Thursday, January 5, 2012

6 shameful things of which my writing has gotten me accused

I’ve been writing professionally for essentially my entire adult life. I’d like to think I’ve left most of my readers happy, or at least indifferent. Every now and then, though, I’ve managed to inadvertently plant my foot on some sensitive toes. Here are a few of the most heinous crimes against literature, decency and humanity of which I’ve been accused.

Basic racism
While penning a brief review of The O’Jays’ set at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for Where Y’at, I took specific note of the crowd’s infectious enthusiasm. Even though some would dismiss the O’Jays as a warmed over oldies act, I said, “this music obviously means the world to these people.”

A few days after the issue hit the streets, we received a letter from a local activism group cautioning us that “these people” could be interpreted as a dismissive slur against African-Americans. I was baffled at first, and then increasingly insulted. In my thinking, for “these people” to be offensive, the group in question would have to be homogenous. From where I stood, that O’Jays crowd was made up of music fans of all ages, races and stages of sobriety, my lily-white self included. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the letter writer was the one making rash generalizations. I considered sending a reply informing her that not just black people enjoy the smooth sounds of The O’Jays, but I ultimately left well enough alone.

Ignorance of railroad terminology
Not long after I started my first writing gig as intern reporter for my hometown newspaper, my editor called me into his office and told me he wanted to make me into “the Charles Kuralt of Monroe County, Wisconsin.” That entailed me taking a weekly trip to one of the tiny towns that dotted the county and writing a profile of the community’s history and culture, such as it was.

Some towns lent themselves to this format better than others. When I couldn’t come up with much to say about a place, I’d do my best to fill out my word count with trivia. When tasked with covering the generally charmless railroad town of Wyeville, for instance, I eked a few sentences out of the fact that the “wye” in the village’s name referred to a Y-shaped intersection of crisscrossing train tracks. Two days later my editor got an angry letter from the proprietor of the nearby Little Falls Railroad and Doll Museum. He explained in less-than-friendly terms that a wye was actually triangular, not Y-shaped, and that I should be sure I had my vocabulary straight before I included railroad terminology in any future articles. My editor wrote the guy off as a crank, but I had to admit the gentleman had a point. Then again, homeboy also ran a Railroad and Doll Museum.

Spreading anti-teacher propaganda
One of the toughest aspects of business copywriting is coming up with fresh spins on the same information week after week. During my stint as a copywriter for a women’s active wear retailer, I once wrote a lead-in for an early summer sale that went something like, “Once you’ve graduated, the end of the school year loses a lot of its excitement. (Unless you’re a teacher!)”

Later that week the company owner got an email from a woman who was outraged that we would perpetuate the stereotype of lazy schoolteachers spending their summer vacations slacking off on the taxpayers’ dime. That interpretation had never crossed my mind. For the record, I’m 100% pro-teacher. I just meant that they probably get a little bit excited to put another year’s worth of raucous students behind them. I mean, they do, right?

Oppressing Native Americans and/or Juggalos
When I started writing an article for MadeLoud about pop music’s shameful history of caricaturing and marginalizing Native Americans, I wanted to include a few positive counterexamples. I looked for Native American musicians who had found success on their own terms without being pigeonholed into roles predetermined by the white-dominated music industry. One of these artists was Anybody Killa, a Michigan-based rapper closely affiliated with Insane Clown Posse.

It didn’t take long for someone to misinterpret my intentions. A week later I got a message from a young Juggalo who wanted me to know that Anybody Killa was his own man and was going to be a force on the music scene for years to come. He was especially upset that I claimed that the most prevalent portrayals of Native Americans in recent music have come from non-Natives. I think he read “prevalent” as a qualitative rather than a quantitative term. He wrapped things up by telling me that it was a pointless article that probably shouldn’t have been written. I sent him a polite reply letting him know that we were really on the same page and assuring him that I wished Anybody Killa all the success in the world. I never heard back.

Exploiting a long-dead child-star
In 2009 my MadeLoud editor asked me to review Benjy Ferree’s new concept album Come Back to the Five and Dime Bobby Dee Bobby Dee, a tribute to the short, troubled life of ‘50s child star Bobby Driscoll. I liked the album so much that I immediately requested an audience with Ferree. The resulting interview is one of my favorites that I’ve done, a glimpse into the weird, wonderful mind of a talented singer-songwriter who’s really into old Disney movies.

I was taken aback a few weeks later when I got a message from a woman claiming to be Mr. Driscoll’s daughter. She accused me of exploiting her father’s memory by giving Benjy Ferree a forum and implied that I was an insensitive profiteer of other people’s pain. She also noted that Driscoll’s death was drug-related but not, as I’d stated, caused by an overdose. (I’d read “overdose” in several sources, but I changed the wording anyway.)

I’ll admit I felt sort of bad about this one, even though I firmly believe that I did nothing wrong. An arts writer’s job is to write about art, and Benjy Ferree’s album was one of the most compelling works of art I’d encountered in a while. Still, I can’t help but sympathize with a person who’s likely been contending with salacious, half-informed media accounts of her father’s sad decline for her whole life. I think Ferree’s celebration of Bobby Dee – and, transitively, my coverage of it – is respectful to the point of reverent, but that’s easy to say from this angle.

Golden Retriever ownership
After I moved from New Orleans to Chicago in late 2003, I started writing a monthly column for Where Y’at about the difficulties of readjusting to the Midwest after finally getting acclimated to the wonderful weirdness of the Crescent City. One of my early columns focused on the relative difficulty of entertaining visitors – Chicago offered plenty of activities, but it was a far cry from New Orleans, a city where nearly every corner hides something most folks have never seen before.

The Where Y’at message board soon received a lengthy diatribe from a young woman who’d recently made the reverse move, from Chicago to New Orleans. She accused me (with a certain amount of justification) of willfully resisting the charms of Chicago and over-romanticizing New Orleans. That was all well and good, but near the end of her missive, she characterized me as the type of guy who barreled around Lincoln Park in my shiny new SUV, trying to squeeze in a five-minute run for my Golden Retriever at the local dog park before heading back to my overpriced, lake-adjacent condo. I can handle criticism, but I really felt that crossed a line. Golden Retrievers are gross.

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