Merlin Mann, Jesse Thorn, and “black people”…

June 25, 2007 at 6:53 am | Posted in America, culture, internet, music, podcast, prejudice, productivity, racism, radio, society, technology | Leave a comment

I’ve been a big fan of Merlin Mann, but his last episode of “The Merlin Show” left me feeling like I was having a conversation (or at least witnessing one) with a Southern bigot who passes off racism as humor (which probably happens more often than I would care to admit down here in the South). Quite skillfully, this moment of bigotry is masqueraded with a humorous undertone most likely intended to poke fun of others who are racist, but the offense is no less egregious. Granted Merlin wasn’t the one speaking, but it was his voice laughing in the background and frankly, his decision to end the show on such a note. Ultimately, Merlin Mann is responsible for the content he releases.

If you’d like to hear it for yourself, fast-forward to the last 1 minute and 30 seconds of Episode 20: Interview with Jesse Thorn, Part 2. Here’s a transcript of the conversation that literally punctuated the end of his show. Jesse brings up his favorite music columnist Kelefa Sanneh and makes the following comments:

Thorn: He writes for the New York Times. And he writes about urban music, among other things, but mostly urban music for The Times. When you read one of his pieces, you can read it as someone who doesn’t know anything about rap music. Like that is not a required part of – but he remains insightful. Like, he can explain, you know, in a parenthetical what a beat is but he’s not going to ever refer to somebody as a rap singer, you know what I mean?

Mann: -laughing-

Thorn: Which, I actually heard recently on KPCC, my local NPR station, they called somebody a rap singer. I was like really a rap singer? Is he “singing”? Well no. No? What is he doing? “Rapping”? He’s probably a rapper.

Mann: It’s like scat, but you know, with the rapping.

Thorn: You know, I don’t know what you think about this Merlin, but I think that hip-hop is like a new version of jazz and blues.

Mann: Absolutely, they’re both very rhythmic.

Thorn: And you know, in fifty years it’ll only be done by old black people that aren’t a threat to us anymore.

Mann: -laughing-

Music & Credits

Merlin Mann aside, Jesse Thorn is the root of my criticism. Jesse Thorn is the host of The Sound of Young America, a 25 year old radio/podcast host who has a degree in American Studies from UCSC with a focus on expressive cultures.

In his free time, he enjoys listening to hip-hop and classic soul and cracking wise.

Well this time it seems that Mr. Thorn may have cracked a little too wise. For someone who is supposed to have their finger on the pulse of “young America” and at the same time be such a fan of hip-hop and soul, can’t he think of better things to talk about?

Don’t get me wrong, Jesse Thorn and Merlin Mann are no Imus, and I certainly don’t think they’re bad people. But for personalities who are in the public forum (and especially for Thorn who claims to be immersed in hip-hop/soul music), they should be more sensitive to their audience. A lot of us would like to wish or pretend that racism or prejudice is a thing of the past – something that belongs to our fathers’ or our fathers’ fathers’ culture. But it’s not.

I’m not trying to light any sort of fire or ruin anyone’s career, but I do want to make a point. The point is that racism and prejudice are worse now then I think it was in generations past. The reason being, is that today’s racism and prejudice is something secretive. It is masked with jokes and innuendo and rarely confronted. Violence as an expression of racism and prejudice may not be as prevalent, but there are worse things than violence.

Political correctness serves as a means for hiding people’s true feelings or otherwise apparent ignorance. Prejudice also extends beyond “black people”; homosexuals, Mexicans, or other immigrants are similarly the butt of certain jokes. Joking or making fun of what would otherwise be interpreted as offensive is equally offensive. One may think that joking about something may lessen its significance, and this might be true for the perpetrator. But the subliminal and psychological significance for the audience and for the conversation or cause in general is as appalling as Michael Richards racist tirade last year.

Perhaps a little self reflection and introspection wouldn’t hurt the likes of Merlin Mann and Jesse Thorn. Thorn should probably re-think his career choices. Merlin Mann should be held accountable for his editing; first impressions of the end of episode 20 make the “sting” seem all too intentional.

I still have mixed feelings about the future of Merlin Mann and myself. We’ll see…


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