Wingnuts disrespect Maya Angelou: National Review's shameful response to her death

For conservatism's flagship magazine, the death of the widely admired author and poet is a good chance to troll

Published May 29, 2014 2:22PM (EDT)

      (Gage Skidmore)
(Gage Skidmore)

As has already been much discussed, Maya Angelou died yesterday. She was 86 years old, a celebrated poet, author, activist, actress and journalist whose most famous work, the 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is widely seen as a touchstone of the civil rights movement and a classic of 20th century American literature. She was one of only a handful of poets to recite a piece of their own at a presidential inauguration, and in 2011 became one of the select few to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. She was a truly historic figure and lived a life that, by any reasonable standard, was one of great accomplishment.

So when the good folks at National Review decided to weigh in on her legacy and her passing, they had an abundance of material with which to work. If they really insisted on making a political point true to their convictions, they could’ve written about how Angelou was a stirring example of how, in America, grit and determination can liberate someone from the worst circumstances to the pristine halls of the White House itself. Or they could've followed Erick Erickson's example and written about her as a complex human being, one who was more than the sum of her political beliefs. Bucking convention, they could have done the unthinkable and decided to say nothing at all.

But rather than follow any of these routes, the folks at National Review — with the noted exception of Kathryn Jean Lopez — opted instead to respond to Maya Angelou’s death by dismissing her poetry, ignoring her legacy and, above all else, trolling her grieving fans. You might expect a group of right-wing white guys who’d been engaged in political debate during the Obama years to shy away from acting so boorishly when it comes to a beloved icon of both racial and gender equality. You might think that if basic decency and respect didn’t intervene, a sense of self-preservation would be enough to keep them from spouting off so stupidly. Nope. Nope, nope, nope.

The first offender — and, to my mind, the worst — came from Tim Cavanaugh, the man who responded to Chris Hayes’ recent (widely praised) essay on the “new abolitionism” of fossil fuel divestment with a post titled “Chris Hayes Wants to Kill About 5.7 Billion People” that is about as unserious as it sounds. His remembrance of Angelou also had a winning headline: “R.I.P., Maya Angelou, Proud Gun Owner and User”. In the piece, he describes Angelou as someone who “dispensed sound if unspectacular wisdom of the type that is said to boost childrens’ [sic] self-esteem” and admits that her work “did not generally keep me up reading all night.” He then describes her poem at Clinton’s ’93 inauguration as “a bit of a slog” (but not as bad as the poems Obama chose for his, of course!) before calling Angelou “an off-hand supporter of the right to bear arms” because she noted in a 2013 interview that she keeps one in her house. (This is a nice example of how gun fetishists like Cavanaugh conflate an absolutist stance on guns with support of the Second Amendment.)

What’s really striking about Cavanaugh’s post, though, is how he ends it: Sharing a video of David Alan Grier’s famous impression of Angelou. (Well, that’s not quite right, actually. For the original version, Cavanaugh evidently could not be bothered to find any Grier video, so he instead embedded a few old tweets of his in which he paraphrased what he thought Grier’s jokes may have been.) If Cavanaugh’s piece had been a respectful and serious remembrance of the woman, there would be nothing at all wrong with sharing Grier’s loving send-up. But delivered as it is at the end of this frivolity, one gets the sense that all Cavanaugh ever cared to learn about Angelou was enough to find the man wearing a wig and saying silly things about Froot Loops extra funny. That’s certainly his right, but why we should be expected to listen to anything he has to say about Angelou is another question.

I described Cavanaugh’s as the worst because of its earnestness; the man genuinely seems not to understand why what he’s writing is an embarrassment to him and his employer (a sentiment backed-up by a former member of National Review, albeit without my negative judgments). Jonah Goldberg’s contribution to the topic, however, was predictably more hostile, cynical, and solipsistic. “I don’t have much to add to Tim’s post below,” Goldberg writes. “I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of hers — or any other poet of the last 50 years.” That said, Goldberg is sure to note that Angelou “always struck me as a dignified and impressive lady,” which no doubt meant the world to her family in these trying times. Having dispensed with the formalities, Goldberg then goes on to write about how Angelou reminds him of this one scene in “The Simpsons” that he thinks is really funny. Just to be clear, this means that Goldberg’s response to Angelou’s life is not to tell jokes but, like Cavanaugh, to tell other, funnier people’s jokes. Admittedly, I, too, once thought this an acceptable way to communicate with other people — when I was 8, stuck in Los Angeles traffic, and the other person involved was my (exhausted and helpless) mom.

At this point, you may reasonably wonder why I spent so much time ridiculing these two clearly half-baked and utterly forgettable posts. There are two reasons. One, as the response of right-wing Twitter clearly showed, the idea that Angelou — and perhaps more importantly her fans — needed to be taken down a peg on the day of her death was not unique to Goldberg and Cavanaugh. Fellow National Review writer Charles Cooke, for example, decided to spend some of the day trolling Angelou fans by implying her work was inferior to that of William Shakespeare (high bar!); while members of the conservative rank-and-file explicitly argued that belittling the woman was necessary “to restore the balance,” because every time a woman of color is praised, after all, it’s necessary that we demean her, lest we fail to be fair and balanced.

The other reason why I think it’s worthwhile to call this crap out is because of what it tells us about how the Republican Party’s ballyhooed attempts to rebrand and expand with minority communities is going. In case you missed it when the RNC claimed it was harassing black journalists in order to prove to people of color how much Republicans value their vote, the answer is: not well. Yes, Rand Paul is telling seemingly anyone who will listen about how much he wants to bring more voters of color into the GOP fold; and while I don’t doubt his sincerity on this point, I think the fellas at National Review are a great example of how conservatives will have to do a whole lot more than denounce the War on Drugs or support restoring voting rights to felons if they hope to persuade non-white voters that they actually care about them and see them as real people. Of course, seeing the death of one of the most beloved and accomplished African-American people of the 20th century as something more than an opportunity to troll wouldn’t solve that problem, either. But it would be a start.

Maya Angelou's Most Powerful Quotes in 2 Minutes

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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