Of all the columns I’ve written, never have I gotten more mail than for the following sentence: “It will not matter that the Dixie Chicks play to full, cheering houses, while their current album soars to number one on the country and bluegrass charts–The Daily Show‘s Mo Rocca on CNN, sounding a bit like the Iraqi information minister, will continue to call them the ‘Dixie whores’ whose ‘hate speech’ should consign them to ‘refuge’ in Canada.”
Readers were exercised that I did not adequately acknowledge Rocca as a satirist. I do know he is a comedian. Indeed, a trusty Nation fact-checker, Elinore Longobardi, underscored this before it went to press, worried that my wording might leave a misimpression; I thought not. I was mistaken. So here’s more context: Rocca made his comments not on The Daily Show, but in a CNN news interview. When asked if viewers ever complained about his satire, he said: “They scold us if we’re not funny. And then we deserve it…a real good ass-whooping, the kind that Natalie deserves from the President, because…literally and figuratively…the Dixie Chicks cell is one of those obstacles that need be overcome. I think they’re Dixie whores.”
Funny or not, I am intrigued by the vehemence of the response. People wrote that my failure to appreciate Rocca’s humor was “tragic” and “stupid” and “sobering.” It was a “betrayal,” an “ignorance,” an actual “breach of faith” that made the entire editorial staff look like “fools.” “Shame” on behalf of all lighthearted liberals was invoked, as in having to hang one’s head while the right wing laughs at such lockjawed Stalinist stoniness. Whew! Is all this just Mo Ronic irony–or did someone mix me up with Jayson Blair? Here’s how I see it: In times when you hear students routinely denouncing their professors as “whores to political correctness,” there’s an awfully thin membrane between Mo Rocca as political spoof and the Iraqi information minister talking doll as realpolitik. But I am rattled by the degree to which many of the letters echoed the intense vocabulary of condemnation flying around the Blair case. My humorless inflection was taken as lack of “intelligence” and as evidence of a systemic failure of oversight that impugned the “integrity” of the magazine. No one accused me of outright fraud, but I did have to take a few deep breaths and wonder about the possibility of spillover in the collective unconscious.
My woes aside, I find it dispiriting that for his part, Blair has become not a symbol of Ali G-like deception or Stephen Glass-like fraud, but of affirmative action as fraud. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 47 percent of top editors of dailies see factual errors in in their papers more than once a week, but Blair has become less an icon of that systemic sloppiness than of “race-based favoritism.” Liberal as well as conservative pundits have had a grand old time making Blair the figurehead of the broad program that opened doors for almost every one of us in the fledgling black middle class to study, live and work in integrated environments.
This smoke of racial resentment must be disaggregated both from the real contributions of real affirmative programs and from the real toxin of the real Jayson Blair. Blair, who is also suspected of having hacked into computers to see people’s personnel files, evaluations and private notes between editors, is a con man who used his considerable literary talent–and imagination–to discredit one of the world’s great papers and the last genuinely liberal voice in America. Blair, whose mother is a schoolteacher and whose father is a fraud investigator at the Smithsonian, of all things, is not the illiterate drunk many seem happy to assume. If the pundits were to accord Blair some agency–if they were not so consumed by whether liberal white “superiors” are tough-enough masters of their slow-witted black underlings, in other words–perhaps a degree of political cunning might pop out as a clearer possibility. Blair’s deceit was calculated, multifaceted and skillful. Let me suggest the following, not conspiratorially but rather in the spirit of individual responsibility: Surely if Blair, who attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University before transferring to the University of Maryland, were white, wouldn’t the question of ideological motive at least flicker across the table?
The New York Times is the very icon of liberal establishment values that the religious far right and our burgeoning neo-Confederacy have railed against with such fixation. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described the kind of journalism training received at the Jesse Helms Center, in North Carolina, where college students are trained and funded to “seed” the media with conservatives in an effort to “alter the basic makeup” of the nation’s campus and professional media.
“‘What do you want professors to feel when you call them up?’ asked Owen Rounds, a former speechwriter for Rudolph Giuliani.
“‘Threatened,’ replied Duncan Wilson, a tousle-haired 19-year-old from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.”
Bias, mistake, ideological blindness–there should be many more media scandals than Jayson Blair’s. Yet I fear his case operates as an obfuscating flashpoint for those who will leap gleefully at the opportunity to beat the life out of “political correctness”–and with it any last political energy for the project of integration. Law professor John Calmore has analyzed the seemingly uncritical public acceptance of such reactionary accounts. In volume 83 of the Minnesota Law Review, he posits that a majority of Americans believe: “1. Discrimination is a thing of the past, because blacks now have the freedom to compete in the marketplace…. 2. Blacks are pushing too hard, too fast, and into places where they are not wanted. 3. These tactics and demands are unfair. 4. Therefore, recent gains are undeserved, and the institutions are giving blacks more attention and status than they deserve.”
For years, the words have floated through the culture like buzzards searching for the perfect roost: “substandard,” “preferential treatment,” “in over their heads,” “obsession with diversity.” Who could have fictionalized a more pernicious cipher for this dystopic cawing than the savage irony of a Jayson Blair?