BY DAN OMBUDSMAN BUSKIRK Hey Jonathan- Let me first say that I’m not accusing you of anything I can’t imagine me getting myself into. I’ve gotten myself into more than my share of charged racial situations and I’m sure there is more to come but I’ve definitely tried to learn something along the way. If I was receving this letter I wouldn’t feel very apologized to, although you do actually say “I apologize”. But for every point you concede you defend yourself twice over. I’ll comment on a couple of things from the letter:
First I would like to commend you on penning the most posh piece of hate
mail we have gotten to date — and there have been some impeccably crafted,
forked-tongued missives, believe you me. (I was going say “articulate” but that would just open a open a whole other can of worms.)
Just bringing up an uncomfortable point of Black racism, purely for laughs, seems like you’re immediately framing the idea of racism in a less than serious way.
Second, I would like to make clear that the idea to draw your sister as
Shiva (yes, I asked for Shiva, NOT Vishnu) was, for better or worse, mine
and mine alone and I take full responsibility. It is my understanding that
Shiva is both Destroyer and Benefactor and I thought that was emblematic of
your sister’s broad satire of the judiciary.
I would also like to apologize if I have offended Hinduism or, as in your
estimation, belittled the efforts of your sister and undermined the dignity
of Americans of Indian descent. None of that was intended.
But just to be clear, we were not “satirizing her ethnicity”; we were simply
incorporating it into the illustration.
You’re really parsing words here. By making her ethnicity part of the illustration you’re walking on this ice, sort of like having a guy throwing a pizza behind someone of Italian descent or making sure there is a Rabbi eating a knish in the Sarah Silverman illustration. Of course Italian and Jews (mostly) have been accepted in the club of whiteness so their ethnicity isn’t such of point of mention anymore.
Your sister notwithstanding, authors are usually a tough sell visually
speaking, as are books that nobody has read yet. Here at Phawker we pride
ourselves on making the dense and the esoteric inviting and accessible,
Are racial stereotypes bold and edgy? [Is it widely assumed by bigots that people from India have four arms? –The Ed.] It seems like that is what you’re alluding to. Watching Rob Scheider as the Chinese judge in “I Now PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK & LARRY” made me feel like I was watching some square film from
or vice versa. Perhaps we are not for the faint of heart, and certainly not
for the thin of skin.
This makes it sound like you’re accusing her of having thin skin, but indirectly, so she can deny it if she complains.
At Phawker, we laugh at everyone and everything, but mostly we laugh at
ourselves. And we expect the same of the people we write about and, for that
matter, the people that read us.
But there is a difference at the fun those in power poke at themselves (and look for yourself at the Senate, it’s not 50/50 men to women for starters….) and the fun poked at those who are under-represented or held in ridicule by the media. Has there ever been a TV show about an Indian-American family on TV? No, but there is Apu…
Having said all that, I think “repellant racist illustration” is a little
excessive. It is a phrase better suited to, say, something you might find is
the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, or an old Crumb cartoon about
tumescent-lipped hypersexual amazonian negresses. To be honest, I was
thinking about the de-contextualized pop exotica of the Beatles’ Help.
Maybe that pop exotica image is less quaint if you keep in mind India relationship to the British empire. It’s like if we had a show ten years from now called “Oh, Those Wacky Iraqis!”
Perhaps I am guilty of the sin of kitsch, or even religious insensitivity,
but “repellant racist” is like answering a slingshot with an atom bomb. As
for equating Alex Fine’s illustration with Isaiah Washington and Trent Lott
— well, if we had called your sister a “faggot” perhaps the former would
apply, and if we had mourned the demise of the Jim Crow South, possibly the
latter would apply. But let the record show, we did no such thing. I only
bother to mention all of this because this is just the kind of reckless
sophistry that muddies the waters and poisons debate, and, worst of all, it
gives people like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh the ammo they need to dismiss the entire issue of race as the “PC Police” overreacting. Providing a sane alternative to all that nonsense is why we started Phawker in the first place.
You make it sound like she deserves to be yelled at by Rush Limbaugh. The apology part is a distant memory by now.
In closing, let me say again that I am sorry you got the wrong idea after
coming to Phawker for the first time and that you saw your sister drawn in a
manner you find offensive. However, you should know that we are very much a
“Love All, Serve All” kind of place. Take a look around, I think you will
see that we draw a pretty firm line in the sand when it comes to ignorance
of every stripe and the intolerance it breeds. We do our best to fullfill
H.L. Mencken’s dictum to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
In the pursuit of which, we fully exercise our First Amendment rights
and we reserve the right to riff on visual signifiers as we see fit.
Translation: We’re sorry you’re upset but we would do it again in a second.
PS Us Magazine is part of the problem, not the solution. Just sayin’.
PPS Peter Sellers is God. Not kidding.
One last dig. Why not throw in “Al Jolson was a genius” too? You wouldn’t be wrong. But defending the Sellers thing (again in the parsy-words way that leaves you a backdoor) is inflammatory, especially since that film is held up far and wide as one of the most visible ugly stereotypes about Indians. It’s like making a big deal to defend BIRTH OF A NATION. You could defend it, but you really have to make a scholarly case, you can’t yell it out a car window as you’re pulling away, which your PPS does. So if you wanted to apologize you should have, but you should be aware that no matter how justified you feel on these arguments you’ve definitely made an enemy of life of this woman.
Um, points taken, but I think it’s more complicated than We Are Wrong and She Is Right. Hence the absence of a straight-on unconditional apology. I am sorry that she is offended, but surely there is something on Phawker destined to offend just about every body. Having read that letter thru a few times and thinking about it long and hard, I don’t feel the need to apologize — especially since her letter was so condescending and self-congratulatory and self-serving. She is upset that her sister was drawn as Vishnu (when in fact we drew her as Shiva, without malice aforethought) in much the way that Muslims were upset about cartoons of Allah — I understand these are sacred cows to some, but we are not going to play that game. It’s a slippery slope from there to a fatwa on Salman Rushdie and really, that’s no exaggeration. Besides, we are an equal-opportunity offender. We did not take down the image of Jesus with a gun even though a reader asked very nicely.
I think Alex’s image portrays a strong woman empowered by knowledge. By contrast, the cover of her book is a dainty woman’s arm wearing pearls holding a feather weight gavel between her thumb and forefinger. It seems to suggest that the most important thing about a woman jurist is that she can afford expensive jewelry and the gavel seems to suggest to potential readers, “Don’t worry, there’s nothing too heavy in here.”
And I cannot seriously swallow that kind of high handed horseshit coming from an usmagazine.com email account. If you are so concerned about how women are represented visually in the media you need to get a different job or come down off that cross. How many strong, intelligent black women has Us focused on recently for their intellectual accomplishments? Asian women? Latinas? ANY WOMEN?
These questions are obviously rhetorical because we all know that Us portrays women strictly as cardboard cutouts farm raised on lemon juice and cilantro sprigs, but I guess there is nothing wrong with that.