Jeantel was unapologetic about her use of “retarded” as a putdown, her preposterous homophobic accusations that George Zimmerman could have been some sort of crazed gay rapist, and her casual use of slurs like “bitch,” “nigga,” and “crazy ass cracker.” True, Jeantel is impoverished and no doubt “underserved” by a host of government agencies entrusted with providing support to the less well off. Yet by both past American and present global standards, she is not victimized in the sense of suffering hunger, unaddressed health problems, or lack of access to technology.
In today’s topsy-turvy world, we are to emphasize the untruth that Ms. Jeantel is poor in the Dickensian sense, while ignoring the truth that her matter-of-fact worldview is by contemporary liberal benchmarks homophobic, racist, and misogynistic — and entirely contrary to the race-blind meritocracy that a much poorer, much more heroic generation of civil-rights leaders once sacrificed for.
From 1619 to 1865, African-Americans in a large region of North America were enslaved. For the century following the Civil War, they were deprived in the South of civil rights that were supposed to be accorded citizens of the United States, and elsewhere were often subjected to insidious racism. In the last half-century, a vast private effort has sought to change the American psyche while a vast public one has used government resources to attempt to redress racist legacies. These are elemental issues of good and evil that are at the heart of the human experience and must continue to be addressed — but not in the manner of our era of psychodramatic trivialization.
Recently, ten former contestants on the hit show American Idol sued, alleging that they lost the competition because of the supposedly racist and prejudicial practice of taking competitors’ prior records of arrest into account. That injustice prompted the failed contestants to sue for $25 million in damages — on the grounds that they had been subjected to “cruel and inhuman treatment.”
A prior age sought to ensure civil rights for all; our era assumes that not winning millions from a game show is proof of literal torture — for each “victim” worth $25 million in compensation. But then again, we live in an age when the word “brown bag” is considered racist diction. Miffed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, after his tussle with the Cambridge police, donated his plastic handcuffs to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian. Perhaps Gates’s plastic cuffs will be displayed alongside the rusty iron chains of chattel slaves.
Our generation does what it can, but in this time of unbridled wealth and leisure, it can be an unheroic task. The historically ignorant Oprah Winfrey exemplified such psychodrama when she compared Travyon Martin to the lynched and mutilated Emmett Till — and by extension George Zimmerman to the acquitted racist murderers of Till. Oprah must have thought that false simile up while jetting back to her Montecito estate.
Since Barack Obama took office in 2009, 15 million Americans have been added to the food-stamp rolls — on top of the over 14 million who were added during President Bush’s eight years in office. Recipients now include almost one in six Americans. Yet apparently to suggest that this vast increase in subsidies is a result of vast relaxation in standards, or that the increase does not mean that another 15 million Americans were suddenly in elemental need, is, in the words of former speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tantamount to “taking food out of the mouths of babies.”
We are all worried about the diet of those on government assistance, but in my community the dangers to youth are the results not of an absence of calories, but rather of the uneconomical and habitual consumption of fast-food meals, sugar-laden soft drinks, and processed desserts, coupled with a lack of exercise — and the commensurate epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and kidney ailments that threatens to institutionalize poor health and ensure abbreviated lives. If nearly 50 million people on food stamps in a society suffering record levels of obesity is supposed to indicate too little rather than too much government help, why not ensure that 70 or 80 or 100 million have similar access to assistance?
Our entire society is experiencing the sort of cultural devolution associated with the further decline from modernism to postmodernism. If a skilled modern artist like Picasso became famous by ignoring canons of classical representation, then postmodern hack successors were left with nothing much to rebel against, and so gave us crucifixes in urine bottles and excrement thrown onto pictures of Christ. If brilliant moderns like T. S. Eliot often abandoned strict rules of metrics, rhyme, and poetic diction that they had themselves mastered, postmodern mediocrities who could not distinguish an hexameter from a metaphor write out banal phrases, randomly slice and dice the lines, and call it poetry.
In the same way, our modern social critics suffer and agonize when the war to save redwoods becomes a battle over the possible decline of a bait fish, and iron chains hang next to plastic handcuffs.