Borrowed Shame

Tales of Woe

The mighty Cath Elliott, a Guardian regular whose devotion to identity politics and hand-wringing has previously entertained us, now turns her attention to matters of a more mundane kind, with a piece titled, How Do You Keep a Sock on a Dog? Sadly, this rambling and incongruous article about a pet’s plastic surgical collar offers precious little scope for Ms Elliott’s usual agonising, though, of course, the urge hasn’t entirely been frustrated.

I’m feeling guilty because it seems so cruel making him wear it.

Thankfully, others take their guilt very seriously indeed and reach almost operatic levels of indignation and remorse. Among them is Amanda Marcotte, whose Pandagon website provides a safe and hegemony-free environment in which devotees can rend their garments and gnaw at their own wrists. The latest drama, discovered via Protein Wisdom, concerns the inadvertently scandalous imagery chosen to illustrate Ms Marcotte’s new book, It’s a Jungle Out There: the Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. The illustrations in question, which parody 1950s comic books - themselves very often parodies - have injured feelings on a truly devastating scale:

I feel so nauseous and sleepless about this whole thing that I felt the need to weigh in as well.


In the history of this country, there has always been one broad and well-lit path for oppressed classes of people to “better themselves” — side with the oppressors against someone else. That is exactly what these images are depicting: women gaining power through helping men against savage, violent brown people.

There ensues a long and emotionally fraught debate about whether to withdraw the offending publication, or boycott it, or reprint the book denuded of its connotations of “white privilege”.

I’m not going to pretend any of this is easy. Of course it’s hard to figure out what to say when you are under attack, when you feel defensive, when you feel like throwing up your hands and saying “Fuck it.”

However, while much of the feminist blogosphere still trembles with shock and umbrage, the greatest expression of feeling is found at Ms Marcotte’s own site, where the suitably chastened host offers an apology.

I can understand why anyone would choose to boycott a book with these images, and I respect that choice. Hopefully, once they are removed, people will reconsider supporting the book if they like the content. I, for one, will be ripping the pages out of my copy but keeping them as a reminder to be alert.

Not to be outdone, hundreds of Pandagon readers begin a chorus of wailing and righteous theorising.

Like I said in the thread at Feministe, that’s not a kitschy and ironic use of racist imagery. If that were actually the point, the purpose of the images, OMG, that would NOT make it okay. The use of images of scary black native men to convey a sense of danger is a blatantly RACIST use of racist imagery, wherein the racist message is the point. Offensive. Very, very offensive.

It isn’t long before a phantom subtext is discovered, and combed over in great detail. 

Although one can still make the argument that using colonialism/expansionism as the underpinning for a metaphor to describe the ‘battles’ of feminism is inherently problematic. But racistly depicted indigenous peoples? This clearly crosses the line. It suggests that what feminists need to conquer is dark people.


I really, really didn’t see the racism ‘til it was pointed out to me. THEN I saw it, oh boy did I see it! And I was so ashamed of my blindness.

And, a personal favourite,

White privilege is deeply rooted. It takes concerted effort to sensitise oneself (if one is white, that is) to recognise it, both in oneself and in the world around one. Hell, my husband and son are Asian, and sometimes I forget they’re not white like me.

If you’ve a stomach for high drama and competitive pseudo-grief, the Pandagon comments may entertain as a kind of identity politics pantomime. There is, I think, something quite compelling about watching people elevate paranoid self-loathing to the level of both piety and art form. A more realistic, and quite funny, discussion can be found at Protein Wisdom.

Update: The sorrow escalates.

Ease your guilt with a donation.



"The mighty Cath Elliott, a Guardian regular whose devotion to identity politics and hand-wringing has previously entertained us, now turns her attention to matters of a more mundane kind, with a piece titled, How Do You Keep a Sock on a Dog?"

Animal lover I may be, but I had to hit the 'Recommend' button for the second comment on that CiF article... :)

And even funnier than the 'Pandagon' post itself is the contorted, obsequious apology (immediately followed by second, even-more-fawning apology) by the publishing company...


And try as I might, I couldn't wrap my head around the concept of tearing the offending pages from her personal copy of the book, yet keeping them as a 'reminder'.

Umm, what....?



A stapler? Such is the passion of Ms Elliott, surely she can secrete adhesive mucous from the holes in her hands, like some DIY stigmata. And, yes, there does seem to be an atonement competition. “I’m sorry for everything.” “No, I’m sorrier, really I am.” “Pah. I’m much sorrier than you! Lick my tears, go on - lick them!”

I suppose the grief and indignation raises the question of whether anyone should admit that “scary black native men” ever actually existed, and indeed inspired the cartoons being parodied above. Presumably, the formidable Zulu warriors, and the Samburu, and the Maasai, should all be airbrushed from history or recast as the vile imaginings of white imperialists.

The Thin Man

Reading the thread at pandagon left me with this horrible image of many rooms filled with humourless wymmin, using something like a "blink comparator" in an excrutiatingly painstaking examination of every page produced by western culture in some Clive Barkeresque parody of the search for Planet X. There is a disturbing "thrill" to the Self-Flagellation.

As to Marcotte herself, I think Jonathon Winter's line from "It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World" is apt...

"Like if she were the star of a real crummy horror movie, I'd believe it."


“There is a disturbing ‘thrill’ to the Self-Flagellation.”

Well, for all the talk of “empowerment”, there’s a definite unease about actual assertions of ego. It’s difficult to pin one’s righteousness on denouncing capitalism and imperialism, real and imagined, while encouraging one’s sense of self-importance. Only certain “disadvantaged” groups may do so, and in fairly specific ways. I suppose obsessively fingering for residual traces of “oppression” and / or wiping one’s hair in the dust is a way to feel awfully important, but in a suitably apologetic and self-loathing way.

It’s not exactly a recipe for happiness, or indeed realism.


Nothing brightens up my busy Monday morning like a peek into this particular circular firing squad.

Is it possible (unlikely, admittedly) that this:

I really, really didn’t see the racism ‘til it was pointed out to me. THEN I saw it, oh boy did I see it! And I was so ashamed of my blindness.

Is sarcastic?



I was tempted to hope it is. But given the surrounding comments - which number several hundred - earnestly expressing very similar sentiments, it’s difficult to tell. At a point of such absurdity, parody is indistinguishable, and thus redundant.

Privileged Whitey

"Presumably, the formidable Zulu warriors, and the Samburu, and the Maasai, should all be airbrushed from history or recast as the vile imaginings of white imperialists."

What about using pictures of all those white-skinned jungle tribes we hear so much about?


My first thought is, "What the fuck is wrong with people?"

My second is, "maybe this is somehow keeping them out of trouble and from harming others."



I’m not entirely sure they aren’t harming others. At least I wouldn’t leave children in the care of such people. The basic argument seems to be that if you don’t register the images in the bizarre way they say you *should*, then you’re obviously basking in “white privilege” and are thus evil, and thus you’re validating their worldview. So if you disagree, even on matters of fact and logic, you’re actually reinforcing the bizarre phenomenon that they claim to see, while marking yourself as somehow ignorant and guilty by default. And the more you protest or submit contrary evidence, the more racist, misogynist and patriarchal you are.

The general worldview they express is so unpleasant I’d guess they’re probably the victims of some kind of intellectual vandalism, most likely perpetrated by educators with similar preoccupations. If so, there’s something grimly amusing about students swallowing wholesale the dogma of their teachers and peers, then regurgitating it verbatim and thinking it’s edgy.


Since Marcotte is belatedly giving her sorrow muscles a workout, I'd be remiss in not pointing out another aerobics opportunity.

Back February 2007, Amanda did her best to feed the flames of outrage in the Duke Lacrosse Rape Hoax/Frame. By taking the side of the hoax enablers, rather than by standing up for bourgeois, patriarchal concepts like Due Process. In case there was any doubt.

When the oppressors noticed, she scrubbed her site, rather than defending, justifying, or retracting her words.

That's *two* opportunities for contrition and sorrow! I eagerly await her forthcoming exercise in self-reflection.


David Gillies

It must be a strange, vertigo-inducing world these people live in. As anyone who's read Sokal and Bricmont's Fashionable Nonsense or Levitt and Gross's Higher Superstition will know, to be truly au fait with po-mo sentiment means believing a lot more than six impossible things before breakfast. It is logically impossible to adopt a stance that doesn't conflict with some other, equally pseudo-worthy position. What an agony of contortions one goes through being truly committed to this sub-Marxoid pap. Of course as Dawkins says, there are no cultural relativists at 30,000 feet. And as the great P. J. O'Rourke (PBUH) says, seriousness is stupidity gone to college. Pace David, but what harm they actually do is largely endogenous. Intellects as feebly constructed as this fare very poorly in environments where they are actually exposed to counter-argument (this is why any attempt to engage such arguments on their merits is inevitably howled down as being hegemonic or heteronormative or patriarchal or some such inanity). A Women's Studies department is so dense that virtually nothing of any substance can emanate from behind the semiotic event horizon. One salient fact that arises out of Fashionable Nonsense and Higher Superstition is how self-referential po-mo studies are; it's a virtual echo chamber. Pity the poor student who is captured, for he or she will end up with a mind warped by the tidal forces of stupid. But the rest of us are OK. The truly transgressive faculties in academia are in engineering and sciences.


David, Great work!

After reading your latest "Cath-Post," I can't help recalling Protein Wisdom's essay on the furor that "Curious George," the movie, caused among Ms. Elliot's flock of flamingos. Memory says, Jeffy posted it 'round the time the controversial movie first hit the theaters.

I'm too busy today to hunt it down for you, but, as I recall, Jeff Goldstein baited his rhetorical trap with buckets of ground (no color-added) monkey meat and, boy, did the neo-tribalists ever chime in en masse. Should make a good touch-stone for a Thompson post...



The worldview evoked by the comments mentioned above, and hundreds like them, does have a through-the-looking-glass quality. It’s also airless, monomaniacal and claustrophobic. Perhaps more to the point, the worldview appears to lack probity. In fact, as illustrated in the links below, the objective seems to be to actually erode a person’s probity, by encouraging unrealism and the public repetition of the ludicrous and untrue.



Hands up those who were shocked, when they saw Cath Elliot's photo, that she wrote for the Guardian. No really. Hands up?


Ratan X

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed those images far better than anything Amanda has ever wrote.

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