because crime statistics are no excuse for prejudice, the Merton definition having taken hold everywhere, it seems, but not yet updated to take account of the fact that while generalizations should not be drawn about all young black men, there is a subset of them who do make you wary.
And then, yesterday, Barack Obama comes into the White House pressroom and delivers a heart felt speech which does little more than call attention to the obvious, including in his remarks that the African American community is not unaware that there is a lot of black on black crime. And so the bubble of the cultural moment is burst by someone with the authority to say the obvious as if special authority is required to do that, while to proclaim the outlandish does not require authority, only expertise, as is the case when scientists tell you there is global warming or that dieting is just a matter of controlling calorie intake.
Obama cuts the knot of issues by saying simply and straightforwardly that it is both the case that African Americans are exposed to everyday humiliations however elevated their social class situation and that there is a lot of black on black crime. What Cohen had said is obvious and hardly paradoxical. That is the way it is and has been for a long time as the result of well known historical circumstances. Suddenly what Cohen said is not contrarian but the common wisdom. Maybe Obama said it more nicely but Cohen can be forgiven for having said it in a more rhetorical manner because when he said it, just a few days before, it had been contrary to the commonly held Merton wisdom about the nature of prejudice.
This is one of Obama’s great gifts: to speak in a matter of fact manner about what is not talked about in that way at all. He did it in his Reverend Wright speech, explaining away the heavy handed rhetoric as understandable if less than admirable. That also burst a cultural bubble, the one concerning the Black Church that had lingered from the days of Malcolm X. Very few Presidents have that gift. Bill Clinton did it in domestic affairs repeatedly, as once when he deflated a young pro-lifer by saying that serious theologians differ on when life begins and so we should be humble in our opinions. He was not able to work his magic on Arafat, but you can’t do everything. FDR could do that and Lincoln could do that, but other great or near great Presidents, such as LBJ and HST, were confrontational and got their way that way rather than in an instant winning over the hearts and minds of people. Obama’s way may not work with Boehner, but it may work with the voters in 2014. More to the point, one of his great legacies as President, along with the substantial accomplishment that every day is one more day that he has kept us out of a war in Syria, is that he could lance a cultural boil when it needed lancing.