There was a time, in the pre-Internet days of the early 90s and late 80s, when I would sit at the library of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta (my father was a professor there) and read, with a schoolboy’s sense of wonderment, issues of “Time” and “Newsweek”, marveling at everything from the quality of pictures to that of the reporting and of course the writing. The operative phrase here is There was a time because these magazines have changed markedly since then, teetering close to financial ruin [Newsweek magazine is on sale after multi-year massive losses and Time magazine by the end of 2009 had lost 35% of its readership from the previous year while Newsweek lost 41% (link)]. And nothing perhaps symbolizes the rot more than Time USA’s bigoted attempt at humor, Joel Stein’s [picture to left] “My Own Private India“, a piece that twenty years ago would surely not have made the final published cut.
Before we go to a discussion of Time and in general the state of the US media, it is worthwhile to stop a while and read through Joel Stein’s article (if you have not already done so). Anna at Sepia Mutiny has done an admirable job of savaging this bit of bigoted garbage and so I will not go over a deconstruction of this piece. In brief, it is a rant that expresses the author’s anguish at having his New Jersey neighborhood being taken over my cologne-drenched, vulgar, stupid Indians (India, according to Stein, is a poor country because its citizens are half-wits) who worship “gods (that) have multiple arms and an elephant nose”, which according to the author should have been the hatred-ossifying image for his friends rather than the bindi [The "dot busters" being a New Jersey gang in the late 80s who killed and injured people of Hindu origin in New Jersey. I mention the word "Hindu" because in their manifesto they specifically mentioned the word "Hindu" and not Indians]
A defense for Joel Stein will be that he was trying to do racy racial humor of the Borat kind, wherein by perpetuating offensive stereotypes about an ethnic minority he was ,reflexively, making fun of his own bigotry and that we stupid Indians should be smart enough to get it. Frankly, if that was the intent, most reasonable people missed it totally. Like for example Jun Choi, who was quoted in the article responded by saying he was “disappointed that the article turned out to be distasteful and offensive to both Indian Americans and my hometown of Edison”. If indeed, the motivation was humor and nothing else, the entire piece is such a comic misfire that the editors of Time should never have let it pass on the grounds of quality.
But they did. And the reason why they let it pass was not because it slipped through the cracks.
My theory is that they had their reasons.
In the US market, especially in the present Net-dominated landscape where traditional print and television media is hemorrhaging financially, anything that is published is examined through multiple lenses by not only legal departments but also by marketing and advertising in order to properly target the “base”. Time magazine let this execrable article pass through the net because this is exactly the kind of copy once-respectable media outlets, where increasingly marketing managers rather than journalists call the shots, have to carry in order to boost their circulation.
It is universally acknowledged in American media circles that with the popularity of the Internet, people no longer rely on print and television as the source for “primary news”—why wait till 6:30 in the evening for the day’s happenings when you get them live as they happen. All that they care for are opinions, and the more outrageous and polarizing they are—-the better. The world of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather and staid NYTimes editorials, the world of dispassionate news, is no longer financially viable.
One of the greatest media success stories of recent times has been that of Rush Limbaugh (for those who havent seen him—think of a 200 lb heavier Wayne Rooney), whose insanely successful independent radio show (which has flourished outside the framework of classical big media) has grown in size, influence and revenue because his brand of anti-minority and anti-immigrant hatred has a huge market in the US. The established media has followed the Rush route, hiring polarizing figures to do their prime-time programming —-from Left wing loons like Keith Olbermann [MSNBC] to right wing reactionaries like Hannity, OReilly [Fox News] and the worst of them all, Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs [CNN].
The print media, magazines and newspapers, have suffered the most in this paradigm shift. They are restricted on two axes—–due to the nature of the medium, their content producers are not able to depend on the verbal calisthenics and dramatic voice modulations of a Beck or a Rush to rouse the audience. On the other hand because of the nature of their finances, they have to do with second-rate talent like Joel Stein, occasional face on VH1′s “I love the 80s”, to write provocative pieces.
Of course when writing attention-grabbing pieces, two things have to be considered. First of all is there a market in peddling bigotry against the target group? In this case, there is a big market for anti-India rhetoric, comprising of the 25-40 educated elite, many of whom laid-off by the loss of high-tech jobs to India. For these people, any kind of brown-bashing is a lot of fun—from the Elephant Gods to the fact that the country has no flush toilets and that the river Ganga sounds like a disease [Glenn Beck on CNN], from the poor accent of Indian call center operators to the fact that H1B workers pay no income tax [a lie repeated endlessly by Lou Dobbs and also written in his book]. CNN, supposedly a liberal media organization, had the India-bashing segment of the market cornered with its gas-balloon Lou Dobbs till he overstepped the line, going after Barrack OBama through his espousal of the Birthers, a loony right-wing borderline group who claimed that Obama was not American, a cause so outrageous that CNN had to ease him out. There too, there was commerce——– virulent Obama-baiting is a place where Rush can go, because his demographic wants it. Not CNN’s however since it has many Democrat voters and African-American and Hispanic viewers.
The second thing to be considered is how much of an influence the target group has. In the US for example, African-Americans cannot be targeted by such “humor”—-they are too big a commercial market and too powerful politically.
A few years ago, Seinfield favorite Michael Richards had his career ruined after some similarly racist anti-African-American “edgy” stand-up routine of his was captured on camera-phone and uploaded on the Net[ No one as far as I remember used the "It's a joke. Get over it" in his defense] As yet another example, there was a huge outcry in the US media when KFC advertisements for cricket matches in Australia had West Indians being pacified by fried chicken—-because of an American “racist” assumption that African-Americans like friend chicken. To illustrate the point further, if Joel Stein had just replaced Indians with African-American in his piece, ruing over the fact that his white neighborhood had been taken over by Blacks, then Time would never ever, not in a thousand years, let that get to print.
Like African-Americans, Hispanics have their powerful backers. So do Jews. Muslims also have the very well-funded Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) who would give hell if such stuff were written about their co-religionists. And if Stein so far as got a bit off the line with his edgy humor and veered onto areas Muslims hold very dear, then not only Joel Stein but also Ben Stein would need police protection, just because they share a last name.
Indians/Hindus (I use Indians/Hindus since Stein is targeting people who worship Elephant Gods and Stein in his ignorance does not know that Indians arent just Hindus) are of course easy targets. They do not have political might nor a big organization behind them. Nor are they united —since sections will pat Klein and Time perhaps because they want to “fit in” into US society and they think that acting like Uncle Tom will help them assimilate into the mainstream and make them look “exalted” and “intellectual”.
The fact that this is packaged as humor will make it easy to say “Oh come on don’t be defensive. It’s just a joke”. That’s unfortunately the cover for bigotry. What is most important to remember is that the people who are coming to read this piece (this crock of a piece is now the most read page on the Time website), and Liking it on Facebook are not doing it because they understand the “reflexive” humor but because they are going “Yeah that’s the way to tell it to the piss-drinkers” [A note to Joel Stein: Poor research sir. You forgot that part where we drink urine and charm the snakes by blowing].
In other words, the reason this piece is appealing to most of its audience is not that they get the humor but because they do not.
And in an interesting sidelight, Time International (which has to sell to Indians in India and where the curry-hating demographic does not exist) did not carry this article—-if this was pure and simple humor of the intelligent sort, why was it kept out I wonder.
I am of course not suggesting that Hindus should treat bigotry with threats of violence or aggression or anything of the sort. But it also does no good to shut one’s eyes and mouth when a flagship media outlet like Time, an institution our generation grew up idolizing, carries something as repulsive as this, at the best out of lack of oversight and worst out of a desire to pander to the worst in its readership.