The Humor of Genocide
It’s not every day that I must defend myself against accusations of terrorism and being influenced by ISIS or point out that, even though I’m not one of the brave Kurd women warriors fighting against Turkey and ISIS, I still have a right—at least, in this country—to speak out when someone has made hateful public statements about my people. Last month, I found myself in both bizarre positions.
This year, I’m the chair of the AWP Indigenous/Aboriginal Writers Caucus. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writers Programs, the nation’s largest national organization for writers and academic programs that teach writing, and it’s huge. 17,000 people attended the last national conference in April. As you might imagine, it’s a pretty staid organization—bureaucratic and academic. I thought the biggest challenge of my chairmanship of the Indigenous Caucus would be to cover all of our agenda items and still bring the discussions to a satisfactory close by the appointed hour at the conference, so that our speakers could make it to readings where they were featured. Afterward, I’d work on the minutes and formal report for the AWP Board and help organize the 2016 caucus leadership in the weeks immediately following the conference, along with a couple of ongoing caucus projects. Then, I’d be home free.
Only this year, the whole thing blew up in my face, beginning with the announcement of AWP’s 2016 panel acceptances. There’s always fierce competition for representation on such panels—by individuals because travel funding from their institution to even attend AWP (an expensive, huge conference) often depends on being named to a panel and by AWP’s various communities because, as with so many large national organizations, the default tends to white male. This last, I want to point out is something that AWP has been working on in recent years. Panel representation has certainly diversified in the last decade or two, although still problematic, and the establishment of caucuses for marginalized communities within AWP has been a major step forward.
When the list of official panel acceptances was announced on Twitter, AWP member Laura Mullen tweeted in reply (from her personal account), asking if AWP would furnish demographics on the panel selections. AWP director, David Fenza, then sent her an email chiding her for “casting aspersions” on AWP and copied both her department chair and associate chair. For someone on tenure track or who is non-tenured or adjunct—as many AWP members in the marginalized communities are—this would have been an effective silencing tactic, threatening their employment. In Mullen’s case, she’s an endowed professor and tenured, as well as director of LSU’s writing program, so she wasn’t silenced. She wrote about it on her blog, posting Fenza’s letter, and the whole situation blew up on social media.
Soon, a petition was posted at Change.org, focused on the lack of disability panels and requesting increased transparency around panel selection, Fenza to apologize to Mullen, and the AWP Board to officially underscore that intimidation tactics by Board or staff against members would not be tolerated.
At that time, AWP should have risen to the occasion. Fenza should have apologized (he eventually did some time after the events detailed here). The Board should have issued a statement disavowing such intimidation tactics and stating they would never be tolerated, agreed to more transparency, and entered discussions as to how this could be accomplished. If this had happened, AWP would have been seen as a responsive and responsible organization.
Of course, it didn’t. The Board members are located all over the U.S. The leader of the staff was the person (Fenza) with the most to lose. In general, institutions move slowly in making decisions and dealing with crises. But finally AWP began to release some statistics on panel selection and talk about the possibility of more transparency in the future—without, unfortunately, addressing the disability panel issues or Fenza’s letter.
Next, founder and CEO of Red Hen Press, member of the AWP 2016 conference committee, and 2016 panel selection juror, Kate Gale, published an article in The Huffington Post, “AWP Is Us.” That article contained mocking stereotypes of many groups, a chiding tone as of a stern governess scolding misbehaving children, and even the dreaded term, “you people,” right up front in her first paragraph, leaving a message of “AWP is us, and you are them.”
I’ll focus on Gale’s second and third paragraphs for purely personal reasons—because she used those paragraphs to insult and offend me and mine. I believe she used us as a stalking horse since she didn’t have the nerve to write a piece ridiculing and insulting people with disabilities (who were the originators of the petition). Many are just fine with ignoring people with disabilities and treating them as invisible, but then worry about being seen as cruel if they publicly make fun of people with wheelchairs, canes, braces, and walkers. (I say this with more than a hint of personal bitterness, since I’m one of those people on canes.)
But Indians? Hey, everyone makes fun of Indians. It’s a national pastime. In Washington, D.C., people make themselves up in redface as caricatures of Indians to go to ballgames in big groups and ridicule us. At music festivals, hip young things don our sacred regalia or perversions of it to dance around half-naked. America’s been insulting us and underestimating us for centuries.
One of the complaints lobbed at AWP is for not enough inclusion of different groups, another is for more transparency. This summer I was at a dinner and someone leaned across to me and confided, “AWP hates Native Americans.”
“Really now?” I said, “I'm going to be in Washington this summer and I'd love to discuss this with them.” I took out a pen and paper. “Who hates Indians at the office there? Is it Fenza?” I pictured David Fenza saddling up a horse, Stetson in place, going out to shoot Indians. It was an unlikely image. The woman began fumbling around; she couldn't tell me who the Indian hater was. – “AWP Is Us”
Yes, let’s look at that image of David Fenza shooting Indians. How nineteenth century for such a twenty-first century woman! Perhaps she doesn’t know any of us survived the Removals and Indian Wars? No, that can’t be. She had prominent Native writers on her board before this debacle and had published Native writers. So, it’s not ignorance. Was it then a deliberate attempt to bring in a reminder of the genocidal Indian Wars, a reminder to us that we should be careful and not challenge powerful white people?
I know that some well-meaning people won’t see anything wrong with her statement. After all, we all grew up on those movies, television shows, and books about the noble white settlers, cowboys, and cavalrymen who battled against the Indians, vicious fighters but always doomed to defeat, as might and white made right in film after film. Books like that are still being written and published, and those television shows and movies are still being shown. Americans are very comfortable with the genocide that started their country, as long as you don’t put a name to it or make them really look at it and see it for what it actually is. Heck, they even made an art form out of the murders of our relatives. Art historians and film critics pretty universally agree that one of the few wholly American art forms is the Hollywood western, rather as if D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had had hundreds of imitations, and critics and historians acclaimed it as a new, truly American art form.
Those celluloid battles, however, recreated in a million backyards by children with toy guns and holsters where the unlucky and unliked were forced to be the Indians, were actually the last-gasp effort to fend off a centuries-long process of ethnic cleansing that wiped out most of the millions of Indigenous people who populated this continent when the Europeans first arrived, leaving a small remnant caged in prisoner-of-war camps, called reservations, after stealing most of their land. This glib witticism of Gale’s, intended to ridicule and cut down to size, was making fun of the murder of our ancestors, wholesale killing that still occurred early in the twentieth century. Not that long ago. Not that distant, the ancestors murdered. In my own grandparents’ lifetimes.
Would people still find it a harmless jibe if Gale referred in that same manner to a Klansmen adjusting his hood and lynching an African American man, or a member of the SS adjusting his uniform cap before executing Jews, gypsies, and other peoples in World War II? I think not. At least not people of good will. But the idea of hunting down and shooting Indians is too often considered all in good fun in America’s eyes, still. It is just as racist and offensive as those other examples. I don’t think David Fenza hates Indians, but her own words make me wonder about Kate Gale’s attitude toward us.
I don’t believe for a second that the conversation Gale mentioned took place, or if it did, it was not in those words or certainly not with an Indigenous writer. In the Indigenous caucus, comprised of practically all the Indigenous writers in AWP, no one knew anything about that supposed conversation. Frankly, I know a hell of a lot of writers from many different marginalized communities at AWP, some of whom have been quite angry with AWP, but no one I know would say the organization hates Latinos/African Americans/LGTBQ people/whatever. I suspect this is more what a privileged white person thinks a person from a marginalized community would say. It’s basically Tea Party rhetoric in an environment where that kind of discourse is the last thing I would expect.
Indigenous writers at AWP have been working with the Board and the staff to increase Indigenous representation and participation, and while AWP is slow in implementing desired changes (as one learns to expect from big organizations), the staff and Board have been basically supportive. The Indigenous writers’ caucus keeps pushing, and they slowly respond with greater representation and participation. We wish they were faster to change, and they wish we would stop asking for more, but our conversations and relationship are cordial and have never been marked with hostility on either side. As I said earlier, I suspect Gale didn’t want to say something as openly and pointedly ridiculing and offensive about people with disabilities, so she chose our community as a safe stalking horse. This was a mistake, of course, but then the whole piece was a massive mistake, insulting people of color, LGBTQ folks, so many—and people with disabilities were not fooled, anyway.
Finally, Gale took down her article on Huffington Post and posted a non-apology. Other than the first sentence—“I apologize for this post and the hurt it caused.”—the rest of the post was basically the Red Hen Press mission statement and an ad for the press. This was later supplemented with a fuller, still non-apologetic apology, in which Gale called the original article “a failed attempt at humor.” This seems to be a thing lately—the humor of genocide, of racism—and we’re supposed to show we have a good sense of humor and laugh along.
Apparently, Gale had become aware of the way her article was adversely affecting Red Hen Press. There were suggestions that it be boycotted. Along with others, I cautioned that such a boycott would harm the writers of RHP, who were probably in pain already from the piece their publisher had issued in such a huge public forum. I do have great sympathy for RHP’s authors and its board members, who were almost certainly not consulted before this article was published and who must have felt it as a great betrayal from someone whom they trusted.
Hundreds of comments, mostly well-reasoned and articulate, ensued. Publishers Weekly, Inside Higher Education, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets, reported on the situation with many comments posted for each of these, again reasonable and lucid. Bloggers posted their opinions—I wrote one with a comprehensive timeline and links, illustrated by screen captures of Gale’s original article since that had been erased. Discussion was active on Twitter and Facebook. I read most of this outpouring of commentary, since this issue was so close to my heart. I never saw a threat and not much profanity, even.
Nonetheless, just as everything began to calm down, Carol Muske-Dukes, former poet laureate of California and professor at the University of Southern California, wrote a rambling defense of Gale and published it in The Huffington Post. This article accuses those opposed to Kate Gale’s original piece of being members of ISIS or terrorists in a similar vein and compares us to Hitler and Stalin, as well, while accusing us of causing the death of standup comedy, for good measure. And of course, Muske-Dukes drags in “political correctness,” that tired, old canard from the Newt Gingrich/Jesse Helms-era culture wars against writers and intellectuals that has so steadfastly refused to die.
Muske-Dukes conflated Gale’s article, stand-up comedians, and the First Amendment in a particularly bizarre way. First of all, freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the constitutional right of a publisher to publish even controversial work without official interference from the government. It does not guarantee that readers will not take issue with the published work. It is narrowly focused around banning official government-supported censorship of publishers and has been expanded to cover the government’s inability to officially stop most kinds of oral speech, even if offensive. No government official made any attempt to prevent the Huffington Post from publishing Gale’s article. And since Gale is not a stand-up comedian, the many odd references to various stand-up comedians and the suggestion that comedy is dead because of the opposition to Gale’s piece make no sense, at all.
Perhaps one of the most irksome parts of Muske-Dukes’s article is her assumption that Gale’s critics are not activists and are not doing anything for the community.
But I'm inclined to ask the “virtual vigilantes” if they have ever started a press or a membership organization, if they've gone into the prisons to teach -- or if they've tried to do stand-up? Instead of weeping, why not figure out how to be strong? – “Gale Force”
I know many of the people who have articulately opposed Gale’s stereotypes with comments, blog posts, and essays. We have started and run presses and membership organizations and reading series. We have gone into prisons and jails and juvenile detention centers to teach—and inner-city schools and domestic-violence shelters and homeless shelters and among migrant workers and on reservations and elsewhere. I have myself done all of those. Most of us still are doing such things. The assumption that only white privileged academics do anything for the community is both false and foolish.
Another assumption she makes is that no one who opposed Gale’s article opposed the erasing of women and the misogyny of the movie, Straight Outta Compton. This is a total non sequitur, of course. The one issue has nothing to do with the other. However, once again, Muske-Dukes is drastically incorrect, apparently not having bothered to research her accusation before making it. The Washington Post had an article by Jamilah Lemieux discussing those issues and the fact that all the critical praise for the movie was coming from white male critics. Kim Trent wrote about those issues in the Detroit Free Press. Alex Abad-Santos wrote about them in Vox, and there’s much more that can be easily found in an internet search.
Now, we come to the really foolish hyperbole in the article. Some of it lies in the above quote—“virtual vigilantes.” But it gets much worse.
What, I asked myself, had Kate Gale done to piss off Isis?
Here's how she pissed off (if not Isis itself) those unwittingly willing to take ideological instruction (in the cause of self-righteousness) from the M.O. of extremism.
– “Gale Force”
I'm talking about women who actually fight and kill members of Isis! … They are the Kurdish women fighters who fashion a military strategy on the belief of these Muslim extremists that if they are killed by a woman they cannot go to heaven (so forget the 72 virgins!) -- so if they see a female fighter coming at them, they run like hell. This is a desperate situation but it is also funny -- unless perhaps you're too P.C. to laugh. Instead of weeping, why not recruit yourself to go over there and join forces with women who really know the meaning of the comedy term, ‘to kill’? – “Gale Force”
So, if we have issues with Gale’s use of racist stereotypes for “humor,” we are terrorists, members of ISIS, “willing to take ideological instruction… from the M.O. of extremism”? I would like to note that, to my knowledge, no one tried to even imply that Kate Gale was a terrorist, a member of ISIS, or taking ideological instruction from terrorists for making fun of the systematic murder of our great-grandparents. But that is the accusation Muske-Dukes levies against anyone who has problems with Gale using the genocide of our ancestors as a joke to hold us up for ridicule. As Kimberly Gail Wieser comments on Muske-Dukes’s article, “. . . and there's just a little historical irony in making jokes about the American Holocaust and then calling us terrorists if we defend ourselves when other people were the ones utilizing violent language.”
Also, to suggest that we must somehow prove our genuineness, non-terrorist-ness, and non-PC-ness by volunteering to go over to the Middle East and join up with the Kurd women warriors who are fighting against Turkey and ISIS is so bogus that it’s truly laughable. It’s as if Muske-Dukes believes that only those with white privilege are allowed to criticize anything in this society without making some extraordinary effort to “deserve” that right. How dare we people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities even open our mouths, right? Well, we dare. And we shall go right on speaking out when we see people employing racist, homophobic, ableist stereotypes.
The sad thing is that many people within AWP’s diversity communities were so disgusted with the whole situation after the Gale article that they wanted to withdraw from AWP. There had been calls that those in the diversity communities should break away and form our own organization or go to another organization that’s more welcoming of diversity. Along with many others, I’ve been trying to persuade people not to run away but to stay and work with AWP to make things better. We’ve pulled together all the diversity caucuses to try to work things out through official channels and keep people from bolting in large numbers. A piece like Muske-Dukes’s undoes a lot of that work and causes us to start all over again.
These women are woven through the warp and weft of national literary culture, sitting on the boards or in leadership positions of many of our largest and most influential organizations that give awards and grants and publication. I think people in the mostly white literary establishment don’t actually realize that many writers in marginalized communities, who are fighting for every tiny scrap of representation in the larger community they can get, fear that those people in charge of all these large organizations feel the way Gale and Muske-Dukes have written about their communities. I suspect it’s usually subtler than that, more of an institutional and unconscious bias in favor of the familiar most of the time, but those in leadership positions in the literary community need to understand that many will read these articles and say, “Wow! What I was always afraid of is true!” Ask yourself how little confidence writers of color, writers with disabilities, LGBTQ writers, and other marginalized communities can have that their work or the work of the best people in their communities will have a real chance at any of these awards, grants, panels, or other opportunities when someone who thinks this way is in power.
How often must we go through this? If this keeps up, soon enough, even those of us who keep saying, “Not all of the white lit hierarchy thinks that way—we need to stay and work things out,” will have to agree that “yes, they just want us to shut up and take whatever they dish out.”
Ask yourself how this is fair or just.