Yes, maam. Signing here will put pressure on an institution to remove a person from power. It will also be the same thing as shooting Mike Brown. Why? Metaphors.
Okay, that's just crazy. Gajus / Shutterstock.com

Ron Silliman is a big-time thinker and important member of a large poetry movement that started in the 1970s called, annoyingly, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. He's written over 30 books, winning the Poetry Foundation's Levinson Prize and a Kelly Writer's House Fellowship along the way, and this year he's teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. His blog is followed by many academics, but judging by the arguments he makes in defense of Vanessa Place’s arguably racist project, you’d probably assume he’s just your average Libertarian uncle who likes to get drunk and throw girls in a lake.

In case you haven't heard, Vanessa Place has been tweeting Gone with the Wind, word for word, hoping to draw a copyright infringement case from Margaret Mitchell's estate. Place's use of offensive imagery and her appropriation of black characters is intentional, and it's roused the anger of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, who campaigned successfully to get Place removed from her role on a selection committee for the 2016 AWP conference.

"She furthers her career on the backs of Black ancestors—the hands that filled the master’s pockets now fill hers," this Change.org petition argues. "We ask that you remove her from her position of authority over writers of color."

I have been trying to get people who signed the petition against Place to share their views with me, but all have declined to talk. I also reached out to Place, who answered my questions about her project last week.

Meanwhile, a bonfire of commentary has erupted around her. Which brings me to Silliman, whose last name is now a pun wasted on no one. On Friday, he published this fiery defense of Place that starts with a black and white press photo of Place reclining on some kind of Blue’s Clues couch with the phrase “Je suis Vanessa” emblazoned—maddeningly—just below center. The gloves have come off. Very. Tweedy. Gloves. Silliman is not only equating Vanessa Place with the slain cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, but likening Place’s pen-wielding petition-signers to gun-wielding mass murderers.

Whatever you think about Place, Silliman is just taking this way too far. This visual argument constitutes Ron Silliman’s Outrageous False Analogy #1. In creating and distributing a petition to remove Place from a position of power, Place’s critics are using their right to free speech—not guns—to argue against her. They're using rhetoric and persuasion, not deadly violence. To say that the pen they used to write up the petition is any more of a gun than the pen Vanessa Place used to perform racism is to say that Ron Silliman gets to decide when people are exercising their powers of free speech and when they’re not. Thankfully, the Constitution doesn't give Ron that right.

Even more egregious, unsettling, and batshit is Outrageous False Analogy #2. Silliman writes: “Are the signers of the petition to the AWP really that different from the police officer who fired at Michael Brown? If so, it is only in degree, not in kind.” Yes, that is actually what Silliman wrote. He goes on to describe the signers of the petition as a “lynch mob” whose behavior he finds “thuggish.”

It should go without saying that a group of people gathering together and signing a petition to remove a person from a fucking subcommittee that decides who will speak on panels—and sparsely attended ones at that—is an action of free speech different—yes, in kind—from a cop shooting and killing an unarmed black man in broad daylight. But here I go saying it: The first situation is a bottom-up critique that uses a common and recognizable genre of protest. The second is a homicide. What confuses you about the differences in those power dynamics, Mr. Silliman?

On an academic level, Silliman’s position is a particularly strange one for an otherwise hyper-leftist L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, considering his movement’s main tenet holds that language controls ideas, and not the other way around. The structures of the English language itself, these poets maintain, are imbued with colonial, patriarchal ways of thinking. They believe that to reproduce those syntaxes is to reproduce the same tired ideas that lead to constant war, racism, and sexism. This belief licenses their wacky and occasionally brilliant experiments in form, which they hope will lead to new ways of writing and therefore new ways of thinking, which they believe will lead to real political change.

Support The Stranger

By falling back, as he does, on a hackneyed free speech argument that says “prohibiting” forms of free speech will bring on a totalitarian regime, Silliman reveals his ideas and his aesthetic to be the fossils that they are, relics of an old Boomer fear that Hitler II will emerge from the ashes of a conceptual art project and start throwing poets in concentration camps.

This notion that a dictator will suddenly rise up in the US seems more than a little naive in the wake of the Citizens United decision. In this country, dictators don’t wear jackboots: They wear alligator Testonis. Their money has a mouth. They control speech and society via media outlets, businesses, and politicians. Any appeal to the terror of twentieth-century fascism only serves to deflect attention from the Koch Brothers and other fucks bent on using their power to subvert the will of those with less. These people—not the signers of petitions—are the descendants of those who ordered Lorca’s execution by firing squad.

Silliman is right about one thing, though, which his blogpost proves: "Writers, as a group, are no better than any other collectivity of human beings." Writers, like other human beings, are addicted to outrage. In the face of outrage against Vanessa Place, Silliman rushes in to defend her as outrageously as possible, pouring gasoline on the fire, equating people who disagree with him to the person who killed Mike Brown. Wow. Either Silliman should apologize or we should all agree to not take him seriously on the subject of poetry and politics anymore.