The Age of Umbrage… or… I May Be an Internet Crybaby

My sister challenged me this week.  I had posted on Facebook that I was oddly grateful to the national news media because their coverage of Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, had quoted him as saying he feared American cops more than those in his home of South Africa. He said he had been in the “hands-up, don’t shoot” pose since he got here.

I wrote that this press coverage was valuable to me, saving me the wasted time of watching this fool.  As you may know, I am fairly pro-police and thus am anti the anti-police.

Her simple, place-putting response:  “Could he be joking?”

Well, du’uh, sis.  Of course he’s joking, but you can’t joke about this.  I mean, you shouldn’t joke about… about something I care about.

And have no sense of humor about.

And take great umbrage about.

And that’s her point.

From Merriam Webster: umbrage – a feeling of being offended by what someone has said or done. Origin:  Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin umbraticum, neuter of umbraticus of shade, from umbratus, past participle of umbrare to shade, from umbra shade, shadow; akin to Lithuanian unksmė shadow.  First Known Use: 15th century.

We word-geeks think stuff like this is cool.

When the “hands-up, don’t shoot” protest chant went nationwide last fall, after the death of Michael Brown in an encounter with a police officer in Ferguson, Illinois, I was concerned that the spreading lie of deliberate, careless police violence against black males was going to take root and affect my former colleagues in law enforcement.  Allegedly, Brown had raised his hands to surrender to Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson, who shot him. A grand jury first, then the U.S. Department of Justice, cleared Officer Wilson of wrongdoing and proved the “hands-up, don’t shoot” claim to be false.  And while it is true that some of my former police colleagues lately report increased resistance and verbal confrontations in their contacts on the street, the anti-police movement and the so-called “Ferguson protests” have largely petered out.  Certain positive effects did occur: dialogue between disenfranchised community groups and police increased in some cities that needed it; government budget minders began considering equipping their officers with body cameras (which I consider a great benefit – some disagree.  Maybe a future column?)   And, oddly enough, in my view the national media has increased its coverage of the good things cops do, which this week included ramming a dangerous wrong-way driver before he hit civilians, and buying baby carseats for a challenged family instead of ticketing them.

But the wave of anti-police sentiment and activism I had feared since Ferguson did not overcome us. And this week I was about ready to put down the sword of pro-police piety – and pomposity- and move on to more interesting topics like having heart attacks, writing novels, or cool things my kids did, when I found myself worked up over Trevor Noah and wrote that I would avoid his show.  No great sacrifice on my part:  I’ve never watched The Daily Show.  But FB Me proclaimed a personal boycott far beyond the worth of the issue, and in so doing I seem to have leaned into the national trend toward self-important umbrage instead of just laughing, or not laughing, at things a comic says.

As Jim Norton of Time Magazine put it, (Trevor Noah) … neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.

Norton’s article was sent to me by another blogger, my friend Dave Statter of STATer911.com.   If you are not familiar with his site, you may remember Dave as a reporter for WUSA9 a few years ago.  (Funny the incestuous way we bloggers pass each other around, like novelists who review their friends’ novels just to get their own name on the covers. INSERT PLUG HERE – My novel is in the post-editing phase, stay tuned.)

Self-centered narcissists, as Time magazine  put it.   I called myself arrogant when I started this blog, in the certainty that my thoughts and opinions are vital to the national discourse on whatever issue I set my sights on.  Like defending law enforcement against what I feared were fires of criticism stoked by a careless national news media who followed only shouting pundits like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and not the truth.  But the pundits, if not silenced, have been finally recognized as charlatans or for having cried wolf too many times.  It is true that bad cops exist, and good cops make mistakes, but the frenzied claims that all cops are killing all black men have finally receded like they should.  Maybe now we can focus on and strive for, if not harmony, at least a better understanding of the cooperation we need to be a community.  As the late Rodney King said in 1992 after his bloody confrontation with police pushed him into national prominence – and Los Angeles into riot – “Can we all get along?”

Like my sister, Dave Statter challenged me to reconsider my personal suppression of  Trevor Noah in this Age of Umbrage.  He informed me of a protest by pro-police groups against the appearance of rapper Common at New Jersey’s Kean University. As reported by the Associated Press this week, Common, who won a Grammy Award for composing the theme song for the movie Selma, was disinvited from speaking at the Kean commencement because he wrote a song about a cop-killer named Joanne Chesimard, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, and was convicted in 1977 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. She escaped from prison and has been living in Cuba as a fugitive.  “A Song for Assata” was written 15 years ago.

Statter wrote:   While I think of myself as pro-police and totally understand the group’s concerns I don’t think we are better off as a society when we silence voices, I would much rather see the university keep the speaker and give this group or any other group an area to protest. We are in era where art, political views and even scientific findings are being silenced by claims that something is offensive. While, for many, this one may have more merit than others, it’s still the same concept.

Statter is not just pro-police, he is as pro-First Amendment as I am. We are both former reporters (I reject the high-falutin’ moniker of journalist) and believe in the right of free speech, free expression and a free press.  But I am learning to recognize the unfortunate power of internet expression to overcome the voices, views and sometimes rights of others.  However pro-police I am, I have to support Common on this one. And as sick as it makes me feel to write it, I also must support the right of Goddard College in Vermont to recently host a commencement speech (via audiotape from prison) by convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, who shot Philadelphia Police Officer Danny Faulkner to death in 1982.  I wouldn’t send my kids there, or pour piss on the fire if the school burned down, but I support – we have to support – their right to free speech.

Years ago when I was the public information officer of the Alexandria Police Department, fellow cops got riled over Ice T’s song Cop Killer. I pointed out to my colleagues that every Irish bar singer covers The Wild Colonial Boy, about a robber who shoots the posse capturing him. There’s a sign commemorating his life outside his hometown of Castlemaine, Co. Kerry, Ireland. And Eric Clapton made a few bucks singing Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff.

Umbrage is given greater authority and power by the internet, by the implication of propriety and support a Facebook message, or a meme, or a blog gain by appearing in the visual though ephemeral print of the computer screen.  I see that now.  Whether I am smart enough to do better remains to be seen, but like Maya Angelou once said:

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

We’ll see.

4 thoughts on “The Age of Umbrage… or… I May Be an Internet Crybaby

  1. I think there’s a difference between a comedian trying to make a joke that doesn’t quite make it, and a TV reporter filling air time by stirring the pot with baseless assertions and speculation to a much larger audience that is more likely to believe them.

    At least the comedian calls himself a comedian.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done, Mark.

    My view is that anything we can do to reduce the “us v. them” dynamic in this world is worth the effort. Identifying and distrusting the “other” was once a useful evolutionary skill, one that needs to atrophy. The existence of a pro-police and anti-police debate in our country, shows the need to abandon that old evolutionary skill. Police, reporters, comedians, and criminals all come from the same talent pool: humans. We are a flawed bunch. Comedians sometimes make tasteless jokes, reporters sometimes make the choice to (as Ray says, accurately) make baseless assertions. Police officers sometimes make errors in judgement. It is easy to say and difficult to practice, but we need to back away some from us v. them, and realize that we are all “them.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very well written and thoughtful Mark. I too have struggled with all the anti police sentiment since the Michael Brown incident. Most of it was driven by the media, and the White House piled on by sending the AG to the Brown home in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

    One of the comedians I watch from time to time if Bill Maher, who is very anti police. I had to stop watching him because he made me so angry, which is not a good thing. I like to pride myself on hearing all voices (e.g., FOX News & NPR) before I make my mind up on a current news story. Your blog gave me a push in the right direction, thanks and keep ’em coming.

    Liked by 1 person

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