TIMES AND TOWN: Lucky Luke (French) as the day's top report!

TUESDAY, MARCH 2, 2021

Is this performative virtue?: Last Monday morning, the analysts woke us to say that the Times was possibly at it again.

Scrolling through Monday's "Today's Paper" listings, the youngsters had reached the International section—and there, they'd been brought up cold. Perhaps somewhat oddly, the featured report in that section carried this capsule account:

Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly

A few of the youngsters were wondering how a comic book cowboy discovering race could possibly be the biggest topic in international events on that day—or on any other. 

Others wondered how a comic book cowboy named Lucky Luke could qualify as international news, whatever it was he had done. We agreed to sort it all out.

As it turns out, Lucky Luke is the principal character in a "Franco-Belgian comic book classic." That's how his belated discovery of race qualified as an international event. 

Some of the youngsters still wondered how Luke's discovery of race could be the day's top international event:

"That just the Times being the Times," one other young analyst said.

The full set of headlines which appear online help explain the newspaper's editorial judgment this day. How could this be a top international event? Online, here's what the headlines said:

Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly
For the first time in the Franco-Belgian comic book classic, Black characters have full-fledged roles and are drawn without the racist depictions that marred the genre.

Was anything "wrong" with the Times' editorial judgment this day? Not necessarily, no.

According to this news report, black characters will now be appearing in a comic book series to which many French children are exposed. (According to the Times report, Lucky Luke was "last year's best selling comic book" in France.) 

French and other francophone kids will now be getting a different experience. In this passage, Norman Onisji explains the way the comic book will be changing:

ONISHI (2/22/21): The story of a cowboy in the American Old West, Lucky Luke was only one of a handful of comic book series that, for generations, had been an integral part of growing up in France and other francophone countries. Children read Lucky Luke, along with Tintin and Astérix, at their most impressionable age when, as Mr. Berjeaut said, the story “enters the mind like a hammer blow and never comes out.”

But as he sought new story lines, Mr. Berjeaut grew troubled as he reflected on the presence of Black characters in Lucky Luke. In the nearly 80 albums published over seven decades, Black characters had appeared in only one story, “Going up the Mississippi”—drawn in typically racist imagery.

“I’d never thought about that, and then I started questioning myself,” he said, including why he had never created Black characters himself, concluding that he was subconsciously avoiding an uncomfortable subject. “For the first time, I felt a kind of astonishment.”

The result of Mr. Berjeaut’s introspection was “A Cowboy in High Cotton,” which was published late last year in French and is now being released in English. His aim, he said, was to tell the story of Lucky Luke and recently freed Black slaves on a plantation in Louisiana, with the book’s narrative and graphic details reimagining the role of the cowboy hero and the representation of Black characters in non-racist terms. For the first time there is a Black hero.

With one exception in seven decades, there had never been any black characters in Lucky Luke at all. Having received one image of the Old West, French kids will now be getting a different portrait, courtesy of the kind of historical expert who writes and draws comic books in France.

Does any of this actually matter? At least in theory, it does.

Reading Onishi's report, we recalled our own early TV experience. We returned to the 1950s, at a time when Lucy Ricardo was being portrayed a hopeless infant and the vintage radio/TV program, Amos and Andy, was still in syndication. 

The NAACP fought to get Amos and Andy off the air; eventually, the NAACP succeeded. But it matters what (impressionable) children are told and shown in their earliest years—even if, in the Lucky Luke case, French children were said to be suffering from a lack of black cowboy characters, not from gruesome stereotypical renderings.

To some extent, it really was "the Times just being the Times" when Lucky Luke led the International section that day. In our measured assessment, we would say this:

To some extent, this was a genuine topic. Also though, to some extent, the Times may perhaps and possibly have been posturing a bit. These things are hard to measure.

Rather plainly, the Times has chosen to err on the side of being progressive, perhaps even Woke, when it comes to matters of race. The widely-discussed 1619 Project would be the most obvious example of this editorial decision. 

In our view, there's nothing wrong with such a decision, until such time as there is. 

On occasion, the Times does seem to stretch things a bit in its pursuit of a new, better approach to matters of race. Imaginably, such decision-making could sometimes be counterproductive—could work against our desire to create a more perfect union, to build a better and fairer world. 

Yesterday could imaginably have been such a day. We thought we may have been seeing thumbs on the scale in topic selection and topic placement all over the famous newspaper. Also, there's the fallout which could ensue from Donald McNeil's account of his recent dismissal from the Times—a dismissal based upon the charge of imperfect conduct when discussing matters of race.

(More on that this afternoon.)

On occasion, the Times tends to go out of its way to feature reports about race. Then too, there's the constant betrayal of upper-class values when the Times tries to pursue a better racial world. 

In our view, this problem appears early and often when the Times discusses race and the public schools and the food decent kids who attend them. This is an area in which the Times' reporting constantly strikes us as a gruesome, disgraceful, unwell.

To some extent, last week's report on Lucky Luke really was the Times being the Times. In our view, the modern Times is inclined to be highly performative on matters of race, but such motivations are hard to assess and such performance won't always be bad.

That major report about Lucky Luke was a fairly standard expression of prevailing New York Times culture. So was Sunday's interview with Professor Ibram X. Kendi, a very good, very decent person whose ideas may not always be best.

Tomorrow, we'll start with that interview. It was a standard Book Review feature, of a type which tends to make us chuckle. 

We'll move from there to one of Professor Kendi's ideas about the proper way to discuss and report on the public schools. We share the reservations he describes, but we find it hard to share his overall assessment.

In territory like the Times, Kendi's word is currently perhaps being viewed as something approaching law. Guilt and performance to the side, this approach by those in Our Town won't necessarily be in the interests of the millions of good, decent kids who attend our low-income schools.

They want and deserve to be full participants in our wider failing world. We're forced to say that there are times when the occasionally performative Times doesn't much seem to care.

Tomorrow: Today we have naming of books


Donald J. Trump and Madison Cawthorn!

MONDAY, MARCH 1, 2021

We live in extremely strange times: As you've probably noticed by now, we live in extremely strange times. 

If our only goals are anthropological, we live in interesting times. A Chinese proverb is said to have warned us against that.

We live in a time when people seem to be crazier—perhaps more deluded—than people have ever been in the past. Or it may just be that the widespread rewards are too darn high, and that people are hugely dishonest.

It's hard to say just how it works, but we'll offer two current examples:

Donald J. Trump's lunatic comments at yesterday's CPAC session. For a summary of those remarks, just click here.

Also, Rep. Madison Cawthorn's ongoing gruesome behavior, as described in a front-page report in today's Washington Post. The gentleman is "a new pro-Trump star of the far right," the Post headline points out.

Due to new technologies, there has never been a time when it was so easy to spread so many bogus claims on such a mass scale. As an example of what we mean, consider the start of this morning's front-page report in the New York Times :

GRYNBAUM ET AL (3/1/21): At 1:51 p.m. on Jan. 6, a right-wing radio host named Michael D. Brown wrote on Twitter that rioters had breached the United States Capitol—and immediately speculated about who was really to blame. “Antifa or BLM or other insurgents could be doing it disguised as Trump supporters,” Mr. Brown wrote, using shorthand for Black Lives Matter. “Come on, man, have you never heard of psyops?”

Only 13,000 people follow Mr. Brown on Twitter, but his tweet caught the attention of another conservative pundit: Todd Herman, who was guest-hosting Rush Limbaugh’s national radio program. Minutes later, he repeated Mr. Brown’s baseless claim to Mr. Limbaugh’s throngs of listeners: “It’s probably not Trump supporters who would do that. Antifa, BLM, that’s what they do. Right?”

What happened over the next 12 hours illustrated the speed and the scale of a right-wing disinformation machine primed to seize on a lie that served its political interests and quickly spread it as truth to a receptive audience. The weekslong fiction about a stolen election that President Donald J. Trump pushed to his millions of supporters had set the stage for a new and equally false iteration: that left-wing agitators were responsible for the attack on the Capitol.

It entered the head of a right-wing host that the invaders were Antifa. Or maybe BLM!

In the words of Grynbaum et al., "What happened over the next 12 hours illustrated the speed and the scale of" the  ability to spread bogus ideas and ridiculous claims, given the power of certain modern  technologies and media.

It increasingly seems that our human discernment is extremely poor. This surprising fact is being put on display in a remarkable way, due to the ease with which we the humans can now be confronted with ridiculous claims straight outta La-La Land.

Does Trump believe the various claims he bruited at CPAC? We don't have the slightest idea. But ten minutes after he made the claims, millions of others did!

Lack of discernment and sociopathy seem to make excellent partners. For what it's worth, Donald J. Trump is 74, Cawthorn just 25.

In many locales, their bogus claims are accepted on face. As a basic matter of basic persuasion, how do we undermine this process?

Inquiring minds need to figure that out. Also, whose possibly imperfect claims do we possibly buy Over Here? According to major credentialed experts, the lack of discernment isn't restricted to one set of human towns. 

They have at heart our not getting lost! They come to us in the dead of night and dance their disconsolate waltz.


Starting tomorrow: TIMES AND TOWN!

MONDAY, MARCH 1, 2021

Performative, insincere, phony, dumb—counterproductive, unhelpful?: At the end of last week, we were thrilled by a couple of things we saw in the New York Times.

On Thursday morning, we encountered Michael Powell's front-page report about an unfortunate incident at Smith College and its sad, stupid, silly, dumb aftermath. 

In our view, Powell's lengthy front-page report adopted a (highly instructive) approach to issues of race and class—a high instructive approach which would normally be avoided in the Times.

After that, the comments! We saw the comments to Michelle Goldberg's fuzzy opinion column about "critical race theory," a school of thought which largely went undefined in her piece.

In print editions, the fuzzy column was published in yesterday's Sunday Review, the newspaper's highest platform. In its explicit and implied praise for the tenets of CRT, the column represented a return to form for the Times concerning matters of "race."

Goldberg's column was poorly reasoned but completely familiar in its implied point of view. But then, dear God, the comments! 

We sampled the comments to Goldberg's column, in which one self-identified liberal after another savaged what might be described as the "Woke" point of view.

Could it be true? Is it possible that denizens of Our Town are prepared to engage in a bit of self-criticism concerning the way we tend to approach this very important topic? Could we possibly imagine that this might be true?

Based upon Thursday's front-page report, could we imagine another possibility? Could we imagine the possibility that the Times might be prepared to rethink the way it has approached this very important, very large topic in the past quite-a-few years?

According to experts, that would be a consummation devoutly to be wished! That said, on Saturday morning's front page, the Times returned to its standard, almost comical approach to the role of race in the public schools.

And this morning—good God, this morning! This morning, there the Times went again!

We're speaking here of what we saw when we scrolled through this morning's "Today's Paper" listings.  In our view, a person could almost say that the Times' offerings for this day border on a type of journalistic parody.

Tomorrow, we'll tell you what we saw when we performed that act of scrolling. From there, we'll proceed to the near-parodic, unhelpful way the New York Times covers race in the public schools. 

We'll link that topic to this interview with Ibram X. Kendi in yesterday's Book Review section. To be perfectly honest, that interview could almost be seen as a bit of a parody too.

We've long been appalled by the way the Times approaches the topic of race in the public schools. For all we know, that approach may even be well-intentioned, but in practice, we regard it as deeply ugly—destructive, performative, vile.

We regard it as the ultimate example of Our Town's modern performative culture. We regard it as the behavior of the Hamptons crowd as they pretend to care about all the kids they have no plans to know.

In fairness, who knows? They may even be sincere!

Ugly, stupid, phony, faux? Silly, stupid, pretentious, performative? Which words will the sages employ, if any sages exist in the future, when they review the way Our Town rampaged around and about, addressing issues of (so-called) race in these, the final days of our rapidly failing republic?

At Smith, a kid who had just finished her freshman year seemed to need some help. (In large part, we base this assessment on the videotape of the interview she did with Boston's CBS station.)

Many young people do need help; ideally, adults should try to provide it. In this case, Smith's president responded by fawning and pandering to this young person, while throwing an array of long-time staffers under a big yellow smoke-belching bus.

On the merits, behavior like this is deeply counterproductive. But this is the way we tend to behave in the more "elite" precincts of Our Town—and we'll even add this:

Almost surely, this is one of the ways Trump voters get born! Beyond that, we're often amazed that the modern white working class isn't more hostile than it seems to be on the general matter of race.

Here in Our Town, we've been looking down on such people ever since Mother and Father told us how special we were. We refuse to take yes for an answer from the denizens of Their Towns, and our biggest newspaper keeps pimping the pap about how much they care in the Hamptons.

Yesterday morning, the Washington Post published an essay by Matthews Yglesias on the front page of its high-profile Outlook section. In his essay, Yglesias offered a critique of Our Town's approach to matters of race! Online, the headlines say this:

Not all ‘anti-racist’ ideas are good ones. The left isn’t being honest about this. 
On some topics, progressives prefer pointing out right-wing hypocrisy to debating substance.

We'd try to stay away from ultimate assessments of "honesty." In theory, though, the publication of that essay should perhaps be encouraging too.

In theory, the publication of that essay is perhaps encouraging. In practice, it seems to us that Yglesias chose his words and his examples with extreme care. 

If we might borrow from Tiny Tim, he may have tiptoed through the tulip craze a bit. We will be a bit more direct in our presentations this week. 

It seems to us that the major tribunes of Our Town tend to be phony, silly, stupid / dumb / faux when it comes to matters of race. Also, extremely unhelpful.

We don't believe a word they say, though it may be that they're fully sincere. But then, we've mined (if only for a while) in their mines. We have (somewhat briefly) gathered in their corn.

Tomorrow: Scrolling through this morning's Times

Coming: Professor Kendi on the way to report on the public schools


The guild regroups at the New York Times!

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 27, 2021

Goldberg [HEART] critical theory: Just this once, we're going to let you ask us about our business.

We've been heartened in recent weeks, in a way we won't fully disclose. We will offer this:

It has seemed to us, in recent weeks, that we're finally seeing a difficult topic open up for possible public discussion. 

In part, we had that reaction to Thursday's front-page report in the New York Times—the lengthy report about a set of incidents and decisions at Smith College.

It seemed to us that the Times had agreed to permit and encourage a type of discussion which normally wouldn't take place at that newspaper. Yesterday, we praised the Times for breaking with some of its previous, extremely narrow predispositions.

Tomorrow, the guild will be fighting back at the New York Times! That said, we've been surprised (and heartened) by the comments to the piece in question, which has already appeared on line.

This opinion column by Michelle Goldberg will appear tomorrow (on page SR3) in the Sunday Review. Online, the column appears beneath this pair of headlines:

The Campaign to Cancel Wokeness
How the right is trying to censor critical race theory.

Is "the right" really trying to "censor" critical race theory? "When it comes to outright government censorship," is it really "the right that’s on the offense," as Goldberg's column claims?

Whatever you think of "critical race theory;" whatever you think of the types of pushback in question; Goldberg's column makes no case for these tribally pleasing claims. 

As Goldberg correctly notes, some politicians are trying to keep certain tenets of CRT out of public school curricula.  Also this:

In a typically fuzzy pronouncement, the Trump administration's OMB decreed that federal agencies shouldn't run workshops or conduct training based on CRT. (Joe Biden has killed this decree.)

Whatever you think of such examples of pushback, no one is or was being "censored" by these initiatives. Also, no one is or was being denied "free speech." 

As everyone understands, academics are free to develop whatever theories they like. They don't have a right to see their theories adopted in K-12 curricula or promoted in federal workshops.

Surely, everyone knows that. That said, Goldberg seems to [HEART] critical race theory, a school of thought she makes little effort to define. 

Based upon that assessment of CRT, Goldberg has penned an admiring column about its undefined tenets, a column attacking "the right." 

In print editions of the Times, the column will appear tomorrow, in the high-profile Sunday Review. In this way, an imaginative person might say that the guild has begun to fight back against possible new perspectives.

An imaginative person might say that! For us, we were amazed, and heartened, by the comments to Goldberg's column.

What are the tenets of CRT? How sound are those tenets? As noted, Goldberg makes little attempt to speak to those vital questions.

But as she notes right in her headlines, CRT is largely the worldview of the "Woke" liberal / progressive world. Having said that, good lord!

In the comments to Goldberg's column, a tsunami of self-identified Dems and liberals push back extremely hard against critical theory. Yesterday, as we sifted through the comments which qualified as Reader Picks, the pushback was nearly unanimous.

Briefly, we'll mention the obvious. There's no way to know who's writing the comments in which readers reply to a column. Conservative readers can always pretend that they're commenting "from the left."

That said, we found the comments to Goldberg's column quite convincing with respect to their partisan provenance. And the comments which qualified as the top Reader Picks were almost unanimous in this view:

The standard "Woke" approach to race—the approach one might link to CRT—has become a disaster for liberal and progressive values, and for the Democratic Party. So liberal commenters said!

How does a comment qualify as a "Reader Pick" at the New York Times? It's based on the number of other readers who chose to "recommend" the comment.

Keep that method in mind as we continue along. Late yesterday afternoon, we scrolled through the top thirty or forty "Reader Picks"—the comments which were recommended by the largest number of readers. 

By our assessment, the first 19 Reader Picks were uniformly anti-CRT and anti-Woke. These comments were generally written from a pro-liberal perspective, in ways which seemed convincing to us.

One after another, these readers assailed the effects of Woke/CRT culture. After a single pro-CRT comment, the onslaught started again.  This was Reader Rick comment 24:

COMMENT FROM NEW YORK CITY: I consider myself a progressive—part of the Warren/Sanders wing of the Democratic party.  I'd really like to see a more socially and economically equitable society, and that's what I vote for and donate money towards.  But I have to say, I struggle with critical race theory.  

First, there's the tendency to elevate narrative over knowable facts—e.g. San Francisco's decision to continue canceling Paul Revere, even after it had been revealed that the proffered reason for doing so was factually incorrect.  

Second, it is divisive and misguided to examine not only large-scale problems, but rather virtually *all* of life's petty annoyances, through the lens of oppression and resentment.  

Third, in the context of our rapidly deteriorating working and middle classes, it is tone-deaf and counter-productive to continually call people "privileged" when they have honest and legitimate reasons for not believing that they are.  I think CRT is less about solving real problems, and more about progressives' need for performative woke-ism and self-flagellation.

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow! We especially agree with the complaint about the (guilt-inducing) shift in language to the framework of "privilege" in place of the traditional language of "discrimination." 

Other comments specifically noted that this shift in language paradigm was designed to induce feelings of guilt among people who are "white." With that in mind, we disagree with the comment we've posted in only one way: 

We think that shift in language isn't about self-flagellation. We think it's about the flagellation of pretty much everyone else.

This paradigm shift strikes us as stupid, hateful, counterproductive. We were amazed and heartened to see liberal commenters making this same point.

On and on the Reader Picks went, assailing the allegedly pernicious effects of Woke/CRT culture. We may have liked this comment best (we're presenting it in full):

COMMENT FROM PROVIDENCE: Social Darwinism, Eugenics, Phrenology…

There are many ideas that have emanated from and been championed by universities that, when they caught sufficient attention from the public, ultimately caused great societal harm.  Using the tools of history, we now understand those ideas as “bad.”

Is Critical Theory an idea that, if scrutinized by its effects on the society, turns out to be "bad?"

CT has roots far deeper than the 1970s: the ideas go back to the Frankfurt School (Germany) in the 1930s (Marcuse, Horkheimer, others; ironically, all “dead white guys”).  Do you not think that MLK as a doctoral student at Boston U. in the 1950s was fully aware of Critical Theory, which he rejected in favor of Personalism?  The idea of classes of people always in conflict certainly cannot lead to a Beloved Community. as envisioned by MLK and championed after his death by others, particularly John Lewis.

I’m an old white guy and a progressive.  A professor, but a physical scientist, which means that in my field and my classroom, strict rules of evidence, which separate carefully empirical observations from their interpretation, keep group-think at bay.  My experience: Critical Theory has had a distinctly negative impact on my campus, truncating or shutting down conversations that could contribute to building community that is open, inclusive and enriching for all its members.  A pity.  It saddens me.

In its tone, this comment came to us straight outta Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Dr. King preferred and chose the framework of "the beloved community," this old professor sadly said. The professor said that Dr. King had privileged love over guilt.

On and on and on and on, the most popular Reader Picks tilted in this direction. Then we looked at the comments listed as "NYT Picks." 

Those comments heavily tended to [HEART] CRT. Was that perhaps a case of the guild fighting back?

Several "Reader Picks" comments cited Thursday's front-page report about the events at Smith. They cited those events as examples of the disastrous effects of Woke/CRT culture.

As described on the Times front page, that's the way those events seemed to us:

We thought we saw a college kid who badly needed some help getting pandered to instead. In this case, it wasn't just the assistant, associate and adjunct professors pandering to this overwrought young person. It was the Smith College president!

That's one of the things we thought we saw in that front-page report. As Smith's working-class staffers got trashed and attacked, we also thought we saw one of the blindingly obvious ways Donald J. Trump gains voters.

Tomorrow, the guild will be fighting back against the sudden appearance on the front page of a possible alternate view. They'll also be fighting back against the Beloved Community. 

At this site, we were heartened by what we saw in the comments to Goldberg's column.  Without any doubt, it's much too late. 

Still and all, more next week.