The Rip Post                                                                                              


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(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. Sorry, Hector.
          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 L.A.?
          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 minority."
          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 minorities' clubs."
          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.

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