Pirates, fandom, and the statistically inevitable opportunity for grievance politics

IMG_0671.JPGI’ve been struggling for days about how to comment, if at all, on the Walking Dead/Black Sails homophobia scandals.

If any.

I long ago abandoned The Walking Dead—yes, at the farm, like you did—so I could hardly give a damn about who’s kissing whom on that show, but I am increasingly impressed with Black Sails. What at first seemed another pirate-fad coat-tail rider—and premium channel showcase for tits, ass, and the occasional flash of penis—has turned into a complex drama with a lot of intriguing characters and ever more convincing literary aspirations.

Earlier this season, I found Anne Bonny’s struggle with her attraction to Max well-written, well-acted, moving, and graciously free of the highly politicized, synthetic, and grievance-charged sexual categories that drive so much dishonest, divisive, and destructive outrage politics today. Her same-sex infatuation with Max was presented, as it should be, as another character struggle among many, inspiring neither pharisaic right-wing finger-wagging nor smug left-wing applause.

And, her long-time affection for Jack, whatever its ultimate nature, was complicated but not scuttled by the development. No radicalized resentment against hetero-male hegemony. [Later note: She did complain that he may have saved her from a situation she should have figured out on her own, but this could be seen as having more to do with her age at the time.] No stereotypically violent and repressive reaction by the Patriarchal man. Both Anne and Jack have been portrayed as human beings, with complex and nuanced emotions, not as dumbed-down political tropes.

Last season, Mr. Scott’s storyline was similarly well done, addressing the awful realities of racial politics during the period without letting the narrative get commandeered by mawkishly modern, P.C. polemics.

So, when the flashbacks leading up to last week’s revelation that the scandal which undid Flint’s naval career was not his affair with Mrs. Hamilton, but with Mr. Hamilton, I was simply impressed at how brilliantly this twist was integrated into the existing facts of the story. Bonny’s own triangle with Max and Jack Rackham was a remarkably well-done bit of foreshadowing, of mirroring (both were set adrift from their nautical careers as a consequence), and of reversal, not only Flint and Bonny’s reversal in gender but in relationship—Flint was the newcomer in the Hamilton triangle, while Bonny was part of the established pair in her own.

None of these storylines deny the bigotries of the age. Neither Flint’s nor Bonny’s deny the emotional struggles, the suppression of desire, or the shame caused by those bigotries. Indeed, the murderous rage that can result from the struggle, the suppression, and the shame. And yet, none of these storylines tripped over themselves waving a placard magic-markered with a cheap activist slogan.

And, that’s why they were good writing.

But, then the jerks crawled out of the woodwork…

We all heard how so-called Walking Dead fans were outraged that one of the male characters is gay, never mind that the character was gay in the comics, so nobody should have been surprised regardless of whether they’re pro-gay or not. Yet, outraged activists and advocates tell us, there was a huge outburst of shocked homophobia. They have real screen shots of real gay-bashing tweets! Literally, um … several of them!

And fans of the Starz drama Black Sails were outraged that Captain Flint had a homosexual romance, never mind the long association between high seas adventure and sodomy. (Yes, sodomy. Back then, we didn’t enjoy/suffer the convenient categories of prefix-laden sexuality we enjoy/suffer today, and simply talked about activities.) Outraged champions of justice were eager to point out this shameful display of the systemic hate in our culture. Apparently, somebody or three posted something nasty to their Facebook page!

But, were there really enough homophobes angry about these gay characters to justify anyone getting worked into a lather about it? Or have the chattering hordes been purposefully scoured for the statistically inevitable handful of  knuckleheads on the right, the quoting of whom gives opportunistic knuckleheads on the left something to feel outraged and heroic about?

In other words, are self-serving political fraudsters trying to commandeer these shows for dumbed-down grievance politics after the writers did such a smashing job not turning them into crass and pretentious propaganda?

It must be frustrating when the bullies one is so eager to confront (and profit from confronting, either financially or socially) have become such a small, defeated, and diminishing minority that they have to be carefully sifted and curated from the Internet’s 3 billion users to make a case for grievance and outrage. Here’s a hint from the real world: genuine oppression comes looking for you, not vice versa. And, what do you call people who go out of their way seeking out easy targets to shame and attack? Another hint: I’ve used that word in this paragraph already.

Let’s be clear. Are homophobes assholes? Undeniably yes. But, in a world of umpteen zillion people there are always going to be a number of assholes with Internet accounts. There’s no way to ensure that the folks at Uproxx and Buzzfeed and Kos and Jezebel never ever again have to feel outraged by reading uncomfortable comments while they’re purposefully scouring the world for uncomfortable comments to read so they can be outraged. And to urge us to read, so we’ll also be uncomfortable and outraged. Because, boys and girls, that’s how they make money.

There’s no way to ensure it, that is, unless we execute every asshole on the Internet who expresses an inappropriate opinion. Or wire the entire human race with thought-control technology. To paraphrase Orwell, imagine the future as a smile stapled on a human face, forever.

So, there’s enough room in the asshole clan to include the dishonest, self-aggrandizing activist nitwits who—no less than homophobes—are essentially driven by knee-jerk political prejudices, a shaming fetish, and control issues. Fabricating scandals and grievances for gain and attention is a real jerk move, particularly when your victims have been selected and targeted for deception and manipulation because they care about social justice. Assholes who exploit the good in others are among the worst types of asshole.

And, moreover, they threaten to ruin perfectly good stories by injecting their bad motives. Anne Bonny and Captain Flint can take care of themselves, and survivors of the zombie apocalypse have more important issues to deal with.

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