Defending Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen is hurt that you think he’s a racist.
Well, I say “you,” but I guess I really mean “me and a couple of other guys.” Because it appears that Cohen does, indeed, have a bevy of defenders in the media — and on this very site. I was going to let this dog lie after yesterday’s post, but the incessant defense of Cohen is bugging the crap out of me. As I’ve written before, if we’re ever going to get to better place with race in this country, we should recognize that race issues are usually far more subtle and nettlesome than we like to pretend. Usually, but not always. And in those cases where racism is neither subtle nor nettlesome, it is important to expose it to light. Such is the case with Richard Cohen and his post from earlier in the week. And since it seems more light is needed, here I go again.
The defense of Cohen is either an indictment of his critics or a indictment of Cohen’s skill as a writer, depending upon the defender. In a nutshell, however, the defense is essentially two-pronged:
- The Reading Comprehension Defense: Essentially, this defense is the claim that neither Cohen nor his column are in any way racist because he is attributing his line about reactions to mixed race couples and their children to other people. “Look at what he said in context,” these defenders insist.
- The Poor Choice of Words Defense: This defense relies on a combination of assuming that Cohen did not mean what he wrote and a little Monday-morning armchair editing, specifically with the single word “conventional.” “Give the guy a more charitable rewording, and you’ll see it’s just another case of liberals crying ‘racist,’” say these defenders.
I will be the first to admit, Internet outrages-of-the-day too often lean heavily on taking single lines out of context, giving them the worst possible interpretation, and ascribing said interpretation on the so-called offender. Indeed, whole strategies in Presidential elections are based on no less. What Cohen wrote, however, doesn’t fall into this camp.
Still, for the sake of argument let’s take a look at what happens when we assume Cohen’s defenders are correct and provide that retroactive editing, context, and thoughtful reading they say he deserves.
The entire column can be seen here, but once again the paragraph that turned heads (and the specific line so many found horrifying) is here:
Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all. [Emphasis mine.]
The offending line is one that Cohen does indeed attribute to others, but merely noting that is not quite enough. Cohen and his defenders also must argue that he didn’t really foresee the way readers would interpret the word “conventional.” (That is, by its actual definition). So let’s give Cohen the benefit of the doubt and make a quick edit to that sentence the way he says it was meant to be read:
People — not me of course, but other people — with highly extreme views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.
Fixed! And you know what, Cohen and his defenders are right — it does look better when you make those changes. But hold on; we still have some more context and wordsmithing to do.
There’s another cringe-worthy aspect to Cohen’s column. While he is clearly saying that it is people not named Richard Cohen who want to barf when they see mixed-race kids, he also states unequivocally that them wanting to barf at the sight of mixed-race kids is in no way racist. This is a wee bit troubling, because in my experience the people most likely to think that there’s nothing racist about thinking mixed-race babies are an abomination are… well, you know. And when you think about it, saying that those fictional people’s reaction is totally non-racist kind of underscores his original use of the word “conventional,” which we’ve decided he must not have really meant to use. Which means we’re going to have to edit that whole bit as well:
Many Tea Party extremists in today’s GOP do indeed appear to be racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged
We’re getting closer!
But we’re still not there, because although Cohen and his defenders claim that he was just talking about extremists that gagged at the site of mixed-race couples, he’s actually written inartfully that it’s what “cultural conservatives” think.
This is a bit of a sticky wicket on two fronts. One problem is that this isn’t what actual cultural conservatives actually think. (Or at least not the vast majority of them.) But there’s also the matter that Cohen is something of a cultural conservative himself. Not completely so, mind you; he’s pro-choice, for example. On the other hand, though, he did blame the Steubenville football team’s rape of an unconscious minor on Miley Cyrus and that noise kids call music these days. He’s pretty hawkish. And he has a tendency to describe men caught sexually harassing employees or raping minors as merely being guilty of “being a man.” (Though in fairness, the harassment bit might have something to do with the fact that he’s been there and done that.) So I guess he might or might not be culturally conservative, but let’s be safe and change cultural conservative to “Tea Party extremists” as we did above, just in case:
To some Tea Party extremists, this doesn’t look like their country at all.
That looks much, much better, now that we’ve made his words more artful and put things in more of a retrospective context.
Except, I guess, that if we’re really going to put Cohen’s writing on race this week in context we need to take a look at Cohen’s writings on race in the past. Which means we’re going to have to do a little more retroactive editing.
For example, even though he claims America no longer has race issues when arguing for white rights on the affirmative action front, he’s a pretty concerned about the inherent danger black men pose to a civilized society. Indeed, as I noted yesterday, he wrote that George Zimmerman was “heroic” for chasing down Treyvon Martin because Martin was black. Worse, Martin was wearing a hoodie, which is worn by all youth everywhere regardless of race — but to Cohen is a sign of criminal activity if you wear it and you’re black. Which, when you think about it, sounds pretty racist. It would have been way better (and more artful!) if Cohen hadn’t mentioned the ubiquitous hoodies at all, and instead named something Martin was wearing or carrying that is actually related to a serious crime. That would certainly make his praise of Zimmerman being “brave” sound better. Plus, there’s the small matter of Cohen having written that shopkeepers should be allowed keep blacks out of their stores because, really, who knows what those people are up to, amiright? Pretty much all of this context is bound to make for some uncharitable reading of Cohen’s views on race, so we better do some retrospective editing for his past writings as well. Which, come to think of it, means we should probably pretend his whole “who knew slavery was bad” thing never existed.
So! Let’s see where we are now, shall we?
“According to Richard Cohen, many extremists in today’s GOP do indeed appear to be racist, and by “GOP” we really mean only some Tea Party extremists. Some people — but certainly not Richard Cohen — with highly extreme views may or may not repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.
Also, shopkeepers should be allowed to keep known criminals out of their store, but Richard Cohen argues strongly that one should not just assume that a person is criminal just because they’re black. Cohen notes that it was certainly was a different with the whole Treyvon Martin case, where George Zimmerman bravely followed a youth of unknown race who was wearing an illegal sub-machine gun strapped to his back while carrying a bloody knife in one hand and a severed head in the other.”
Hey, you know what? Cohen and his defenders are right after all. When you assume Cohen isn’t racist and choose different words than he chose in order to reflect that, he really does look better. My apologies.
I wonder if he has to go pick up his Good Citizenship Award at the NAACP’s national office, or if they’ll just mail it to him?
 UPDATE: Yet another defender of Cohen just contacted me to point out that Cohen didn’t use the word “heroic,” he used the word “heroism.” Which, as it has been explained to me, proves my “bad faith” and I guess makes all my points in this post void.
I did indeed put the wrong words in quote marks, and so I’m leaving it as is with this footnote so readers can judge for themselves the heinous nature of my crime.