Bo Knows Politics?

There comes a time when, as the logic of a movement plays out, it just goes too far.  In this essay I want to say that I have reached that point myself, so far as the self-righteous political left is concerned. [1]  I’ve been following along.  I have said Yes.  Then I said…O.K.  Then I said, Really?  Now I am at the place where I want to say No,

I want to provide an illustration shortly.  This represents the bridge too far.  It’s not that it is SO bad; it is, rather, that it came at the time when I really couldn’t take one more.  And it is bad.

But I want to begin with one of my favorite commercials.  You can look at it yourself by looking up “Bo Knows” on You Tube.  The “Bo” is Bo Jackson; It’s a Nike ad.  But well-known athletes appear in very brief cameos to say, “Bo knows ______” [whatever their sport is.]  I remember John McEnroe saying “Bo knows tennis?” and Michael Jackson saying “Bo knows basketball.”  As I remember the sequence, the affirmations get weaker until Wayne Gretsky shows up.  He is supposed to say, “Bo knows hockey.”  He doesn’t say that.  There is a little pause, while we digest the idea that Gretsky is struggling with what he is supposed to say, then he looks at the camera and says, “No.”

“Bo knows hockey” is one station too far for Gretsky.  I cite that well-known ad because it carries the flavor of where my political life is at the moment.  The camera turns to me and I know, as Gretsky did, what I am supposed to say and in that moment, I am not willing to say it.  So finally, I am saying No.

Liberals have gotten weird.  They are still on the train that I have gotten off of.  I’m still as liberal as I was, which I always thought of as an achievement for a small town southern Ohio boy who went to an evangelical college.  I suppose there are other liberals who, like me, are still liberal and wonder where their comrades think that train is going.

I could spent some time on what I mean by “liberal,” but I mean roughly what Joe Biden and Kamala Harris mean by it, so that wouldn’t add much.  Let me move, instead, to the petition that moved me to my Wayne Gretsky moment.  Here is the petition, at least all the parts of it that deal directly with Trader Joe’s.

This is the work of a young woman named Briones Bedell, if you would like to find it on line.

We demand that Trader Joe’s remove racist branding and packaging from its stores. The grocery chain labels some of its ethnic foods with modifications of “Joe” that belies a narrative of exoticism that perpetuates harmful stereotypes. For example, “Trader Ming’s” is used to brand the chain’s Chinese food, “Arabian Joe” brands Middle Eastern foods, “Trader José” brands Mexican foods, “Trader Giotto’s” is for Italian food, and “Trader Joe San” brands their Japanese cuisine. 

The Trader Joe’s branding is racist because it exoticizes other cultures – it presents “Joe” as the default “normal” and the other characters falling outside of it – they are “Arabian Joe,” “Trader José,” and “Trader Joe San.”

The common thread between all of these [the other examples included Disney’s Jungle Cruise and the book White Shadows in the South Seas] transgressions is the perpetuation of exoticism, the goal of which is not to appreciate other cultures, but to further other and distance them from the perceived “normal.” The current branding, given this essential context, then becomes even more trivializing and demeaning than before. What at first seems, at worst, insensitive, further is called into question. 


I think I would like to begin with “exoticize.”  The -ize ending is used to say that one thing has been made into another.  You can’t homogenize homogenized milk, for example, because that has already happened.  In Ms. Bedell’s use of “exoticize” she suggests that something was not exotic and that it has been made exotic.  My question is, “Where was it not exotic before?”

Where I grew up big cities and high mountains and endless plains were exotic.  They aren’t exotic to the people who live there.  Groups of Hasidic Jews are exotic to me and large Amish communities and the Los Vegas culture of risking and losing.  But they are the normal habitat of the people who live there.  They are not exotic to the locals.  They are exotic to me because I am not local.

I don’t “exoticize” these places.  They seem exotic to me and it might very well be that my kind of life would seem exotic to them.  Consider, for instance, reporter Sue Charlton’s response to Australia and Mick Dundee’s response to New York City in Crocodile Dundee.  Each of those settings is exotic to the other.  

Ms. Bedell’s use of exotic sets up her criticism of “normal.”  “Joe” is presented as normal in the context of Trader Joe’s, she says.  And it is.  All those other names are adaptations to—puns on, really—other language traditions.  They are not pejorative; they are playful.  My early years were spent in the verbal environment of World War II where other nationalities were routinely disparaged.  This isn’t that.  Ms. Bedell seem to believe that if a norm is not universal, it is somehow perverse.  There are local norms, Ms. Bedell.  If things are not “normal,” it doesn’t mean that they are ab-normal.

And, finally, she moves directly from exotic—“exoticizing, really—to racist.  I have a whole attic full of difficulties with the word “racist” but this breaks new ground.  If you call something unusual because it is not usual where you live, that is the same as calling it exotic, which is clearly a racist thing to say.

It isn’t that Ms. Bedell’s petition is SO bad.  It’s bad, but it really just takes the kinds of arguments a lot of liberals are making and extends it too far.  It is the reductio ad absurdum presented as a sober logical conclusion.  And for me, it was just too much.  I reached my Wayne Gretsky moment and I had to say, NO.

And it wasn’t that saying No was such a big deal.  It was the sense of relaxation that accompanied it.  That relaxation told me that I had been working a lot harder than I had realized to hold on to liberal excesses.  I had exerted myself to hold together the excesses of sexism and racism and sizeism and ageism and a lot of other -isms. [2]  I apparently accepted, being a good liberal, the weight of one excess after another without sensing what the cost was.  But when I said No to the exoticism = racism charge against Trader Joe’s, I felt a lot of weight fall off and it made me wonder why I had been carrying it all this time.

That’s why I called this post “Bo Knows Politics.”  That series runs, with increasing puzzlement, up to Wayne Gretsky.  The ad continues, but I stop at Gretsky.  I don’t want to call what those guys are doing, “liberalism.”  I want to call why I am doing as “liberalism.”  

I want to call what they are doing, “wretched excess.”

[1]  You can tell that, of course, when I categorize a group by their motives rather than by the nobility of their cause.

[2]  If I were feeling playful about it—I’m not—I would say that we had been enduring a wave of ism-ism.  Maybe one day.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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