RollingStone Magazine recently ran this image, by Victor Juhasz, “satirizing” the campaign for president. The magazine’s illustration is supposed to show the regressive view of international politics in the McCain campaign and the idea that McCain is approaching his opponents, the election itself, and the war like he is still back in the quagmire of the Vietnam war.
This image relies on “yellow face,” manipulating the facial features of his opponents in order to make them “look Asian” and then putting them in clothing that N. Americans will recognize from the myriad of Vietnam films if nothing else. It then raises the specter of Anti-Asian, or more specifically Anti-Vietnamese, sentiment by transforming political opponents into captors. While RS’ readers may no longer use Vietnamese specific slurs in their every day speech, the reality is that I heard them less than a week ago during my time in P-Land. In certain segments of our society, the Vietnamese are still prison guards and/or immigrant interlopers. Add to that the pervasive racism that allows so many Asian characters to be played by white people on tv and film, the exaggerated speaking voice, subservience, and duplicity that is often expected of Asian characters in film, and the reality tv show controversy two years ago when both a Real Wives of the Orange County star and then View talkshow host Rosie O’Donnell made derogatory remarks about the way Asians speak and their place in N. America. Both women’s apologies relied on the “I’m sorry if you were offended” tactic as opposed to taking actual responsibility. Thus, within the context of the specific historical moment that was the Vietnam war and the larger racist and/or racialized imaginary of N. America, RollingStone’s illustration is essentially mobilizing racism that is ever present in our nation in order to call McCain backwards when any number of non-racist metaphors were available to them.
The other problem with this image is that like McCain or not, he is a POW who managed to survive. Making light of what happened to POWs is no more acceptable than making light of what happened to Kim Phuc. Torture on any side of the political spectrum is still torture. When we make light of it because it was done to a Republican, we are no better than those who make light of torture done to people against whom we are politically opposed. And it seems to me, that this is one thing that mainstream liberals consistently fail to understand. Having the moral high ground does not excuse immoral behavior.
We are also supposed to understand that he is paranoid, pushing a war we cannot win and do not want, and that he sees enemies everywhere. All though this may be true and is clearly represented in this image, it fails to recognize the very real development of hypervigilance in people with post-traumatic stress. Rather than a sign of “the crazy person,” the image actually represents a reality for many veterans who suffering from PTS often over worry, are over cautious, and my lash out at perceived enemies. While this is certainly something to discuss in a legitimate forum about McCain’s fitness for the presidency it is not something to make light of in a nation where 100s of 1000s of veterans are homeless and abandoned by their government for developing PTS while fighting that same government’s wars.
Thus the RS image is likely to incite sympathy not derision for McCain. That sympathy will rely on both real war crimes (again perpetrated on all sides in a war that we should not have been in) and a zenophobic jingoism that ultimately leads back to blatant racism. It’s insensitivity to disability issues, ie mental health, and the long history of abandonment of vets struggling with mental and emotional challenges, ie its ableism, will further alienate those who sit on the fence.
It seems to me that there is a general trend here in what a certain segment of white liberal America thinks is ok to “laugh at” that directly contradicts what people of color experience on a personal as well as a national one. And that this trend is bleeding out into other oppressions lately as well. Liberal magazines from Vanity Fair to Rolling Stone, and the now infamous picture from the New Yorker, all seem to be saying that racism is no longer a factor in N. America. And when called on it their answer is two-fold: 1. the readers who are upset are either not the intended audience or are less intelligent than they assume their readers to be and 2. they are not being racist they are dismantling the racism of others. In other words, anyone who complains is stupid and everybody is racist except middle class white liberals.
Do you see the problem?
Dana Milbanks did not see the problem and now he works on a different network. Note it is just as well-watched as the original one, so like Imus he didn’t pay too much. And isn’t that the point? Even if you are found guilty of mobilizing racist images or making comments that show a pattern of racialized thinking in your handling of the presidential election, you will still have a job tomorrow. You will still be championed by other magazines doing riffs of your cover art to prove that the issue is “oversensitivity toward Obama” and not racism in N. America, and you will still get a lucrative deal to continue your behavior in some other outlet.
Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Stiller don’t think so and both of them are expected to make a sizeable profit from their upcoming film that features both ableism and racism. Even if they do not, both will continue to be seen as important players in Hollywood and Downey Jr.s additional two Iron Man films and cameos in every other superhero film they can think, will not be jeopardized.
Perhaps this is the real message to N. America and to the world. Racism is one of the longest standing traditions in our nation. It has been aimed at every ethnic group and racial group that has been forced to migrate here or who came on their own. While some have been granted whiteness through the passage of time it was not without a struggle in which they had to define themselves in opposition to slavery and then blackness in general. We have reached a point in our national history in which most liberal N. Americans have received at least a superficial education about civil rights, grown up watching tv in which at least one show a night will have at least one person of color on it, where at least one comedian of color will make satirical jokes that rely on a certain understanding of race in N. America that many of them later comment they now know does not exist, and who live or work in places where at least one (likely only one) person of color lives or works. Somehow, this has translated to the idea that racism is over. And if you dare to contradict them, then it is usually only a matter of minutes before someone brings up Oprah, Morgan Freeman, JLo, or Jackie Chan. Oddly, it reminds me of an old Spike Lee joke from Do the Right Thing.
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