Is Outrage at Rolling Stone Cover Racist?

Time: Monsters Next DoorI like checking out the MSNBC prime time lineup on the computer. As much as I like Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and even Lawrence O’Donnell, I find that I can miss vast swaths of their programs without being deprived of any insights or entertainment. And so it was as I skimmed through The Last Word. There was a segment on the controversial new Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, so I clicked in for a listen. It annoyed me almost from the first word. O’Donnell’s smug conventional wisdom can often be overpowering, and that was fulling on display. So I skipped ahead several times, never having to wait more than a couple of seconds before he said something else that I thought was stupid or irrelevant.

I was thinking back to the year after 9/11 when Time‘s Person of the Year was… Rudy Giuliani. I was talking to my sister-in-law and I remarked at how ridiculous that was. Traditionally, the Person of the Year was not necessarily a good guy. Clearly, Osama Bin Laden should have been given the award, not Giuliani. She said if they had done that, she would have canceled her subscription. Well, what do you expect from someone who subscribes to Time? Still, it struck me then and now as a very childish reaction. Can’t we admit that a man is bad and important? What did Giuliani do other than somehow demonstrate to the world how to act after 9/11?[1]

I feel the same way about all the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover. And really, I think this is all forced outrage. You have to be determined to be outraged in this case. The whole point of the article is to show that just a regular kid—just like dozens of other kids you know—can turn quickly into a homicidal fanatic who holds his ideology above the lives of fellow human beings. He is not insane. He has no horns. This young man’s sweet face is what evil looks like. That is an entirely reasonable argument to make and the cover does that.

What’s perhaps most amazing is that this is not a new idea. In 1999, Time put two attractive smiling teens on its cover: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They were the two Columbine shooters who were responsible for 13 murders. Yet there wasn’t much outrage over that cover. And I think we need to look at why that is. Mark Joseph Stern over at Slate thinks that the reason that one is acceptable and the other isn’t is because of the different way the two magazines are perceived. (But he agrees with me that the cover is effective.) That might be part of it, but it isn’t the core.

I think it’s fair to say that the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover is not about protecting the victims of the Boston bombing. It is about racism, pure and simple. It was fine to remember that something terrible must have gone wrong if these two white teens went on a murderous rampage. But we can brook no such questions about dirty foreigners with their anti-American religion. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone shouting about the cover is a racist. Outrage has a tendency to perpetuate itself. Once the whole thing got going, especially with a reasonable rationale (the understandable concern for the victims), it fed itself.

As a people, we are badly in need of greater education about why people do bad things. In general, it is not because they’re just bad to the bone. There are all kinds of things that affect how people behave. That, for the umpteenth time, does not justify the act or the actor. But we need to remember that all of this terrorism isn’t just about those funny looking people over there who hate us for our freedom. And we need to realize that we aren’t going to bomb away this problem. In other words: we need to be smart. And that means treating the Rolling Stone cover as more than a bit of outrage fodder.

[1] Here is the money quote from David Letterman, “And I just want to say one other thing about Mayor Giuliani: As this began, and if you were like me, and in many respects, God, I hope you’re not. But in this one small measure, if you’re like me, and you’re watching and you’re confused and depressed and irritated and angry and full of grief, and you don’t know how to behave and you’re not sure what to do and you don’t really… because we’ve never been through this before… all you had to do at any moment was watch the Mayor. Watch how this guy behaved. Watch how this guy conducted himself. Watch what this guy did. Listen to what this guy said. Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Is Outrage at Rolling Stone Cover Racist?

  1. "Outrage perpetuates itself." That’s immensely true. This faux outrage at RS is, I suspect, pent-up reaction from the MSM over Taibbi’s covering what they don’t; his work is pretty much unassailable, so attack the magazine instead.

    When, years ago, I was arguing that terrorists have reasons for doing what they do (not that those reasons justify violence, but they explain it) and I was met with the shrieking "Body Snatchers" trill of "you are not one of us!", I offered this analogy. Does a researcher looking at the causes of cancer root for malignant cells? Obviously not. Looking at the things that cause terrorists to be angry does not mean supporting terrorism; it implicitly means trying to end those root causes, much as a cancer researcher would.

    This would never get anyone to agree with me that US foreign policy was wrong, but it often got me off the "defending terrorism" hook.

  2. I agree. That kid does have a sweet face. Just like some people were complaining about showing Treyvon ‘when he was 12’ to make him look innocent.
    I also find it fascinating to see people who look so normal. If they’ve got horns, of course it’s easy to believe they’re evil.

  3. @JMF – I’m surprised that this worked at all. The whole point of the "terrorists are just evil" argument is to avoid any accountability. The last thing Americans want to do is consider that they could do anything different.

  4. @Mary – True. Although in defense of the media, I think they used that photo because it was the one that they had.

    A number of serial killers were quite attractive or at least charismatic. Jeffrey Dahmer is a great example. It is a very old bias that we think attractive = good. I just read a paper about how ugly people get paid less. It’s all part of the same thing. We are small minded.

  5. @Mary — Today, RS writer Matt Taibbi published his defense of the cover:

    He observes that the RS photo has been used before by the NYTimes, while other publications (like Time) have used innocent-looking cover photos of killers to make the point that violent extremism can attract "normal" people.

    Essentially, RS is being attacked for using a cover image that the MSM would get no criticism for, because most RS covers are of teenage rock stars. What I find ironic here is that when RS prints fluff, it doesn’t pretend it’s printing news. Time or the NYTimes print fluff disguised as news quite often (think Saddam’s WMDs.) Yet I haven’t read a long-form piece of journalism in RS over the last few years that didn’t strike me as intelligent and thoroughly researched. Teenage rock stars aside, it’s actually a better hard news publication than most that pretend to be. And I think there’s some resentment on their part about this.

  6. @JMF – I think you are giving RS too little credit. They published Michael Hastings, after all. And Taibbi’s coverage of the financial industry is must reading. But otherwise, I’m totally in agreement with you.

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