Oct 30, 2011

Ha ha, white trash

If you google "Heath Campbell," the search engine's autocomplete function will recommend "Heath Campbell white trash."

This, it appears, is all we get in the way of explanation. This is the closest thing I can find to any sort of an attempt at an understanding of Heath and Deborah Campbell, despite more than 80 news stories about the couple.

This story is a perfect, perfect example of the kind of journalism I loathe.

The Campbells are the parents of Adolph Hitler, 5, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation, 3, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeanie Campbell, 3. The New Jersey family made it into the news in 2008 when a ShopRite refused to decorate a birthday cake for the boy ("Happy Birthday Adolph Hitler"), and then, again, this last week, when the parents went on NBC to protest the actions of the state's child welfare department, which has denied the parents' custody of the children since early 2009.

The children have not, according to reports, been taken away because of the names, though it's the names that have brought the case into the news. Names, in and of themselves, aren't legally considered abuse.

It's actually not clear what the charges against the parents are. "Abuse," but with no definition, allegations, but no details. The parents claim it really is the names, and child protective services isn't commenting.

This apparently doesn't matter.

Nor, apparently, is anyone interested in any journalism here that goes beyond pointing and laughing at the swastika-covered freakshow.

It's journalism as reassurance, so the over-breakfast reader of the morning paper can say "why Martha" (all partners of hypothetical newspaper readers are named Martha, per tradition), "Martha, we may not be good people, but, by God!, at least we never named a kid Hitler." The reader leaves this story with no new depth, no new understanding of the world, no added layers of complexity or increased comprehension, but just a little pat on the back for not being "white trash."

Congratulations, you're not as shitty as some.

There should be good debate about what it would mean, in a case like this, to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," as the J-school phrase goes. No one is even pretending that the stories about the family of Nazi-named children are attempting to do something so-high minded, though. It's entertainment. Nothing more.

Ha ha. Look at them.

Except that it is comforting. And comforting the comfortable.

That's the social function of a story like this. Readers read and are reassured. The status quo is held up, the reader's own rightness (and righteousness) reaffirmed. The function of such a story is to evoke from the reader, to quote a first century religious figure, that old prayer of relief: "thank God I'm not like them."

I doubt there's actually a good explanation of the decision to name a child after Adolf Hitler. The Campbell's own words have actually avoided the question of why they gave their kids such names. They, instead, have gone on and on about how they're victims, how their freedom's being infringed. They've said they're not Nazi's and not Neo-Nazis, and accused people of being racist against them.

The news stories don't appear to even try to push past that, though. There's no explanation at all as to why those names were chosen, or a look, even, at if there are other such controversial names. There's no pretext at context. There's no mention of if it's common practice for certain groups to do this, or why they might. There's nothing, in these stories, that goes beyond the joke: Ha ha, white trash.

I'm not asking for journalists to justify the names. Or excuse those who hold up Hitler as a hero. I want reporting, though, that does more than hold up some 37-year-old and 27-year-old woman in New Jersey for ridicule.