Canceling Out

The problem with Suey Park may well be her critics.

If you’re reading this you probably know who Suey Park is. By now, you’re certainly caught up on the controversy of #CancelColbert. Maybe you’ve even seen the response that aired on Monday’s episode of The Colbert Report. In the name of accuracy, it should be mentioned that Park never actually called for the cancellation of the show: the hashtag was devised as a means of provoking white liberals into addressing the latent but endemic racism in their ranks. The rest was an ironic joke, kind of like the one that inspired this whole thing in the first place. Now would also be a good time to mention that “hashtag” + “activism” = “hacktivism.” But Park is smarter than her critics in anticipating this critique. Her project absorbs its own contradictions. Her ends justify the means, no matter how many times they change position.

In the brief history of Twitter coups and uprisings, Park is a veteran, the brains behind a number of viral hashtags like #NotYourAsianSidekick, #POC4CulturalEnrichment and #BlackPowerYellow Peril. Like most of those reared on social media, she understands that the nature of persona is performance. Park identifies with Kanye’s politic: “There’s no reason for me to act reasonable, because I won’t be taken seriously anyway. So I might as well perform crazy to point out exactly what’s expected from me.” It’s logic like this that makes her a well-oiled hashtag-generating machine, and makes upstandingly unassuming staff writers for various respectable left-wing media outlets want to kill their dogs.

I won’t repeat the original joke here or comment on its comedic value, save to say that the only way to read it is as a basic, first-order critique of Daniel Snyder and the Washington Redskins. Take it any other way and now you’re the one who’s fishing for provocation. A few commentaries have brought up the point that the outrage over racial microaggression takes away from the bigger issue of blatant racism. Others have made the opposite claim, that the former, being both harder to spot and more widespread, poses the real threat to progress. What more is there to add when we can at least be in agreement about this juvenile gesture and the feeble piece of agitprop that inspired it?

Apparently, a lot.

For one, there’s the shadowy figure of Park herself. On the New Yorker,Jay Caspian Kang attempts to sift through the bullshit. Kang writes, “[Park] said she saw the offending tweet while eating dinner Thursday night and decided to respond to it.” What’s wrong with this scenario? Kang is naturally concerned (for everyone’s sake!) that Park’s schtick could be interpreted as race-hustling and self-promoting but the greater unseemliness passes him by. You should be asking yourself not, “Was her response appropriate?” but rather, “What was she doing on Twitter at dinner?” I’m not interested in the particular factors that led her to forsake the sanctity of a meal for the scrutiny of strangers but I can tell you this for certain: Park is no more an activist than Stephen Colbert is a racist.“But, how can you say that?” The short answer is that her activism presents a paradox of sorts, for the extended play, see below.

Kang goes on: “Her degree of involvement in a hashtagged cause, she said, depends on how much ‘free time’ she has at the moment, and whether a particular issue piques her interest. ‘It’s not like I enjoy missing Scandalto tweet about The Colbert Report,’ she said.” Either he’s trying to libel her or they’re both totally missing out on the free samples of irony. Activism isn’t something you pick up and put down like the remote. Back in the day it could get you exiled to Siberia or, say, murdered execution-style in the lobby of your building. This sounds more like…channel surfing. But if hashtag activism was actually a day job, it would no longer be impressive or rewarding or fun, it would no longer be a distraction from your actualday job. Unlike Kang, Park has a sense of humor about it. Sort of.

In an interview with Salon’s Prachi Gupta, Park describes whiteness as a “structural advantage” but acknowledges that its days are numbered. There will come a time in the not too distant future when white people are no longer the majority in America, if not by revolution then by reproduction (time accomplishes what revolution cannot). Interestingly, the most anxious debates about discrimination have come about at a moment when the silent fruits of Change have already gone public. For the first time ever, women of color are being represented in mainstream, front-facing creative professions like television and journalism. (Gupta is a good example. A better one is Mindy Kaling, who’s a multimillionaire like Colbert.) More interestingly, they appear at a moment when the creative class as a whole is in crisis, with increasing numbers of people willing to trade their labor for lifestyle instead of livelihood. In the New York, where the media is robust and women outnumber men in the hippest neighborhoods, WoC wield considerable influence in matters of public opinion, though the question remains whether anyone is actually getting paid for it. The flipside of discriminatory violence in poor areas is invisible quotas in rich ones.

The exception to the trend? Asians. Among women in general and WoC specifically, Asian women are overrepresented in “hard” industries like tech, engineering, medicine and science, industries which are traditionally seen as being hostile to women, industries, in short, where there’s still money to go around. Yet no one talks about it because the work is anonymous, requires math skills and a seemingly monastic patience for research, and actually hurts the case of the social justice warriors. It’s also a stereotype, one of the more flattering ones, anyway.

In the colonial era, white supremacy was the default. In the Internet age, we see it for what it is: a defense mechanism. Now that real bigotry has exhausted its potential for divisiveness, we’ve moved on to policing the minutiae of subjective experience in the hopes that we’ll find something, anything to explain away our lingering sense of discontent. But if white privilege inadvertently closes doors, white guilt swings them open, seeing as they both emanate from the same place of latent moral entitlement. Besides, every self-respecting WoC knows this because no self-respecting WoC wants to be somebody’s token bestie, or worse, their charitable write-off.

So what Park is actually referring to is the creative industry, which is commonly held to have issues with racism and sexism but really has a labor problem. And so, the brocialists have dug in their heels and the pop feminists have sharpened their claws. We’re all scrabbling for the only open seat at the same table. Park’s targets, after all, aren’t the Koch brothers or Karl Rove but nervous intellectuals from Greenpoint who’ve been known to turn their underwear inside out for a deadline. The “structural advantage” of whiteness is the symbolic power both sides have agreed to invest it with in order to protect their respective interests. That may seem like an academic point but it’s really the only one you should be worried about.

On The New Inquiry blog, Aaron Bady argues that Kang’s hedgy, negging language is an attempt to conceal his true sympathies for Park and her ilk in favor of broadcasting journalistic objectivity. In Bady’s words, “the background rises up to overshadow the foreground.” This and other turns of phrase I’ve bookmarked for future thinspiration, but not so fast.

Bady makes the key observation that Kang’s rhetoric (“I am ten years older than Suey Park, and, like her, I grew up in a suburban Korean household”) positions him as a more trustworthy version of her (“one who is older, wiser, sympathetic to her passion, but skeptical of her reasons”). But close read the subtext of Kang’s seniority and a darker picture emerges. Self-effacement is Kang’s métier. And it’s not for Park’s benefit that he does it, but for his own. Kang identifies himself as a peddler of words; not only that, but he makes his living peddling words on the Internet, oh little me. Park, by the strength of inversion, is portrayed as a hustler, a person whose powers of persuasion compensate for the essential paucity of her product, a foil for the man who makes an honest living as the thrall of ethics and circumstance. The effect is subtle and insidious: rather than malign Park directly, Kang makes eloquent circles around her avatar. This isn’t backhanded sympathy, it’s stifled hostility.

Later, he passes the baton to Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic: “This should be forgiven in a 23-year-old suddenly given a national platform on the strength of an innovative hashtag. But let there be no mistake about it: If the American masses are to reflect on their own beliefs and assumptions about race, the vehicle is far more likely to be a popular yet transgressive comedian, warts and all, than a magazine journalist like me or a Twitter activist like Park.” Again, the congeniality of the tone covers for the antimony of the message, alerting Bady’s intuition that there are two registers of meaning operating at once.

Don’t be fooled, it’s all for show. Kang may have Asian DNA, but he sure sounds like the pampered, conciliatory white liberals he’s criticizing. Like much of this tote-wearing cohort, he practices false humility as a means of asserting moral precedence over those who are more commercially viable, an aggressor masquerading as a victim. (Park’s virtue in all of this is that she’s simply an aggressor and, as she rightly points out in the vein of Susan Sontag, anger gets a bad rap.) Kang resents Park, not because she’s wrong, or because she actually has a point, but because she’s been more successful in parlaying a specious platform into a robust online presence, which, when cordiality is what’s for dinner, is the only kind of reputation worth having. He resents her youth and, possibly, her gender. He resents that what he recognizes as charlatanism and sophistry is perceived by others, 21.9K others last time I checked, as intersectional critique (whatever that means). But—and here’s where Bady perhaps extrapolates the underlying affinity—although Kang doesn’t believe that industry alone should be the sole criterion for fame he can’t help but admire Park’s industry.

Little do Kang and Friedersdorf know Park’s biggest problem is that she actually likes The Colbert Report.

As Julia Carrie Wong writes on The Nation, “the real problem most people have with Park is that she has power.” Note: she doesn’t specify what kind of power since it’s not really important whether the power is legitimate or productive, only that it’s trending (if 21.9K people agree, it must mean something). Hence, a setup that comes off as concerned or, at worst, paternalistic, but is actually competitive.

Kang says he’s always assumed, “fairly or not—that white liberals believe that as a person of color, I owe a debt of gratitude to the generations of well-intentioned white people who have fought hard for my right to write for prestigious publications.” Except that, whether he knows it or not, he’s lying. No white liberal would ever think that way about a person of color. (And if they did, it wouldn’t be within his earshot, so…#mootpoint.) In fact, they’ve all been Pavlovian-conditioned into reserving judgement about anything that doesn’t involve upmarket porn or Big Data, which is why psychology is the white devil but Big Pharma is a necessary evil. The condition of liberalism as it exists today is basically a masochistic disavowal of intuition taken to its absurd logical conclusion. Liberalism strives to be categorically uncategorical. It is context over instinct.

Kang joins a parade of others lamenting the loss of “nuance, complexity, and persuasion” in a public discourse that has been shoehorned into form fields and listicles. But, like the rest of them, he’s missing the point. Hashtag activism exists not in spite but because of the intellectual culture of the left. We can have this conversation in under 140 characters or in 2,500 plus words but the outcome will always be the same if what’s at stake is your moral alibi. To put it otherwise, Twitter is no less honorable a platform than Slate or Salon or The Atlantic. Read into that as you will.

What Kang is really saying (Buzzfeed pundits, cover your ears) is that he wants to feel indebted yet resents the feeling, knowing all along—as all of us do—that he is special, exempt. On one hand, Kang doesn’t want to conform to the unrealistic standards set by society (“white people…”); on the other, he doesn’t want the existential terror of not conforming to some kind of standard (“…prestigious publications”). Park has apparently bypassed this step to her advantage, and to Kang’s endless frustration. According to Friedersdorf, she “tricked the Internet,” which is to say, she gamed the system in a way we hadn’t thought of but which we can now dismiss as intellectually dishonest. It may be that society’s metric for the valuation of human capital is all wrong, but we’ll take it as long as we can reserve the right to complain about it later. You’d never admit this to your Marxist friends at the Triple Canopy mixer, but better the bar is lowered to reflect your personal experience than removed altogether.

Everything you need to know about the controversy can be found in these two sentences c/o Friedersdorf: “Park seems like a smart, energetic person with sufficient talent for a bright future. But #CancelColbert is a lazy, counterproductive critique.” It’s not the girl, it’s her schtick. Except, it is the girl, you said so yourself eight paragraphs ago, let’s not be passive aggressive about it.

Still, Kang’s injury stings more than Friedersdorf’s because, for all of their difference of opinion, the offending factor is always common ground. Like Kang, Park is Asian, but sub “Asian” for literally anything else (feminist, queer, trans, Klingon, whatever) and you have the Pavlov analogy again.The only way we know how to talk about mutually incriminating power dynamics is through symbolic proxies like race and sex. By design, the serious nature of the metaphor precludes a rigorous line of questioning. LookI’m not saying racism and sexism don’t exist, only that they go both ways depending on who’s writing the check.