Something weird is going on in this Kashann Kilson piece, and I think understanding it is key to understanding the progressive side of our media class.
Kilson writes what is, in many ways, a paint-by-numbers “Iggy Azalea and Race” column, which has become a cottage industry in liberal circles. (If you’re a young liberal writer and you want to get a piece published in Salon or Alternet or similar, just pitch that same story, and I promise you’ll get a byline and a check for $100. I seriously think there’s a portion of the liberal populace that thinks destroying Iggy Azalea is the most important left-wing task of 2015.) Kilson, to his credit, admits to what most people who write these people ignore: that Azalea has become a hate object for the broad world of cultural progressivism:
“Which is partly why, after she went 0-for-4 on music’s biggest night, hip-hop fans used social media to exclaim their thrill that the industry didn’t get it wrong. Their prayers were answered: variations of “thank God Iggy didn’t win” blew up on Twitter. Still, Iggy maintains 4.1 million followers there, a slew of accolades for her albums, and very public support from some of the biggest names in hip-hop—including will.i.am, Lupe Fiasco, and T.I., her mentor/producer. She’ll survive.
But the people who don’t like Iggy really don’t like Iggy. At the top of that list is fellow rapper Azealia Banks, whose Twitter beefs with Iggy (and with T.I.) reached such epic proportions that one Banks burn—the moniker Igloo Australia—managed to find its way into a cringe-worthy People’s Choice Awards presentation. When Iggy flunked a mortifying freestyle performance, the Internet pounced again with a meme dedicated to her failure to rhyme on the spot. It all feeds the narrative that she’s a pre-packaged pretender.”
OK, so far so good. I would hope that, with literally dozens of think pieces floating around out there about Azalea’s appropriation, we could get to the point where we admit that they exist, and more importantly, that the world of professional online writing has a very large and active community of sites and publications that want these pieces: culturally and socially liberal, driven by political outrage, expressed in the vocabulary of cultural studies, and presuming that the truth of progressive social politics is self-evident to all decent people.
But Kilson then goes on to contrast Azalea with Richard Sherman, who is the flip side of liberal media’s Iggy Azalea coin; like Azalea, Sherman’s individual personhood has been wiped away in the rush to render him a symbol. And here Kilson fails to find the honesty that he found with Azalea. Kilson repeats the now well-worn story of how Sherman was called a thug and worse after his infamous post-game “rant” against Michael Crabtree. And, indeed: Sherman was the subject of a ton of absurd vitriol that was racist on its face. But there was an opposite element that Kilson doesn’t mention, and that essentially no one mentions when this story gets told. Sherman simultaneously became a kind of progressive folk hero. He, too, was the subject of countless progressive think pieces, these ones positive, even glowing. I thought Dave Zirin was going to rename his column “I Love Richard Sherman.” Ta-Nehisi Coates literally titled a post “Richard Sherman is Better at Life Than You.” Deadspin rode the Richard Sherman train for months. He was invited to speak about race at Harvard. He was on Chris Hayes’s MSNBC show. It’s hard to think of athletes that have, in recent years, become more prominent away from their sports, or who have had their politics more effectively disseminated.
I’m not saying any of this is undeserved. I’m glad that there was a forceful reaction to the use of terms like “thug” to describe Sherman. But I am saying this occurred. The reaction against demonization of Sherman was at least as powerful as the demonization itself, and in terms of the professional media, was much more powerful. And yet just as many of the writers who pen anti-Iggy pieces don’t bother to mention how common such pieces are, the fact that there is a liberal counterweight to conservative animus about Richard Sherman is never acknowledged. I just don’t understand that. Why are members of the liberal side of the media so dedicated to preserving the illusion that they themselves don’t exist?
It’s entirely unclear to me, reading Kilson’s piece, why he thinks that Sherman suffers more from the negative press he’s gotten than Azalea suffers from the negative press that Kilson acknowledges she’s gotten. He refers to marketability in the piece, but in what meaningful sense is Richard Sherman not marketable? He’s one of the most prized players in the NFL, widely recognized as an All-Pro quality cornerback and a uniquely disruptive force. Some people would suggest that he doesn’t get endorsement money because of his race and his politics. But that’s simply untrue. Sherman makes millions of dollars in endorsement deals. He’s the current Campbell’s soup spokesman, following in the footsteps of many other NFL stars. He endorses Beats. He endorses BodyArmor. He endorses something called neff. Claiming he’s hurting for endorsements simply isn’t credible. And yet that attitude is pervasive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve discussed Sherman, online or in person, where fellow lefties have complained that he doesn’t get the endorsement money he should. When I put out that this simply isn’t true, the attitude about it is so weird. It’s like they’re disappointed that the thing they don’t want to be true isn’t true. I don’t get it.
So in what sense is Sherman suffering due to his haters in a way that Azalea isn’t? Kilson doesn’t say, and so there’s this weird hole in his piece where his most important argument should be. Once again: I have no doubt that the freakout about Sherman was driven by racism. And, indeed, I think the prominence and success of an athlete who is at least somewhat political is a good thing. So why is there such weird resistance to acknowledging his popularity and financial success? If you think Azalea is guilty of appropriation, shouldn’t you be celebrating the immense amounts of criticism she takes, instead of ignoring it?
This broad dynamic, of media liberals ignoring their own profound influence, is one of the strangest aspects of contemporary journalism and commentary. In every new controversy that roils professional opinion writing, there tends to be this strange duality, where the very people powering a very loud and prominent reaction seem to not understand that the reaction exists. Hayes is a perfect example. On his show and (especially) his Twitter account, he speaks as though his opinions are shouted into a void. But he’s got a nationally-televised show on one of the three big news networks! Before that he wrote for influential magazines. And he’s clearly an opinion driver among a class of people that have enormous influence on our media. I ask with genuine confusion: why the pretense? If the response is that these arguments do little or nothing to actually advance progressive causes, I would agree. But that would suggest that liberal writers and journalists should change how they engage on these topics, rather than ignoring their capacity to drive the conversation.
“Something pretty interesting has happened to sports opinionating in recent years. You can see it in the torching of Sterling just as you can see it in R*dskinsgate and the fight to end NCAA amateurism and the welcoming of openly gay athletes and the defense of Richard Sherman. A certain opinion — and I’d argue that this is, in nearly every case, an opinion that falls on the lefty side of the political spectrum — is articulated. It surfs Twitter. The opinion builds momentum until it becomes, with a few noisy exceptions, the de facto take of the entire sportswriter intelligentsia (perhaps the wrong word).
That opinion then becomes something like a movement. Pressure is exerted on people and institutions — in this case, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Sterling’s fellow-owners, even Michael Jordan…. watching the speed with which this happens has been astounding. It’s something like the sports-page equivalent of community organizing.”
I probably would reject most of Curtis’s political positions, I’m guessing. And I have my quibbles with his take. In the second piece, he says that “the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc.” I would argue that it has become a socially liberal bloc, not an economically liberal one, and that part of the reason these tendencies have become so prevalent is because they do not threaten the economic elites who own the media. (Indeed: obsessive focus on sports and the entertainment industry suits the needs of capital perfectly.) But whatever my beef with Curtis, I think what he’s described is simply, obviously the case, and I am surprised that nobody else seems to be writing about it. The more that Salon or Deadspin or The New Republic goes without commenting on their own influence in these debates, the less useful they are.