I’ve got to let go of this hon stuff. For my non-Baltimorean readers, it is boring and pointless. For my Baltimorean readers, apart from the small group of people rabid about Denise Whiting (and I wonder sometimes if that usage is metaphoric), I’m wasting time on a synthetic controversy. And besides, it feeds my impulse to tease the humorless, which is not one of my more admirable qualities.
But there are two things about it that I want to mention today.
The first—and doesn’t it strike you as odd?—is that this involves a group of people who are attempting to organize to damage, and perhaps destroy, a woman’s business, because they dislike her personally. I’ll grant you that Denise Whiting, whom I do not know and have never met, appears to be a pushy person with a tendency to overreach, but if we were to put all such people out of business, commerce would grind to a halt.
But the main thing, and the thing that keeps drawing me back to this non-issue, is the degree to which the conversation about Denise Whiting and the hon caricature she has incorporated into her business exemplifies the coarsening that dominates our public discourse.
There are basically two arguments to be made, one that Denise Whiting is acting within her rights to make money legitimately. The other is that she is riding roughshod over the feelings of the public in doing so. I understand the second argument, but look at what happens if anyone attempts to articulate the first.
The way we talk now
I can’t hear you, la-la-la-la-la: When I wrote last year that a case could be made for the trademarking, or when I laid out similar arguments Friday,* no one, except Andrea, made any attempt to respond directly to them. Instead: Anyone who disagrees with me must have sinister motives: The Sun was a sponsor of Honfest, so nothing in its positive coverage in Sunday’s editions can be trusted. Never mind that Friday’s editions carried a front-page story quoting the people who want to boycott Honfest. Denise Whiting must be sleeping with someone at The Sun. I must be in the pay of Denise Whiting.
Anyone who disagrees with me is not entitled to an opinion: You’re an outsider, like those “suburbanites” and “tourists” who come to Hampden. You’re not from here. A couple of people have generously suggested that I should go back where I came from.
Anyone who disagrees with me is subject to miscellaneous abuse: In a way, the sweetest example was on Boycott Cafe Hon’s** Facebook page: “DonnaAnn Ward He's white trash from Kentucky.” Not that I blush at my humble origins or have ever attempted to conceal them, but the people I come from, Appalachians, are, ethnically and culturally, pretty much the same people whose hon heritage is, you know, deserving of respect.
(Neither do I object to being called white trash, mind you. I’ve been the recipient of obloquy from experts, and DonnaAnn Ward is, sadly, not in that class. )
So there you have, in epitome, how we conduct disagreements today. When Republicans say that Democrats are spending the country to ruin, or Democrats say that Republicans are going to cancel Medicare and let old people die in the streets, you have the Honfest kerfuffle on a national scale, with serious rather than laughable consequences. We ought to be able to fo better.
*For the record, this is the comment from Friday's post:
All right, I’ll grant you that the boycott line was an exaggeration—but there is still something inherently comic about the proclamations of people who have never patronized Cafe Hon that they will shun it.
Since Andrea asks, I’ll explain what’s back of the mockery.
Denise Whiting is an aggressive businesswoman who has taken legal means to protect her brand. That she had trademarked “hon” years before last year’s kerfuffle shows how little effect that action had on just about everyone. Her restrictions on vendors at Honfest may be elaborate, but they are not extreme. (My parish runs an annual street fair in the fall, and I’m sure it controls what vendors are present.) I’ll grant you that she looks pushy, but so?
And “the economic gain of one businessperson” puts it a little strongly. I’m fairly sure that the tens of thousands of people who attend Honfest patronize businesses other than Ms. Whiting’s. And despite the complaints about “outsiders” coming to Hampden, I doubt that the neighborhood businesses want to turn them away. Anybody close up shop this weekend in opposition to Honfest?
As to the cultural heritage, the “hon” figure is a cultural stereotype. John Waters may have manipulated it in more aesthetically sophisticated ways than Denise Whiting, but it is a stereotype nevertheless, and he has surely profited from it. Perhaps rather than “stereotype,” I should say “kitsch.” If the articles and booklets and cheapjack souvenirs about the local dialect, “Bawlmerese,” don’t mock the cultural heritage, then Honfest is no worse than them.
But the fundamental thing—let’s get down to it—is the disproportionate rage. I don’t see than anyone has been injured by the trademarking or by the Honfest activities. So where does all the anger come from?
I suppose there may be some business rivalries at play, and there may be some hostility toward outsiders in Hampden’s cultural heritage (manifesting itself when I first lived in Baltimore to the risk that African-Americans took if they ventured into the neighborhood). There may be some anxiety about the changes in the neighborhood as new elements, like the hipster population, make it their own. But I think that there are deeper roots: unhappiness that the blue-collar culture has been eroding as the jobs that supported it have vanished. Honfest is a synthetic and sentimentalized version of what used to be a broad reality.
Denise Whiting is a convenient representative of all those changes, and thus an obvious target.
**Let it not be said that I am ungenerous. On Twitter, @BoycoittCafeHon has fourteen followers. You can’t make a mass movement out of fourteen people. You Whiting-haters out there, it’s time to step up to Twitter and sign on with @BoycottCafeHon. Otherwise somebody is liable to think that I am right in calling you a noisy fringe group.