The Bachelor consistently manages to ask the kinds of questions that usually keep their answers hidden at the bottom of the second bottle of chardonnay. This past season was no different than the twenty-three before it. Twentysomething twentysomethings, catfished by the promise of princess-cut diamonds and endless SponCon, descended on a cookie-cutter mansion and into a battle royale for the almost certainly fleeting affections of a hunk of middle America man meat. All the women swore a blood oath to be there for the right reasons. The sociopathic producers set up a series of outrageous manipulations that expertly preyed on the contestants’ emotional insecurity and lack of sobriety. Someone proposed to someone else, or not, and lived happily ever after, or not. Same as always. It was, like, pretty fun.
This year’s star was a milquetoast bro known mock-affectionately as “Pilot Pete”, but by any reasonable accounting the protagonist was Victoria F, a 26-year-old medical sales rep/emotional arsonist. Victoria contains multitudes, and one of those multitudes contains the chutzpah to breezily sidestep credible accusations of sleeping with several of her friends’ husbands — and not even bother with a courtesy denial. Sometimes fate places people exactly where they need to be.
About halfway through her quest to become bizarro world America’s Sweetheart, Victoria bested her fellow suitors in a modelling contest, mostly by having the foresight to ram her tongue down Pete’s throat while the other women kicked themselves for not thinking of it first. This seemed like not much more than an oddly meta detour — the entire Bachelor exercise is nothing if not a weeks-long modelling contest, after all — and would’ve been lost to the dustbin of Instagram except that the winner was, for no good reason, promised a spread in an upcoming edition of Cosmopolitan. The soon-to-be cover girl herself summed it up best: “amazing”.
Sadly for Victoria, The Bachelor lives in a suspended animation where episodes are filmed months before they air, giving the contestants plenty of time to napalm their public image even before the show officially airs their dirty laundry. Vic used her down time to rep some gear from a marlin conservation group, including a trucker hat, knee-high socks and a t-shirt that’s apparently meant to be worn like a waiter’s towel. The dope style was a mirage, though; as it happens, she was showing out for the Confederate flag and the race-baiting tagline “White Lives Matter”. Not a great look.
Cosmo, cheeks burning, pulled the cover, and tried to put a light year or two between their brand and “belief systems … rooted in racism”. Victoria churned out a pro-forma apology, taking the tack that she had no idea about the campaign’s racial overtones — which, after her weeks on the show revealed not one single ounce of self-awareness, actually read as surprisingly believable. Still, even if the citizens of Bachelor Nation were inclined to take Victoria’s mea-sorta-culpa at face value, they were still left to wrestle with some delicate questions: is what Victoria did racist? Is she a racist? If so, what to do? And where is that bottle of chardonnay, anyway?
L’affaire Victoria asks us to decide whether racism can be accidental. Even dyed-in-the-wool conservatives will stipulate that trumpeting “white lives matter” and pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag are things that racists do. But the inverse is more slippery. It’s not all that difficult to imagine a 26-year-old spending her adult life cosseted in a world of medical sales and other people’s husbands and never truly having cause to comprehend the despicable history behind the blood-stained banner or the provocations beneath “white lives matter”. Ignorance is closer to bullshit than bliss, yet it’s also, at least arguably, a valid defense. We’re paddling through the same rhetorical swamp as when we judge wanna-G teenagers dropping n-bombs singing along to hip hop or furrow our brows over negligent use of blackface. And there’s no obvious way to shore. If racism is the misunderstanding that one race is inferior to another, it’s hard to see how painstakingly memorizing Weezy’s logorrhea or transforming into Beyonce for Halloween fits the bill. On the other hand, these bright lines are woven into our societal fabric precisely because crossing them causes a lot of people a lot of heartache, intent, or lack of, be damned.
The view that it doesn’t matter whether an act was intended to be racist — that racism is as racism does, basically — has the force of clarity. Any action can be subjected to a definitive litmus test, and the doers easily sorted into good and bad. The annoying ambiguity of sussing out motives totally evaporates. Simple is good, plus the one-size-fits-all-racists approach neatly parries conservative complaints about shifting definitional goal posts. But it also serves as the big bang for the universe of potentially racist acts, and, with that, potentially racist people. Because of all that, progressive types end up feeling justified in handing out accusations of racism with the devil-may-care attitude usually reserved for Bachelor rose ceremonies.
Still, there are plenty of valid reasons to equate racialist indifference with more intentional gestures besides it being the path of least resistance — starting, of course, with genuine indignation. But regardless of its root, any pique of any kind will absolutely be construed by the conservative half of the internet as mendacious grandstanding and virtue signalling, because apparently that’s the law. The thing is, that’s not wrong, exactly. We’re all dying to show off our moral superiority. We want our particular tribe to fete us as fearless guardians of good. And that drive pushes leftists to call out racism precisely as much as it motivates conservatives to denounce them for it. Whether or not the outrage is authentic, our psychology strong-arms us into shouting it from the tweet deck. Self-congratulation is the opiate of the masses.
But the come down can be a bitch. All across the political spectrum people are scared shitless of being branded racist. That’s rational. Nobody wants a scarlet letter. For progressives, that fear fuels an eagerness to shore up liberal bona fides by spotlighting every real or even imagined infraction. For conservatives it’s about avoiding that spotlight. A few years ago, there was a study that asked viewers of “outrage-based” TV — Limbaugh/Hannity people, more or less — why they gravitate to those programs. Every single respondent, without prompting, pointed to anxiety about being tagged a racist. The label’s stigma is apparently so crushing that people decide that it’s just not worth the risk, and abandon the complicated middle for the spotlight-free shelter of conservative media. Fox is a safe space, in its own twisted way.
Maybe the worst part is that since the left and right are their own hermetically sealed bubbles, it’s all too easy for liberals to delude themselves into believing that the conservative instinct to hunker down in a soundproof bunker has nothing to do with them. But that’s an irresponsible and frankly pretty gutless abdication. Lowering the bar for what gets labelled racist — choosing, say, to ignore intent — legitimizes the fear of being castigated for a naive misstep. It’s the heart of the Hannity/Limbaugh pitch. And it’s the seed of electoral demise.
Resolute racists don’t matter here. Sure, they exist, but it’s hard to imagine that they give two shits what coastal libtards think. They’ll find their bigotry porn, one way or another. The liberal endgame should be to deny regressive agendas — narrowed voting rights, decimated social programs, a thousand other nightmares — the cudgel of public office. And, in their infinite wisdom, the founding fathers have gifted 100% of that responsibility to middle-of-the-road voters in a handful of swing states. Focusing on anyone else is either preaching to the choir or tilting at windmills. There’s a tremendous opportunity here: the impressionable center has proven itself in possession of the single most important characteristic of any up-for-grabs voting bloc — the capacity to be persuaded. These are precisely the people who care about being called (or actually just being) intolerant, the ones who’ve run from progressives for fear of being judged. Sooner or later, they reach a fork in the road that demands a choice between engaging with the left and learning how to defeat prejudice, or tumbling down the Hannity rabbit hole. That’s the moment when liberals can choose to embrace — or at very least not actively repel — these voters. But it starts with a conversation, not condemnation.
The Bachelor winds down with a “tell-all” episode, which doubles as a pretty airtight argument for the existence of a benevolent God. It’s like a Friar’s Club roast opened a vein and injected the manic energy of a couple dozen people who know that they will never be on television ever again. When Victoria got to the dais, the knives came out. The other ladies dissected her blunders, gaffes and indiscretions with murderous precision. It was ruthless, and absolutely deserved. It was also incomplete. Incredibly, not one person even hinted at the controversy that got her kicked from the cover of Cosmo. The piranhas circled, and then decided that discretion was the better part of valor. It was as if the one line not worth crossing was branding her a racist. Maybe there’s a lesson there.