Listen

News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV

member station

The Curious Incident of Michele Fiore in the Spotlight

dc_061820_michele_fiore_photo_scott_dickensheets3.jpeg

Photo by Scott Dickensheets

City Councilwoman Michele Fiore announces she's stepping down as Mayor Pro Tem at a June 16 press conference.


Let’s get real for a second. I’m gonna tell it like it is, and it’s not politically correct. No filter, no sugar-coating. I’m going to be straight with you. If you don’t like it, tough.

I’m groaning even as I type that mash-up of Michele Fiore’s go-to phrases. Usually when I hear one of those, I start mentally doing a NASA countdown to when I’ll inevitably hear the roaring liftoff of some shudder-inducing racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise insensitive statement. City Councilwoman Michele Fiore has proudly been waving the “being real” and “politically incorrect” flag for years, so I can’t say I was surprised when she was accused of making racially charged comments at the June 6 Clark County Republican Convention. But I’m not writing this to troll Fiore for her fist-gnawingly crude words — I’ll leave that to the internet’s torch-and-pitchfork brigade — but instead want to ask: Given her insistent brand of “no filter” rhetoric, should anyone be surprised?

Maybe on paper. I mean, you might expect that a city councilwoman in the year 2020 who serves an exceptionally diverse working-class city whose economic engine is global hospitality would have the basics of civic politesse locked down. But it’s safe to say that Fiore isn’t living in 2020. 

Nope. She’s pure 1990 — October 28, 1990 to be exact. It’s a good date to push a thumbtack into the timeline of a changing America. That’s the day the New York Times published a story titled, “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct,” a somewhat fretful dispatch on the culture wars then taking place on the front lines of academia. In this case, the battle was brewing at the Western Humanities Conference in Berkeley, California — basically, it’s where they discuss what books should be taught in college. This conference was no snore. The Future of Western Civilization was at stake! Radical ideas such as gender studies programs, curricula about marginalized communities’ contributions to American history, and even affirmative action were rebuked by critics, sonorously aghast, as “liberal fascism” and “a kind of fundamentalism” and (my favorite) “compulsory chapel.” The only thing missing was someone squealing about the jack-booted Thought Police. (Can you imagine if someone at the conference had dropped “white privilege”? *Tea-kettle steam whistling from a thousand ears*) This, if you recall, was the era of histrionic hand-wringing over “tenured radicals” and “the closing of the American mind.” This date more or less marks the start of a backlash campaign against political correctness that cast it under a cloud of mocking suspicion and mistrust. Decades later, we’re still breathing the fumes.

But aligning Fiore with the academic sector of cultural production is not precise. It doesn’t account for her populist style. She might be better associated with the phenomenon that also lurched into crackling Frankensteinian life in the late ’80s and early ’90s: the second-wave tabloid talk shows — grandfather of today’s reality TV — that reified the culture wars into circus spectacle that played out in our living rooms: Geraldo Rivera’s white supremacists brawling with Black activists, Jerry Springer’s KKK goons squaring off against the Jewish Defense League, Jenny Jones’ sad and tragically exploitative same-sex-crush reveal episode that resulted in a gay man’s murder. (The episode never aired, but the subsequent media coverage burned it into our minds.) It was all cynical, tawdry, ratings-driven retail crisis and outrage porn, certainly, and easy to write off. But those shows’ curiously similar structures, that of opposing ideologies presumably meeting to debate, perhaps suggested that racists and homophobes just had different points of view, let's agree to disagree, this is America, get over it. To put it another way, it subtly propagated the insidious idea that political correctness was just another opinion.

Or, worse, a form of deception. That’s the zombie idea lurking behind Fiore’s “politically incorrect” rhetoric: that political correctness is a form of lying, and that “telling it like it is,” by contrast, is a courageous act on behalf of truth in a hypersensitive world of fragile psyches and politicians with forked tongues. Encoded in her proudly “Brooklyn” language is a distrust of diplomacy as a form of duplicity. Here’s an alternate idea: A politician who rejects political correctness and insists on “telling it like it is” with “no filter” is admitting that they’re unwilling or unable to speak with prudence and sensitivity to their diverse constituencies. Which, you know, is kind of a politician’s job: to be politic. 

A filter isn’t an act of deception or disingenuous self-censorship. It’s a tool in effective diplomacy. Choosing your words carefully is a good-faith deposit in the bank of civil discourse that makes space for the lived reality of others who are having a very different experience than you. Political correctness is just compassion activated in words. Thirty years after the first skirmishes, the culture wars are over, and guess who won? On the other side of a tragic flashpoint that has become a historic tipping point, Michele Fiore’s unfortunate political style is a relic that somehow survived the comet.

I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to draw some solemn moral distinction between Someone Like Me and Someone Like Her, and condemn her from my own perch of privileged white assurance. Is Michele Fiore a racist? I don’t know. I’ll leave that to her own private 3 a.m. reckoning. But I do know some things that are probably true about her, because we have more in common than I’d like to admit. No doubt like her, I’m watching history rapidly unfold with a mix of confusion, a little fear, and a lot of hope. And I’m considering with increasing dismay my own glitching mental operating system, where ideas about calcified systems of privilege and structural racism are grinding mightily into the old shibboleths of sunny meritocracy. And I'm realizing my thinking also needs to evolve to accommodate a newly emerging definition of racism that doesn't just mean antipathy toward people of a different skin color, but a definition that entails thinking critically about our passive but willing inheritance of the standard American package of ideologies, masquerading as values, that’s been handed down for generations. I have to change. She has to change.

And — to paraphrase Fiore herself — if she doesn’t like it, tough. I’m just telling it like it is. As she continues to double down on “being real,” she’s starting to look like something else entirely: a museum exhibit.

Support comes from

 

More Stories