Oct 142007
Authors: Ryan Nowell

Don’t take this the wrong way.

I side with Eracism. I’m all for equality and tolerance-themed puns. And I think Holocaust memorials serve a very important emotional and educational function. But Paperclips?

The film, screened last Sunday by the Committee for Eracism, is a documentary about a small town in Tennessee collecting paperclips to build a Holocaust memorial.

In addition to being perhaps the least Holocaust-related Holocaust documentary ever, it is also one of the most self-congratulatory pats on the back ever put to film.

It centers on the students and townsfolk as they collect, organize and wax poetic about the memorial, and while that’s all well and good, the tone it’s presented in is painfully off key.

Everyone seems so enamored with the peculiarity of their story, and what they’re doing there seems little time devoted to what the memorial is supposed to be about.

Scene after scene, we get beaming faces proclaiming how proud they are of their town for doing something so open-minded.

We get long, swelling descriptions of the international attention they received.

And we get several jubilant montages of bubbly students counting out paper clips that represent victims of mass-murder (Hint to any up and coming filmmakers out there: if your Holocaust movie has a score made up entirely of blue-grass music, you need to head back to the editing room).

The first time the Holocaust is treated as more than an elaborate crafts project comes about an hour in, when several survivors are invited to speak to the students.

It’s perhaps the only moment of real power and gravity in the entire film, when the defining event of the twentieth century is discussed in its own context, rather than how it pertains to Whitwell freaking middle school.

I’m not saying they didn’t do a great thing, or that their hearts are in the wrong place. No one is faulting them for making the effort, but do they have to be quite so aware of it?

I bring this up because it demonstrates a common phenomenon among well-meaning white liberals. Given the recent discussion and debate concerning race on campus, it might be useful to air. Or, more likely, not. Mostly it’s a chance for cheap shots at honky neuroses.

The attitudes in Paperclips remind me of that old part joke, part cliché, part truth -the Black Friend complex.

This is the thing where a white person will have a black friend expressly so they can: a) think themselves progressive and feel confident in their cross-cultural appeal, and b) have someone to point to if accusations of racism crop up.

This is very odd behavior. You don’t see black people indiscriminately befriending random area white guys.

While it’s a positive gesture (extending friendship, a desire to understand difference), it has some very negative undertones (the offer of friendship is dehumanizing because it’s fundamentally arbitrary).

Similarly, the townsfolk in Tennessee do a great deed, but come dangerously close to treating those they memorialize as a novelty.

The vast majority of the white people I’ve known really, really want to be accepting.

Part of it is white guilt. Part is the join-hands idealism of a multi-cultural curriculum. Perhaps part is panic over all our rhetoric saying we don’t judge people by the color of their skin when all our statistics say we do.

In a few instances, maybe it’s legitimate open-mindedness.

But real lessons in diversity aren’t clumsy orchestrations.

As much as we’d all like to think that good intentions, grand gestures and PC sensitivity are enough to rid the world of racism, they amount to so much lip service in the face of systemic prejudice.

All I’m saying is don’t give yourself too much credit. When we start focusing on progressive ideals more than progressive action, we run the risk of trivializing the causes we stand for on weekends and fun-runs.

Ryan Nowell is a junior English major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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