Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Matter of Context: Yes, That Float Was Tacky

The world’s first great democracy, ancient Athens, showcased the strength of its government and citizenry by a variety of means, not the least of which was self-mockery. At the Lenaea Festival and later even at the Great City Dionysia, the polis staged rowdy and vulgar satires that left no one free from the scathing wit of the likes of Aristophanes, whose barbs were aimed at everyone from the strategos Cleon (The Knights) to Socrates (The Clouds) to the demi-god Dionysus himself (The Frogs). Variations on the theme appear in other governmental systems as well: the Feast of Fools, for example, or the wide political latitude granted to the court jester.

The phenomenon may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but a little reflection leads us to the simple fact that the ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of strength, not weakness. This phenomenon has also played out in this country’s fairly recent history. One of the most reassuring moments in the period immediately after 9/11, for example, was when David Letterman went back on the air in New York. But we knew we were really going to be all right when he started telling Bush jokes again.

So there is nothing whatsoever wrong with satirizing American politicians, up to and including President Obama. Except, well…

In Norfolk, Nebraska this 4th of July, a float carried on the back of a flatbed truck showed, in the words of the Omaha World Herald’s Hunter Woodall:
... a figure standing outside an outhouse labeled the “Obama Presidential Library”.…
The figure was dressed in overalls and standing next to a walker outside of the outhouse. The hands and head of the figure were greenish and appeared to be zombielike; the hands were pressed against the sides of the figure’s head. Miniature American flags were atop the float and on the truck.
As one might expect, there were two fundamentally different responses, or rather two fundamentally different sets of responses. There were those, like Gloria Kathurima, who regarded the float as “not OK,” and indeed as “not just political [but] absolutely a racial statement.” Kathurima, who immigrated from Kenya as a girl and is now a naturalized citizen, was, according to the NBC affiliate in Sioux City, IA (about 90 miles to the northeast), “deeply offended.” The station aired an interview with her in which she says, “[Some people were] laughing, some people were pointing, some people were clapping, and that’s when I really became scared. I was thinking ‘What are you guys laughing at? What's remotely funny about this?’ I don't see any sort of policy being argued. I don't see any sort of stance being taken.”

We can argue with the characterization of racism—see Jack Marshall’s piece at Ethics Alarms, for example—but in a town in which whites outnumber blacks by a ratio of about 55:1, an apparently gratuitous insult to a black man who also happens to be the President of the United States does take on a certain distastefulness. Couple that with Kathurima’s daughter’s experience in the local school district—descriptions of the other kids’ not liking her, always wanting to touch her hair: this speaks to an alienation, whether or not inspired by racial animus. Intended or not, that’s going to look a lot like “a racial statement” to a lot of people, especially those with a little more melanin than average in a small Nebraska town.

But even if we discount the racial element altogether, we’re still left agreeing with Jack Marshall’s list of adjectives: “wrong,” “harmful,” “ugly,” “inept,” “unfunny,” and “divisive.” Ms. Kathumira is unquestionably correct that there really isn’t a policy statement to be derived from the display: just contempt for the current President. And here’s where we get to the other group of people mentioned earlier: the ones who approved the float, the ones who laughed—these are not the cream of the nation’s intellectual crop.

But H. Dale Remmich, who designed and built this monstrosity, is a special kind of incompetent. He claims to have had two impetuses for his creation: the “ongoing issues of the Veteran's Affairs administration” and “the government's handling of the Bergdahl scandal.” OK, if you tell me that I’m looking for the former in this float’s satiric intent, I might be able to find my way there with a guide dog—I guess the figure could be taken to be a veteran whose benefits got bound up in VA incompetence. (Remmich claims it was intended to represent himself… why it was so intended is less than entirely clear.) But the Bergdahl case? How in the name of all that’s holy are we supposed to derive that particular meaning, based on this ill-conceived and poorly constructed monument to self-described “political disgust”?

For all this, Remmich is an intellectual giant compared to the judges who gave the float an award and especially to parade committee member Rick Konopasek and announcer Wally Sonnenschein, whose mental superiority to a decaying cucumber is not immediately apparent. Konopasek, having just said that floats could and would be denied for being “morally objectionable,” meaning, apparently, that anything sexual would be banned, immediately proceeds to claim that “If we start saying no to certain floats, we might as well not have a parade at all.” Uh, Rick… you are, presumably, saying no to certain floats.

The prize-winner, however, is Sonnenschein, who, it seems, was able to keep a straight face while declaring that “I really don’t see anything wrong with the Obama float and I’m kind of amazed anyone is complaining.” The first part of his statement is no doubt true, more’s the pity. The second part is either utterly disingenuous or ol’ Wally would come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and an anvil.

The fact is that context matters. If this parade has a history of poking a little fun at political leaders, so be it. But no one seems to be defending the float on those grounds, meaning that this year’s entry was probably an outlier: one that should have been denied a spot in the parade for being out of tune with the purpose of the event. Analogously, when Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the State of the Union address a few years back to shout “You lie” at the President, he was rightly rebuked not because his accusation was inaccurate (although it was, at least in that particular moment), or that he didn’t have the legal right to object to the speech, but rather because expressing himself in that way, in those circumstances, was boorish, disrespectful of the presidency (not merely of the President), and a disgrace to his own constituency.

One of the things that stuck in my mind this Independence Day season was the number of friends who rejoiced in the fact that for this one day, at least, we get to cease being members of a particular political party or religion or race or socio-economic status and simply be Americans. Remmich, Konopasek, Sonnenschein and their ilk seek to deny us that unity, and we are all the poorer for that.

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