Totalitarian Rules

Posted by on December 23rd, 2009 at 12:39 AM

My previous entry garnered the following response from Jeet Heer:

Well, it’s true that I could have provided more have context to my little essay. In particular as one commentator mentioned I could have contextualized these comics as part of the “pansy craze” of the late 1920s (discussed by historian George Chauncey, among others).

And perhaps it was a mistake to frame the issue around Brent Bozell, although I think his point of view is commone enough. I wasn’t saying that Bozell is hypocritical, but rather that he’s homophobic. And part of his homophobia comes throught from the fact that he claims gays in the comics are a novelity, when in fact there have been gays represented for a long time.

I think one nuance Fiore misses is that these images are more ambiguous than blackface. There is a long tradition of gays and lesbians themselves appropriating the pansy and butch stereotype. In Caniff’s correspondence I found at least one letter from a lesbian who enjoyed Madame Sanjak. By contrast, It think most blacks were pretty appalled by the blackface image.

I didn’t mean to accuse Jeet’s historical knowledge of being lacking, seeing as how it’s deeper than mine.  What I was castigating him for was failing to observe the line between deploring the moral standards of an earlier era and expecting an earlier era to conform to the moral standards of the present.  To call Mickey Mouse a homophobe is to engage in an anachronism; Mickey Mouse existed in a culture in which homosexuality and the mannerisms associated with it were stigmatized and mocked, and he didn’t question those assumptions.  (I might make an exception in the case of Milton Caniff, who seemed to be smart enough to transcend the attitudes of his time, but didn’t.)  By and large, presentism in defense of egalitarianism is no virtue.

A totalitarian regime makes everyone a dissident and everyone a collaborator.  Everyone is a dissident because everyone wants more freedom than the system allots them; everyone is a collaborator because there’s no living in the system if they’re not.  You don’t demand rights from a totalitarian regime, you bargain for privileges.  When you sit down to bargain with a totalitarian regime, your bargaining position is to acknowledge that you have no rights whatsoever, and you seek to convince the regime that it can allow the privilege you are bargaining for without endangering its position of supremacy.  If you were black or gay during the times we are discussing you were in effect living under a totalitarian regime at least insofar as that identity was concerned, and if you were black and gay there was a multiplier effect.  The classic example of totalitarian bargaining in this context is Booker T. Washington’s accommodation strategy.  The classic example in blackface minstrelsy was Bert Williams, who would play the clown as expected in return for infusing his characters with humanity.  (Not all minstrels were white, though all were expected to black up.)

It should not be assumed by any means that all blackface humor (I use the term recklessly to stand in for all racial caricature) was simply a matter of whites humiliating blacks.  There is a deep tradition of lowlife humor in African American comedy, and it was emulated, borrowed, stolen from and sometimes even paid for by white practitioners.  (The sometimes blackface performer Eddie Cantor once shamed Freeman “Amos” Gosden and Charles “Andy” Correll into paying some of the black comedy writers they were stealing from.)  The humor was distorted in the transition, but the main difference is one of perspective.  When performed by black comedians for black audiences it was a matter of the respectable members of the community making fun of the unrespectable members of the community.  When adopted for white audience it was a matter of the dignified, noble race making fun of the undignified, ignoble one.

It hurts to be mocked, but it also hurts to have your very existence denied.  Under the totalitarian bargain people could swallow a certain amount of condescension if it was the price of affirmation.  I don’t think the black audience was merely appalled by Eddie Anderson’s performance of Rochester Van Jones on the Jack Benny Show.  Witness the bargain again:  Rochester is the servant who is smarter than his master, he gets laughs at his master’s expense, and he’s nothing less than fully human, but there is never the least suggestion that their relative social positions are anything but the natural order of things, or that there is any reason for Rochester to want a change.  There are gayface characters who got their licks in the way Rochester did, sometimes in ways unbeknownst to anyone but the actor and the director, but it’s hard for me to believe that anyone could have been satisfied with being characterized in this fashion.  The oppression of gays was not as severe as the oppression of blacks but it had special humiliations all its own.

A point that should not be forgotten is, the matter has been addressed.  People who felt oppressed and their sympathizers undertook to overthrow the totalitarian regime and they succeeded.  Not all goals have been achieved but the chains have been moved down the field, and the likes of Brent Bozell find themselves pushed deep into defender’s territory.  Of course, liberal democracies reform themselves, but they don’t make amends; when the totalitarian game is shut down, everybody gets to walk away with their winnings.  The question as to racial caricature is what we are to do with it now.  This is a particular issue in comics because some of the most important work is run through with racial caricature.  There are those who believe that no one’s dignity should ever be injured by it again.  There is also the question when contemplating reproducing it of whether you want to profit from such things.  My view is that the attempt to present the apple with the rotten parts cut out is misguided.  I look at these things as a poison that’s lost its potency.  I believe that time has changed the polarity of the humor, that where once it was one race asserting its supremacy over another, it now stands as a mockery of the attitudes of the society that produced it, though not one that’s up to any good..

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5 Responses to “Totalitarian Rules”

  1. steve snyder says:

    I really enjoyed this article and the past few.

    Fiore is the Chuck Klosterman of TCJ. I always walk away with some small nugget of thought to bounce around my head for a minute.

    This one, keep.

  2. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Well, I agree with most of this. Calling Mickey Mouse a homophobe is anachronistic but I thought it was a good joke. I might have been wrong about that. I also called Mickey a rodent.

    The historical issues are more complicated than can be easily gotten into here. I was too glib to say that all blacks were opposed to the blackface image, although it remains true that the major African-American organzations opposed blackface from fairly early on. But lots of ordinary African-American readers didn’t necessarily agree. For example, Rachel in Gasoline Alley makes many readers today wince, but there is evidence that some black readers in the 1930s and 1940s saw her as a positive character.

    Since I’ve spent a fair bit of time in the past few years trying to reprint comic strips by Frank King, Winsor McCay, Clare Briggs, etc. I of course think that we should reprint comics from the past as accurately as possible, warts and all. I think the only time there was a serious effort to censor old comic strips was in the 1970s, when Dover published bowlderized reprintings of Milt Gross and Winsor McCay. And the great Smithsonian book itself refrained from reprinting too much ethnic and racial humour. But in 2009 the standard seems to be to reprint everything and let the chips fall where they may.

    One interesting paradox is that racial humour, because its based on exaggeration and stylization, often makes for better cartoonng than more earnest representations. For example, Ebony White in the Spirit is a much livelier and more cartoony figure — and hence more entertaining — than the realisitic white characters. Another example of this is the way that blackface contributed to the great animal characters like Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat. Such characters get their bounciness and verve from the blackface tradition. I talk about this here:

  3. R. Fiore says:

    Well, you got linked to by Andrew Sullivan, so I guess you win.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    ” I look at these things as a poison that’s lost its potency. ”

    I guess the question then is, why should your opinion be the one that matters? I mean, it seems like, if you agree these things are wrong, don’t you think it makes more sense to refer the question of whether the poison has lost its potency to the folks who are getting poisoned?

    I don’t think censorship is a good idea in regards to old strips, but the argument you’re making can pretty easily be used to defend all sorts of racial attacks and stereotypes on the grounds that “oh, well, that stuff isn’t important anymore, get over it.” I think, on the contrary, many of these issues remain quite live — and, for example, comics woeful history of African-American representation, in every respect, can certainly be traced in part to its unpleasant history of blackface imagery and its general inability/unwillingness to deal with same.

    I guess my point is just that, if you see a strip, historical or otherwise, that uses blackface and caricature to demean blacks, and your reaction is, “this is a racist piece of crap” — that really seems legitimate to me. Again, I don’t want to censor old strips, but I don’t see going to people and telling them “oh, well, see, we’re not racist anymore so your concerns aren’t important” either.

  5. R. Fiore says:

    When did I say that my opinion should be the one that matters?