POLITICS AND POETICS

SO EASY, NO CAVEMAN COULD DO IT

MICHEL TOURNEAU

February 26, 2021

Leprechaun encounters, identitarian politics, and the Geico Cavemen.

Now a year into my country’s ever-evolving COVID-19 protocols, I reflect on all the reflecting I have done since my local pub’s cancellation of its 2020 St. Patrick’s Day celebration and my neighbor’s decision to bring the party home with him—an event that, like Princip’s bullet, signaled the start of my pandemic, and soon enough my self-isolation in the trench I call home. With little choice but to join my neighbor’s party (or endure the attendant explosions), I spent my visit in conversation with an elderly teetotaler leprechaun who insisted that the Geico Cavemen were a legitimate response to the “identitarian politics” that are “turning reason into rubbish.”

For those unaware, the Geico Cavemen featured in a 2004 advertising campaign designed to encourage customers to buy their insurance online. Back in those charmingly old-fashioned days, websites were still emerging as a new customer-company interface. Geico’s slogan—“It’s so easy to use Geico.com, a caveman could do it!”—was deployed over three linked ads: a thirtysomething Western-dressed Neanderthal boom operator takes offense at the slogan as the ad is being filmed; two similarly identified Neanderthal males watch the ad at home and are likewise insulted; and a company representative offers a similarly species-centric “apology” to the Neanderthals at a fine dining establishment. More ads followed. In 2007 the ABC network purchased the rights, made a pilot, and ordered thirteen episodes of a Geico Cavemen TV show, which were critically panned and received such terrible ratings that the sitcom was canceled halfway through its planned run.


“The cancellation of the show is a double-entendre,” said the leprechaun. “It also signifies the cancellation of reason.” From there he spoke in logical terms of how a “statement of a relationship between variables” that holds true for one objectified group should hold true for all objectified groups.


Ah, the poverty of analytical philosophy, I thought. And I said as much: “The Cavemen behave like Geico’s target market—thirtysomething middle-class white men. Would you not agree that Euro-Western colonial power has always centered such men?”


A flash of astonishment, then knowingly: “All of us evolved from Leakey’s ‘Lucy.’ Are we not all children of a common mother, despite our visible differences and whatever we choose to make of them?”


More weary than uncomfortable, I attempted to change the subject, but the leprechaun asked another question. “How do you identify?”


How I publicly identify myself never mattered much until 2008, when my country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began to hear the often-harrowing testimonies of Indigenous people incarcerated in government-legislated residential schools from the 1880s to the mid-1990s. These schools’ intent was genocidal—“kill the Indian, save the man”—and many of those testifying began by acknowledging who they were, the land they were on, and their relationship to it. Soon enough, Black people, people of color, and white people followed suit, emphasizing their ancestry and “settler” status relative to those who had been on Turtle Island (North America) since “time immemorial.” Apart from my ambivalence about sharing personal information in advance of a reading or a lecture (for fear that it might overdetermine my presentation), I knew that withholding this information would only emphasize my white male privilege. That is not something I want to uphold.


“So, you went native,” said the leprechaun.


I thought about the various ways I could respond, but chose to keep an even keel. “If I went anywhere, I went with a critique of social relations and a mode of production that derives a higher portion of the world’s wealth based on the subjugation of an Other.”


The leprechaun nodded. “And you say this as someone who benefits from that which is being critiqued—as a white man?” he asked, and I nodded. “Only you are not white,” he added, “not really.”


I told him I appear white, have an “English” name, and have been told at times that I have traces of a British accent, all of which have allowed me certain privileges.


“Yes,” he said, almost impatiently, “but you’re not white. Not all white. Your eyes have slight folds at their corners. Someone in your family is from Asia.”


It’s true, I told him. My father’s father’s mother was Japanese, and my father’s mother is the daughter of a Russian woman and a Russian Tatar father, both of them from Saratov.


“You include this information at the commencement of your speaking engagements?” he asked.


I told him I have a more streamlined version of it that includes my mother’s Anglo Celtic German side, but yes, I do.


“I want to return to the Cavemen for a moment,” said the leprechaun. “I want to know what you think of how the network defended its sitcom: that it did not demean racialized or othered communities so much as raised the question of prejudice by Homo sapiens toward the Homo neanderthalensis, and that prejudice is universal to all Homo sapiens, regardless of race, class, gender, or sexuality.”


As before, I took my time responding. Not to reflect on what I would say or how I might say it, but this time on the leprechaun’s motivation: whether this conversation was for him an argument for argument’s sake or something he had a stake in, a belief, which as with all beliefs steps outside of pure reason and into the muck of faith.


“A corporation will say whatever it has to say to defend its interests,” I said. “The network’s motivation is market share. But what is yours, if you don’t mind my asking?”


The leprechaun smiled. He may have seen it coming. With either dread or hope, I waited to find out. And in some respects, I am still waiting because, after a long minute of him staring into his cup, he gently pushed away from the table, got to his feet, and turned to walk out the door. On the back of his Kelly green vest, written in black marker, was Jimmy Rabbitte’s line from Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987): “The Irish are the N****** of Europe.”


Michel Tourneau is a writer of fiction, criticism, and song. He is based in the unceded, ancestral, and occupied lands of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish Nations of the Coast Salish peoples (aka Vancouver, Canada).

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