You’re Asking the Wrong Questions

American FlaggAnother day, another offensive image to be upset about, another group of painfully marginalized and sympathetic people demanding the artist who created it suffer consequences; in another quarter, another essay on the ways “freeze peach” mouth-breathers from the web’s underbelly stifle the worthy work of people less privileged than they are.

In all of this there’s a particular video worth watching, called “What Happened at Vidcon?” detailing a minor spat between two YouTube celebrities, Boogie2988, the online handle of an Arkansas man named Steven Jay Williams, and Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic who has managed to barter her notoriety as the victim of persecution by legions of unbearable internet trolls who threaten to rape and murder her into a semi-positive position as a commentator. The video is below.

So there are a few things worth noting here, among them that Williams seems legitimately frightened of Sarkeesian, who is much more famous than he is and will doubtless “win” in a social media beef with him and possibly damage his standing in the video-maker community, which is entirely dependent on various surprisingly large microcults. This is a newish form of entertainment and it is entertaining precisely because it is quite real; the people who are able to make a living on YouTube must strike a balance between participating in intramural drama between other vloggers and remaining likable to their viewership.

Williams makes a number of implicit and explicit requests for sympathy from his audience, which is about par for the course (another video starts with his complaining about his sleep deficit), especially with multiple references to his anxiety, by which I assume he means a psychiatric disorder, possibly professionally diagnosed. Google him and you can learn his family history fairly easily, which has apparently been the subject of some of his videos.

What’s most interesting is that Williams actually does generate scripted work in the form of comedy sketches starring a character he writes called “Francis,” a stereotypical video game nerd. No one, though, could mistake Francis for Williams’s product; his product is himself. He’s not selling art, he’s selling the experience of being close to an artist and knowing the person who creates something of value, which in turn conveniently obscures the value of the the art itself.

In the New York Times today, the comedian and writer Lindy West observes, not for the first time, that the Constitutional right to free speech is a function of government and that therefore it is self-evidently idiotic to accuse her of censorship when she is not at work in the government, but is instead trying to defend people like Sarkeesian, who features prominently in the article, from cruel, anonymous strangers.

The problem with this argument is that when people accuse writers like West and others of impinging on the right to speak of people they disagree with, they are not telling West she has committed a crime, they are saying she has violated a principle, and that of course is true. West is very frank that she thinks people should be fired for saying racist and sexist things on the internet and that’s a statement that feels true until you think about who defines offensive speech, under what circumstances and to what ends.

Which is to say, anyone at all, whenever they want, for whatever reason suits them.

Standards of racism and sexism vary wildly throughout American culture. Liberals often like to think of bigotry as being defined carefully and taxonomically by sober academics who deploy precision and good judgment, conscious of the weight their findings will carry once they are published, but of course academics are the first people in line to use accusations of prejudice to torpedo career tracks, ruin reputations and drive people out of their jobs.

The fact of the matter is that current standards of racism and sexism are not enforced by a council of social scientists but by large corporations and universities who react exclusively to threats to their financial well-being and do not give a good goddamn about what is or isn’t “actually” racist or sexist, only what appears to be publicly damaging to their reputations. West and others have developed complex rubrics and they are often worth examining and understanding but they are entirely worthless in the real world because no one who will fire an employee for saying something outside of work that outrages a group of influential people actually possesses any sort of moral compass.

This seems very obvious to me and to many others but the potential to misuse these incredibly powerful tools of public shame hasn’t stopped people like West and others from lobbying for their creation, and so we now have them: Logrolling campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, doxxing, calling the offender’s employer to tell them about the ugly thing they’ve done; these are all now part of the antiracist and the feminist’s toolkit.

And of course they are also part of the white supremacist’s toolkit, the misogynist’s toolkit, and the troll’s toolkit. While feminists and antiracists often understand ideals with a laudable degree of precision, committed Nazis and chauvinists inherently understand norms, because they tirelessly test them for weak points and invest their intellectual resources not in honing their arguments through committed discussion with their peers, but in finding interruptions and exceptions that will allow them to more easily prey on women and  exclude minorities. A rapist’s mission is very clear; a feminist’s goals are created anew every day by that rapist’s shifting emphasis on new and untried ambiguities.

There’s no more fertile farm for ambiguities than the internet, where no one wants to think about anything for very long, and so West finds herself in a bind she articulates very well near the end of her piece: “It’s not hard to draw a straight line from internet culture warriors’ misappropriation of free speech to our current mass delusions over climate change, the Hyde Amendment, abstinence-only education, health care as a luxury and class as a meritocracy.”

It’s true, the notion of “free speech” has been effortlessly coopted by fantastically wealthy ideologues in order to fund shadow ecosystems of news that traffic exclusively in misinformation. But those things didn’t grow up because they were popular, as West seems to believe; they were carefully nurtured with gobs of money by people who have a vested concrete financial interest in their propagation. The American government, as West observes, does not regulate speech, but it also does not regulate much of anything else, including healthcare, which is the real payment for most modern jobs.

So two things are definitely true, then: The first is that the Right has just as much power as the Left to deploy grievance culture in the service of punishing individual speakers—West cites a number of sad examples in her op-ed, most significantly Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who had to cancel two of her talks after receiving credible threats, on top of dozens of vile, hateful emails, for describing the President as a “racist and sexist megalomaniac” in a speech at Hampshire College that was subsequently aired on Fox News, which is an amazing tool for kickstarting astroturf outrage campaigns through the scores of aggregator outlets that rereport its already breathless coverage at an even higher pitch. Reports in conservative media tied Yamahatta-Taylor’s speech to the decision by Hampshire, where she does not teach, to fly the flag at half-staff to protest post-election violence, an affront to a particular stated value of conservatives, namely respect for veterans (some of whom protested the decision). The resulting spasm of rage demanded, and got, one thing from Yamahatta-Taylor: Silence. This despite the fact of both the lowered flag and Yamahatta-Taylor’s speech being political dissent, presumably exactly the sort of speech any law or principle ought to protect.

The second truth is that the only way to purge a speech act from the public square is to demonstrate that its expression is a significant enough financial liability to an employer that its fiscal state would be improved by cutting ties with the speaker. That will likely either force the speaker to shut up or apologize in the hopes of retaining his job and healthcare, and it will send a powerful message to everyone else: Say this thing, and your child might die of strep throat.

And so at last we come to poor old art, the bastard cousin of conviction, and its latest offense against the people: the cartoonist Howard Chaykin has drawn an ugly picture.

It is in fact an incredibly ugly picture, an image of a man being lynched, his genitals apparently mutilated, and it appears on the cover of issue #4 of Chaykin’s embarrassing comic The Divided States of Hysteria, which communicates with, at least, a great deal of sincerity, a cable-news-watching middle-aged white urban liberal’s idea of what’s wrong with the country and the world. It’s supposed to be a revenge fantasy, I guess, but it traffics in eye-rollingly racist caricatures in exactly the sort of way that is hard to forgive even when it’s clear that the genuine offense it gives is unintentional.

The book also features a transsexual prostitute, like a great many Chaykin books, notably the author’s Black Kiss neonoir comics, which are also very bad.

I’m not going to spend too much of our precious lives defending Chaykin’s body of work beyond saying that it deserves such a defense; Time^2 is a terrific graphic novel series and his long-running American Flagg book broke new artistic ground in a wide variety of ways. His recent stuff has been good, too, notably a 12-issue miniseries about the birth of television with the writer Matt Fraction called Satellite Sam.

The question of whether the cover is in poor taste is a settled one: Yes, absolutely. On a book that is not very good? You got it. On a book that is not worth defending?

Well, now, see, those are fighting words.

The discussion of Chaykin’s work online at the moment is split between bad-faith readings of all his work in an effort to show that he is attempting to convert his readers into trans-hating monsters, well-meaning defenses minimizing a specific tone-deafness that has permeated a long and distinguished career, and highly contemptible efforts to psychologize him and pin down the forces of influence in a life and a mind nobody writing has any access to. These are all hugely, obviously, wrong approaches: Chaykin is not Steven Jay Williams. He is not selling his anxiety disorder on YouTube. He is selling drawings and stories, and if they say something about him personally, you probably don’t know what that thing is. Williams has spent quite a bit of time crafting his personality for maximum likability; Chaykin has spent decades trying to do things with comics that no one else has ever done. To treat the Chaykin the way you would treat Williams is to do the former a tremendous disservice. He hasn’t given you access to his personality and you don’t understand it.

What ought to be said about Chaykin is that he is a tremendously talented artist and a less talented if still very gifted writer who is interested in writing about and drawing transwomen in a very lurid way that isn’t consistent with contemporary progressive ideas, and the fact that his new work still contains those particular blind spots can seem grotesque and to interfere with the baseline pleasure of reading a comic book.

What cannot be said about Chaykin is that he has “exploited” anyone—he draws from memory, not models and his characters are invented—that he has done violence to anyone by drawing a picture no one is being forced to look at, or that he has somehow abdicated his right to publish his comics.

The discussion of his work in the comics community is mostly devoted to whether he understands trans people in his heart, what his relationship to them is and has been, and whether he harbors bigotries that express themselves through his work. All of those are discussions worth having about Steven Jay Williams, because he has invited them. Chaykin has not, and there is no text from which to argue that he is a toxic or harmful person. His person is unavailable.

Many artists have very bad, regressive, perverse or just stupid ideas. Robert Crumb’s obsessions with degrading the women his proxy characters have sex with and with eye-wateringly grotesque ethnic caricatures make much of his early work very difficult to read. They are also obviously necessary for him to work through whatever it was he needed to work through to create some of the most beautiful and insightful satire anyone has ever been able to publish in any form and are of course incredibly valuable to the world for exactly that reason, and he seems to be a decent person in his dealings with other artists and with his family. Conversely, Charles Schulz notoriously drew entire subplots in his  family-friendly Peanuts comics that detailed the ways he was cheating on his wife with a woman 22 years his junior. The character of the artist and the character of the work are so far separated that they are often diametrically opposed, and so you can never really divine the one from the other.

As to what a work of art means, that’s an aspect of art that the artist has never controlled and will never be able to control; it’s what makes it a work of art and not a statement of fact.

Image Comics, the publisher of Chaykin’s current book, pulled the cover last week and issued an apology. It gave me chills. Irrespective of the carefully worded mea culpa, what the statement actually said was this: “We are frightened. We worry that our relationships with our fellow artists and our readers will be adversely affected by work we had already agreed to publish, and so we are reneging on that agreement in order to appease people who might do us harm. We are easily swayed, and unwilling to stand by our editorial decisions on principle, and to defend the economically precarious artists we employ from baseless attacks on their character.

“We will probably behave the same way next time.”

I updated this to correct an error: Keeanga Yamahatta-Taylor was not fired, she had to cancel talks because of credible threats to her safety. I had the incident confused with the case of John McAdams, a public policy professor at Marquette who was stripped of tenure after he blogged some retrograde opinions about a more junior teacher’s handling of a discussion of gay marriage. That case is complicated by the way the right responded to McAdams’ blog, which was by trying to bully the younger teacher into silence. My contention here remains that the bullying and the firing are expressions of the same phenomenon.

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5 thoughts on “You’re Asking the Wrong Questions

  1. “We are easily swayed, and unwilling to stand by our editorial decisions on principle”
    Image does not editorialize its content, period.

    Otherwise good post

  2. Thank you for this, it perfectly captures my position on the Chaykin controversy and the bigger picture surrounding it.

    Of course I couldn’t have expressed it any way this good, at least not in English. 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for this intelligent and thoughtful blog — by far the best commentary I’ve seen on the recent “Chaykin controversy” (although I’m personally going to reserve aesthetic judgment till the series is concluded), and vastly superior even to the pieces that have appeared in such high profile venues as the The Guardian and The Observer. I sincerely hope more people take the time to read it.

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