Reading Comprehension 101: Text, Subtext and the Politics of Misinterpretation

Here’s something I never imagined I would say:

I think I know what it feels like to be the person who writes the reading comprehension questions for those standardized tests we’re so fond of giving, if quite a bit less fond of taking.

After all, think about that person for a minute. He or she writes four or five paragraphs for inclusion on the PSAT or whatever, knowing full well that when asked questions about the passage they just read, millions of those who are taking the test will not get the point. It must be difficult to write, all the while aware that large numbers of those reading your work will utterly fail to comprehend it.

I’ve long known that the same kind of miscomprehension often greets my own writing. First, I focus on touchy subjects like race, and whenever we delve into such matter as this, there is a chance that emotional reading may take the place of reasoned study and analysis. In other words, we see what we want to see, based on wherever we are at the time of the reading, emotionally, and with regard to the issues at hand. Interestingly, the same phenomenon is true for writers, whose work product — or “art” on our better days — also reflects our emotional state at any given moment. In other words, sometimes the writer chooses language that is deliberately hyperbolic, provocative, or edgy, so as to force a reaction — to force an examination of the underlying message, no matter how discomfiting it may be for all involved — and doesn’t give much regard to how it may be received. Like the writer of the reading comprehension questions on the PSAT, such writers know ahead of time that many readers simply won’t get it.

That said, and while I know we live in a culture where reading comprehension (and writing itself) is devalued — what with our emphasis on short, sweet text messages, or tweet-talk, in which we are expected to make a point in 140 characters — I am yet amazed at how difficult some find it to decipher the words I have caused to appear on the page, and to really interpret what they mean, as opposed to that which they do not.

To wit, after my latest piece on the election results went viral, there have been more than a few folks who have written to say how appalled they were by my “attack on white people,” or my “attack on America,” or my “hateful diatribe” in which I “gleefully anticipate the death of the elderly” and the “initiation of violent payback of whites writ large by people of color” once whites become a less prominent portion of the national population, a few decades hence. In other words, putting aside the inherent absurdity of this interpretation — I am white after all, as are my kids, as is my wife, as is my momma, all my immediate family and my best friend too — some who read the piece believe against all logic and in the face of plain English (however aggressive the piece may be), that I have announced, excitedly, the coming of a glorious race war and the end of white people.


So perhaps we should start with the obvious, for those a bit too slow to begin the reading of the essay with, ya know, the title. For if one reads the title, “An Open Letter to the White Right, On the Occasion of Your Recent, Successful Temper Tantrum,” one would almost immediately discover an important nugget of relevant information; information that rather clearly spells out who is being critiqued in the piece, and thus, to whom my ire is being directed. It is not white people. It is not the white elderly. It is the white right, as in right-wing. And given the timing of the essay — released the evening of the mid-term elections, in which the right (mostly on the backs of heavy white conservative turnout) managed to capture the House of Representatives and make substantial inroads throughout government, from the Senate to state houses across the nation — it should be obvious that, more precisely, I am taking aim at the Tea Party types who take their electoral triumphs as evidence that they have “taken their country back” from the evil leftist/Marxist/fascist/Kenyan-Muslim hordes who had previously hijacked it.

To believe that I am condemning all white people in this essay requires an incapacity for rational thought almost too stunning to contemplate. I specify the white right, and I even go on to note that a “sizable minority” of whites (including myself) will, in the future, stand against the kind of reactionary whiteness embodied by those to whom I was directing my verbal wrath. So by definition, I’m assuming that not all whites are deserving of this critique, because not all whites buy into the reactionary agenda.

Although I do say that the white right that triumphed on election night is disproportionately composed of “older white folks beholden to an absurd, inaccurate, nostalgic fantasy of what America used to be like,” this does not mean that I “hate elderly white people.” Nor is it — and let’s just head this off at the pass right now — an indication that all those claims about leftist “death panels” euthanizing grandma were accurate after all. First, just because the white right is disproportionately older (and this isn’t a debatable point, frankly), doesn’t mean that I think all older white folks are members of the white right. Many are not. Indeed, many of those in the same generation as the aging tea baggers were among the principal white allies within the civil rights struggle. That generation, like all generations, has its good and bad. They are neither all heroic nor all venal. Obviously.

Nor does my mention that this bunch of older right-wing white folks are “dying” — nor my insistence at various points that this will be a good thing for the nation and the world — mean that I hope they die soon, or am cheering their physical obsolescence. Simply put, it is just a fact: generations come and go, and within a few decades, all those white folks who have the luxury of clinging from first hand experience to the nostalgic past of the 50s, and the days we often refer to as “American innocence” will be gone. And although I wish them all a long and healthy life (even if I might prefer that fewer of them vote), this passing will, when it comes, make it easier to move forward on a whole host of efforts for social justice. The nostalgic remembrance of the pre-civil rights era by millions of white people — folks who never had to really contemplate how hellish those days were for people of color — is an impediment to progress. Unlike merely remembering fondly one’s childhood, which is normal and natural and usually healthy I suppose, nostalgia is a political matter, often blinding us to the more complex reality, creating tunnel vision and eradicating altogether the peripheral comprehension needed to interpret our world.

Yes, I believe their historical memory is blinkered, absurd and dangerous. And I think this makes them dangerous, in turn. And I think it will be a good thing when we are no longer hampered as a society by those who have the capacity to so thoroughly misremember a time that they themselves lived through, and in which so many of them did nothing to move the country forward (and in fact, often stood in the way of human and civil rights for so many). But I am not, therefore, hoping for their death. I am simply noting the inevitable and commenting on what it will, in my estimation, mean. I am making the point that they should enjoy their political victory while they can. Because soon, within a few decades, their type (again, in political terms, not just racial terms) will be finished. To the extent the right has all but given up on attracting significant numbers of people of color to their movement — and by virtue of their anti-immigrant hysteria, all but ensured the increasing whiteness of their clique — this becomes an almost incontestable fact. If half the population in the U.S. will be people of color in, say, 40 years, then even a decent minority of progressive white folks, combined with a heavily progressive population of color will be able to eviscerate the white right, in political terms. Saying this isn’t hateful. It’s just true. One is free to look forward to those coming days, or to be afraid of them, but either way, those days are coming.

And to suggest, as have certain among the neo-Nazi throng assembled at Stormfront or American Renaissance, that I am advocating the “genocide of white people” in the essay, is a statement of such incredibly vapid and self-evident delusion that it should forever foreclose any possibility that these troglodytes who frequent the chat boards at such places might qualify, somehow, for membership in anything approaching a “master race.” Which is to say, that the sociopathic loser who called my booking agent today to suggest that genocide was what I was advocating, and that, as a result, they would “go after me” and “hang my Jewish ass,” had best hope that his skills with the rope are a good deal better than his talents in the department to which we refer as “reading.”

I will grant you, some of the wording I chose for the piece was intemperate, and upon greater reflection, there are no doubt words and phrases I could have chosen that would have conveyed this same core message, perhaps more effectively. That’s how it goes sometimes when you’re trying to speak your truth: it’s raw, unfiltered, and not always beholden to strategic considerations. Fine. It is for this reason that I went back and made a few edits to the piece. Not because, as the Nazis would have it, I was trying to “edit my hate,” but because no writer has an interest in being misunderstood when they have it in their power to clarify their point. In this case, it seemed to me that my initial reference to the stopping of the heartbeats of the white right was being taken far too literally, as a celebratory reference to literal death. Since the “white right” is not a literal bodily entity with a heartbeat, the reference was confusing, and obscured the point I seek to convey, which concerns the political death of the white right due to demographic change. Thus, edits that I think make that point more clearly.

But because one may disagree with my tone in places, or certain language used, or wish I hadn’t conflated the concepts of political and physical death in such a way as to make it unclear what I was cheering — the former or the latter — should not therefore make it acceptable to fundamentally misinterpret the underlying meaning of the message: a meaning which is still quite clear, or so it seems to me, tone and language notwithstanding.

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