by RIP RENSE
ELEFANTE IN THE ROOM
(Dec. 18, 2008)
A friend of mine at Associated Press sent me a
column by the L.A. Times's Hector Tobar recently. It was
a feature about the controversial elephant exhibit at the Los
Angeles Zoo, but wait, it wasn't a feature---it was a
first-person piece, as you found out a full three paragraphs in.
And it was. . .strange.
Wrote my friend:
"If I didn't know better,
I'd swear this elephant story was written from a Latino
perspective. It could be the elephant in the room."
He's right. You read this
feature story, or quasi-column, or
whatever it is, and you find Tobar talking about his
Guatemalan parents, interviewing a guy named Jose Cardenas, and
quoting little latino children pointing to the pachyderms: "Boys
and girls yell 'elefante!' and cry out 'grandotote,'
which is Spanish for 'huge.'"
Ah, thanks for the
Spanish lesson. You get a lot with your L.A. Times.
Well, it turns out that
my AP pal was actually right: the elefante article was
deliberately written with a latino perspective. Never
mind that elephants don't speak Spanish, and their plight at the
L.A. Zoo has little to do with race relations. Species
relations, perhaps. . .As LAT "California editor" David Lautner
(wow---he's editor of a whole state!) explained in a
memo to the staff, Tobar is "a columnist whose frame of
reference includes the experience and culture of Southern
California's Latino population."
That's right, columnist. Tobar now writes weekly for
the foundering rag. His primary qualification, according to the
memo: being a latino who grew up in Southern California. That's
it. Of course, the memo also notes that Tobar earned a
bachelor's degree in sociology and "Latin American studies" from
UC Santa Cruise. Hmm. Majoring in sociology---isn't that
kind of like majoring in mental masturbation? And majoring in
sociology at a school like Santa Cruz, where students go to
class in their pajamas and design their own majors, well, that's
kind of like majoring in watching cartoons and eating cereal.
As for "Latin American
studies," oh, that'll prepare you to become a highly paid
newspaper columnist in Los Angeles. Of course, Tobar also has a
degree in creative writing from UC Irvine (that must mean he's a
creative writer!) And perhaps this is pedantic, but how does
being a bureau chief in Mexico City prepare you to write about
Call me old-fashioned,
but I seem to remember that newspaper columnists were people who
had a little writing panache, a little flair, a little
cigar-chomping cynicism, and a lot of broken-hearted idealism.
They knew their turf, knew their trade from the back shop to the
copy desk, had been around the block, and wrote with compassion,
amusement, and wit. They told damn good stories about the city
and (all) its people: stories of injustice, of triumph over
bureaucracy, of struggle, of goodness, kindness, irony. They
exposed city hall hypocrisy and living room heroism,
heartlessness and heart. They didn't write from a latino
perspective, or black or filipino. They wrote from a human
perspective. The Times's Steve Lopez is a good example.
Lopez? Funny thing:
you can read Lopez's columns till the vacas come home
and gee whiz---no latino angle! No white angle, black angle, red
angle, yellow angle. No race angle, unless it happens to be
germane to a story. Now why would that be? How in the world did
he get a column at the Times? His ethnic background is
incidental to his writing and perspective, if not irrelevant.
Count your blessings, Steve. You must have lucked out. Maybe
somebody thought you spoke Spanish.
So now we have columnists
openly getting gigs because of their race, ethnicity. Columnists
who go to the L.A. Zoo and wind up writing about the
elefantes. And writing paragraphs like this, about the
little latino kids outside the elefante enclosure: "Boys
and girls yell 'elefante!' and cry out 'grandotote,' which is
Spanish for 'huge.' They ooh and ah, and ask questions of their
parents in English, Korean, Tagalog and many languages more."
Huh? Right, I had the
same thought. Those are damn smart kids! How great to know a
half-dozen languages (or "many more") by age nine or ten!
Geniuses! But then I realized, Tobar meant kids in general---not
just the ones yelling "elefante!" (Geez, Hector, watch that
basic English syntax stuff. You'll confuse people.)
The article is not merely
mediocre, though---it is insidious. Note the way Tobar begins by
quoting Spanish, then goes on to list English as just
another one of the many languages being spoken at the zoo,
on equal footing with Tagalog(!) Well, shut my mouth, but that's
propagandizing. Subtle, maybe, but grandotote
propagandizing, in my book. Maybe this is the kind of journalism
you learn while studying sociology at UC Santa Cruz. See,
gabachos, your language is no more important than any
other---and ours is grandotote now! After all, the state is 60
percent latino! You stole our land! Payback!
I mean, why even
mention that English was being spoken at all? Isn't that a
given? Not in Tobar's L.A. Is it any coincidence that this guy
is the author of something called “Translation Nation:
Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United
States?” Think he's got an agenda?
Sigh. What were the '60's about? What did Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. stand for? I always thought he aspired to a society
where race and ethnicity are essentially irrelevant, where we
are all citizens of the USA, citizens of the world. That
certainly has been my sensibility, all my life. In my many years
working for L.A.newspapers, I relished the multi-ethnic history
and nature of this place. I went to Venice High, where the
pot melted, and non-mixed neighborhoods/ classrooms since have
felt unnnatural to me. I always recall with fondness the old
L.A. Street Scene festivals, in which all races and ethnicities
were sort of officially united as citizens of L.A.. Quaint, and
gone (ruined by latino gangs, by the way.)
I used to feel that
latino culture, African-American culture, various Asian
cultures, were also. . .my culture. To quote "California editor"
Lautner, my "frame of reference includes the experience and
culture of Southern California's Latino population." I am
from this place, and these various influences have always been
part of my life. Some of my best friends. . .How ironic
that I should wind up living in a time when being of European
ancestry is held against me. You know the drill. College and
high school instructors routinely sneer at "dead
white European males" like Beethoven and Shakespeare, their
importance a product of "anglo-centric" curriculae. What
madness. And now we have a newspaper flagrantly giving a column
to a fellow of what I would describe as of average writing
ability. . .because he is latino, and apparently will
inject "latino culture" angles into whatever he writes. Call it
what you will, but I call it racism.
Just as it was racism the
day then-L.A. Times editor-of-something-or-other Narda Zacchino
decided in 1994 that I could not have a column at the paper---despite
my having written about 100 essays for it, and having been told
by my supervising editor that I was about to be brought on staff. Zacchino's
reason: "we have too many white male columnists here." Just as
it was discrimination when an editor at the San Jose
Mercury-News, many years ago, said, "Frankly, your clips are the
best we've ever seen. But we have to hire a woman or a
Yes, let's just hire
everyone, everywhere on the basis of their race, ethnicity,
skin color, gender. Let's turn journalism into a game where
perceived "demographics" are shamelessly, shallowly coddled, no
matter the cost to integrity, ethics, sanity. (Oh, wait, that
happened decades ago.) Let's turn all hiring into a berserk form
of egalitarianism that amounts to de facto ethnic-cleansing.
Payback? You frequently
hear this snide, trite slogan from minority activists, rappers.
Hey, I never did anything to diminish the chances of minorities
and women to make progress in society, and neither, as far as I
know, did my ancestors. In fact, some of them helped run the
Underground Railroad to smuggle slaves to freedom. So shove
that up your goddamn payback.
A latina friend of mine
(yes, really!) wrote to say that she agrees with me, but
added "it's never been a meritocracy." That's true, but not
entirely. I was raised in a time when the exalted ideal was to
reward whoever was the "most qualified." An illusion, sure. An
impossibility, sure. One person's "best" is another person's
"second best." Yet this was the standard, the prevailing guide,
and no one ever dreamed that it shouldn't be. The idea was, if
you seemed most able for a job, or a school, or whatever, you
therefore should be considered a top candidate.
As the civil rights
desires of the '60's morphed into perversion during the
"Affirmative Action" '70's, as notions of "leveling the playing
field" (I'm not playing!) turned into "politically correct"
fascism, as "Affirmative Action" became a flagrant, superficial
quota system fueled by fear of lawsuits, as less qualified
persons took jobs away from more skilled, the aspiration of
meritocracy died. Yes, in prior generations there was racism,
yes there were exclusionary "old boys' clubs," etc., and those
things still exist, though to a vastly lesser degree. They have
been duly condemned, ad nauseum, for decades, in popular culture
and media, and they have been (not incidentally) outlawed.
But they have been
replaced by their opposite equivalent: where jobs,
university admissions, high school magnet admissions are often
decided primarily, if not totally, on the basis of race.
Exclusionary "old boys' clubs" have become exclusionary "new
For those who are
laughing and sneering at what they perceive to be an embittered
white dude spouting off (you bet!) just consider this: Hitler
decided everything on the basis of race, too.
L.A. Times? You are the
elefante in the room.
© 2008 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.