On Kevin Drum, Mother Jones, and Who Gets to Decide What’s Racist
Kevin Drum Asks: Does This Ironic Hipster Racism Make Me Look Like an Ass?
OK, so this happened:
Kevin Drum is one of the better writers working for Mother Jones on the politics beat, and his output is generally thoughtful and balanced.
But this? “Finally Shows His Chicago Thug Side for Real”? C’mon, son.
All the attention is going to be focused on the “unfortunate” headline and the subsequent walk-back. But first, let’s discuss the failures of the post itself.
Let’s start with the lead sentence:
I’m late to this and I don’t really have anything substantive to add, but just for the record:
No, really. That’s the opening line. Protip: When you know you “don’t really have anything substantive to add to a story,” that should be your first clue that you don’t need to write a post to prove it.
Further, let’s consider Drum’s claim that he is “late” to this story. Even a cursory reading of his post (and The Guardian article to which he links) belies that statement. The Guardian quotes multiple sources about the scramble over a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales, but none of them actually assert as fact that the United States government in general, or President Obama in particular, directed these events.
The closest Guardian writer Jonathan Watts comes to making that claim is here:
The United States has yet to comment, but the longer it remains silent, the stronger suspicions will be that it leaned on France, Spain, Portugal and Italy to deny permission for Morales’s plane to fly through their airspace, in effect putting the hunt for US whistleblower Edward Snowden above international law and the rights of a president of a sovereign nation.
In other words, this is actually still a developing story. The Guardian may believe that the silence of a suspect is itself evidence of guilt, as does the Roberts Court; but they’re both, you know, wrong. The convolutions of Drum’s main paragraph make that clear:
Did we really, seriously, strong-arm the governments of France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy to deny the president of Bolivia permission to fly over their airspace? All because some moron in one of our intelligence services that supposedly tracks every communication on the planet decided that Evo Morales was serious when he joked about taking Edward Snowden home with him from Moscow?
This technique of disguising speculation as reporting by following it with a question mark has rightly earned the derisive scorn of media critics. It even has a name – the Cavuto Mark - that honors one of its most enthusiastic practitioners at Fox News.
Because this is a developing story, it’s entirely possible that we may in due time know exactly what happened, and for what reasons. Until then, no matter how many links you include in your post, it’s speculation and premature outrage, not journalism.
The Chicago Thug Meme: It’s a Trap!
What caused Twitter to light up within seconds, and Drum to revise his title and add an update shortly thereafter, was the use of the Chicago Thug meme in the title, and the final paragraph of Drum’s post characterizing the Obama administration as “outrageous, thuggish, and clownish.” He has revised the title, but changed nothing in his post in response to the criticism coming his way. Look at the update for what it does and does not say.
UPDATE: The original headline of this post was “Obama Finally Shows His Chicago Thug Side for Real.” This was obviously a nod to the endless tea party invocations of Obama as a Chicago thug, but it’s been taken by many as a racial dog whistle. I apologize for that, since it certainly wasn’t my intent. I think the treatment of Morales’s plane was outrageous behavior, and quite likely a result of pressure from the United States, but that’s all.
Sigh. Let’s go over this one more time, shall we?
Those of us who communicate with the public, whether professionally or on an amateur basis, must remember that what is “obvious” to us is never inherently obvious to our readers. It is our job as writers to explain, clarify and justify our word choices within the context of the written communication, and also to anticipate how others might receive our words.
Here, Drum ascribes the “Chicago thug” meme to a group that his readers are likely to find repellent, the “tea party,” and indicates that it was not his “intent” to blow a racial dog whistle. He does so without pausing to consider that racial animus might be inextricably woven into the meme itself. Poor Kevin Drum! Who left this rake laying about in his path, and who forced him to step on it?
The concept of “ironic hipster racism” has been discussed at length. It’s a very frayed rope above a deep abyss that we white people choose to walk at our own peril. As a noted Twitter smart-ass, I have been called to task for comments that trade on stereotypes about groups, even groups of which I’m a member like the LGBT community. I learn and grow from this kind of feedback, and hope Kevin Drum does too; but his update fails for me as much as the original post.
This non-apology shifts the blame for finding the “Chicago thug” meme racially inappropriate from the author to the reader. It also continues to assert, with no new evidence, that the author’s unsubstantiated belief about what actually happened to the plane, and his feelings about what that would mean if it were proven to be correct, are still an important topic for a blog post at Mother Jones.
This blogger disagrees. Too bad for all of us that Kevin Drum didn’t just hit delete when he was done ranting.
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