(Before I begin, I want to thank Rob, Scott and company for the invite and y’all for the warm welcome. That said, remember when you were in seventh grade and had spent all summer mowing lawns to buy an elegantly awful Z. Cavaricci ensemble only to arrive at the bus stop to discover that everyone was wearing Girbaud and you cursed the heavens and vowed never to try too hard again? Me neither. But if I did, writing this post would sorta feel like that.)
Listen closely to outrage manufactured over an utterly innocuous NEA conference call and you can almost hear Pat Buchanan regaling the Republican faithful with tales of brave white soldiers taking “back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block.” Fearful his symbolism might prove too subtle, he charged the overwhelmingly white audience to “take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” He never specified exactly who they would be taking back their cities, culture and country from, but he didn’t have to—one look at the army that’d be doing the taking said it all. None of the current crop of complaints are explicitly about race any more than Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican Convention was, but now as then, one look at the enemy they fear and the forces they align against it and the identity of their antagonists becomes obvious.
The question, then, is whether this is a story we want told twice. America, conservatives insist, bought a false sale of goods, and the only way Obama can sustain his popularity is to pull the wool before our eyes via the political equivalent of an atomic wedgie: overt propaganda. Attacking the National Endowment for the Arts comes straight from the ’90s script: every dollar the NEA disburses will be tracked by the likes of Andrew Breitbart until the perfect moment to introduce the world to the next “Piss Christ” arrives. They’ve already begun to remind the troops of all the old tropes, but their attempt to preemptively undermine the institutional credibility of the NEA indicates that this generation of conservative critics might be more media savvy than their ’90s counterparts. Tim Slagle’s response to a recent MoveOn campaign is a sign of smears to come:
It looks like the NEA’s call for artists to promote health care initiatives has been heard by some comedy artists.
MoveOn was not a party to the infamous conference call, but because it involves actors, and actors are artists, it’s a party to the propaganda agenda established during that call. As a consequence of that call, all artists—whether they shoot a crucifix in urine like Andrew Serrano or urinate on themselves like Will Ferrell—will be seen as complicit in a conspiracy to undermine America so grand even Goebbels would blush.
But while they may be savvy, they’re far from smart. In the article quoted above, Slagle offers a “prize to anyone who can name all eight [actors in the MoveOn video] without using Google,” includes the name of all of them in his tags not once, but twice, and his commenters are still stumped. And the one and odious John Ziegler calls for a return to “the Golden Age of television (the 70’s and 80’s),” when Americans came together to laugh at black people for the wrong reasons, before he realized—or was told—that he should be laughing at Archie Bunker, not with him.
That his list of programs excludes The Cosby Show is no surprise. He prefers Sanford and Sons because its humor was a function of its characters’ blackness, whereas the comedy on Cosby was situational, and Ziegler found its situations implausible. How could a black obstetrician treat white women without race becoming an issue? The specter of miscegenation may not, I confess, be responsible for him preferring Golden Age shows with majority black casts, but his vision of American unity is undeniably odd:
The major networks used to create a de facto “team photo” of our nation which (after a slow start) eventually included everyone in the picture. Now, each race, gender, and age group has their own “team” and tends to watch programming that is built to only appeal to them. In short, we end up living in very different realities with almost nothing in common[.]
So in the Golden Age, when Norman Lear was adapting the BBC sitcoms Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son for American audiences, television became “a de facto ‘team photo’ of our nation [that] included everyone in the picture.” First, white and black do not a photograph of America make; second, in Ziegler’s photograph there are shows with majority white casts and shows with majority black casts, but none, like Cosby, with what could be called integrated casts. Ziegler further complains that his inability to find Tyler Perry funny represents “a net loss to the strength of the fabric of our country,” because once upon a time he could laugh at the scheming of Fred Sanford, but now that black people have shows built to “appeal to them,” they appear to be “living in very different realities with almost nothing in common.”
He seems not to realize that they did then and do now. A commenter who named himself after Dane Cook does his damnedest to embody the plain racist underpinning of Ziegler’s argument:
For the most part, blacks on television have assimilated into the mainstream of society and no one thinks much about it any more.
The mainstream of society . . . they assimilated into the mainstream of society . . . now what would that be again?