Saturday, March 29, 2014

#CancelColbert? OMG WTF

All things being equal, the Left tends to have a far better sense of humour than the Right. The best comedy tends to be that which is poking fun at the powerful rather than the weak, and making observations that are at odds with what would be considered traditionally normal and proper.

The paradox is that while the Right's reactionary nature is what makes it less well-suited to comedy, the Left has its own very reactionary side, determined to stand up for the powerless against the powerful at all times. This fight against sexism, racism, homophobia, able-ism and the like doesn't always sit well with the comedic modus operandi of bucking against the boundaries what is normally considered polite conversation. It's a fine line to tread. Louis CK has been strongly criticized for, among other things, repeatedly referring to Sarah Palin as a "c**t"; yet he is nonetheless very popular on the left for the the liberal underpinnings of his philosophical outlook (he's one of few people who can discuss male privilege and white privilege and be hilarious at the same time). Indian-Canadian Russell Peters became a worldwide star for stand-up routines that are little more than a collection of racial stereotypes, which would get lesser comedians into trouble, yet the underlying theme is that cultural diversity is wonderful and fascinating. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle was attacked by the PC police for using the words "Paki" and "nigger" in a joke about casualties of war, yet he used the terms to illustrate the callous indifference the West has towards dark-skinned people killed in far-off places. Clearly however, a lot of people heard those two incendiary terms and chose to disregard any other contextual considerations.

So to this week's fiasco of left-wing activists vs Stephen Colbert, whose popular show The Colbert Report is a satire of right-wing news. From the Washington Post:

If you’re making fun of someone else’s racism, is it still possible to be racist? Stephen Colbert found himself in quite the mess after his “Colbert Report” tweeted a quote from his Wednesday night show, making fun of Washington football team owner Daniel Snyder:
“I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever,” the Colbert Report posted in a March 27 tweet that was later taken down. The Report later clarified that the account is a publicity account run by the Comedy Central network, not Colbert, nor his show.
Snyder was pilloried by the online Native American community Monday night after releasing a four-page letter saying that he would be creating the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Many were outraged by what they felt was an ersatz show of support from the man who refuses to change the team’s name, which many consider a slur.
But things didn’t go much better for Colbert, who became the target of a #CancelColbert Twitter hashtag started by those who found the tweet offensive. Suey Park, the hashtag activist responsible for #NotYourAsianSidekick, said she would continue calling for Colbert’s job until he issued an apology. 

Following this, Suey Park appeared on Huffington Post Live, in which her exchange with host Josh Zepps ends in fairly uncomfortable circumstances:



There are a couple of ways to look at this. On one hand, it shows two male white liberal journalists shutting down dismissively a woman of colour because her opinions challenge theirs. It's a demonstration of white male privilege in action. Alternatively, you could judge that regardless of the fact that she is non-white and a woman, her opinion is being treated that way because, as Zepps says, "it's a stupid opinion".

Unsuprisingly, people retweeting #CancelColbert chose to take the former perspective. And they may well have a point. It does raise something worth discussing though; is calling out someone else's privilege just another way of playing the race or gender card? When Zepps argues with her, Park basically says that as a white male, he is incapable of seeing the issue from the perspective of a person of colour, and thus his opinion is effectively irrelevant. Now, I won't deny that there are lots of instances of white people being unable to see things from a non-white perspective. White privilege is a real thing, as is male privilege. But Park's argument boils down to this: I'm right, because I'm a woman of colour.

How does anyone argue with that?

Let's bear in mind that "people of colour" (a term I really hate hearing, to be honest, but let's not dwell on that for now) are not an amorphous mass and the #CancelColbert mob do not speak for all POCs. As an example, Korean-American actor Stephen Yeun had a civil debate over Twitter with Park, defending Colbert's satire. However many POC found Colbert's segment offensive (or more pertinently, found the out-of-context Tweet offensive), there were clearly plenty who didn't. As a POC (ugh) myself, let me say that I don't think it's offensive at all and think it's perfectly legitimate satire. But then again, I'm half-white too so maybe that's just my white privilege talking.

My worry is that this is representative of the way that left-activism is going. People like Park might think they are raising awareness of how Asian-Americans and others are marginalized by the mainstream, but they are simultaneously entrenching the divide by making POC a sort of privileged class who alone can dictate what is offensive to them, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. And if you are white and offend a POC, there is no way to prove that they may have misunderstood, so only an apology will suffice. I just don't think this will be acceptable to white people as a whole, and so this is the kind of approach that will merely alienate whites who would otherwise be allies.

One inevitable side effect of this controversy was that Park received lots of offensive tweets, with racist and sexist comments as well as death threats and rape threats (unfortunately to be expected for women in social media these days). This sort of abuse is completely unjustifiable, but it does show that Park is right in a sense - white liberals (the primary Colbert audience) may see themselves as progressive, but their ranks do contain many who will show an ugly sexist and racist side when the shit goes down.

Who wins out of all this? The Right, of course. Which is probably why whacko Asian-American conservative Michelle Malkin jumped on board to support #CancelColbert. When you are being supported by a right-wing nut who is on record as thinking the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans was a good thing, perhaps its time to reconsider your direction. Jezebel has a good take on all of this.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Hari Kondabolu on Letterman

Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu is the sort of comedian beloved by many a left-wing thinker - the nerdy brown guy critiquing issues of race and identity. But first and foremost it's got to be funny, and fortunately he's got just enough good jokes so that it doesn't just feel like a sociology lecture. It's not really everyone's bag though, and you can sort of sense that at least some of the Letterman audience (somewhat older and whiter than say, the Jimmy Fallon or Conan O'Brien audience) is feeling a wee bit uncomfortable.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Someone has made Malaysia's own version of "Happy"

Pharrell Williams hit Happy is just about my favourite track of the last few months: fun, infectious but not horribly cheesy. Its video has been a big part of its appeal, and it has spawned a few montages of people grooving to the song. This one is shot in and around Kuala Lumpur, and some of the streetscapes are recognisable even to an occasional visitor like myself. It could have been lame, but fortunately it's not.