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


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


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

    What other kind of virtue can a newspaper have besides "performative" virtue? It doesn't act in real life, it reports what others have done.

    The New York Times does not have the ability to demonstrate any other kind of activism than what will appear performative, because it doesn't have the full range of activity available to it that individuals do.

    The term doesn't even make any sense when applied to a newspaper such as the NY Times, since it has no social peer group to impress. By providing its readers with the kinds of things they want to read, it is only behaving like a business, not a performative person. Because it is not a person. It is an information source.

    However, everyone knows that the word "performative" is not a compliment, not a good thing to be. So this permits Somerby to hurl an insult at the NY Times (and smear liberals too, to whom the word can apply, by associating them with the Times).

    But this is pure nonsense. By talking about social issues and using the language, theories and ideas important to those who do act in the world, the NY Times is reflecting society, not functioning as a social actor. It cannot be performative in any meaningful sense of that word.

  2. "As it turns out, Lucky Luke is the principal character in a "Franco-Belgian comic book classic.""

    Of course he is. And Somerby probably doesn't know that there is a major comic book museum in Brussels, featuring many other comic book characters well known to Europeans, because other countries have their own culture. How can this be a revelation to him, at his age?

    Then Somerby mocks the idea of black cowboys:

    "French children were said to be suffering from a lack of black cowboy characters, not from gruesome stereotypical renderings."

    Black cowboys in the American west were 25% of the cowboy workforce in 1860-1880, yet they were disappeared from American Western movies and from our history textbooks.


    So it is not only appropriate to portray them, but it creates the wrong impression that black people have been unimportant in our ongoing American history when they are omitted. How do black children feel when positive images do not appear in our culture? In France, which has growing populations of immigrants from Northern Africa, positive images of dark-skinned people can help both minorities and their broader society adjust to the current presence of diversity. This is a positive benefit, not "performative virtue."

    The media can and does influence acceptance of social change. That change is happening, whether Somerby likes it or not. I'm glad French/Belgian comic books are helping to ease the transition. Somerby may be a lost cause, but children are not.

  3. "We returned to the 1950s, at a time when Lucy Ricardo was being portrayed a hopeless infant"

    Lucille Ball was a successful comedian at a time when women were not accepted in that field. She was also the first female founder and active head of a production studio. She promoted gay rights and was a communist, called before HUAC. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by G.H.W. Bush, among many other awards she won. Her show with Ricky Ricardo was important because it portrayed a successful mixed marriage on TV, much the way Will & Grace was important for portraying positive images of gays. This changes public attitudes while also entertaining people.

    Calling someone who is a talented screwball physical comedian an infant diminishes not only Lucille Ball, but that subgenre of comedy, populated mostly by men (including Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, and many other icons). Saying that she "was portrayed" when she was running her own show, is also an insult to her talent.

    But we already know that Somerby has problems with women, and this is yet another example of his inability to see women as more than "infants" and minor figures.

    I don't like the way Joan Rivers, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, and yes, Lucille Ball, made themselves figures of ridicule in order to gain acceptance in comedy. But their success shouldn't be diminished because of the limitations they were working under during their lifetimes. They made it possible for today's female comedians to do very different routines.

    1. Such a totally, totally stupid comment.

    2. Word choices reveal unconscious attitudes that need to be made explicit in order for change to occur.

      And look how the roaches crawl out of the woodwork!

    3. Anonymouse 12:26 pm, you’re too perceptive not to have a nym.

      Should you or anyone else ever wonder about the definition of “performative”, read Bob’s critics. You’ll ascertain the full meaning of the word instantly.

    4. And you say this about people you don't know anything about, when you cannot have any idea what they do or don't do in real life. Without knowing whether people are really involved in activism, how can you know whether their words are empty or not?

      Unless it is your goal to define all words as empty, and thus have an excuse not to listen when anyone talks about race, gender or anything else you don't want to hear? That seems to be what Somerby is doing.

      I think taking a group of kids to Peru is transformative because all travel tends to make people more tolerant of diversity, more interested in other cultures, less likely to be racist or bigoted. Those tours that the NY Times is involved in are not a performative act at all. They do genuine good and until Somerby's rant, I was not aware they were doing them, so they are not milking them for publicity. Somerby implies the NY Times is only concerned about performative liberalism, but it is very much in their interest as a newspaper to promote real world liberalism because it will most likely widen their readership.

      Performative acts imply a social peer group to watch that performance and admire or disapprove. The NY Times has defined its audience and it does not consist solely of liberals, but it is defined as more cosmopolitan than Somerby (by today's comments).

    5. "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a 1956 sociological book by Erving Goffman, in which the author uses the imagery of theatre in order to portray the importance of human social interaction; this approach would become known as Goffman's dramaturgical analysis."

      According to Goffman, our sense of self is socially constructed via the way we present to others. This is true of all people. It is not possible to escape being performative.

      When Somerby calls concern about racism "performative," he seems to think there is some other way to be concerned about racism that isn't performative, but according to sociology and psychology, there is not. People are social and if concern about race is part of who you are, it will be part of how you present to others.

      That's why this term "performative" is a derogatory term that has no useful purpose except to denigrate liberals, used primarily by the right to castigate the left over social change.

      When Somerby joins the right in doing this, he reveals himself as a phony, not liberal at all, a member of Trump's cadre of deplorables. In Somerby's case, he is just a deplorable with a website.

    6. "Such a totally, totally stupid comment."

      Cecelia thinks this is perceptive! What does that tell you about Cecelia?

    7. That I too am more perceptive than you.

    8. What good is being perceptive if you are totally inarticulate?

    9. Yes, articulately conveying fatuousness to all and sundry does save everyone’s time.

    10. And we all thank you for that.

    11. Oh, don’t thank me, I just see it as I spell them.

  4. "On occasion, the Times does seem to stretch things a bit in its pursuit of a new, better approach to matters of race."

    Yes, that is the only reason the Times is reporting on a change to a major European comic book series in its International Section.

    Just like it was only performative when the Times talked about the negative reaction to casting a female lead as Captain Universe. Or the female Ghostbusters.

    It seems like Somerby is saying that only white characters need be discussed, or the Times is being performative and looking for ways to talk about race.

    What is wrong with Somerby?

  5. "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."

    Ten students on that tour to Peru complained that he was embarrassing them by making negative comments about Peruvian natives during a dance performance. It wasn't just has racial remark that got him fired. It was also a long-standing unwillingness to apologize for remarks made to NY Times staff and his belief that he need not be considerate to coworkers. This was the last straw and it had little to do with use of the n-word and a great deal to do with his personality and inability to "play well with others." As the representative of the NY Times on that tour, he failed to do his job properly, judging by the numerous complaints afterwards (from parents of the kids who attended).

    Somerby's unwilling to look at the facts of the case, his desire to take this as evidence of PC run amok, reflects his own bigotry, not any intolerance of opinions at the NY Times.

    1. Idiotic comment. Stupid as can be. Just massively dumb.

    2. @2:37 Can you be more specific?

    3. Baseless, petty, illogical, stupid comment. You're dumb as rocks.

    4. Still general. What set you off?

  6. How can Somerby say that our wider world is failing. Only yesterday, Kevin Drum showed a series of graphs showing that even covid hasn't affected the economy as seriously as feared (largely due to the stimulus payments to individuals). By any measure, things are better now than at any point in our past, but Somerby calls this "failing!"

    What does Somerby gain by preaching doom and gloom to his readers? What did Trump gain when he referred to American carnage in his first State of the Union speech? Who benefits by telling people that things are fucked up?

    I cannot imagine Somerby being any kind of a teacher, in any proximity to young children, with the kind of attitudes he displays here daily. Promoting the negativity, fear, despair that motivated some Trump voters is an ugly thing to do when it undermines well-being during a pandemic. And he doesn't have the facts to back up his gloom. That makes this an act of pure evil, in my opinion.

    1. Rambling, naive, stupid comment. Really, really stupid.

    2. Again, you are confusing name-calling with specificity. Use your words, big guy.

    3. @3:21 -- Here's a role model for you:


    4. Sorry, that was intended for @2:41 not @3:21.

    5. Your comment is stupid and your replies are stupid. You're boring and stupid.

    6. And you're obviously six years old.

  7. Somerby cherry picks articles from the Times. His readers have no clue what else the Times might be writing about “black” people, so it’s not correct to label it “performative” on the basis of his list of handpicked stories.

    (By the way, how does one care about “black” people if race is a myth? Asking for a friend.)

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