Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Politics and Philosophy of Superheroes: A Conversation with Mark White About His New Book 'The Virtues of Captain America'

Politics and popular culture are intertwined with one another. Popular culture is a space where a society's political values are reflected, taught, reinforced--and sometimes challenged. Politics is popular culture through how political agents are represented by various types of popular culture, and how politic institutions and actors often try to censor, control, and use popular culture to advance their own goals.

In this new episode of the podcast series here on We Are Respectable Negroes, I had a great time talking about the politics of popular culture as they relate to the classic American comic book character Captain America with Professor Mark D. White. He is the author of the new book The Virtues of Captain America. Mark has also edited and contributed to numerous books on the politics and philosophy of superheroes that include such franchises and characters as Watchmen, Batman, Superman, The Avengers, and Iron Man

Given the recent release of the awesome film Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier on blu-ray and DVD, and how the United States is now in a war against ISIL, the basic questions of civic virtue, responsibility, and the way that superheroes are a mirror for examining America's core values both at home and abroad, makes my conversation with Professor White very timely.

Mark White is a fun and engaging conversation partner. In this, the ninth episode, of the second season of WARN's podcast series, we talk about what comic books and superheroes can tell us about philosophy and politics, work through what makes someone "heroic", the ways that the general public often misunderstands and misreads the Captain America character, as well as how American exceptionalism, race, and identity relate to superhero and other types of comic books and graphic novels. 

Dr. White also offers some practical advice for journeymen students and scholars.

Hosted by Kiwi6 file hosting.
Download mp3 - Free Music Hosting.

00:00 Introductions, Going to Chicago Comic Con, offering thanks to the friends and fans of WARN and Chauncey DeVega.
04:49 Why does popular culture matter? How do you use popular culture to help students understand philosophy and politics?
09:09 Deciding to enter academia. How did you start thinking and writing about comic books and other types of popular culture in a serious way? 
12:30 What comics did you grow up reading? How did you get back into the hobby?
15:23 Translating one's expertise in philosophy to a more "popular voice". 
20:52 The Matrix, popular culture, and how regular folks are "doing" philosophy and ethics on a day-to-day basis in their own lives.
23:10 How do we define a superhero? Who decides? What does this definition tell us about a given moment in history, culture, and social life?
29:00 The psyches of superheroes. Is Batman mentally ill? On Superman and responsibility.
32:05 Heroes versus Anti-Heroes. Moral judgement, heroism, and the hard choices that superheroes have to make.
36:00 The many problems with the movie Superman: Man of Steel.
38:00 Superheroes and September 11th.
41:54 Why study and write about Captain America? What can Captain America teach us about politics and ethics today?
46:22 The challenge of writing the Captain American character. How Captain American is very easy for the public to misunderstand and misappropriate. The symbolism of Captain America, race, and American identity.
50:23 Captain America's cosmopolitan patriotism.
54:24 The rules of writing Captain America and other Marvel characters.
61:07 In your opinion, what are the best/favorite Captain America story-lines?
64:55 Random geek moment--writing crossword puzzles for the local newspaper as a child. A new word: cruciverbalism.
68:00 Learning to network and make contacts in academia and other endeavors.
70:14 It is easy to fail if you don't try.
73:20 Where to find The Virtues of Captain America, contact info, upcoming work.
75:14 Chauncey DeVega's closing comments on the rise of superhero films in recent years, the importance of Blade and Unbreakable, his chosen superpower, anti-heroes, trying to kill Santa Claus as a child, and pitching the character "Mediocre Man".

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What Type of Racists are They? 62 Percent of White St. Louis Residents Believe that Darren Wilson was Right to Kill Michael Brown

As reported by the St. Louis Post Dispatch, new public opinion research by the Remington Research Group has revealed that 62 percent of white St. Louis county residents believe that the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was shot multiple times while surrendering with his hands in the air, by a white police officer named Darren Wilson, was justified.

The support by white St. Louis county residents for the killing of Michael Brown is not just a simple matter of a difference in public opinion regarding how individuals locate matters of public concern within their own cognitive schema.

Instead, their attitudes are formed in relation to a given social and historical context. Consequently, the political attitudes of Darren Wilson's white supporters reflect a society that is organized around a racial hierarchy which privileges Whiteness.

Remington’s poll is part of a larger constellation of data on white racial attitudes in response to the Ferguson incident, specifically, and the realities of white on black racism in the post civil rights era, more generally.

In August, a poll by Pew Research found that:
...the public overall is divided over whether Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
These results echo earlier polls that reveal how whites and people of color are starkly divided in their opinions about the permanence and power of racism in determining life chances.

As a point of comparison, at the height of the civil rights movement, a moment when Jim and Jane Crow segregation and racial terrorism were still a de facto state of affairs in much of the United States, white folks reported to Gallup and other pollsters that black people had equal opportunities in America.

White America's willful denial and delusions about the twin realities of white supremacy and white privilege are a recurring feature of American cultural and political life.

Monday, September 15, 2014

He Does Not Have a Magical Belt or Switch: Adrian Peterson is Not Pooty Tang

I had a nice birthday weekend as my march towards decrepitude continues forward. I watched and enjoyed the great new movie The Drop. I was titillated by the Star Wars burlesque show: I did not know that I could be so attracted to Han Solo or that Obi-wan Kenobi was in fact a petite woman with very enticing small breasts. However, my mid high tier dining experience at Maggiano's was very disappointing. They have really fallen off and are now banished from my culinary go to list.

Perhaps, Maggiano's has embraced the horrible cost cutting practices that are detailed in this report about Olive Garden?

I am a people watcher and listener. If "do you remember when?" and chatting about the weather are the most banal of conversation topics, between both friends and strangers, respectively, then talk about sports between men who are strangers is at least in the same tier of emptiness.

During the last few days I have overheard several conversations on the bus, at parks, in the casino, at the bar, etc. about the recent misdeeds and bad behavior of NFL football players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.

Ray Rice savagely sucker punched his then fiance and now wife Janay Palmer. She was knocked unconscious. Rice then proceeded to drag her out of an elevator like a bag of manure or hay. Rice has been permanently suspended from the NFL. I have heard too many men defend him from the consequences of his deeds. To their eyes, what Rice did "wasn't right" or "cool"--this phrasing is important because it is far less than a full condemnation--but he should not be banned from football because that is not "fair".

I do not have the sports gene. I enjoy a good football game. I love the theater and athleticism of professional wrestling. But, my manhood and masculinity are not validated by an over-identification with what strangers are doing on a field or in a ring. I doubt that I am alone in this regard.

Of course, the few defenders of Rice were the loudest at the local tap, demanding attention from others. Other men nodded in agreement or muttered almost mute disagreement. The boisterous fool alpha male won out. We are just naked apes; naked apes love to congregate at the local bar on Sundays during football season.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Friday Semi-Open Thread: Beyond the Wonks and Beltway Types. What can Political Science and 'On The Ground' Experts Teach Us About ISIL?

As is our tradition, do treat this as a semi-open weekend thread.

Happy birthday to me. I feel old. I say that every year. This year I am really feeling it. Where does the time go? I would like to thank one of the kind supporters of WARN who sent me some birthday monies that I will use to purchase a great graphic novel series they recommended. Big smiles and thanks to them.

For my birthday weekend, I will be going to the casino, seeing the new movie The Drop, attending a Star Wars themed burlesque show (anticipating your questions, no, I am not the star of the show), and eating at Maggiano's and Wildfire as my dinner treats to myself. I am a master of the mid high tier restaurant scene.

Any other Virgos in the house? How do you of lesser astrological signs celebrate/reflect on the anniversary of being forced out of your mother's birth canal?

A more important question: What did you think of President Obama's speech on ISIL and his plans to "destroy" the "threat" which they represent to the United States and its allies?

I was not impressed by Obama's speech. Its meandering detour to matters of the economy was vexing. He was describing events which have already taken place and/or are in process--the United States has likely already been doing on a covert level the things that Obama is now finally publicly proposing.

Obama sounds and looks tired. Given the difficulties he has faced both from the White Right at home, as well as the mess unleashed abroad by a failed Iraq intervention, and other meddling in the Middle East, even the legendary and mythic King Solomon would be made weary.

A more contemporary allusion: I was not expecting The King's Speech, but Obama's timbre channeled Robert Dinero's voiceover in the last act of the classic movie Casino. Like Dinero, Obama is trapped by a set of outcomes, none of which are desirable or good. Obama is a bound man.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What Can September 11th Teach Us About Michael Brown and the Extrajudicial Killings of Black People?

13 years have passed since Al Qaeda attacked the continental United States. There is a particular type of hurt when outsiders attack the "homeland".

On the morning of September 11, 2001, many Americans stood with mouths agape, wondering "how could they do this to us?" Others shook their heads, asking, "why do they hate us so much?" The American people, drunk on lies of their country's exceptional nature, willfully blind to the deeds and acts done in their name abroad, too many of whom would rather watch stupid human tricks on the TV, they the products of failed school systems and a deceptive 4th Estate, latched on to such empty questions--questions which both then and now have readily available answers.

Ignorance is a sweet pablum until it makes one sick. The pundits, policy wonks, and other inside experts knew, understood, and could readily explain the concept of blowback, its relationship to American foreign policy in the Middle East, the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the organization that the Western media would christen as Al Qaeda. Alas, truth-telling about 9/11 would be punished. It was and remains far easier to embrace lies such as "unknown unknowns" where 9/11 is framed more as some mystical, bizarre, and unpredictable event than it is to talk in a direct and clear fashion about how America's policies abroad can and do have implications for the American people at home.

In many ways, the noted American public intellectual Cornel West has the first and last word on the emotional and psychic impact of September 11th on the (white) American public. When the planes were brought down on that day, and the national security surveillance state reached out to touch even white folks (in relatively minor ways) as compared to how it has historically treated people of color, West brilliantly observed that white Americans had been, for a moment, "niggerized".

They were made to feel unsafe, insecure, vulnerable, and subject to random violence. White privilege works as a shield against such feelings as experienced by white Americans en masse. The lie that Whiteness is a type of existential innocence means that most white Americans are complicit in a type of historical and contemporary amnesia--what is a break in the chain of cause and effect--that makes it extremely difficult for them to understand how they could be disliked as a people and targeted for group violence.

Al Qaeda's attack on the United States was not a motherless child.

In many ways, the attacks on September 11, 2001 were a gut punch to the stomach of White American racial innocence.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What are the New Modern Sounds in Right-wing Online Trolling?

I mean no disrespect towards Brother Ray Charles by linking his landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music to an essay about cyber racism (and online trolls more broadly). Perhaps, I am seeing what is not there, imputing data from unreliable variables, but I would like to think that Ray Charles had a wicked sense of humor and would have taken no offense.

My recent piece on Darren Wilson and the Right-wing propaganda machine is teetering on going viral. It has a few thousand shares so far on Facebook.

"The Facts are None Too Kind to Darren Wilson: How Will the Right-Wing Hate Media Distort the New Evidence in the Michael Brown Murder Case?" has both sizzle and steak.

I am my hardest critic; I also know when I have put in some good work. Hopefully, my most recent piece on Michael Brown, the new witnesses to his murder, and the lynching photography culture of Wilson's supporters, will be a slow burn that gets enough heat stored up so that it explodes--in a good way--on these Internets.

When an essay is gaining momentum it begins to attract the sewer dweller online trolls. Some of them are paid for PR hacks running multiple accounts. The vast majority of trolls are people who lack insight, talent, and the ability to contribute constructively to a discussion. They are the worst example of Plato's chorus as all they can do is throw garbage, complain, and conspicuously play with themselves in the digital public sphere with the hope that someone will comment on their defunct genitalia.

Several Right-wing trolls are trying to pollute the comments section for my recent piece on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson over at the Daily Kos.

The trolls will likely begin to publicly soil themselves over at Alternet too.

WARN is a moderated site where I only leave up such examples of the talking point detritus which is simultaneously forced out of the mouths and cochleae of trolls because their waste can provide a teachable moment for the rest of us. Consequently, while I try to monitor the rhetorical tropes and techniques of the Right-wing, racist, and other trolls as need be (and because of intellectual curiosity), I do not pay that much attention to them.

Online trolls have a known psychological profile. A question for those of you who encounter their mess on other sites that allow such pollution: what are some of their new tropes and styles? Are there any? Or are they just doing the same old thing? How are Right-wing trolls responding to the Michael Brown case and like situations where white thug cops and other vigilantes have killed unarmed people of color?

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Facts are None Too Kind to Darren Wilson: How Will the Right-Wing Hate Media Distort the New Evidence in the Michael Brown Murder Case?

The defenders of Darren Wilson, the white police officer who repeatedly shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown at least 6 times in Ferguson, Missouri claim that “the facts” will clear their champion of any wrongdoing.

Unfortunately for Darren Wilson, the facts of what transpired on the day when he shot Michael Brown in the face and body with multiple bullets have not been kind to him.

Independent witnesses have told the press and federal investigators how Michael Brown was unarmed, had surrendered with his hands in the air, and was repeatedly shot by Darren Wilson. These witnesses are African-American.

For the white bigots who defend Darren Wilson, as well as the Right-wing hate media that stoke the flames of white racial resentment and white supremacy, black people’s truth claims about racism (regardless of the mountains of empirical evidence in support of their experiences) are de facto and a priori judged to be insufficient by the White Gaze.

This is part of a centuries-long tradition in America, where for most of the country’s existence, African-Americans were not allowed to testify in court or to have any type of legal standing.

In the post civil rights era--and especially since the election of Barack Obama--the Tea Party GOP and the White Right have demonstrated that they would like to return to an arrangement of civic and public affairs in which black people are silenced and muted. In all, the Tea Party GOP and its allies yearn for the civic erasure of black and brown people—it enrages the White Right that they cannot follow through on their wishful dreams of social and political death for black Americans.

The American Right-wing’s defense of the killer cop Darren Wilson is instinctive: it is an extension of a base hostility to the freedom, well-being, life, liberty, and happiness of black and brown Americans.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Semi-Open Weekend Thread: 'What Sort of White Person do I Want to Be?' On Racial Illiteracy, the Southern Slaveocracy, and Ferguson

It has been a hot, humid, stormy, and energy draining day here in Chicago. The weather seems confused: it is almost schizophrenic, punishing us with heat and then dropping down to the 70's over the weekend. I was laid low by a weather succubus. She drank deeply. Blah and yuck. Saturday and Sunday, the latter being the day when my beloved New England Patriots will return to form with The Gronk, cannot get here soon enough.

As is our habit, do treat this as our semi-open weekend thread.

On a related note, I am going to give the Tumblr site for WARN--what I have christened "The Negro from Planet X"--another try. I created the site some months ago and let it sit idle as I was not sure how to leverage it. My original plan was to use The Negro From Planet X as a space where the friends and readers of WARN could submit news items and stories. That option is now "live" on the site (apparently the feature only activates once the Tumblr is indexed by Google). There is an icon on the upper right hand side for submissions. If so inclined, do share and submit stories and information that you think could be of interest.

During our conversation on WARN's podcast series, Paul Breines asked the profound question "what sort of white person do you want to be?"

I am going to use Dr. Breines' meditative and introspective question as a lede/header for a series of posts here on We Are Respectable Negroes.

"What sort of white person do I want to be?" is a deceptively simple and dagger-sharp question that exposes the core that is our individual decision to be a moral, righteous, and ethical person. Paul's question is foundational because it can be easily extended to gender, sexuality, class, and other types of identities and relationships.

We have choices that we can make in life about our behavior. Of course, our relationship to systems of Power, resources, opportunity structures, and varying levels of agency will impact how we choose to resolve such matters.

Oftentimes, individuals make the simple into the complex.

The decision to do the right thing and to live a just and moral life is made complicated by our very human habit of creating obstacles which can then be used as excuses for inaction. I am unsure if this is cowardice, laziness, or some combination of both; I am sure that a surrender to inertia and craven self-interest has been a obstacle to making the world a better and more just place.

What follows are several examples of white brothers and sisters asking the question "what sort of white person do I want to be?" and then acting on their own personal code of honor, looking history in the face in the lived present, and challenging other white folks to confront their own personal relationships to systems of white supremacy and white privilege.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Political Theater of Beheadings and 'Terror Shock Value': Is Isis a Tar Baby That is Successfully Baiting Barack Obama and the United States Into an Unnecessary War?

We have some smart folks here on WARN who know quite a bit about international relations and foreign affairs. I hope that they can help to answer some of my (and likely your) questions about the organization known as Isis (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).

Several days ago, Isis beheaded a second American journalist. In response to this most recent provocation, Barack Obama has promised to "degrade" and "destroy" Isis. This statement will likely lead to an expansion of American air strikes into Syria, as well as the public use of American ground combat troops in direct action against Isis.

The beheading of Americans for propaganda purposes--and then disseminating those images through a professionally produced and edited video--is horrific. However, the murder of individuals does not necessarily constitute a direct threat to the national interests of a given State actor. Yes, it is a challenge to the notion of citizenship and that the State maintains legitimacy by protecting its members against harm from outsiders. But beyond the symbolic offense, the murder of a given citizen ought not to compel a country to enter into armed conflict unless there are other more vital strategic interests at play.

Is Isis a credible long-term threat to the United States and its interests? The spokespeople for the United States military have depicted Isis as being remarkably sophisticated, with good leadership and a core of professional soldiers. Others have suggested that Isis is just a group of thugs, the threat of which is being greatly exaggerated in order to create war fever in the United States by the overuse of such tired phrases like "a threat to our way of life" or "they are just like Hitler".

In my opinion as a hobbyist grognard, Isis does not appear to be a significant military threat to American power. They have conquered territory and resources; but Isis does not yet have the infrastructure or legitimacy to control and manage it. The armed forces of Isis are not particularly impressive and would be destroyed by a professional military with integrated arms and proper doctrine.

Isis' power comes from its ability to scare, threaten, and intimidate its adversaries. Terror Shock Value is Isis' comparative advantage:

Politics is Fundamentally About the Manipulation of Emotion: From the Movie 'Cloud Atlas' to the Comic Book Series 'Elephantmen', What Works of Art Are Guaranteed to Reduce You to Tears?

I hope that you have recovered from your Labor Day sloth, indulgence, greed, gluttony and general decadence.

I have a post on ISIS and its terror strategy to share later today/tomorrow. Circumstances have moved me to ask another question.

The good folks who sent me to Chicago Comic Con also provided me the opportunity to buy some graphic novels and comic books that were one on my quite long reading list (I finally picked up Saga, East of West, and Manifest Destiny).

Consequently, I finally started to read the Elephantmen comic book series. This story is set several hundred years from the present in a dystopian corporate controlled future where the animals of Africa have been combined with human DNA to create intelligent, yet primal and instinct driven, killing machines.

Elephantmen is brilliant. I do not give such accolades without much meditation and reflection; Elephantmen is that good.

Moreover, I would rank it with Maus in terms of artistry, pathos, relevant social commentary, and storytelling. Elephantmen has brought me to tears. I say that not for effect: my observation is from the heart and without exaggeration.

Politics, is at its core, about the management and control of resources. In order for elite actors (and others) to work their machinations over the people in a democratic polity, emotion and symbolism must be engaged and manipulated.

Citizens across different arrangements of political society have a remarkably weak grasp on the specifics of public policy. However, they know how they feel about a given set of public policy issues.

As world and American public opinion are being deftly manipulated by ISIS (or others who can use what are ostensibly the deeds being conducted by ISIS and its agents to advance some other party's strategic interests) it is extremely important to remind ourselves of the malleability of emotion and its role in politics.

In all, emotion may be mobilized in one direction; rationality and cold calculus may be pulled in the opposite direction. Which pole and pull shall win? And are they that easily separated?

As I shared some months ago, the movie Cloud Atlas--which was also on TV last evening--moved me to tears. Elephantmen has impacted me in the same way.

Do share, what works of art, literature, fiction, or non-fiction, across mediums and genres, are guaranteed to produce a tear, or alternatively reduce you to a blubbering mess?

The water out of your eyes is the result. Do also share, if you are so generous, why said example(s) makes you feel such a way?