Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Carlin story, of sorts

               George Carlin said 39 years ago – if you can fucking believe that! – that there are seven words you can’t say on television, to wit: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.  He was wrong.

               A couple of years ago I was contacted by a British producer who was doing a TV series on race.  One of the shows was going to be on “The Human Zoos” and discuss the story of Ota Benga (the central African pygmy who visited New York in 1906, and was kept as a display in the Bronx Zoo for a couple of weeks, essentially as a wildly successful publicity stunt).  They were going to contextualize it in terms of the scientific racism of the age, and I had written some stuff about it, and would I care be interviewed?

Brownell, S., ed.  (2008) The 1904 Anthropology Days and Olympic Games: Sport, Race, and American Imperialism, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. 

Bradford, P. V. and Blume, H. (1993) Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, New York: Delta.

                Sure, I said, always being up for a free trip to England.  Well, actually I got a free trip to Lynchburg, Virginia, where, it so happens, Ota Benga tragically ended his days.

               They found a hot empty warehouse in which to interview me (the significance of which I never fully grasped).  We did it over 2 or 3 hours, with the producer asking me good, leading questions off-camera, and me free-associating answers in full sentences, recapitulating the questions, turning a clever phrase here and there, and trying to give him things he could use.  I read some excerpts from my         autographed copy of Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a horrid classic of American racist thought.  Grant, it turned out, had more-or-less masterminded the stunt.

Spiro, J. (2009) Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant, Burlington, VT: University Press of Vermont.

               As the summer afternoon wound down and we had exhausted everything he wanted to ask and everything I wanted to say, and I was starting to think about getting to the airport for my flight back to Charlotte, he asked me if I had anything to add to what we had already covered.  I looked straight into the camera and smiled and said, “Yeah.  Madison Grant was a real fuck.  Put that on your television show!”

               And you know what?  They did.

               The point is, Carlin was wrong.  He was working under an ethnocentric assumption.  You can’t say those words on American television.  On the telly, however, things are a little different.

According to The Sunday Times, 1 November 2009:

“He was a real f***, by the way. Put that on your television,” added Professor Jonathan Marks, an angry academic from the University of North Carolina [@Charlotte!].


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Simpson story #2

               Maybe I sensed that I would evolve into a faux historian even back in graduate school.  But when I used to visit Dr. Simpson and do his typing and filing, back in 1983-84, I occasionally would drop names and get his reactions.  And they were always candid, especially after the two martinis he had for lunch.
               One day I dropped the name of the old dinosaur paleontologist, Ned Colbert.  [Edwin H. Colbert, 1905-2001]  I knew that they had overlapped at the American Museum for many years, and that everyone who had ever spoken about him had said he was a really sweet old guy.  I figured GGS would have some stock anecdote about a drinking binge together or something.
               Instead the ambient temperature in his library dropped about five degrees, and he snarled something at me, which I swear was no more than 5% different from: “That son of a bitch fucked me over back in 1937!”
               Needless to say, even as a smarty-pants graduate student I was momentarily at a loss for words.  I also tended to develop a stutter when talking to him.  “But D-d-d-doctor Simpson,” I said, “This is 1983.  That was like almost 50 years ago.”
               He growled angrily, “That means nothing to a paleontologist,”  then smiled.  I changed the subject.

Léo Laporte properly set the fight between Colbert and Simpson in 1958, after Simpson had the tree fall on him in the Amazon. 
Laporte, L. (2000) George Gaylord Simpson: Paleontologist and Evolutionist.  New York: Columbia University Press.
John Ostrom (1928-2005) later told me that he had gone to Columbia to work with Simpson on mammals, but since Simpson was a huge celebrity academic and was never there, he moved over to Colbert instead, to do  birds and dinosaurs.
I did learn an important life lesson from that exchange, though.  Grudges are expensive to maintain and generally aren’t worth it.