Thursday, March 29, 2018

On Kevin Williamson And “Primate Territoral Challenge”

Ok I gave this issue some considerable thought.

...‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka!White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?”....

While I’d heard of the brouhaha over Williamson’s hiring, I only came upon this specific issue today. I’ve occasionally read pieces by Williamson and am not a big fan. He’s smart; he’s provocative; he’s erudite. And his biggest strength is that he writes a terrific prose. And yet I find him in his writing creepily quirky, creepily idiosyncratic and with an angry sensibility. All that said, isn’t it making too much of this—“ the universal gesture of *primate territorial challenge*...”—for it to anchor the argument that the Atlantic shouldn’t have hired him?

First, the phrase “primate territorial challenge” is more defensible than it is attackable. He’s not literally calling the kid a monkey. That view takes some reading in and extrapolating, which isn’t to say that that case can’t be made. But I judge it a weak one. He’s saying literally that the kid puts his palms on his collarbone with his elbows extended outwards. That’s the literal description. Then he characterizes that literal gesture as the “universal” one of primate territorial challenge. That it’s “universal” cuts against the reading that sees the kid being called a monkey. What Williamson describes is himself being seen and called out as the enemy, the “white devil,” “Cracka,” who gets a “Fuck you,” invading a foreign land where he ought not be. Williamson is setting up an elemental opposition here in wanting to paint how dire things are racially in East St. Louis, Illinois, so dire that what’s going is primal, elemental and in that universal. So in that context the reference to a “primate” gesture is apt. It’s white and black stripped down in East St. Louis to what is humanly basic, turf and its invasion. Williamson’s own defense of his phrase is that “we’re all primates,” (which is true, And that defense comports with how I suggest that opening paragraph should be read. 

Defending textually what Williamson’s written actually leads to understanding how literarily skillful the whole paragraph is, how much is going on it beyond what I’ve just pointed out. The little basic drama between invading white man and kid is couched in humor, the humor of it being a little nine year old kid who is the main actor, the humor in the description of him as a pint size, fractional Snoop Dog, the humor in the shift in point of view to the kid’s mother expressing by her look yet another human universal gesture, namely, “ though to say, “Kids say the darnedest things...” and the humor of the juxtaposed tail end of what she seems to be expressing, “ they not white devil?” fusing humorously Williamson as the perceived “white devil” with “white devil” being simply the name he goes by in casual conversation. 

In sum, it’s a literarily rich paragraph, which when properly understood betrays no racism. 

But even if we were to stipulate that it does, still it’s incidental to the thrust of the long piece, which is an impassioned take down of a moribund, impotent failure of a white governor and an impassioned take down of a failed politics, as Williamson sees it from his perspective, which has exacerbated the immiseration he describes. (In fact, the very brunt of the piece and its tone of moral outrage at that exacerbation cut further against the charge of any racist writing in it.) So, on that stipulation, it’s one bad phrase in an otherwise stellar piece of writing; and it’s one bad phrase among countless pieces of Williamson’s journalism and the many books he’s written. That sentence and a few eccentric opinions can’t be the basis for the argument that the Atlantic oughtn’t have hired him. And maybe that’s what Jeffrey Goldberg, misreading the same impugned phrase, meant in his memo to the Atlantic staff when he said, paraphrase, “We’ve all made mistakes in our line of work. And we all deserve not to have our careers live or die by just them.”

Finally, there is nothing offensive in what Williamson has said that is anything more outrageously provocative than things Coates has said, Coates who—not for nothing—apparently counts Williamson as his favorite conservative writer.

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