Recently, Kate Gale, publisher of the Los Angeles-based literary press, Red Hen, published a meant-to-be-satirical piece in her blog column in the Huffington Post -- and drew a firestorm.
Condemnation of Gale accelerated quickly and gained significant and serious momentum -- so that when the negative responses and her original post were finally taken down (and her apology issued a bit later), attacks on Gale had turned to recommendations of deadly force against her (one commentator announcing the intent to burn down her family home -- and one calling out for her "beheading"). Thus Gale's attempt to be outré (as Dorothy Parker once said about herself, "I'm just a little Jewish girl, trying to be cute") revealed not only a scarifying series of assumptions about what we might be allowed to "represent" in our observations on the culture around us, but, also, how far we have distanced ourselves from "enduring" values and rights, among them free speech and free expression and the right to respectfully "disagree" -- to even take a turn as a "little Jewish girl trying to be cute."
The attacks on Gale in the commentary were unsparing -- outraged self-righteous ad feminam slams against her character, her ethics, her politics, her sexuality, her relationship with her daughter, her publishing career, her "white privilege," her personal morality. And finally, threats on her life itself.
Though I've certainly received my share of hate mail -- I've had little interest in the trolling "correctrix" types on the internet, the mob mentality seemed inescapably suggestive of a terrorist parallel.
What, I asked myself, had Kate Gale done to piss off Isis?
Here's how she pissed off (if not Isis itself) those unwittingly willing to take ideological instruction (in the cause of self-righteousness) from the M.O. of extremism. Gale had taken it upon herself to defend (in an irreverently conversational style) a national membership and service organization for writers called the Associated Writing Programs (AWP). This organization (as is widely known among poets, fiction writers, essayists, etc. & also graduate students) is at great pains to demonstrate "inclusiveness" and (simultaneously) its commitment to ongoing diversity. At its annual national conferences (the next one will be in Los Angeles in 2016) AWP offers readings, panels and "off-site" events -- in a effort to include all its members. This means that its membership, which is large, competes for opportunities to read, to impanel, to perform. This competition for platforms must represent a fairly vexing situation for AWP -- as the attempt at inclusiveness, and its hope for broad representation with diversity -- cranks down to numbers and judgment "calls" in the selection of competing performance and panel applicants for their conferences.
To say that Gale's attempts to defend AWP's selection process while also attempting to be funny, fell way flat would be a drop-dead understatement.
Her cry-to-arms ("AWP is us!") was so out of touch with AWP "reality" that it couldn't help but raise a little rose-colored flag. I would suggest that few think that organizations like AWP are "us" (as in the solidarity of a union). Organizations like AWP exist to enlarge membership and influence -- and to promote "community and advocacy" among writers in North America -- and noting that would have been just fine. But Gale continued her defense, praising AWP for bringing together writers, MFA programs, editors, publishers and agents, etc., as an "intersection point," also true -- and she rightly described real and significant "community" good that AWP does. (Also "career advancement" is a compelling reason why many young writers/grad students show up at AWP -- making AWP another version of academia's MLA -- an intersection of "high anxiety" for these young job-seekers, where they struggle to be "show-cased." But that's not what Gale was talking about.)
Had she pulled up and stopped at that "intersection" in her chugging vehicle of booster praise, she might have avoided the looming Righteous and Wronged, pulling up alongside her. But she stepped on it -- went for the jokes. And as any stand-up comic will tell you, "Comedy isn't pretty." Gale was forced off the road.
Caitlin Flanagan's cover story in current issue of The Atlantic, "That's Not Funny!," examines the effect of politically correct censorship on comedians invited to visit college campuses. Both Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, she reveals, have refused to perform on college campuses anymore, because of this imposed limitation on their humor. Caitlin Flanagan (who also appeared recently on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher") talked about her research into this phenomenon of "that's not funny" and how an organized effort to define what is "acceptable" to joke about -- ends up shutting down even the mildest satirist-comedian. How did this "scrubbing" climate evolve? From attempting to straddle "inclusiveness" -- and yet to try to define and celebrate difference? AWP must certainly know how hard it is to juggle these conflicting versions of egalitarianism.
But it is Flanagan's view that this repressive climate on campus is the offspring of the truly radical student movements of the 60's and 70's that were all about free speech -- but then free speech was taken for granted -- and the "us" part of that right was divided into the interests of Identity Politics, which began to replace the humanities curriculum. If you are "eager not to offend anybody," your intention may stem from kindness and idealism, but. as Flanagan observes (about the impossibility of explaining "to these kids any of the fundamental truths of stand-up" -- such as "why jokes involving gay people aren't necessarily homophobic") you are pretty much out of luck.
Chris Rock or Amy Schumer can't be funny if the P.C. censor follows them up onstage. No more could Kate Gale -- when she chose to confront head-on a dinner companion's observation that "AWP hates Native Americans." Her subsequent riff, imagining the head of AWP as a cowboy, saddling up to ride off and "shoot Indians" might have occasioned a bitter laugh or two, if her attempt at a joke had been funny and imaginative -- but unfortunately it wasn't either -- though not because she is a racist. She is not a racist -- and there are enough real live racists and homophobes and misogynists out there in the "real world" to brutally instruct anyone who is confused about the difference.
She did not mean that, as a White Privileged gun-slinger, she was set to ride out with the cavalry and kill Native Americans -- she meant to expose, humorously, her dinner companion's divisive and ridiculous gossip. In this same spirit, she went on about Smith and Reed and Doc Martins in her attempt at humor about gay women -- blundering, yes. And not funny. Yes, she got it wrong. But that does not make her detractors "right," because, frankly, it is hard to see a difference between those who support censorship and death threats -- whether they pitch their tents on the left or the right.
Professional comedians understand the mysterious alchemical admixture that creates humor and makes jokes funny -- even if the jokes are irreverent, even shocking -- even tough but insightful. But as Seinfeld and Rock (and certainly Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman and other laugh artists would agree) -- no one can be funny if the audience refuses to acknowledge or "condone" irreverence or edginess or imagination -- all part of the alchemical mix. Or further, if the audience refuses to get the joke on purpose, or worse, if the comic faces an audience invested in the cult of The Victim. (In other words, we all have the right to freedom of speech and expression -- but some feel entitled to check the amount of free speech others have. How did that happen?)
When Gale went on to describe herself as "50% Jewish" and "30%" lesbian, she had a chance at a 21 century Dorothy Parker riff -- but she had already, apparently, alienated her readership to the extent that one outraged commentator rose up and nailed her to the Wall of Shame, calling upon Gale to witness the distress of young 100% gay women, preyed upon by "30% lesbian dabblers like Gale -- "weeping in my office," inconsolable victims of cruel teasers like Gale.
There was no hope for her at this point. Percentages, stats, always an inexact science, had lost for her all chance of cracking wise, especially with that weeping one hundred per cent.
So the firestorm escalated -- and on to death threats. Am I defending Gale's "career" as a comic writer? No. Am I defending her as a person, with a right to speak her mind, no matter how awkward her style or "debatable" (as if we still had "debate"!) her conclusions -- yes. I won't go into detail about her history as an editor and publisher, or mention the service of Red Hen press to the writing community, the awards to Latino and Latina writers, celebration of the diversity of writers in Los Angeles. I won't dwell on the press's longtime mission to publish works of literary excellence, "supporting diversity and promoting literacy in our schools, seeking a community of readers and writers actively engaged in the essential human practice known as literature."
But I'm inclined to ask the "virtual vigilantes" if they have ever started a press or a membership organization, if they've gone into the prisons to teach -- or if they've tried to do stand-up? Instead of weeping, why not figure out how to be strong? And no, I don't think that anyone should be free to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater -- nor do I think that the comic who thought that saying "Wouldn't it be funny if that woman" (an audience member) "would be raped by six guys right now?" should get a pass. Not because the answer to his "question" is "No, it would not be funny" -- but because it deserves more trenchant heckling, not censorship -- or death threats. The suggestion of keeping free expression alive also entails reading widely and in many languages (even if in translation) and cultivating what we used to call an "open mind" when it comes to challenging discourse and debate.
And by that I also mean that it's important to ask questions -- be irreverent in your asking. If you're a feminist, ask the unexpected question. Instead of shutting down publishers of diverse and excellent literature -- ask yourself why the movie "Straight Out of Compton" conveniently leaves out Dr. Dre's (aka Andre Young's) history of assaulting and beating up women, then celebrating this brutality in lyrics so unabashedly misogynist that perhaps only Eminem could keep up? Why was Kate Gale's apology roundly mocked when it appears that no one is willing to mock this much-celebrated miscreant -- and his recent inadequate apology to "women I've hurt"?
Or how about some comedy about the toughest and most wise-ass women in the world? I'm talking about women who actually fight and kill members of Isis! Though they live in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan -- an area beset by tragedy and oppression -- these women use Isis' misogyny against them. They are the Kurdish women fighters who fashion a military strategy on the belief of these Muslim extremists that if they are killed by a woman they cannot go to heaven (so forget the 72 virgins!) -- so if they see a female fighter coming at them, they run like hell. This is a desperate situation but it is also funny -- unless perhaps you're too P.C. to laugh. Instead of weeping, why not recruit yourself to go over there and join forces with women who really know the meaning of the comedy term, "to kill"?
But, wait, don't call yourself an "American" if you go over there -- even if you are? According to the University of New Hampshire's "Bias-Free Language Guide," terms like "American" can cause "offense" and are (P.C.) "problematic." In their published search for "inclusive excellence" -- "poor" is "person at the poverty level" and "obese" becomes "person of size." The President of UNH has distanced himself from this linguistic "guide," stating that "a well-meaning effort to be 'sensitive' proves offensive to many people, myself included."
P.C. "out of control" can devolve into a version of Stalinism. You remember Stalin? The short little (sorry, "person of small size") Russian tyrant who killed more people than Hitler? And who sent the great Russian Modernist poet Osip Mandelstam into exile, to the gulag, where he starved to death -- for writing a satirical poem ("The Stalin Epigram") about this monster of small size. Mandelstam was trying to funny. Stalin didn't laugh. He might have issued a language guide to "correct" Mandelstam's images.
Where Mandelstam described "the huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip" Stalin might have substituted: "his powerful mustache looking like attractive jocular insects." No offense possible there.
Caitlin Flanagan's view, as expressed on "Real Time," is that the war is over. She believes that free speech is "over" on college campuses -- that students no longer know or care about it. But I disagree. I'm hopeful that the debate between the troops concerned with "micro-aggression" and "triggering" passages -- and the free speechers is just beginning. I'm against sexual violence on campus and everywhere else and I've been a victim myself -- but I'm against "triggering" -- which another form of purging the pages of literature.
Teaching poetry in the schools -- or in prisons -- is a good way to rid yourself of hyper-P.C. proclivities. Young students in the South Bronx and inmates of prisons tend not to be interested in "Bias-Free Language Guides." Years ago in New York, I started a poetry workshop at the Women's House of Detention on Riker's Island that grew, with many poets and fiction writers teaching classes into a state-wide (in all state prisons) literary arts program, called "Art Without Walls/Free Space." I never experienced any bias against my being involved in teaching and directing this program, as a white woman. That is to say, I didn't experience push-back from any inmate of the prisons in which we taught writing for many years. However, I did take definite flak from acquaintances who openly expressed their view that I was acting out of "white liberal guilt" and that the "last thing" the inmates needed was a "red-faced white woman trying to teach them anything." I also worked in a prison organization called After Care -- we tried to find jobs for inmates - who were desperate for any information or help after leaving prison with a few dollars in their pockets and nowhere to go. Women whose children had been taken away from them upon their incarceration - and made "wards of the state," in foster care -- wanted help finding them. At one point, the crucial issue handed down from "on high" was that we could no longer refer to those getting out of prison as "former inmates." They were to be called "ex-offenders," an early version of P.C. euphemism.
In my opinion, it is better to be a hapless hoping to be funny "offender" like Kate Gale - than an "ex-offender" in the P.C. ranks. Or should I say: "a person of acquired sensitivity, who enforces that sensitivity by inflicting it as punishment on others."? Just a joke.