December 31, 2019

A Potpourri of Idiocies

Offenses of the Months, 2019
A good way to appreciate our times is to sample tidbits and morsels from the slush pile of reportage on the American penchant for being gratuitously offensive. I offer here a small sample, in random categories and without regard to chronology, of stories that have bubbled up through 2019 to delight any taste.

I’m O.K., You’re KK
In November, I learned that it’s now considered rude to type “O.K.,” in response to a routine request or inquiry in an email, at least if you’re corresponding with a member of the Millennial Generation (commonly supposed to be those born between 1981 and 1996) or Generation Z (born after 1996). So says Caity Weaver, a Styles writer at The New York Times. The younger folk, it seems, will take you as boorish, even more so if you type simply “k.” (I’ve never actually seen that done—why would you?—but I’m so old there’s not even a proper name for my generation.) The polite response, it seems, is “kk.” Ms. Weaver says that she rarely uses that locution, preferring “O.K.!” (which, she says, “feels more natural, but still conveys to the recipient, through its superfluous exclamation point, the same frantic message that I’m not annoyed or angry (omg why would I be) so please don’t feel bad!!”). It’s apparently come to this. (Or she’s having us on.) But it’s certainly not O.K.

I Didn’t Know That Slur Was Offensive
In September, Kathy McBride, city council president of Trenton, state capital of New Jersey, used an anti-Semitic slur at a council meeting to attack a Jewish assistant city attorney in settlement negotiations of a suit to recompense a woman who had been seriously injured in a sidewalk accident. Ms. McBride thought the woman deserved more money and said that the lawyer was “able to wait her out and jew her down.” On learning of the comment, Trenton’s mayor, Reed Gusciora, condemned the remark and called for an apology. His email to the council members prompted two, Robin M. Vaughn and George Muschal, to defend Ms. McBride. Ms. Vaughn said the slur is “a verb and is not anti-anything.” Mr. Muschal told the New Jersey Globe that the phrase is “just a statement of speech.” Not only that: “the expression has been said millions of times. . . . It wasn’t nothing maliciously done. It was about money. That’s why they said Jew them down.” This straightforward, almost cheerful explanation, offered apparently as exoneration, seemed to satisfy few, though one or two readers of the Globe told their fellow citizens to “calm down and stop being so sensitive” (otherwise, what would this world come to?). A few days after the slur surfaced, someone apparently explained to all three council members that it is 2019 (or maybe just that it’s a bit past 1959, to pick a date at random), and the tone-deaf trio apologized. All three remain on the city council.

Deck the Halls with Auschwitz Glory
On December 1, Amazon took the brave step of rejecting third-party retailers’ sales of Christmas ornaments and other products depicting the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The products were removed from the Amazon website within hours of a tweet from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland, which condemned the sale of such products. Poor Amazon! So many products overwhelming the yuletide algorithms. Amazon’s published policy on prohibited products specifically and broadly includes “listings for items that Amazon deems offensive,” including “products that contain violent or offensive material that has no historical significance.” (The prohibition does not apply to books, music, videos, or DVDs.) My imagination is enriched every time I encounter stories about marketing opportunities, such as gemütlich concentration camp symbols on Christmas ornaments. Merriment takes dark forms, but I guess I don’t have to tell you that. Lest I overdo it, I’ll skip stories with similar themes, kk?

Yes You Are; No I’m Not
Ordinarily I try to avoid pieces about the president of the United States, because they have a way of engulfing all other news. But you’ve known that, so I’ll be brief. Still, it’s worth noting for the record that Rocket Man and The Dotard might be at it again. On December 3, in London for a NATO meeting, President Trump threatened to revive his name-calling against Kim Jong-un, reminding his listeners that he calls the North Korean dictator “Rocket Man” because of Kim’s predilection for missile and rocket tests. Two days later, a ranking official of the North Korean foreign ministry threatened retaliation: unless the president refrains from further insults, North Korea will regard the confrontation “as the relapse of the dotage of a dotard.” Scary stuff, but Our Guy is tough and I know that in the interests of global negotiations he can take it.

Sentencing Guidelines from the Handbook for Skin-Thinned Literalists
In early October, Marlon Anderson, 48, a highly respected high school security assistant in Wisconsin lost his job when he responded to taunts of a 17-year-old student who called him “nigger” more than a dozen times after he attempted to escort the student from school grounds for disruptive behavior. Both the student and Anderson are black. Fed up with the abuse, Anderson told the student to cease using the word, which Anderson repeated several times. An assistant principal overheard the conversation and broadcast it to other school officials through her walkie-talkie. A few days later Anderson was fired for violating a “zero-tolerance” policy that applies to staff who use derogatory language. An uproar ensued. The policy, as interpreted, is one of many failures by presumably educated people to understand the difference between words used as slurs and words being named (as I opined a couple of years ago). Students staged a walkout, and the uproar grew to national proportions. Arne Duncan, former U.S. secretary of education, tweeted the school district, urging it to “grow a brain and a heart.” The district felt the heat: a few days later Anderson was reinstated. The tin-eared policy is under review. No late word on the offending student.

Never Quote Evil People
Also in October, a Harvard group, Act on a Dream, waxed wroth (as S. J. Perleman might have it) that the Harvard Crimson brazenly asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comments after an anti-ICE rally on campus in September had come and gone. “We are extremely disappointed,” the protest group said, “in the cultural insensitivity displayed by the Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” Nearly 700 signatories to the group’s petition demanded that the Crimson refrain from such jaw-dropping moxie in seeking ICE’s comments. Rejecting the demand, Crimson editors wrote that “in the Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is the Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest—a rule which was followed here.” (I don’t think the Yale Daily News could have said it better.) The petitioners also demanded that the Crimson “apologize for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community.” Commentators uniformly disagreed. The mind boggles at the amount of money the press could save if journalists followed the logic of this advice, starting perhaps with refraining from seeking comments from Act on a Dream because of the harm that generalizing that rule would cause to journalism (and readers) around the world. Oh, and close down the White House press room while you’re at it.

Dancing (Only) in the Dark?
In August, Lara Spencer, co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” mocked on air the news that Prince George of Cambridge is taking ballet lessons at the age of six. Young George is third in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth (after Prince Charles and George’s father Prince William). Said Spencer: “Prince William says Prince George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William: We’ll see how long that lasts.” After extolling the many virtues of dancing, a columnist for Dance Magazine went for the jugular: “I doubt that Spencer cares. What this is really about is bullying. Because that’s what we just watched: A grown woman bullying a 6-year-old child. On national television. To laughter and applause.” After blasts from all over, including from Chita Rivera and Mitzi Gaynor (and anyone should know you don’t argue with them), Spencer apologized four days later. So easy to say you’re sorry; so hard to refrain from being stupid in front of a camera. When will television anchors learn that they can’t actually see their entire audience? Unlike some verbal offenders, Lara Spencer does not seem to be in job jeopardy. We know who looks to Prince George’s education. Who looks to Spencer’s?

Everyone Welcome, Nazis Too
When someone scrawled a swastika over a “Happy Hanukkah” sign on a dorm room door at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in early December, Nicole Parsons, a junior, hung a sign out her window that said: “Fuck Nazis You Are Not Welcome Here.” A week later, she received an email from Eddie Papazoni, who said he was the east side Resident Director on Call. In a brief but rambling paragraph, he said that someone had raised a concern. Paraphrasing the sign as “Nazis are not welcome here,” he wrote that although “this sign is permitted under Freedom of Speech,” it has had an “impact on the community.” Among other things, it raised “issues of inclusion.” He asked her to take it down. A few days later, with egg on its face, the University posted a “clarification” on Facebook, acknowledging that the Papazoni email was “poorly worded.” Reassuring the world that it “emphatically rejects Nazis,” the university winced instead at the F word: “We are sensitive to the use of profanity,” a point that either eluded the Resident Director or had him tongue tied. Of course you can keep up your sign, the university graciously allowed. Parsons took down the sign anyway to alleviate her roommate’s concern about unwelcome attention directed to their room. Parsons is moving off campus. At least one Nazi wannabe is likely still prowling the quad.

Don Imus Stilled
Finally, I note for the record that one of the pioneers of shock offense on the radio, Don Imus, died four days ago in College Station, Texas. He was 79. He was fired more than once, most famously by CBS in 2007 for referring on air to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” though he later regained a microphone, including at Fox Business Network. I’m not a biographer, but I’m hoping someone will write his story free of hype and the influence of fans.

Happy New Year!