Friday, April 8, 2016

How To Have a Career In Outrage

Seriously, this is a thing. Click to enlarge
Early Thursday morning, while checking my regular websites, I had one of those weird moments made possible only by algorithm-driven electronic communications. Several Facebook friends, mostly graduate students or recent degree holders, shared various forms of outrage about Calvin Trillin’s newest poem, “Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?” Immediately below one such diatribe, Facebook ramrodded video clip from their tragicomic new Moto-Dojo ads. Apparently without ironic intent.

ICYMI (as the kids say), Trillin’s poem lists the various Chinese regional cuisines that have been aggressively marketed to Americans throughout his lifetime, each putatively hipper and more authentically Chinese than the last. When I first read this poem, before the shitstorm erupted, I interpreted it as a satire on how marketing gurus have commodified China, usually denuding it of history and accuracy in the process, for dumb-tongued Western audiences.

Moto-Dojo has no such, even hypothetical, justifications. It shows a white guy with a Fu Manchu mustache displaying supremely bad martial arts moves, in what appears to be his mother’s basement. This segues in various ways into some display of Motorola’s new mobile phone features. I’m unclear whether this chintzy, broadly imperialistic campaign comes from American-owned Motorola Solutions, or from Motorola Mobility, a subsidiary of China’s Lenovo Corporation.

For whatever reason, the sort of university-based umbrage-mongers who get upset at “cultural appropriation” have selected Trillin as this week’s receptacle of moralistic outrage, while politely overlooking Motorola. Critics have forced Trillin onto the defensive, making him explain what I considered obvious, that it’s “written about food snobs” and not about Chinese people. Motorola, by contrast, has been characterized with terms like “extremely comical” and “all in good fun.”

Calvin Trillin (AP photo)
This makes me wonder: who decides which villainies merit our anger? Is Trillin’s poem worse than Motorola’s ads because Trillin is an artist, supposed to have pure motives, while we accept such vulgarity from venal for-profit corporations? Our selective blindness about truly offensive situations, while seeking persecution where little exists, says something about our national psyche. Critics disparage some populations for seeking mass-market victimhood. But that’s becoming our entire society.

The Moto-Dojo advertising campaign looks like plain old yellowface, the same form of cross-cultural usurpation that made Hollywood movie studios think they could trowel “Oriental” makeup on Peter Ustinov and let him play Charlie Chan. I've complained about "cultural appropriation" accusations before, claiming the term is overused to demonize ordinary situations where art movements achieve mainstream acceptance. But this looks like a situation where it clearly applies.

Perhaps the abruptness of the reaction tells us something important. Though Trillin’s poem was included in a The New Yorker issue which shipped last week, and had been online for nearly a week before the outrage explosion, the reaction blew up late Wednesday evening and into Thursday morning. Nothing about the poem or its presentation changed on Wednesday. Just suddenly, for no visible reason, countless people became rashly angry.

Just as the explosion happened so fast, it ended almost as quickly. After I started writing this essay, I paused to, y’know, go earn a living. By Thursday evening, the furor had petered out; by bedtime, it had vanished entirely. Though some stray tubthumpers might still be posting somewhere in the twitterverse, the momentum of outrage had passed back to usual election-year targets, like Donald Trump or the Clinton legacy.

This hasty reaction, and its equally swift evaporation, says something. The social media echo chamber, fueled by what British journalist Mick Hume calls “full-time professional offense-takers,” prompts many contributors, eager to appear right-thinking, to jump on every bandwagon of moral umbrage, however specious. Because a certain fraction of outspoken Chinese-American dignitaries saw trespass in Trillin’s poem, media figures and graduate students followed suit, possibly without anticipating the ramifications.

The New Yorker issue which
contained Trillin's offending poem
Please don’t mistake my intent. Serious outrages do happen; sometimes, public figures deserve our scorn. The blowback last week over the Kenyon Review posting two cack-handed “Indian” poems online reached heights enough that the magazine eventually pulled the poems. (They claim it happened because the poet violated editorial guidelines, but c’mon.) Sometimes people get angry because bigwigs do something stupid, and earn the consequences they endure.

But this isn’t that case. High-minded crowds turned on Trillin because they behaved like a schoolyard mob over a vanishingly insignificant offense. And like such people do, they became so enwrapt in fake umbrage that they missed legitimately offensive behavior right in front of them. The effects of such viral outrage should frighten observant people. Because like all mobs, this one could turn on you.

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