The body, as well as the head, was fearfully mutilated—the former so much so as scarcely to retain any semblance of humanity.
— The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Last week, American went ape. It was an ugly display. The sound of inevitability paralyzed legislatures from Washington to Sacramento, but the news was dominated by a small surprise: the mauling of a woman with a threatening new haircut by Travis, an intimately domesticated pet chimpanzee.
Everyone realized, egged on by Matt Drudge, that there was something all-too-fitting about the not-so-random reckoning evoked by the attack. To live in the company of beasts, no matter how close to the heart or the genes, is to court death in the company of beasts. It is impossible, in this day and age, not to click a link reading 911 TAPE: “HE RIPPED HER FACE OFF…HE’S EATING HER” — particularly when the assailant, gunned down by a cop trapped in his own squad car, had played without incident opposite Morgan Fairchild, and developed a taste for Chianti.
“This is not at all the personality I worked with,” Fairchild told the Daily News. “It was like having a very bright child on the set that wanted to be a part of everything. He was just an amiable little guy, friendly and just loved to be the center of attention.”
In short order, America’s cognitive dissonance over the chimp’s wrath was deepened the New York Post. If a picture speaks a thousand words, a cartoon is oftentimes cruelly inarticulate, especially in its own defense. Sean Delonas’ portrayal of a chimp-killing cop — “THEY’LL HAVE TO FIND SOMEONE ELSE TO WRITE THE STIMULUS BILL” — unwisely represented the stimpak’s multiple authors as a lone primate. On Thursday, February 19, the ratio of famous bloodthirsty monkeys to African-American Presidents sat at a damning 1:1, and in the frantic outcry that followed, Al Sharpton cut a figure of relative restraint.
With uncanny timing, Barack Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a speech on race to the employees and appointees of the U.S. Department of Justice, in which he called America a “nation of cowards” afraid to “confront” something evasively described repeatedly as “racial issues” or “racial matters.”
Do some Americans secretly, truly analogize their President to a fat, pampered celebrity of the species Pan trogolodytes? “[C]ertain subjects are off limits, and to explore them risks, at best, embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character.” Without a national effort, led by the Department of Justice, to use Black History Month as an “artificial” pretext for an “awkward and painful” conversation, “the coming diversity that could be such a powerful, positive force will instead become a reason for stagnation and polarization.”
Black or white, Holder intoned, American faces are red all over — with embarrassment at how hard it remains to get cross-racial on weekends, to live with confidence outside of our “race-protected cocoons,” and to judge our fellow man on the sole basis of individual character.
His solution? The Department of Justice “must and will lead the nation to the new birth of freedom so long ago promised by our greatest president. This is our duty. This is our solemn responsibility.” It may be awful; it may be absurd; but hey: we’ve got a lot of learning about each other to do.
Holder’s vision of an American society that acknowledges yet transcends race is noble enough, encompassing “frank” talk about “the whole notion of affirmative action.” But it all amounts to a conference-room meeting called by The Office’s Michael Scott. Like Michael, Holder insists the awkwardness is the whole point. But he chalks it up mistakenly to our discomfort with race, which is nothing compared to our discomfort with government-led group therapy. Indeed, half the trouble with “frank talk about race” is that would-be session leaders like Holder can’t get more specific about the topic of conversation than “matters” or “issues” of race.
For Stephen Colbert’s truthiness, it seems, we are to substitute raceiness. The evasive shall lead the evasive. Who in the Department of Justice will boldly strike up a public discussion about how Barack Obama’s mixed African heritage — as opposed to a black American heritage — enabled many blacks and whites to perceive him as a redeemer fulfilling an old American promise? If the best our officeholders can do to encourage upright living is to live uprightly themselves, there is little they can do as “change agents” to sweep away our tacitly negotiated attitudes about race.
We’re told that we ditched the Bush years in favor of an anxious yet hopeful era of emotional socialism. But if Travis the Chimp’s rampage is a Rorschach blot for the American psyche, instead of a cuddle party of the soul, we’re nestled in shellshocked sarcasm and jaded black humor. This may be, in Holder’s phrase, “truly sad,” but turning to government to change our attitude won’t make us truly happy.