The climax of the April 28, 2017 “RuPaul’s Drag Race” episode featured trans woman Peppermint facing off against the hapless Cynthia Lee Fontaine. As with every episode of “Drag Race,” the loser of the “lip sync for your life” would be sent packing. In apparent response to a producer asking if she was worried, Peppermint blithely replied, “I’m about to do the thing that I know how to do the best. Actually, I’m worried for Cynthia.”
This was not a mere boast, as Peppermint danced (figurative) circles around her opponent. At the precise cue in Madonna’s “Music,” Peppermint mimed cocking a shotgun and aimed it at Cynthia’s head before pulling the imaginary trigger. The subsequent fanmade GIF, wherein Cynthia explodes in fire, was inevitable. No one then or now questioned whether it was inappropriate or had implied subtext, even though Cynthia’s home base was Pulse, the nightclub that was the site of Omar Mateen’s massacre the year prior. The fans were simply beside themselves at Peppermint’s winning performance. One Reddit commenter summed up the consensus with: “Hello police? I’d like to report a murder.”
I found this phrasing hilarious, and with a yoink adopted it. I am hardly alone. “I’d like to report a murder” or “a beating” is not uncommon in social media jargon when someone is taken down (another sometimes-euphemism for murder). When Dana Loesch slammed one of her critics in April 2018, I replied with, “hello 9/11, yes i would like to report a beatdown. this dana lady is pistol-whipping a reporter in broad daylight, you know who she is, she’s on tv, no i dont know how to pronounce her last name, no one does, no rush with the amberlance, i dont think theres much left of him.” If someone wants to take my intentional misrendering of the emergency phone number as a “9/11 joke” or read the whole tweet as encouraging or legitimizing violence, there is no place the conversation can go from there.
So it was that on Saturday, when “your favorite president” tweeted: “Today Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President. Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz!” I replied five minutes later with “The Native American genocide continues with another murder by the president.” Donald Trump Jr. took a screencap and posted it on Instagram with the comment “Savage!!!” (common social-media parlance but also a pun)—and all heck broke loose.
Articles from Newsweek, Yahoo! News, Mother Jones, and many others condemned the president for making a glib reference to the Trail of Tears, a horrible event in our nation’s history, all because he had capitalized five letters. In a particularly ironic slip, The Hill misidentified me as Michael Savage before correcting the article. I was accused of endorsing genocide, extreme racism, Nazism, and all the rest. When my followers tried to point out that I am Jewish, I asked them to hold back. This wasn’t really about me.
As I’d tweeted out previously, the rules are: “If it’s your team, provide context and nuance and assume best intentions. If it’s their team, take everything at face value in such a way as to make them seem to be the acme of awfulness.” The fact that I was tweeting alongside Trump meant that I must be on “their” team. While Jake Tapper was calling my tweet “blatant racism” on CNN, MSNBC was referring to Rep. Ilhan Omar’s tirade under the caption: “Congresswoman under fire for tweet viewed by some as anti-Semitic.”
Again, it is “blatant” against “viewed by some,” indisputable fact against ambiguous perception. “They” are an evil monolith, while “we” are complex and contain multitudes.
To say a joke is racist because it irreverently references race is vapid and uncomprehending. It is the imposition of meaning and context from a fundamentalist perspective that cannot conceive—and will not accept—anything outside of its absolutist purview. There is a distinction between informing the populace and lecturing them. There is a profound difference between providing context and imposing context.
This type of binary tribalism (pun intended?) has led to some bizarre outcomes. It is looking increasingly plausible that Megyn Kelly will suffer more professional repercussions for defending the decades-ago use of blackface costumes than Ralph Northam will for actually having done so. Yet RuPaul has worn both blackface and the Confederate flag. Is he being racist in one, or both of these cases? If so, is it “blatantly” so?
The disturbing irony is that I have spent the last five years of my life educating people about genocide—and a genocide that has happened in our lifetimes still largely unknown in the west. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the lessening of aid from China, the North Korean economy went into a tailspin. No oil meant no factories, which meant no fertilizer, which meant no crops in the mountainous country. The regime launched a campaign called “Let’s eat two meals a day instead of three!” claiming that three meals was somehow unhealthy.
The honest ones, the ones who trusted the government, were the first to die. They believed food would be coming shortly. It did not. The Kim regime refused to acknowledge the problem and refused outside aid, because help from abroad would render the government superfluous. Whatever food existed was distributed according to one’s loyalty to the state, a social-credit system called Songbun that China is now disturbingly starting to emulate. Estimates state that one to two million people starved in a genocide that could have easily been prevented. The DPRK’s Orwellian euphemism for this ordeal is “the Arduous March,” and I’ve discussed this on programs ranging from al-Jazeera to Alex Jones.
One North Korean refugee I know says “The Hunger Games” is both her favorite book and movie, and jokes that she was shocked how much the writer knew what it was like being back in the DPRK. I am quite certain her perspective on famine, state mass murder, and genocide is far more real and personal than that of any pundit (myself most certainly included). But even that is somewhat beside the point.
If Trump had literally killed Elizabeth Warren, it would not be an extension or endorsement of the Native American genocide.
If Trump had literally killed Elizabeth Warren and she had actually been a Native American, it would not be an extension or endorsement of the Native American genocide.
If Trump had literally killed a native American at random, it would not be an extension or endorsement of the Native American genocide, any more than me escaping a gunshot wound at Auschwitz in 2019 would make me some sort of Holocaust survivor.
It was five letters in a tweet, yet the reaction was precisely the same as when all those photos broke of children being separated from their parents at the border.
As recently as 2012, Warren was boasting of her Native American ancestry in her race for the Senate. It is certainly possible that she was under the mistaken belief that she had tribal blood. It is not plausible—despite claims in the corporate press to the contrary—that she didn’t exploit such a connection to further her career. As she put it on the campaign TRAIL, “I would be [Massachusetts’] first senator—so far as I know—who has Native American heritage.”
Perhaps she did not say this in the context of positioning herself as a diversity hire. There might be some other relevance as to why she brought it up in her path to her current job. But unlike Tapper et al., I’m more than happy to let her explain the meaning of her words for herself.