They Only Yam What They Say They Yam?

Penn Jillette has a new feature on Revision 3. It’s called Penn Point. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a fan of Mr. Jillette. I go back to the days of the magic show on 43rd street (MoFo took my ex-wife across the street for Chinese noodles) and through the late lamented radio show and podcast. Gotta say though that in my humble opinion Penn Point is off to an inauspicious beginning. If you want to hit the link above, and watch before you read, I will wait . . . . cue the Muzak!

{Tall and tan and young and lovely,

the girl from Ipanema goes walking.

And when she walks in Tucson they say “Fre-e-e-e-z-e!”}

Oh, you’re back. Great.

Okay here is the deal. The part I take exception to is Mr. Jillette’s insistence that a movement is not racist unless its members say it is racist, because judging on the basis of behavioral evidence constitutes looking into their hearts, which is impossible to do. Maybe it is the Vegas sun. Maybe it is the notion that a person should really have a regular media show where he just talks off the top of his head–especially Penn Jillette’s head, a height from which bad ideas have plenty of time to hit maximum velocity before they crash to the pavement.

That notion is patently absurd for two reasons–first, its logical extension leads to the conclusion that no interest group with any agenda no matter how heinous is guilty of anything unless they confess. As reported in the May 23, 2010 New York Daily News, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric tied to the Fort Hood shootings and the Christmas Day Heinous Hanes, says everyone is fair game, because they vote in elections that result in a government that makes war on Islam. In my mind, that makes him a terrorist. Following Mr. Jillette’s argument however, Mr. al-Awlaki is not a terrorist, because he didn’t say he and his gang are terrorists. As much as I respect Mr. Jillette’s intelligence and consistency, I am gonna take a peek into this guy’s heart and take him off my Christmas card list.

My real purpose is to rebut Mr. Jillette’s argument on more practical grounds. I am not a big enough fan of Mr. Jillette’s to have looked up his biography, but I can tell him that where I grew up only the rare hardcore racist used that term to describe himself. The fun-lovin’ gang of political activists who burned a cross in my neighbors’ yard when I was in high school forgot to put on their team sweaters. The frat boys who fire bombed my grad school Jewish friend Howard’s car, because they mistakenly thought he was Iranian (circa 1980) probably neglected to list Anti-Semites Guild on their resumes. Almost everybody in my town knew who the Klansmen were, but rarely did anyone say their names out loud. Mr. Jillette listed the Klan as an organization that is avowedly racist–kind of hard to tell who is doing the avowal though with those silly hoods on their heads.

In fairness, Mr. Jillette was not talking about the Klan; he was talking about the Tea Party Movement. an actress opined to Larry King (Do I hear wedding bells?) that the movement is racist. Mr. Jillette, then felt, in his words, “put in the position” of defending them. I do not think the Tea Party movement is inherently a racist movement.  To the extent that it is a movement at all, it is one part professional manipulation by politically-oriented marketers and one part general panic-fueled dissatisfaction with the status quo. However, there is no doubt that the fear that fuels the latter half is heavily, if not deliberately, fueled by racism.

This would be a good time to define terms.  I define racism as thought or action predicated by and/or inflamed because of negative perceptions of a person’s worthiness, trustworthiness, motivation, civility, intelligence or any other relevant personal attribute based purely or primarily on the perceiver’s interpretation of that person’s race. If I think you are sub-human, because you are black, that is an instance of racism. Also, every time I cross the street at night, because a black man or Hispanic is on the sidewalk behind me when I am not prone to do that if the man is white, that is also an instance of racism.

On the basis of this definition, my background and in moments of weakness even my own experience, I will state without reservation that in my opinion a lot of the enmity spewed at Tea Party functions is founded in racism.  When a huge throng of primarily white people mourns the destruction of “our America” they are at least implicitly harkening back to a time of separate water fountains, Jim Crow laws, voting restrictions and the not uncommon beating or lynching. when state governors suck up to the movement by leaving slavery out of discussions of the Civil War, they are pandering to racism. When the geniuses on the Texas Board of Education want the word slavery stricken from text book discussions of the slave trade, they are appealing to racism. When the leader of a movement refer to Islam as worship of a “Monkey God” Penn Jillette should stand idly by until he adds “and, oh yeah, I am a racist.” To draw that conclusion. When the people who don’t want a mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center agree to raze all of the Christian churches within four blocks of the site of the Oklahoma Office Building bombing, I will believe that race is not an issue.

I make fun of the Tea Party movement, because . . . well how can you not? Folks, at least hope for a country that honors life, liberty and the pursuit of spell-checking! I also admire a lot about some of the people who are part of it. At least they are part of something. When I saw the huge mass of people protesting the draconian cuts in the New Jersey state budget this week I had to wonder what the turnout was among their various demographics, on election day. The guy who won didn’t mince words about his plans; why were they surprised when it happened?

Having said this, I sort of agree with Mr. Jillette. It is overly simplistic to dismiss the Tea Party Movement by labeling it a “racist movement.”  Defining a person who exhibits occasional race-insensitivity as “A Racist” is the same as defining a person who occasionally stretches the truth as a “Liar.” No one should be reduced to the caricature of being totally categorized by a single predilection. It is counterproductive. In fact, racism in this country is in no small degree sustained, because people who recognize slight or implicit racist tendencies in themselves are called out as poster children of the plague. One of the aggravating factors of the latent unrest in this country is the insistence of many people (many of whom are members of my profession) that a fifty year old white male, who is in his third generation of persistent poverty, shunned by all of the institutions of power and status that aren’t specifically designed to condescend to him is somehow “advantaged” by his “whiteness.” That is akin to belittling a person because he is only dying from one of the less horrendous cancers. “Hey, pal! You think your insides are being eaten away? Let me tell you about Jim!”

In review, while we shouldn’t dismiss the Tea Party Movement as merely “racist” it is ludicrous to claim that racism plays no part in it. It is even more ludicrous to refuse to call people out for their behavior until they label it themselves.  While we don’t want to be too quick to judge, when the time right let’s call a spade a spade!

Admit it! Just for a second, you thought it . . . didn’t you?

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About bigshotprof

College Professor in the Communication Studies department at Pace University. My personal life fall somewhere in the gap between less than you want to know and more than you need to know.
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