In mid-October as the presidential campaign was reaching its most fevered point, an anecdote circulated widely in newspapers and on the internet. In some versions, it happened in Western Pennsylvania. Other versions place it in West Virginia or Indiana. Here’s the Pennsylvania version from a blogger:
So a canvasser goes to a woman's door in Washington, Pennsylvania. Knocks. Woman answers. Knocker asks who she's planning to vote for. She isn't sure, has to ask her husband who she's voting for. Husband is off in another room watching some game. Canvasser hears him yell back, "We're votin' for the n***er!"
Woman turns back to canvasser, and says brightly and matter of factly: "We're voting for the n***er."
This was reported—and repeated—as fact, but it sounds apocryphal. No one seems to have the date and place, let alone the name of the canvasser. It probably belongs in the category of salty folk humor. We all get the point about even ignorant backwoods folk supporting Obama despite their racism.
But it was all too much for the delicate sensibilities of students at the University of Arizona.
Yesterday the Associated Students of the University of Arizona sent a press release announcing plans for a campus-wide bash themed, “Stop the Hate & Celebrate: Yes We Did!” The November 12 event is intended partly as a celebration of Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election and partly as a balm to soothe anger in the community over a comic that appeared in the Arizona Daily Wildcat on November 5.
The comic retells the Pennsylvania/West Virginia/Indiana anecdote with a few extra lines. And it includes the racial epithet. As it happens, it was drawn by Keith "Keef" Knight, who is black.
Some Arizona students immediately took umbrage. The next day, Lauren LePage, the Daily Wildcat editor met with a group of some 100 unbrage-takers to apologize for the comic and assure them she would “strive” to make sure that such a thing would not happen again. The comic, she said, was published by mistake and without her approval. That’s a show of editorial bravery that will stand Ms. LePage in good stead in years to come. Hang your cartoonists out to dry.
LePage’s audience was dissatisfied with the apology. The next day a student, Ian Friedman, wrote an account of Ms. LePage’s apology, noting the continuing flow of umbrage from the umbrage-takers. Our favorite is umbrage-taker and sociology major Victor Yates, who said that “in the future the newspaper should avoid any term that could possibly offend any group on campus.”
Friedman also quoted Clarence Griffin, a “community-mentor for the 360 Scholars Experience,” a program for minority freshmen, who wanted to know “what consequences are going to occur” because of the cartoon.
Well, the consequences are in. The celebration announced for Wednesday is to be a purpose-driven party, complete with “four goals” to be communicated in response to the newspaper’s comic-tragic incident:
1 The comic was not representative of the UA students, staff, or faculty. We do not agree with the printing of the comic.
2 We are promoting change, diversity, and unity on campus and in the Wildcat in order to be sensitive to the whole UA and Tucson community at large.
3 Arizona Daily Wildcat, we forgive your mistake, but please do not make it again.
4 We want the Arizona Daily Wildcat to be accountable for the education of their staff members with specific MANDATORY training in diversity and tolerance so this never happens again.
All of this is pretty comic by itself and might make good material for Keith Knight’s next venture into real-life-funnies, but then again, Mr. Knight has probably lost his gig at The Daily Wildcat. The “four goals” fit the usual pattern of rebarbative punishments visited on those who transgress campus sensitivities: distancing, disavowal, admonition, and subjection of the culprits to ritual humiliation. “MANDATORY training in diversity and tolerance” has about it an air of enforced uniformity and intolerance that makes the phrase nearly a perfect mirror image of itself.
Interestingly, Friedman’s article on Lauren LePage’s apology noted that she had published comics by Knight in an effort to increase the diversity of the Daily Wildcat. LePage said, “One of my goals when I came to the Arizona Daily Wildcat was to diversify the paper both in terms of the students on the paper as well as the content that we cover.”
In her own article, “To our readers: EIC explains comic's presence,” LePage wrote,
The Daily Wildcat has been running Keef's comic, which routinely addresses race and political issues within our society, since the beginning of the semester - not to upset our campus community, but in an attempt to help create discussion and provide a voice for what we feel is an underrepresented group on our campus.
LePage’s attempts to diversify the newspaper backfired. So did Keef Knight’s attempt to raise awareness about racism. Knight said he intended to portray “a uniquely only-in-America moment” in which otherwise racist people nevertheless are voting for Obama.
There is perhaps a broader lesson here. In today’s academic world, proclaiming your commitment to “diversity” is virtually a prerequisite of attaining any position of responsibility. This applies to university presidents on down to student newspaper editors. And saying you are committed to diversity certainly sounds benign. But the diversity doctrine itself cultivates group grievances and, especially in the college context, attempts to turn vague dissatisfaction into festering resentment. The pay-out of diversity for campus identity groups is the sense of empowerment that comes from sharing a grudge and working up a head of anger about it.
These groups, however, are typically faced with an acute shortage of things to be angry about. And that’s the territory into which Ms. LePage unwittingly wandered. She meant well when she licensed Keef to throw matches into the fireworks box. Her mistake was to confuse the outward veneer of diversity—the call to “Celebrate Diversity!”—for its substance, which is much more about competing for status through the histrionics of anger.
This isn’t the first comic controversy to hit the Daily Wildcat. Just a year ago, the newspaper published Joseph Topmiller’s comic, in which he drew a restaurant bill with a 7% tip and the signature, “Mark Goldfarb.” Below the picture were the words, “Attention all crappy tipping Jews!!!! Just because you're 'screwing' the server ... does not mean that it's a mitzvah.” Incensed, the university community denounced the strip as anti-Semitic. The UA Hillel Foundation, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies, and others condemned it in writing. Two students collected signatures for a petition requesting that all Arizona Student Media staff members take sensitivity training.
Instead of sensitivity training, however, Arizona Student Media Director Mark Woodhams said he would talk to student journalists about preventing this kind of problem in the future: “Helping editorial staff and reporters think smarter is the solution, not re-education,” he said.
But re-education has finally caught up with the Daily Wildcat.
The “Stop the Hate & Celebrate: Yes We Did!” event is sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of Arizona (ASUA) and the university’s Center for Student Involvement and Leadership (CSIL). Thus, it’s not clear whether the celebration’s “goal” of mandatory diversity training will actually be enforced by the university.
One Arizona faculty member objected to University funds being used for the celebration and was told by a university official:
This event is not funded by the UA but the student coalition that is behind the event has the support of the administration. The intent is to celebrate the progress of society that the election made evident. Our students want to be present in this history and move past the anger and frustration they have been experiencing since the running of the Knight comic.
It is, however, not entirely clear that the celebration is an attempt to “move past anger and frustration.” It seems something more like an expression of triumph that validates an expression of anger wrought up out of nearly nothing.
No student at the University of Arizona was injured by the cartoon, or even made the target of its satire. It was intended instead as a sophomoric jeer at the supposed ignorance and bigotry of white, working class voters. To make a cause célèbre out of this is to demonstrate a kind of ill-will to the community at large, which presumably has better things to do than worry about tending to the fragile self-esteem of ever-ready-to-be-offended identity groups. Knight used his strip, not to endorse, but to draw attention to racism. His comic is similar in purpose to tunnels of oppression, which often include the n-word in their portrayals of racism, but are never denounced as racism itself. What’s amusing about this story is that the university’s own politically correct agenda was mistaken for political incorrectness.
This episode is sure to remind some readers of what happened a few years ago when a Danish newspaper ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. Of course the radical Muslim response to those cartoons was on a wholly different order of magnitude. Mobs set fire to the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Police fired on protestors, and over 100 people died. Death threats continue to be made against the cartoonists and the newspaper editors. And many newspapers in Europe and the United States capitulated by refusing to reprint the cartoons.
What has happened at the University of Arizona is a very faint echo of the Danish cartoon controversy, but an echo nonetheless.