The racists in our midst

Writing under the handle “Bronxiniowa,” Ira Lacher, who actually hails from the Bronx, New York, is a longtime journalism, marketing, and public relations professional.

My aunt, who raised me after my parents died, would wake up early on Sunday to prepare a meal, then take a cab, at great expense, to visit her sister, confined to a mental institution. "If she were Catholic," one of the nurses in the ward told me, "she would be a saint."

But she also threw around the word "shvartze" to refer to black people. "Shvartze" technically means "black" in Yiddish, but it's also the equivalent of the N-word. So, yes, my aunt was a racist. But she also did good for me, her sister, and uncounted others. And I still say a memorial prayer for her on the anniversary of her death.

No such sentiment may be forthcoming for Scott Adams, the longtime cartoonist who created "Dilbert."

This weekend, many newspaper chains dropped his strip because he made racist remarks in his podcast, to wit: "The best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people." He also called Black people a "hate group."

The Associated Press quoted Christopher Kelly, vice president of content for NJ Advance Media, as justifying the yanking of the Adams strip by saying his organization believes in “the free and fair exchange of ideas. But when those ideas cross into hate speech, a line must be drawn." Adams may have spouted racism in a private moment. But "Dilbert" has never been accused of racism.

The Adams affair comes directly after we learned Puffin Books in the U.K. was editing already published words by Roald Dahl. This was because the English author of James and the Giant Peach and other young people's books was not averse to alluding negatively if not obliquely to women, Jews, and black and brown people. (After backlash over the weekend, including from Queen Consort Camilla, Puffin announced it would continue to publish his unedited works parallel to the bowdlerized editions.)

"Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent," George Orwell once wrote. Many of history's most revered figures were walking dichotomies of sainthood and sin, particularly racism. But they get a bye.

Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in America. But responding during a debate with Stephen Douglas during the senatorial race of 1858, he said: "[T]here is a physical difference between the white and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. . . . I am as much as any other man in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Winston Churchill told the U.K.'s Palestine Commission in 1937: "I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

As for Scott Adams? We knew who he was years ago. In 2020, he tweeted that the Black Lives Matter movement was "a domestic terror organization that is setting back race relations by perhaps twenty years." But no editor pulled "Dilbert" in 2020.

Why now?

What is it about the way we were that makes us different from the way we are?

Was it that not too long ago, we simply turned away and pretended we just didn't see? Was it that we saw but pretended it didn't matter? Was it that we pretended it mattered, but not to us? That today it matters because we aren't supposed to think that way anymore? And if we aren't supposed to think that way anymore, what do we do about it?

Maybe instead of rushing to judgment, we should be adult about who we are and about our nature as human beings. "Roald Dahl was no angel but this is absurd censorship," tweeted Salman Rushdie, who knows something about being "cancelled"—by fundamentalist Islamists to the point of being targeted for assassination.

We shouldn't apologize for Roald Dahl, or Scott Adams. They are who they are. But nor should we assume an air of moral superiority by erasing them. Unless we want to do the same to those we have learned to revere throughout history. However, once we start pulling up those floorboards, we may not like what we find.

Top photo by Tim Buss of the Winston Churchill statue in London's Parliament Square available via Flickr.

  • Good post

    with food for additional thought.

    The complaint was different, but I remember a guy who once advocated in Bleeding Heartland for the cancellation of my print Des Moines Register entirely. Not just mine. Everyone's. And I still read his stuff. Who was that guy?

    Yeah, that wasn't fair.

    I'll miss the cartoon. It was funny. I agree with your post. And yet, Gannett can do whatever the hell they want.

  • Actions and Consequences

    I'm a firm believer that we should be pulling up the floorboards and finding out what this country is truly built on (it's not the labor, pain, and suffering of white people). So maybe it is time we all get a hard and ugly lesson about the founders of this country. Maybe that should be one of the consequences of white people upholding racist and bigoted words and actions for...oh, nearly 300 years in the US.

  • Not sure

    I am not sure I understand the point being made here -- beyond satisfying the compulsion to write about a current event.

    The current event is a man's decision to use his platform, as a nationally-syndicated cartoonist, to make a public announcement on a podcast regarding his social beliefs, at a time when a certain segment of our population has determined it is safe to express those same social beliefs, which, in turn, are reprehensible to a much larger portion of the population.

    He apparently made similar remarks about three years ago, but as Bleeding Heartland's March 1, 2023 entry, "Iowa Republicans didn't always push anti-LGBTQ bills. What changed?" (published subsequent to this post) makes clear, conservatives in Iowa and elsewhere had different repulsive and divisive priorities two and three years ago.

    That's the current event.

    I do not know how that bears any relationship to a mid- to late-1900s grandmother who privately made disparaging remarks about racial minorities, or to a mid-1800s lawyer who publicly made a potentially disparaging remark about physiological differences between races, even though the applicable medical research was scant; or public and disparaging remarks about indigenous people made by the prime minister of a country whose history has been defined by a centuries-long practice of violent colonialism fueled by a lack of respect for the dignity of indigenous people.

    LIkewise, this reads as though there is some universal belief, not only that American readers deify famous figures of the past, but that all people believe that individuals who have been canonized were not fallible humans beforehand. First, I don't know any thinking adult human who is under any such misapprehensions. Second, this piece doesn't pursue those assumptions, anyhow.

    I have to ask myself, in any event, when, in any of those disparate scenarios, did the speaker choose, without duress, to step into the public sphere and articulate a position he or she knew would offend at least half -- probably more -- of his or her audience and in the process, breach several lucrative contracts that provide his or her means of financial support?

    And I have to ask myself how any of those people are even relevant to the current event?

    Being honest, I concluded that none of any of it makes sense.

    Then, there is the matter of Salmon Rushdie commenting on the self-censorship of a book publishing house is an interesting story, but that is a separate story altogether.

    But first, let's be clear. Mr. Rushdie was quoted in this piece for something he said about an editing decision made some time last year, or earlier. The editing decision was not made by a newspaper or any other daily-published communication forum, and it wasn't made by an American publisher who might be constrained by a hate speech statute. The works to which Mr. Rushdie referred had already been published, and had been in circulation for more than half a century.

    They were books written by the British author, Roald Dahl, who died 30 years ago and who did not, as far as any current accounts report, purposely avail himself of an equivalent form of social media and deliberately say racist things for the purpose of offending others.

    Mr. Rushdie said that the recent act of editing certain terms and phrases out of Mr. Dahl's work was "absurd censorship." That much is true.

    And it is consistent with remarks Mr. Rushdie made almost 25 years earlier, in connection with American newspapers' decision, on the one hand, to publish stories about the bombing of a Danish newspaper office in connection with the publication of cartoons, while on the other hand, refusing to publish the cartoons.

    THAT Salmon Rushdie angle might have focused the discussion. One could plausibly argue that the common offense is the publishers' anticipation that readers might find the cartoon, Dilbert, objectionable, and say so. It would be the same sort of anticipatory raising of the white flag of surrender, without a single shot ever being fired.

    If this piece was written that way, and concluded, I would be more sure of its point.

    It wasn't, and it doesn't end there, however. Apropos of nothing that came before, it concludes, accusing the universal "us" of looking down on Mr. Adams with "an air of superiority." Saints, Grandmas, Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Salmon Rushdie and the cherry on top, condescension toward Scott Adams.

    I'm lost.

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