Of Course Charles M. Schulz Thinks Charlie Brown Is A Blockhead. Why Else Would He Have Lucy Say It?

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John McWhorter attempts a critique of The Boondocks, and stumbles badly. Here's a sample:

I get especially itchy when [Aaron] McGruder takes the us-versus-them pose into the dangerous idea that until that "revolution" comes, it is simply self-preservation to sidestep the norms of the oppressor. Mr. McGruder has Riley abetting violent criminals and giving us wisdom on whites such as this: "When they talk, they say the whole word li-ke thisss. And white people take time out to study." Funny, I guess. But all this shows is that lil' Riley is on his way to being one of those middle-class black kids who thinks school is "white." Or he's on his way to jail. Ha ha.

Now, I'm not especially fond of the Boondocks strip, and the one episode I've seen of the animated version was even worse. But surely it doesn't take a close reading to understand that Riley is the target of the satire here. I can understand why some people believe Huey is McGruder's mouthpiece, but Riley? You might as well claim that B.D. is a stand-in for Garry Trudeau.

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  1. Remarkable tone-deafness on McWhorter’s part. I enjoy the Boondocks, but try to avoid the mistake of taking it very seriously. The attraction is the same that makes watching lefty punk bands do their thing: it’s amusing to watch people lay into the establishment.

  2. While this is a problem that has affected both “Left” and “Right”, in the last several years the Right has completely gone off the deep-end on the “portraying something automatically endorses it” meme. Why, I don’t know.

  3. The Boondocks cartoon is damn funny. Having Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of a white guy that acts like a black thug is damn funny.

    I think the Riley character is meant to be the voice of conformity. It’s easier to act the way he acts because he’s expected to act that way. He’s angry and violent because he is expected to act angry and violent. Huey, in contrast, is angry and violent because he wants to fight the expectations. The cartoon can give the social commentary punch a bit harder because McGruder has a bigger canvas to work with.

    A classic line from the cartoon, in regards to text messaging: “Nothing important was ever written with just your thumbs.”

  4. Any blockhead knows that Charlie Brown is really a psychic stand-in for Charlie Schulz. Sheesh.

  5. John McWhorter (linguist) is known as a bit of a crackpot even within his own field. So I wouldn’t get too excited about this.

  6. in the last several years the Right has completely gone off the deep-end on the “portraying something automatically endorses it” meme.

    A few years ago I remember one of those “all movies must be suitable for five-year-olds” bimbettes claiming that the movie “Kids” glamorized teenage sex. Considering how horribly depressing that movie was, I hope said bimbette never actually watched the movie before saying that; otherwise, I can’t help but wonder what the hell is wrong with her own sex life if she thought “Kids” was supposed to be glamorous and fun.

    Apparently McWhorter missed the fact that the MLK coma episode tore into black people far more savagely than it did the “white estabishment.”

  7. I agree with Xmas. I never thought the strip was anything but untextured race politics that I didn’t mostly agree with. The cartoon has quite a bit more texture. The two kids are put into a context that makes it not so obvious that their rants = McGruder’s message.

  8. I suppose I shouldn’t say “crackpot”. But, relevant to this discussion, he has a bit of a reputation as a racism apologist.

  9. I suppose I shouldn’t say “crackpot”.

    How about “guy who would miss the point of a cartoon even if the point kicked him in the balls”?

  10. Jennifer, I did mention above that he’s a linguist, right?
    (little self-deprecating humor, y’all)

  11. Jennifer, I did mention above that he’s a linguist, right?

    Yes, but that has nothing to do with the fact that this twit would miss the point of a cartoon even if said point kicked him in the balls. Such stupidity is not learned in college–it is innate.

  12. Yes, but that has nothing to do with the fact that this twit would miss the point of a cartoon even if said point kicked him in the balls. Such stupidity is not learned in college–it is innate.

    Actually, it’s learned in graduate school.

  13. I actually know quite a bit about this guy, and he comes off as a total head-in-the-clouds nerd. Also, he’s a black academic who is accused by a lot of other black academics of being an “oreo”. In my own specialty, he’s one of the few dissenters in the Ebonics origins debate. He’s skeptical of the idea that Black English has origins in Africa (thinks it all came from Scots-Irish and variants).
    So twit would be an assessment you’re not alone in.

  14. Jane Pauley may have evidence otherwise, but it has always been my opinion that since the strip returned from its 1983-1984 hiatus, Mark Slackmeyer has been the voice of Garry Trudeau.

  15. Part of McWorter’s problem is an American thing. We are so used to an environment of complete straightforward freedom of expression, that Americans don’t get irony very well. Some of the Boondocks is funny. I have never seen the cartoon but have read the strip and I always took the strip to be a pretty brutal send up of black America. So brutal in fact I don’t think a white person could get away with writing it. McWorter being a typical American takes McGruder at face value and thinks that he really is elevating Riley rather than making fun of him. If never occurs to McWorter how big of an indictment of much mainstream black culture Riley is.

  16. “But in the end, the political substrate of the show is undemanding, comforting its adherents while making no difference in the lives of people who really need help”

    This line could be used to describe this article. McWhorter has a schtick/point of view/set of talking points that he can bring out occasionally in an article that all fit together in a coherant whole. I’m sure another book is in the offing.

    But I wouldn’t ssay he’s an apologist for racism.

  17. There was similar broad misunderstanding when a mother bought her son an old issue of Captain Confederacy, an indy comic from the 90s that took place in a “the south won” alternate history. She complained that the book was racist. The creator had to explain that it was, in fact, the bad guys who were racist.

    I, for one, am glad to see the cartoon get a little heat. There hasn’t been any real moral outrage at cartoons in a while (save the Bleeding Mary South Park). I’d hate to think that the Nannies in this country have figured out the simple truth that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

    I also commend the cartoon version of Riley for making sociopathic tendancies cute.

  18. Linguist,

    Maybe McWorter is less inclined to see Ebonics coming from Africa because he has a dog in the fight that white linguists don’t. If we tell black kids that Ebonics is part of their African heritage, they are more likely to speak it and stay on the bottom of the economic ladder. Perhaps McWorter being black is more disturbed by that possibility than white linguists fascinated by the exotic colored people.

  19. This reminds me of how people love to say that even Shakespeare said we should kill all the lawyers, when in fact it was a character who said it who I believe (not steeped in the text myself) was not entirely sympathetic.

  20. Hmmm. Well John, I hope you didn’t mean to refer to me with “white linguists fascinated by the exotic colored people” but whatever…

    Of course McWhorter has a dog in the fight. As do most linguists who study BE. Let me fill you in: it’s mostly a white Canadian group that supports the “English origins” hypothesis. It’s black linguists who offer more evidence of African origins. I was trained by the black linguists. The black linguists are the ones who are likely to consider McWhorter to be a traitor/apologist/what-have-you.

  21. (Comments from another linguist)
    Actually, it’s historically been the white linguists who’ve argued that Black English is basically modified Southern English (originally Scots/Irish). It’s primarily black linguists who argue strongly for African roots. The issue is very complex, and I suspect ‘Linguist’ and I disagree on the ultimate answers. The issue of whether Black kids should keep speaking Black English (I hate the term ‘Ebonics’) is also a whole ‘nother can of worms we could go on at at length, but won’t here.

  22. I’ve only seen one episode of “Boondocks”, but “The Trial of R. Kelly” was hilarious.

  23. The issue is very complex, and I suspect ‘Linguist’ and I disagree on the ultimate answers.

    Not only another linguist, but one who’s read my thesis! 🙂
    …I defer to Dr. Nathan here, everyone.
    (Note: I hate “Ebonics” too, but it’s the quickest way to get people to understand what you’re talking about.)

  24. fyodor,

    Actually, you are wrong about that. Read in the context of the entire play it is indeed an attack on lawyers (and for very good reason, as lawyers in Elizabethan England were a bunch of corrupt assholes who dickered over procedure so as to do injustice as opposed to justice – Boorstin does a good job describing the difference between lawyers and justice England in his history of colonial America as I recall). In fact, Shakespeare commonly made lawyers the butt of jokes; a passage from Hamlet comes to mind that I can dig up if you like.

  25. linguist,

    When I was studying the Igbo and the like a number of secondary sources claimed that many commonly used words in the U.S were of African origins, such as funky. How does the not out of Africa school explain this?

  26. fyodor,

    Its always been my opinion that particular reading of that statement is related to the Tocquevillian attitude of many modern lawyers and legal theorists. Or rather, their erroneous reading of what Tocqueville wrote about lawyer.

  27. So if two linguists disagree over the etymology of a word it’s not just a discussion point which might be resolved by research but a personal issue with one or the other linguist being an apologist or traitor?

    I’m glad I stuck to the sciences in college. Those fine arts academics are tough!

  28. (speaking as ANOTHER [former] linguist…)
    My impression was that “black” English has roots in both southern English and African languages. The intonation and cadence are almost indistiguishable from “white” southern English, while certain grammatical differences and vocabulary can be traced to Africa.

  29. Rhywun, I think that’s true, in a nutshell. The two forms have certainly influenced one another over the years, esp. in the south. That’s one reason it’s difficult to say for certain where some features may have originated.

    Anyway, apparently I’m going to have to find a new name to post under!

  30. Anyway, apparently I’m going to have to find a new name to post under!

    There can be only one.

  31. the fine arts are vicious sometimes. my wife got into a whole row with a teacher over capitalization schemes (i.e. White versus white versus Black versus black) that got kinda over the top on the teacher’s part. (i don’t think you should cap either, but that’s me)

  32. Linguist,

    I think the name Jean Bart is available.

  33. “The Boondocks cartoon is damn funny. Having Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of a white guy that acts like a black thug is damn funny.”

    It’s not Samuel L. Jackson it’s Eddie Murphy’s brother, get your black people straight. Unless you’re referring to another wannabe thug character that I’m not aware of. For some reason I don’t think SLJ has time to do a cartoon what with his 5 movies a year.

  34. It’s always been very clear to me that McGruder uses his characters as both the objects of satire, and the purveyors of satire. Sometimes Huey busts on somebody and the point is to laugh at his target; other times, he busts on somebody and the point is to laugh as Huey. I can see how this can go over the heads of the dimwitted and the perpetually aggrieved.

    Jennifer, “I can’t help but wonder what the hell is wrong with her own sex life if she thought “Kids” was supposed to be glamorous and fun.” Zing! Pow! Lol.

    John, “I always took the strip to be a pretty brutal send up of black America. So brutal in fact I don’t think a white person could get away with writing it.” I think a white person who was able to do the skewering in a way that made the underlying respect and identification with black people (which always comes through in McGruder’s strips) would be received similarly to McGruder himself. But that’s a tough thing to pull off, because few white people would actually have the “emic” view of black society necessary to do so.

  35. Linguist,

    You can relax–you’ve been here longer than I, and I’m happy to just use my name.
    I must say I incline to the intonation and expressions coming from West African languages, and the phonology (sound structure) being pretty much Southern English. Of course, there’s a question of where THAT came from.
    Some Black English words clearly have West African origins. ‘Jazz’ isn’t one of them (see http://www.wordorigins.org/wordorj.htm, scroll down for ‘jazz’).

  36. No, Charlie Murphy does the voice of the rich white kid, Samuel L. Jackson does the voice of his buddy.

    Check out his IMDB page. Boondocks is item number 9.

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000168/

  37. Sometimes Huey busts on somebody and the point is to laugh at his target; other times, he busts on somebody and the point is to laugh as Huey.

    Yep. And sometime you’re supposed to laugh at both.

    But it takes a special kind of misreading to see Riley as a viewpoint character.

  38. All this reminds me of a college English class where we were analyzing prose to find the author’s hidden meaning.

    We worked for a quarter hour or so delving deep into the subtle contexts and devolved significance of several paragraphs before the student who brought in the sample revealed it was copied from his chemistry textbook.

    Luckily the prof was cool about it.

  39. Gary Gunnels,

    So is Mar?chal de Saxe.

  40. Samuel L. Jackson and Charlie Murphy both did the voice of the rich white boys in that episode.

  41. Anyway, apparently I’m going to have to find a new name to post under!

    It’s all yours; I gave it up after getting the sheepskin.

  42. McGruder (which I find to be a very Irish sounding name for an “African”-American, but as an Irish-American, I’m sensitive to such things) *irony off* has made it pretty clear in various interviews that he’s strongly in favor of the Nanny State Left.

    That being said, I can’t help but applaud what he’s done with the comic strip and the show. Ironically he’s basking in the very success that he has posited isn’t possible for a “Black Man in America.” All that aside, much like Bill Cosby but without the chorus of “Uncle Tom,” he often lays much harder into the shortcomings of the current culture of blacks than he does that of whites.

    Whites, if anything, seem to lack any real depth in the cartoon. Where each white character is just a send-up of one particular white person stereotype, the black characters each have the requisite depth to allow McGruder to praise and scold that which he knows best.

    For societal behaviour, people could learn from worse. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his politic outlook.

  43. Am I the only person who doesn’t find “Boondocks” either particularly funny or insightful? (Print version only; I’ve never seen the animated one.) Overtly partisan stuff is rarely funny or interesting because usually it boils down to telling your audience, “Yes, everything you already thought is absolutely correct!” and Boondocks seems to be no exception. Maybe I haven’t read enough of it; I’m open to that possibility.

  44. While this is a problem that has affected both “Left” and “Right”, in the last several years the Right has completely gone off the deep-end on the “portraying something automatically endorses it” meme.

    Actually, I don’t think this has anything to do with politics, although the pols certainly carp the loudest. Simply put, most people automatically assume that the characters in any story are little more than mouthpieces for the author and anything those characters say should be taken at face value. Granted, this is often the case. However, skilled writers can create wholly independent characters that speak for themselves and not for the writer.

    I think it’s pretty clear for anyone that’s read the Boondocks, that McGruder doesn’t think in the same way his character Riley does. If McWhorter had an ounce of common sense, he’d probably see that he actually agrees with McGruder on the potential dangers of black popular culture, but that level of insight gleaned by millions at the kitchen table is apparently to much for a prominent academic.

  45. Am I the only person who doesn’t find “Boondocks” either particularly funny or insightful? (Print version only; I’ve never seen the animated one.)

    I’ve seen all episodes of the show, and have one book of the strips, and I’d say they’re both hit or miss. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but I’ve read some strips and seen some episodes that either had no discernible point, or spent so much time MAKING a point that McGruder forgot to put anything funny in there.

  46. Lingua Americana?
    Antanaclasis?
    Babe-A-Linguist?
    Intimate Social Deixis?
    Pro Lingua? 🙂
    Assertive Illocutionary Point?

    Okay, I’m out.

  47. I haven’t read the strip in years, but I loved the ones featuring “Jar-Jar Binks”.

  48. What’s the name of the black white supremacist? He’s one of the funniest characters on the show but he must be a later addition to the cast, since he’s not in any of the strips in my book.

    In the MLK episode, while all the other black people were marching for equal rights he carried a huge sign saying “I (heart) Jim Crow.”

  49. Jennifer – that’s like that one Dave Chappelle Show where he plays a blind, black, white supremist. He doesn’t realise he’s a black man cuz he’s blind. He’s been a recluse most of his life but finally decides to go out on the circut to promote a new book or something along those lines.

    Pretty funny.

  50. All I know about the origins of Ebonics is this:
    Undereducated blacks and drunk irishmen use the verb ‘be’ in the same way (e.g. I be home before dark.)

  51. Oops. I left out the word going.

    I be going home before dark.

  52. Yeah, Lowdog, that was pretty funny, especially when he left his wife because he was horrified to discover he’d married a ‘nigger-lover’.

  53. You know what might be cool? Take an old Peanuts cartoon and replace all the speech/thought balloons with dialogue from The Boondocks.

    BTW, I like The Boondocks comic strip more often than not. A recent favorite:

    http://www.ucomics.com/boondocks/2006/03/06/

    I’ve only seen fragments of the animated cartoon — one where a white guy who sounds like a black guy talks about being in Iraq … and another where Huey is somehow at some upper-class white folks’ party and starts railing against the racist establishment, and all the white people ignore the content of what he’s saying and coo about him being such an articulate, “well-spoken young man.” And it was pretty funny.

  54. Undereducated blacks and drunk irishmen use the verb ‘be’ in the same way

    Perhaps evidence for a southern “white” English origin…?
    🙂

  55. Jennifer – hahah, I forgot about that!

    Sweet.

  56. he left his wife because he was horrified to discover he’d married a ‘nigger-lover’.

    THAT’S SO SAD!!

    But funny, too!

  57. 1. Ira Weatheral at iw@howardfams.org AWARD: 1st Prize for subtle R.A.H. tribute in a post!

    2. Ira: “So if two linguists disagree over the etymology of a word it’s not just a discussion point which might be resolved by research but a personal issue with one or the other linguist being an apologist or traitor?

    This would not be a problem if Congress & the States had kept their noses out of “Affaires d’Honor”. But then “The Arts” would be an even more difficult course of study.

  58. That Riley. He really hates Mondays.

  59. I read the strip almost every day and I catch most of the cartoon episodes; the strip is hit and miss but I think the show is pretty consistently funny and often hilarious. When the strip is overtly political, it gets clumsy and obvious and just kind of dumb. The show doesn’t do that often – the political stuff is subtler and therefore funnier. The show does skewer black culture a lot. (Although – in a recent strip, Huey told Jasmine that Dora the Explorer was dead – her body was found on a hiking trail in the Andes. I cut that one out. I keep telling my 4 year old that Dora was kidnapped by narcoterrorists, but she doesn’t believe me).

    And I just love Grandad.

  60. Swillfredo: You’re probably right. B.D. is conservative, Zonker is probably liberal or libertarian but not really politically engaged, and even Mike Doonesbury himself was a Forbes supporter at one point, but Mark has been consistently liberal. Plus his position as a talk-show host gives him frequent opportunities to expound his views at length via lengthy monlogues or direct interrogations of political figures, so it’s convenient to have him as the viewpoint character.

  61. I liked McWhorter’s book on linguistics The Power of Babel. If I remember, one of his points is that the dialect which becomes the standard for a language is not inherently better than the others; it often becomes the standard by historical accident. He also has a good section on how languages acquire “bells and whistles” such as inflections.

  62. JD: “Am I the only person who doesn’t find “Boondocks” either particularly funny or insightful? ”

    I tried reading it when it first started in the LA Times and thought it completely lacking humor. I haven’t looked at it in years and am baffled that it is now an animated program.

    I haven’t read the unfunny Doonesbury in years. Actually I did run across one a couple of years back only to find that a friend’s recent attack on Bush was lifted directly from the the strip. That was an odd realization.

  63. Anyway, apparently I’m going to have to find a new name to post under!

    Dare I say it?
    Hmmm.
    How ’bout: A Cunning Linguist

    There, I said it.
    Damn Id.

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