July 5, 2015

Oh, The Outrage, My Goodness!


Henry Miller once said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that anyone who was obsessed with the problems of the world and changing them either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them. There is a parallel at work in this country today, but on a much smaller, more insipid and impotent level, involving people who are obsessed with signifiers—words and symbols that have come (depending on who’s using them) to represent ideas they disagree with. The mere sight of these words and symbols, regardless of the context, throws them into such an unthinking, preconditioned lather they come to the blinkered conclusion that if we ban these symbols, make the use of certain words a criminal offense, the ideas and opinions these things represent will likewise go away. It’s become the standard response to opinions we don’t like.

            A couple of weeks ago the president appeared on a podcast which usually involves interviews with comedians. Near the end of the interview, which focused on race relations in America, he commented that simply not saying “nigger” in public is not going to get rid of the fundamental problem. Personally I’m no fan of this or any other president, but it struck me as perhaps the first intelligent and honest thing I’ve ever heard him say. Well, people heard the word “nigger,” were incapable of recognizing that he was using it in quotes, that he was simply referring to it, and ignored the point he was making. All that mattered was that a president had used the word nigger, and everyone went all hoopy-doopy with shock and dismay.

            At the same time, in the aftermath of the shootings of nine black parishioners at a South Carolina church, people found it an opportune time to insist the statehouse stop flying the Confederate flag, as it was decided this was a symbol of slavery. Or racism or something. Whatever it was they didn’t like it, considered it the real underlying source of the killings instead of, y’know, “a crazy kid with a gun,” and so it had to go away and we all had to forget it ever existed.

            And in the aftermath of both jumpings about, a black conservative television host held up both a Confederate flag and a sign reading “NIGGER” and asked his audience if they were offended by those things. Well, as you can imagine, the Vox Imbecilum made itself heard loud and clear, again ignoring context and intent, immediately jumping on their little twat devices to type out all sorts of angry things in all caps. That’s how you can tell they’re really mad. Which, funny as it all is, just goes to show again why any serious and honest debate about damn near anything in this country is no longer possible.

            Some years back, a black middle school teacher (I forget what state, but it doesn’t matter) was fired for using the term “niggardly” in class. It’s not that we’re no longer allowed to discuss stinginess in public, it’s that we as a populace are so damnably and deliberately stupid we will now fly into a righteous fury not over actions or ideas, but syllables for godsakes.

            The initial calls to take down and stop the sales of Confederate flags has expanded to further calls to pull down statues of Confederate figures and re-dub any streets and buildings named after Robert E. Lee. So try and figure this reasoning: an unbalanced avowed racist shot some people, so now we need to erase any and all evidence of Southern culture. If you can fathom that logic, well, then you’re a helluva lot smarter than I am.

            Freedom of speech and thought has always been a pleasant happy myth we use to comfort ourselves that we’re more enlightened than those silly savages in Third World nations, Communist bloc countries, or the Middle East. But of course it never really existed in any practical sense. How many people were arrested under the Alien and Sedition Acts for badmouthing the government? How many court battles did it take before Barney Rossett was finally allowed to publish Henry Miller (or D.H. Lawrence, or William Burroughs)? How many times was Lenny Bruce arrested? Yet for it all Americans still pretend to be outraged when someone on television uses a word we hear dozens of times every day on the street? And now every week it seems there’s another word added to the banned list out of fear some group of dilweeds or another will be offended by it. Myself, I’ve always been a little curious as to how “free speech” and “making sure some over-sensitive squid won’t be offended” fit together.

            I’m just waiting for the day, and mark my words it will come, when the acceptable signifiers of offensive signifiers will themselves come to be considered offensive and be banished—when “the N-word” and “F-bomb,” these hilariously childish contemporary equivalents of the old schoolyard “H-E-Double Toothpicks”, will likewise be verboten.

For all the attempts at mind control, though, here’s the ironic thing. It always seems to be the most brazenly homophobic politicians who are inevitably caught trolling gay dating sites, and those ultraconservative ministers who preach abstinence who turn out to be addicted to tranny hookers. It seems it’s always the ones who put on the loudest outraged act who are secretly the worst offenders. It’s such a given, such a transparent bit of cheap psychological chicanery that now whenever I hear people quivering on the edge of pointless violence over the use of the confederate flag or the word “nigger” in any context I immediately suspect them to be a card-carrying member of the White Aryan Resistance, no matter what race they are.

            If you’re honest with yourself and honest about human nature you will recognize that we’re all racist to some degree. Accept it, and we can all relax a little bit. It’s when you try to marginalize it, outlaw it, bury it that things get dangerous. Look at what happened in Germany after the war. They banned the swastika and made questioning the Holocaust an imprisonable offense, all in an effort to quash the thinking that led to Hitler in the first place. And how well has that worked, exactly? Um, well let’s just say “not very.” Does anyone really believe that making Mel Gibson go on all those apology tours a few years back helped instill in him any deep and abiding love for the Jews?

            If freedom of speech and thought were a reality, if we were allowed to say and believe what we want even if someone disagrees with us, we’d all be much better off. I’d rather know outright and honestly where someone stands instead of dealing with someone who feels forced to control and hide his or her fundamental nature for the sake of public propriety or out of fear of being pilloried in the media. Force someone into a situation like that, cram some unnatural behavior down his throat, and the pressure’s gonna build, and next thing you know there’s some pissed off window installer with an automatic shooting up a Slovenian deli in Phoenix.

            But you know what, you can ban all the words, you can take away all the flags, you can make it a felony to offend anyone for any reason, and not a goddamn thing is going to change. A couple of times a year someone will go a little funny in the head, after which we will once again pretend to have “a serious and open discussion” about something or another, though each time we’ll have fewer and fewer words to use. Then we’ll get distracted by something else and forget all about it again.

            Now if you’ll excuse me I think I’ll go put on Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger” and play it really fucking loud.


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