Sunday, September 19, 2010

Open Thread Sunday: On Christine O'Donnell, Values Voters, Anti-Americanism, and The Ruling Class

A little break from football (go Pats! by the way).

Christine O'Donnell, Tea Party darling, anti-masturbation advocate, former witch, and feminist fan of Lord of the Rings gave a stirring speech to the true believers at the "Values Voters" summit where she railed against anti-Americanism and "the ruling class." As you know, I am transparent in my feelings towards O'Donnell/Palin/Beck and their cabal of Know-nothings: The New Right and its faux populism are a cancer in the blood, bone, and marrow of the American body politic that must be excised.

Nevertheless, one must still try to understand the terms of engagement that govern their political rivals. It is prima facie that Beck, Palin, and O'Donnell are pulling a page out of Pat Buchanan's Culture War speech from the 1992 Republican Convention (who would have thought that Buchanan's screed would be the reactionary Right's Gettysburg Address?). For Conservatives of a certain stripe, the war--as it has been for decades--is between "us" and "them." Here the us are the "real Americans," "the heartland," "Christians," and "the silent majority." The them are "the gays," "the liberals," "the feminists," and "the minorities."

I am now unsettled. Because for decades I had gotten used to being a perpetual outsider, someone who by definition could never be part of the "ruling class elite." After listening to the mouth-breathing exhalations of the tea baggers and watching Christine O'Donnell's speech I find myself more than a little confused about my orbit in the political universe. Thus the following questions:

1. Who exactly is the "ruling class?" I thought they were the corporations, a narrow two party system, and the forces pulling the strings of neo-liberalism and globalization. I guess I am mistaken. Are you part of the ruling class small elite? How do you know? What does it feel like?

2. What the hell is anti-Americanism? Will I know it when I see it? Is it the same thing that Joe McCarthy was railing against in the 1950's or is it a new/old bogeyman? Is there a membership form or dues to join this exclusive club? Do the anti-Americans hang out with The Legion of Doom?

3. Who are these "values voters?" What exactly are their values? And where do these values come from? Don't all people, all villages, all communities have values? What makes the values voters' values so special?... (how can you not love that Oscar Wilde-like word play?)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion: Chauncey Devega's Interview with Ring of Fire Radio

Thought I would share this interview with you all, for now you too can bask in the staccato tone of my monotone voice. More seriously, I did radio for years and do truly miss it. Who knows, maybe we need to get our ducks in a row and finally debut the much delayed We Are Respectable Negroes show on Blog Talk Radio?

All in all I thought the interview went well and was lucky to have the chance to speak with Mike Papantonio on Ring of Fire about Glenn Beck and his followers. Funny, these Internets are always a surprise as one can take five minutes, say what needs to be said, link it to an accessible concept, and then get your time to shine (conversely, one can take hours to write a post, throw it into the wind, and said thoughts land with a dull thud).

It would seem that the ghetto nerds and respectable negroes are on the march. Next stop: Fox News...yeah right. But then again, I would love to go head to head with Beck et al. in their own house.

Armchair Sociology: Of Saggin' Pants, Seven Boys Named James, the Cool Pose, and The People's Court

I love The People's Court for on that show one never knows when there will be a gem that demonstrates the problematic intersections of race, class, gender, and culture.

So a teenage boy gets involved in a juvenile rite of passage, embarrasses his father, and acting as a clique he and his brothers collectively show no shame for their stupid deeds. Moreover, dad walks a fine line between defending his progeny and forcing them to "man up."

The payoff to this twisted tale is in the details. All of said ign't children have the same name. Yes, seven kids (save for the one dead) are named "James." And no, dad is not George Forman. Said young ign'ts are caught because their saggin' pants may fall down, thus rendering them unable to flee. Who are they caught by? A six foot eight brother who is tired of ghetto nonsense. Dad is hustling and trying. Nonetheless, he can't win against the allure of ghetto street pirate culture and the need for a "man" to earn his bonafides by "tagging" his "street name" on an enraged homeowner's property.

In keeping with our shared tradition of armchair sociology I offer a fitting reflection from the New York Times on Dr. Richard Major's concept of "the cool pose" and its relationship to black masculinity--a more than fair accompaniment to the above bit of People's Court justice.

Black Scientists Study the 'Pose' Of the Inner City

Dr. Majors's book "Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America," written with Dr. Janet Mancini Billson, an executive officer at the American Sociological Association in Washington, is part of the most recent wave of research on black urban youth. The book, published this month by Lexington Press, is based largely on intensive interviews by Dr. Majors and on a six-year study of 60 black teen-agers in Boston, conducted by researchers, including Dr. Billson, at the Harvard School of Education. 'To Appear in Control'

The cool pose is a set of language, mannerisms, gestures and movements that "exaggerate or ritualize masculinity," Dr. Majors said. "The essence of cool is to appear in control, whether through a fearless style of walking, an aloof facial expression, the clothes you wear, a haircut, your gestures or the way you talk. The cool pose shows the dominant culture that you are strong and proud, despite your status in American society."

Flashy or provocative clothes are part of the cool pose. An unbuckled belt, expensive sneakers and thick gold chains, for example, are part of the cool look.

Some elements of the cool pose have been analyzed in terms of kinesics, the subtleties of body movements. One is a distinctive swaggering gait, almost a walking dance, which can include tilting the head to one side while one arm swings to the side with the hand slightly cupped while the other hand hangs to the side or is in the pocket.

Other aspects of cool pose are now widely imitated in white culture, according to Dr. Majors's book. These include rap and the elaborate handshakes, like the high-five popularized by athletes.

The cool pose is by no means found among the majority of black men but is particularly common among inner-city black youth as a tactic for psychological survival to cope with such rejections as storekeepers who refuse to buzz them into a locked shop.

For a young black man whose prospects in life are poor at best, the cool pose is empowering, Dr. Majors said. "He can appear competent and in control in the face of adversity," he said. "It may be his only source of dignity and worth, a mask that hides the sting of failure and frustration."

The cool pose appeals, too, as a sign of manliness. "Lots of inner-city black boys live in a world with few men around," Dr. Poussaint said. "They are struggling to find ways to be a man. Adopting the cool pose is a way to show their maleness."

Dr. Staples said: "Much of cool pose is ritualistic imitation of peers. If you're not seen as cool, you're an outsider. It's a way to be included."

But the cool pose has its negative side. "Though it's a source of pride and identity, the cool pose is dysfunctional in some ways," Dr. Billson said. "It also means you may not be able to back down from a fight or apologize to your girlfriend when you've done something hurtful."

Another drawback of the cool pose is that it is often misread by whites. A 1990 article in the journal Black Issues in Higher Education by Ed Wiley 3d, its assistant managing editor, described how white teachers and principals interpret the cool pose as aggressive or intimidating. It suggests that this cultural misinterpretation is one reason black boys are suspended more frequently and for longer periods of time, and are more likely to be assigned to remedial classes.

"What black males see as cool, as being suave and debonair, can be read by whites as signifying irresponsibility, shiftlessness or unconcern," Dr. Majors said.

The unflappable mask donned with the cool pose often becomes a psychological reality, with young black men unable to let down their emotional guard even with those closest to them. That stance, Dr. Majors said, means "some black males have difficulty disclosing their deepest feelings even to their best friends and girlfriends."

Dr. Majors cautions that the theory is not meant as the whole explanation for the behavior of black men but is just one of many insights needed to understand their problems better. Dr. Majors is a leader in the organization of a new group, the National Council for African-American Men, founded in 1990, to further such research. This summer it will publish the first issue of an academic journal, The Journal of African-American Male Studies.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Newt Gingrich's Voodoo Politics: Barack Obama Ruled By Absent, Dead Father's Ghost

I couldn't resist.

The New Right and the Newt Gingrich, faux intellectual Dinesh D'Souza, "birther" crowd should simply be honest and say that a black man is de facto illegitimate as President of the United States. It would be much more parsimonious and would save us all a great deal of time.

As I told my class on Barack Obama yesterday, 2 years ago I never would have imagined that grown men and women would dress up like George Washington, follow a self-professed rodeo clown by the name of Glenn Beck, and march on Washington. Now, I can add another data point to my list of political absurdities in the Age of Obama--voodoo, zombie politics and a Manchurian candidate President ruled by his father's ghost who ostensibly commands him from the afterlife.

This would be funny if it were not so sad. Is this how low the Republicans and the New Right have sunk? Where are the adults in the room? Who would have imagined that one day we would yearn for a return of William F. Buckley, Bush the Elder, and James Baker?

Courtesy of The Washington Post:

Newt Gingrich Rips Obama as 'Kenyan Anti-Colonial' Thinker

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is considering a bid for the presidency in 2012, told National Review Saturday that he believes President Obama is operating from within a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. Gingrich, whose harsh rhetoric in the mid-90s transformed him from a Republican leader into a bogeyman, cited Dinesh D’Souza’s “stunning insight” in the Forbes article “How Obama Thinks” for the giving him the idea.

D’Souza’s article, which Gingrich told NR was the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama,” said:

Our President is trapped in his father’s time machine. Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son. The son makes it happen, but he candidly admits he is only living out his father’s dream. The invisible father provides the inspiration, and the son dutifully gets the job done. America today is governed by a ghost.

The Forbes article draws on several disputed descriptions of America’s foreign policy to make its argument, including a Times of London article alleging “the Obama Administration supported the conditional release of … the Lockerbie bomber” which the State Department took unusual pains to refute, making public a pre-release diplomatic letter from the U.S. Embassy in London stating that the U.S. “is not prepared to support Megrahi’s release on compassionate release or bail.” The article also conflates Obama’s years in Hawaii with his time abroad and alleges that he is “a man who spent his formative years–the first 17 years of his life–off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan.” Obama spent four years as a child living in Indonesia and visited Pakistan for three weeks as a college student when he was 20 years old, according to

Gingrich’s remarks came in an interview with National Review’s Robert Costa after the Sept. 11 premiere of the Gingriches’ new movie, “America at Risk: The War with No Name,” in Washington, D.C.

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asked, according to the report. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

“This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president,” Gingrich said.

“I think Obama gets up every morning with a worldview that is fundamentally wrong about reality,” he added. “If you look at the continuous denial of reality, there has got to be a point where someone stands up and says that this is just factually insane.”

The idea that Obama is fundamentally foreign because of his Kenyan father is a view most closely associated with individuals known as “birthers,” who assert against the evidence that Obama was secretly born or raised in Kenya, rather than Hawaii, and therefore is not eligible to be — and illegitimate as — president. The D’Souza-Gingrich argument represents a new approach to calling the president’s ideas foreign and unAmerican.

“We have been blinded to his real agenda because, across the political spectrum, we all seek to fit him into some version of American history,” D’Souza wrote.

The remarks suggest that Gingrich, know for his fiery rhetoric and provocative ideas, is unlikely to moderate himself in search of the presidency, should he decide to run.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Let's Play a Game of Political Literati

I am reading Brendan Koerner's great book Now the Hell will Start about the building of The Ledo Road during World War 2 by African American soldiers and the hellish challenges they overcame--both natural (the jungle) and man made (Jim Crow era white supremacy). There I came upon a particularly sharp bit of prose that while detailing the struggles of the book's protagonist(s) also pithily sums up the Glenn Beck, Palin, Tea Party crowd and their hold on the American body politic.

On page 94 of his book, Koerner beautifully describes a horrid situation where:

The leeches had a particular affinity for the body's most sensitive areas: eyelids, nostrils, and especially privates. A man defecating in the jungle might later discover that a leech had crawled from grass to buttock during the process, and made itself a home deep within a particularly vulnerable orifice. An Army captain wrote of one comrade's wince-inducing encounter with a sneaky bloodsucker: One Night while he was sleeping one of these leeches had gotten into the tube of Red's penis. When he awakened it was swollen to the point he could not urinate. It was becoming extremely painful and there seemed to be nothing they could do to remove the leech. When the pain became most excruciating, he was actually thinking of gouging it out with a knife. Lieutenant Quinn finally suggested making a forceps-shaped tool out of bamboo. It worked fine and they were able to get a hold on the leech and pull it out.


Yikes. But in the case of the New Right I would suggest that amputation and not delicate self-surgery is the best way of removing the fecal impaction that is the New Right.

So let's play a game if you would. Do you have any passages from books (present or past; Left or Right; fiction or non-fiction) that unintentionally capture the country's political mood in the Age of Obama?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Black Girl Lost? Is Proenza Schouler's Film "Act Da Fool" Pathology Porn?

Here is a little weekend thinking project for you.

Proenza Schouler's faux documentary/fashionista art film, Act Da Fool has been criticized as sexist, racist, and exploitative of black women. After viewing the short film, I am unsettled by its omnipresent white gaze--especially given the overpowering Whiteness that is the fashion industry. But, I am more offended as a cultural critic and fan because Act Da Fool seems to be no more than a failed effort at Avant-garde, hipster, film-making.

What do you think? Is Act Da Fool another example of pathology porn in the Age of Obama (i.e. the Precious syndrome) or is it cutting edge, radical film-making that gives "voice" to young black women?

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Little Closure on Steal Away Jordan: Some Reflections and Questions on Roleplaying, Racism, and Historical Memory

Our conversation on role-playing games, race, and historical memory was a pleasant surprise. I am always impressed by the range of folks that follow We Are Respectable Negroes and the breadth and intelligence of their comments. In my post on Steal Away Jordan I mentioned Bill the Lizard, one of my fellow travelers in the journey that is ghetto nerdness. Consequently, it is only fitting that he offers some closure--and provocative questions--for this topic.


I read Chauncey's post and the responses which followed with great interest.

I've long felt that role-playing games (and the communities that play them) are very deserving of serious study from cultural anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists.

However, as someone who for many years was a hardcore gamer (playing AD&D, Pendragon, Cthulhu, Vampire, Star Wars, and many others), the suggestion that Follow the North Star or Steal Away Jordan can help us better learn the historical lessons of slavery (the worst shame on our nation next to the American Indian genocide) is say the least. Like Chauncey, I too applaud the convictions, creativity, and effort of those who have created these games.

And I seriously question the morality of their endeavors.

To quote the old adage: “Just because you can, doesn't mean you should,” and while both role-playing opportunities seem to be well-intentioned, my fear as a long time gamer, cultural critic, and anthropologist, is that these games have the potential to trivialize historical suffering and what were crimes against humanity.

As a point of clarification: I do recognize the potential of role-playing games as pedagogical devices. For example, I had a teacher in High School who used to teach Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by having his class dress up as characters, mimicking medieval pilgrims such as knights, millers, squires and cooks. It was amazing how quickly you better understood the mindset and motivations of those who lived a thousand years ago when you had to walk in their shoes and deal with the social, religious and economic restrictions that confronted them.

I also had an Anthropology teacher in college who taught about the difficulties of cross-culture communication by separating the class into two groups and having each group develop it's own fake “culture” independent of the other. Once both groups were ready, the class then simulated “first contact”, where (more often than not) both groups left the meeting with negative feelings about the “other” group. The implications of this exercise helped us understand the intricacies of culture and how important it is to be respectful of difference.

However, these exercises were very broad and not morally complicated. We were not, for example, role-playing human misery and/or suffering. This is an important distinction that separates my role-playing/learning experiences from those offered by Follow the North Star or Steal Away Jordan.

Of course, role-playing can help people deal with difficult topics. Moreover, in role-playing games, I don't necessarily have a problem with using historical settings as backdrops for larger narratives (provided these settings are integral to the story). Nevertheless, putting people or "player characters" into a “slave owner/slave” role with the sole purpose of "teaching" them about the unimaginable barbarism that was chattel slavery in the New World is, in total, quite irresponsible.

Some Thoughts and Questions on Gaming

A role-playing game is just that--a “game.” It is designed for enjoyment first and for potential educational benefits second. For example, King Arthur: Pendragon taught me a great deal about medieval life and British mythology. But I can't forget the fact that I played Pendragon because it was fun. Hence the "game" aspect. Thus, to label Steal Away Jordan a role-playing game is problematic. How do you take enjoyment away from the misery of others, even if there is some purported educational value in the gaming experience?

I also have practical concerns about the limits of role-playing games. Primarily, a game master cannot force the players to view a role-playing game experience in the way they would like them to. Players have agency and will act according to their own motivations, moods, and agenda. These personal quirks often push players to “go off script” or “out of character.” Game masters can only suggest the courses of action and then hope for the best. Ultimately, it's the player that determines the outcome within the framework provided.

In freestyle games (i.e. those without a game master) group rule is the norm. Is this setting the most appropriate place to seriously explore the antebellum South and the plight of enslaved African Americans?

How do you, the game master, make sure that the people playing your “game” really take away with them a sense of slavery's long-term impact?

How do you, the game master, make sure that they just don't reinforce their own misinterpretations of history? Or inject into their “character” their own 21st century political or cultural biases or outright prejudices?

How do you, the game master, re-enforce the seriousness of the issues without minimizing the real-life horrific events? Would the people you're role-playing, the people who really suffered 150+ years ago, understand what you're doing?

I ask again: is this really the best way to remember the suffering of millions of people and 400 years of bigotry and racial hatred?

When people are encouraged to take on roles that they normally would find morally challenging and stressful, very strange things can happen – especially when you're dealing with the interpretation of people's real-life pain.

Some echoes of the real world where role-playing has gone horribly wrong:

The Stanford Prison Experiment:

24 undergrads at Stanford were selected to play the roles of both guards and prisoners in a mock prison environment. Roles were assigned at random. After six days, the experiment was quickly stopped because the professor, Dr. Zimbardo lost control of it. The “guards” became sadistic and the prisoners began showing signs of severe emotional disturbance.

The Third Wave:

A high school class was learning about Nazi Germany. They didn't believe that the German people could have been complacent and allowed the Final Solution to take place. So the history teacher, Ron Jones, decided to show them what fascism was like by creating the fake “Third Wave” organization and pushing anti-democratic concepts in his class room. After only four days, the teacher abruptly ended the experiment because things were quickly slipping out of control. The students showed themselves to be far more malleable to extremism than Jones ever expected.

The Milgram Experiment:

Stanley Milgram, a professor at Yale University, set out to show people's willingness to obey an authority figure, even if that authority figure told them to do things that they would normally find morally reprehensible. One student was assigned the role of “teacher” and one of “learner”. The “learner” was a plant, while the “teacher” thought the events were real. The “teacher” then used what he thought was electroshock to punish the “learner” for not correctly answering questions. In reality there were no electric shocks, but 65% of the “teachers” were able to administer what they thought was a 450-volt shock to the “learner” just because the facilitator told them to.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Black is a Country: "Gypsies," Justice, and Brown Versus Board of Education

Last week I was watching the movie Drag Me to Hell with a friend. At some point I had a moment of clarity, turned to her and said, "damn, the Roma have it harder than black folks."

The film jarred loose a series of memories. When I was a teenager I clearly recall my Korean American war bride boss coming into the convenience store where I worked and warning me that I should be especially vigilant because "gypsies have been sighted all across Connecticut, and they are robbing Shell gas stations by swarming them like bees!" I also found a lost laugh recalling a colleague who traveled to Hungary and was robbed by a "Roma woman who pulled up her t-shirt to reveal mesmerizing, gigantic breasts which she then proceeded to squeeze such that milk was expelled." My friend--now blinded by Roma breast milk--was then robbed and left penniless in a remote village.

Consider for a moment: Gypies are constantly stereotyped, vilified, and reduced to the most foul caricatures of personhood. I would suggest that in the hierarchy of groups that are still permissible as targets of mass humor and stereotyping in America, they would rank somewhere above East and South Asians and below poor white people. In terms of socioeconomic status, "gypsies" (I hate that word) have likely earned their whiteness in America and been washed away into a sea of nondescript stock of Eastern European descent where they achieve (or not) just like any other group of plain ol' white folks. But even in the United States, the stigma of being a "gypsy" still remains. By contrast, in Europe the stigma against gypsies exists as naked hostility, hostility that is stark, harsh, and often violent.

For example, in Eastern Europe the Roma have been struggling against discrimination in their access to education and schooling. They have modeled their resistance on the groundbreaking legal decision Brown versus Board of Education which was one of the first nails in the coffin of Jim Crow. The Roma's use of Brown is inspirational. Despite its struggles with obsolescence in the present, the Roma's enlistment of Brown signals the historical weight of the NAACP as an organization. More broadly, the use of Brown v. Board, and their appropriating the language of The Civil Rights Movement (never forget that The Movement itself borrowed and was inspired by Gandhi's anti-colonial struggle) is an object lesson in how the Black Freedom Struggle has given so much to Americans of all colors, and has inspired people around the world.

Black Americans often don't claim that gift. Perhaps, it is because like Americans at large (and to paraphrase Gore Vidal) we don't have a memory past last Tuesday. Maybe it is a function of some odd mix of colorblindness, charity, and politeness that those in the know may claim the genius that is Black creativity in the arts, letters, and music, but for whatever reason these same members of the negro intelligentsia are often resistant to claiming our gifts to American democracy.

The Roma haven't forgotten. They know that Black is a country. And perhaps the wellspring that is blackness as "political race" will give them the strength to overcome the adversity and challenges facing them as a people.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of Follow the North Star and Steal Away Jordan: Would You Play a Roleplaying Game Set During Slavery in the Antebellum South?

This ain't Darkon.

One of my favorite joys as a teenage ghetto nerd was playing hour upon hour of Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars with my friends (most notably our guest blogger "Bill the Lizard"). In particular, I loved running an epic Star Wars campaign where through my machinations the players all ended up in a moral conundrum (one impossible to resolve) that would inevitably tempt one of them to embrace the dark side of The Force.

Ultimately, role playing games are an exercise in theater, friendship, and conviviality. At their root, they--at least for me--are about escaping reality and not engaging in the heavy day to day struggles of negotiating one's identity and its relationship to structurally embedded relationships of power.

To that point: Over the weekend I continued to meditate on the question of historical memory, tourism, and respect for our honored ancestors. During that time, I did a little more research and stumbled upon some interesting--and disturbing--finds. Apparently, the African Holocaust and slavery in the Americas is entertainment mated with education in some circles.

Some discoveries.

1. As seen in the leading video, Conner Prairie, an Indiana based living museum, offers a range of experiences for its visitors. One of these is "Follow the North Star" where visitors navigate The Underground Railroad to freedom. As Conner Praire's website notes: "This interactive glimpse into our shared past will affect you in ways that reading a book or watching a movie about it cannot." Be weary though as many dangers are afoot as Follow the North Star is not for everyone. "You should be prepared to take on the role of a runaway slave; you'll be walking outside on rough terrain in all kinds of weather, told to keep your eyes focused downward and spoken to in an abrupt manner."

I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the "historical" experience? Question: who would react more strongly to this live action role playing experience? Young "post-racial" black people or their white peers of the same generational cohort?

2. There is apparently a pen and paper role-playing game called Steal Away Jordan. In this game, you can play any number of "characters" in the antebellum United States. One can be a slave owner, a master, a runaway, a free person, etc. The only limit is your imagination and the boundaries imposed by your fellow players. But once more, I don't see how there is any pleasure to be had in reenacting such suffering (perhaps therapy, but joy and entertainment?).

For the curious, here is an in-depth interview with Julia Bond Ellingboe, the creator of the game.

As an example of my worry about how these types of "reenactments" can go oh so wrong because they trivialize the experience of what was then a heretofore unimaginable historical tragedy, see this post where a white gamer concludes following a session of Steal Away Jordan that:

This experience has always made me not accept the 400 years of oppression argument. As an individual there is no way society can stop you from achieving. The problem is you have to not give in to people who want you to stay where you are. That's difficult. Anyway... that yes masta moment has me reexamining some of my thoughts as that's the first time in my life I've ever felt wrong, like I'd done something racist.

3. Insert finger into throat and induce vomiting. I only have questions. Abolition News Network? A high school project gone wrong? Just all around poor taste? Is this people's exhibit number one of how a well-intentioned "diversity" training session can go very very wrong?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

When Stupid People don't Know that They are Stupid: Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor Rally and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The masses are asses. We know this. But the level of ignorance displayed by the attendees at the "Restoring Honor" rally is shocking even by contemporary standards.

It is quite clear that Glenn Beck is a master propagandist with a chilling and Svengali-like power over the lemmings of the New Right. Beck-watching is compelling (to me at least) because his popularity is a barometer of the toxins in our political atmosphere. Moreover, I wonder if Beck's followers would be so slavish as to follow him off a cliff, and to what extremes would the tea party brigands go in their devotion to his cult of personality.

To point, here is a little armchair sociology to help put Beck and the New Right's devotees into a broader context:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to the situation in which less competent people rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence: because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."

The Dunning–Kruger effect was put forward by Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Similar notions have been expressed–albeit less scientifically–for some time. Dunning and Kruger themselves quote Charles Darwin ("Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge") and Bertrand Russell ("One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

The Dunning–Kruger effect is not, however, concerned narrowly with high-order cognitive skills (much less their application in the political realm during a particular era, which is what Russell was talking about.Nor is it specifically limited to the observation that ignorance of a topic is conducive to overconfident assertions about it, which is what Darwin was saying. Indeed, Dunning et al. cite a study saying that 94% of college professors rank their work as "above average" (relative to their peers), to underscore that the highly intelligent and informed are hardly exempt. Rather, the effect is about paradoxical defects in perception of skill, in oneself and others, regardless of the particular skill and its intellectual demands, whether it is chess, playing golf or driving a car.

The hypothesized phenomenon was tested in a series of experiments performed by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, then both of Cornell University. Kruger and Dunning noted earlier studies suggesting that ignorance of standards of performance is behind a great deal of incompetence. This pattern was seen in studies of skills as diverse as reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis.

Kruger and Dunning proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Slave Cabin Sleepovers: Honoring The African Holocaust and Our Ancestors or Trivializing their Memory?

Would you sleep in a cabin once occupied by black slaves in the antebellum South? Is this honoring the memory of our many millions gone, or is it trivializing their suffering, freedom struggle, and triumph?

Yesterday was the informal beginning of my academic year. In a change of pace from last year, I was asked to participate in a program where first year students are oriented to the university and the "big city." My course: Race, Conflict, and Segregation. Yes, I am difficult. And yes, there is no better way of introducing young minds to college than some real talk about power, privilege, and the built environment.

Today we went to the local African American Museum of Culture and History. While black cultural politics and history is my broad area of "expertise," I have always found it hard to teach on this topic. As is common with folks asked to work in their depth, we are often more interested in complicating the narrative, while our students are still trying to get the broad strokes and basics. My solution today was to let my young charges wander about and to occasionally intervene when appropriate.

However, I did stake out some space for observation. I wanted to see how (and if) the cone of uncomfortable silence and discomfort would magically descend around the exhibit on The Middle Passage and The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Inevitably it appeared. Some White students looked at the manacles and chains something alien that they could not comprehend (or was that unprocessed guilt in action?). Few of the Black students ventured close to this exhibit--perhaps for fear of feeling "marked" or "marginalized?" Of being reminded of their origins in The New World and the echoes of history in the present as they yearn for a post-racial future?

I wanted to intervene and talk about the millions killed. How America's rise to preeminent economic power was built on the African Holocaust and its human assets. Or to ask them about the diagram of the slaver, where black humanity was chained foot to foot, hand to hand, bodies smashed and abused, soiled and left for dead, whole human cargoes cast overboard for insurance money, trapped for months in the cacophonous cargo hold of a ship where Africans of many peoples entered and a new people--and modernity--emerged on the other side of the Atlantic. I wanted to explain how there was so much death that sharks learned to follow the slave trading routes to catch a quick meal at the cost of little effort expended. And how this crime against humanity still structures American history and our search for a more inclusive and perfect democracy.

I chose not to. Was this is a teachable moment never to be recaptured? What would you have said? How would the students have responded? What could I have said to do justice to the honored ancestors and their experience with the incomprehensible?

Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill has been trying to commune with the ancestors by sleeping in slave cabins throughout South Carolina. His mission is noble and ought to be admired. However, part of me is uncertain about his project. For example, I have always wanted to go on a tour of the underground railroad where one traces the actual routes used, sleeping in basements, navigating north to freedom over several weeks. I have also wanted to go to Goree Island in Senegal, where I would meditate in the slave fortresses where thousands upon thousands were imprisoned and died.

As powerful as the experience would be, I wouldn't have slave dogs on my heels and bounty hunters a step behind me. I wouldn't be trapped in the belly of a beast, exhausted and frightened beyond all belief, for I knew not what would happen to me tomorrow. What would you do? How does one balance a yearning to experience just a tiny bit of the unimaginable with a fear of reducing hallowed ground to a tourism destination?

Original, Historic Fabric Makes Hobcaw Barony Slave Cabin Stay Special

by National Trust for Historic Preservation on August 17th, 2010

Written by Joseph McGill, Jr.

Joe McGill at Hobcaw Barony.

My first slave cabin stay in Georgetown County, South Carolina was Hobcaw Barony. I had great anticipation for this stay because of the county’s historical ties to the growing of rice. Many slaves were imported into the state of South Carolina because of their knowledge of growing rice.

Two media representatives made arrangements to spend the night with me on this visit. In the end only one – Eric Frasier from the Charlotte Observer - stayed. His role on this occasion was as a freelance writer exploring my desire to sleep in slave cabins.

I met George Chastain, executive director of Hobcaw Barony, at the Visitor’s Center at 6:00 p.m. as scheduled. Representatives from the media were there also. After learning about the history of the plantation from George we all proceeded to the cabins. Once at the cabins the media proceeded to follow my every move as I toured each and every building.

The mosquitoes were fierce so I knew that I would be in for a long night. After dousing myself with insect repellent, I became more tolerant of the mosquitoes. When I inspected the cabin, I discovered something unique that the other four cabins that I had stayed in to date did not have – this cabin had most of its original historic fabric left. Hobcaw Barony’s policy has been to maintain, not restore. It suddenly reminded me of my many visits to Drayton Hall in Charleston, SC. The cabin was one of several buildings in the village, which also contained a church, doctor’s office and several other houses. These buildings – which had been lived in up until the 1950s – were an indication of how the plantation evolved from slavery to freedom.

Eric Frasier mentioned that getting to sleep would be a challenge for him, but once we got settled into the cabin we discovered a calm that would allow us to sleep. The mosquitoes did not bother us, maybe because of the insect repellent or the burning of the candles or both. Our biggest challenge was the humidity. That was the first time that I slept in a cabin with both doors left open. The next morning I proceeded to do my usual documenting through an audio visual recording. Eric did the same before we both packed up and went our separate ways.

In my conversation with George Chastain the previous evening, I mentioned to him that I was trying to make contact with the owner of Mansfield Plantation, which is also located in Georgetown County. He mentioned that Mansfield had an absentee owner but he would do all within his powers to help make that connection. He also mentioned that Mansfield is located on the Black River a fact that I had not previously known. The Black River runs through my hometown of Kingstree, SC. Because of that revelation, this project has now gotten personal.

Joseph McGill, Jr. is a program officer at the Southern Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Our First Ever Open Thread Sunday: Do Glenn Beck and the Restoring Honor Crowd Want a Fascist Coup in America?

I have much to say about Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally. But in re-watching some of the footage, I kept thinking about the rhetorical notes struck there. Am I alone in noticing that Saturday was Beck's dreamy, messianic Reichstag speech moment? Moreover, in watching the rally I kept thinking about how some have argued that fascism will not come to America from the top down. No, it will come from the bottom up in the guise of a failed populist politics. Today, I am again in agreement that those voices may have been more prescient and wise than known at the time.

Some questions for you all.

1. How do you feel about the God, plus country, plus patriotism and America is perfect meme (despite his quick and smart rhetorical evasions on the point) being pushed by Beck and company? Is this not frighteningly ahistorical and scary stuff?

2. Why the return--often very round about and through no small amount of triangulating, obfuscating reason--to the U.S. military as the basis of all that is good in this country throughout the rally? Even Palin tried to shoehorn the military into her obligatory mention of Dr. King and The Movement (she should ask some former African-American GI's about how they were treated upon return to the U.S. following World Wars One and Two for some context for her childish understanding of American history and politics).

3. What were the attendees thinking? Who and what are they defending? Why are they so aggrieved?

4. Dr. King fought for the powerless, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed. Who is Beck fighting for?

5. Formula: God-country-myth of national origin-Sarah Palin as fascist symbol/idol/idealized womanhood (a good Christian, mama grizzly bear who is subservient to the men in her life, yet still knows her proper role in the nuclear family)-Beck as messianic leader-the attendees as the chosen people soon to be dead enders = nascent fascist movement? Yes or no?

6. Inside history buff joke: What would General Smedley Butler say about Glenn Beck's adventures?

7. Final question: did anyone else notice Glenn Beck's bulletproof vest? How soon will Beck integrate this choice of attire into his martyrdom shtick?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

This Week in White Victimology: Glenn Beck Takes Back Dr. King and White Folks are Attacked on "Beat Whitey Night" at the Iowa State Fair

We do live in troubled times. I have been doing my best to help white folks adjust to the Age of Obama. I have confessed my shame at how the Age of Obama has ushered in an era of black privilege. I have empathized with the struggles of white folks as they face bullying from the New Black Panthers, being beaten up on school buses, faced with a Supreme Court that does not reflect them, and subject to discrimination in all things and in every area of life. I have hoped and prayed that a leader would emerge--a Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, or Pat Buchanan--to lead my white American brothers and sisters to the promised land as they face a frightening world where they will one day be only a plurality of the population in this country by the year 2050.

Perhaps Glenn Beck will reclaim The Civil Rights Movement from the evil progressives and empower white folk to advance themselves? We will not know until this weekend. To paraphrase Brother Cornel West, what to do about the here and now, a present when white folk are "unsafe, unprotected, unwanted, and subject to random violence?" In a moment that should shame us all (and be the headline of every newspaper), last weekend whites were apparently targeted at the Iowa State Fair by a group of young black people in a "game" called "beat whitey night."

I feel for you my white brothers and sisters. Because I empathize with your victimization, the lion must lay down with the sheep and share some of his wisdom. Black Americans and others have long ago learned to negotiate inequalities of power in order to survive in this country. As you learn to stand against power, here are some practical strategies and suggestions to help you in your time of greatest need.

1. Beware committing the crime of what was once called "reckless eyeballing." Be careful and perform in a way that those with power expect you to (you are not submitting, you will retaliate and resist in more subtle ways). In the most humiliating moments you may have to look at the ground, step off of the sidewalk to let non-whites pass, or submit to being called "boy, Auntie, or Uncle."

2. You may have to remove any evidence from your resume that you are White. Whiteness is a liability in the Age of Obama. Try to be as race neutral as possible.

3. When looking for a home you may not be shown property in certain neighborhoods regardless of your income or credit score. Do some research to find out which real estate agents will treat you fairly.

4. During Jim Crow, Black Americans were denied service at hotels, restaurants, and other places. In fact, it was very difficult to even drive through certain communities as blacks would be killed if they found themselves in a "sundown town." Black Americans tried to avoid these humiliations by referencing The Negro Motorist Green Book. This book detailed the places people of color could stay safely and be treated with dignity as they tried to exercise the most basic of human rights--to travel freely and safely within their own country. Perhaps some enterprising American--such as this Tea Party, Glenn Beck rally supporter--will offer a similar guide to help white folks?

5. Some leaders on the Right are suggesting that armed rebellion and resistance may be necessary to stop the tyranny of the Obama Administration and the federal government's denial of state's rights. I do not agree with the likes of Sarah Palin or such militia groups as The Oath Keepers that it is time to "reload," and that the New Right should confront the government with force. That would be foolish and irresponsible. However, there may come a time when White Americans will have to use non-violent resistance in order to restore their trampled rights and privileges.

History is the greatest of teachers. As many Americans know, the Freedom Riders and other civil rights demonstrators were met with violent resistance in the South (and parts of the North as well) that resulted in death and serious physical injury. Those who are going to fight for a return to a pre-Obama America and the glory days of Leave it to Beaver must be prepared to die for their beliefs. For example, those brave souls who marched with King and the movement were commonly subjected to:

  • Verbal abuse
  • Spitting on
  • Kicking and stepping on
  • Beatings with fists, chains, and police billy-clubs
  • Dragging female protesters across a room by the hair
  • Throwing manure, eggs, tomatoes, exploding firecrackers, rocks, & bricks at us
  • Knocking sit-ins over and rolling them down a flight of stairs
  • Chokings by police (the infamous "choke hold")
  • Attacks with home-made flame-throwers (hairspray ignited with a cigarette lighter)
  • Pouring hot tar over heads Cars attempting to run over pickets
  • Stabbing with a knife
Do besieged white Americans, and conservatives in particular, have the courage to stand up for their beliefs? Is there a leader with the moral vision to organize them so that justice will flow down from the mountaintops?

Ultimately, these are indeed perilous times. I hope this list is of help to those brave souls attending Glenn Beck's rally this weekend, joining the Tea Parties, and fighting the good fight in such places as Texas and Arizona, or picketing against the "Ground Zero Mosque." They only want to return America to greatness and restore her ideals for "real Americans." Never forget that those who drink at the fountain of white victimology are selfless and good. These honorable Americans only want to restore a shining city on the hill and take their rightful place in it.

Who would dare to disagree with the righteousness of such a noble cause?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Glenn Beck Goes (Afrocentric) Again as He Reveals the Secret History of Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement

Cue up the dashiki and kufi.

Glenn Beck is "rediscovering" the lost histories of African Americans once more. At this rate, I do wonder if Beck is going to one day reveal that he is actually Brother Africa X from the Harlem bookstore and his whole career has been a scheme to bring lost Afrocentric histories to the wider world.

We know that Glenn Beck is a performer. His professorial shtick is just that--a con. Thus, when reasonable folk try to make sense of his skewed version of history they turn themselves inside out. But, in watching Beck's most recent lesson on the "secret" history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement in the United States (he covers 400 years of history in 2 hours by the way) I was dumbfounded, truly rendered confused and lost. Who could follow this mess? If one has studied the history of black people in America with any rigor, Beck's claims are specious, dishonest, and anti-historical (notice I did not say "ahistorical").

Because Beck is a master propagandist, he knows the power of the big well as the little one. To that end, he has mastered a very powerful rhetorical device that is front and center when Beck discusses history and politics. Beck makes a comment and inserts, "but you know this stuff already, so I am going to tell you the things you do not." That is the trick. It empowers those with little information and gives them a sense of confidence in the facts, "facts" which are impervious to intervention.

In regards to the history of black Americans (and the centrality of race to U.S. history more generally) large segments of the public are both woefully and willfully ignorant. Beck's core audience does not know the real history of the Black Freedom Struggle. They most certainly do not know about the long Civil Rights movement and its radical left-progressive roots. When many on the Right actually believe that Dr. King was a Republican in the vein of Reagan, and the GOP is the party of Civil Rights we have a problem. And the biggest elephant in the room, when it is still in dispute that the defense of slavery and white supremacy were at the core of the Civil War and the Confederacy's treason, we do not even have a common basis for the much discussed national conversation on race.

Ultimately, Glenn Beck offers a excised version of history that is structured to fit his ideological priors. It is the equivalent of reading a book and taking a quote out of context again, and again, and again. Why? Because you so desperately want that lie to be real for in the immortal words of George Costanza on Seinfeld, "it is not a lie if you believe it."

As Beck ramps up for his "taking back Dr. King's dream" rally this weekend, his abuse of history does bring some important questions to the forefront as we try to make sense of this long summer of Obama derangement syndrome and white racial resentment. What is history? Who owns it? What of our obligations to truth, be they moral, philosophical, and intellectual? What should we expect from our pundits and journalists?

Most importantly, how did we get in this mess to begin with?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Notes on Barack Obama's Post-racial America: Choking Game Kills Two Teens in Chicago Suburbs

Enter: America's newest moral panic.

Barack Obama this is all your fault. Every bit of nonsense, foolishness, and damn bad behavior by white folk of any age since the election is your fault. You have freed black folk to be stupid, and now your post-racial mess and all that hope and change stuff has caused white folk to lose their collective minds too.

So it seems that in Chicago ign't street pirates shoot each other for fun on the weekends. Apparently, in the suburbs there is a surplus of time and safety so young people have to go out of their way to find danger and death. Talk about a comment on race, privilege, and geography.

Back in the 1950s, kids would watch Superman and jump out of windows because they thought they could fly. Now, teenagers play the choking game. Cue up The Darwin Award. I feel for the parents, I truly do. But, as with David Carradine and many a teenage boy there is something else going on here. I would not be surprised if these girls (and others who have died playing this "game") were practicing auto-erotic asphyxiation. Not surprisingly, the pretend ignorance of the press, the police, and parents to this fact is an indication of how feigned prudery is still the norm among many in 21st America.

I would never have thought the obligatory "birds and bees" talk would include a moment where you tell your kids not to choke themselves as they masturbate. But times do indeed change and parents need to understand that their kids may have slightly different sexual norms and habits.

Are we getting that old?

Deaths of 2 teens prompt police alert about 'choking game'

Fifteen-year-old Rebekah Toia was bright and attractive and had lots of friends. She was an honor student at Whitney Young High School, a softball player and loved writing fantasy stories and poetry.

The night before she died in her Northwest Side home, she had come home from a party, went into her room and an hour later came out and asked her mom if she could sleep with her. In the morning, her mother made pancakes for her. Rebekah took the dog out for its morning walk. When her mother left for work, each told the other, "I love you."

When Barbara Toia came home from work Tuesday afternoon, she found Rebekah hanging by her neck from a cloth belt attached to the top of her bedroom door. She was not breathing.

Her death -- and that of 14-year-old Angelena Ohanessian who died the same way two weeks earlier -- have prompted Chicago police to issue an alert to parents about the dangers of the "choking game."

Both girls, who didn't know each other, succumbed to the deadly game, they say. The point of the game is to induce a feeling of euphoria by temporarily depriving the brain of oxygen by applying pressure to the neck until the person passes out.

Teens have been finding information -- and instructions -- about the choking game for years on the Internet, where it is variously known as Passout, the Fainting Game and Good Kids High, among other names.

In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 82 deaths attributed to it and other strangulation activities from 1995-2007. Most victims -- unlike the two recent Chicago cases -- were boys 11 to 16 years old.

Barbara Toia said she had no clue her daughter was engaging in the dangerous activity.
"There were no signs," she said. "She asked for permission to do everything. She was a really responsible kid, no alcohol or drugs -- a mama's girl. She was so mature."

When Barbara Toia got home from work late Tuesday afternoon, she called out for Rebekah but didn't get an answer. She saw both the television and the computer on. She went up to her daughter's bedroom and found her.

"I found her hanging. . .not hanging in the air. . .she was on tippy toes."

"Hopefully my daughter's death is for a purpose," she continued, saying she wants to focus attention on the choking game and prompt parents to watch more closely for signs and seek help if necessary.

She said she plans on making herself available to other families when she is done with her own grieving.

Just this morning, Toia found something that indicated her daughter had been engaging in the choking game for some time. It was a jump rope her daughter had used to train for softball. But one of the handles had been removed to turn the rope into a noose.

A wake for Rebekah will be held from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. today at Cumberland Chapel, 8300 W. Lawrence Ave. in Norridge. A memorial service will be held 10 a.m. Saturday at South Park Church, 1330 Courtland Avenue in Park Ridge. Barbara Toia says everyone is welcome.

Tonight, a Chicago police detective is expected to show up at a barbecue in Oriole Park near the Toia home to talk about the dangers of the choking game.

Angelena was found hanging in her bedroom closet at her Northwest Side home on July 28 and died three days later. Police say she also had played the choking game.

"Angelena had told me about it, (that) some of the the kids had been playing this game," said her mother, Violette Ohanessian. "I said tell me about about the game, it sounds absolutely ridiculous to me.

"I was absolutely convinced there was no way my child would do this. She wouldn't do such a thing."

Her father found her with a noose around her neck in her bedroom and cut her down. Her mother, a nurse, administered CPR. Angelena, who would have been a freshman next term at Resurrection College Prep High School, was pronounced dead three days later at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

While Angelena was in the hospital, her father found video on her cell phone of some of her friends playing the game. "My daughter took video of other kids doing this," her mother said. "She knew about it and had been doing it with them," he mother said.

"And she made a very bad choice."

One police official said this morning that children may be playing the game because it's not illegal.

"They don't want to get in trouble," he said, "so they're trying to get a high. It's not new for kids trying to get that feeling, but it's got deadly consequences. This can become an addictive behavior."

Here are the warning signs listed in the Chicago police alert:

• Strange bruising or red marks around the neck.

• Bloodshot eyes.

• Bed sheets, belts, T-shirts, ties, or ropes tied in strange knots and/or found in unusual places.

• Visiting Web sites or chat rooms mentioning asphyxiation or the choking game.

• Curiosity about asphyxiation (asking questions like "how does it feel?" or "what happens if?").

• Locked or blocked bedroom or bathroom doors.

• Frequent, often severe headaches.

• Changes in attitude; becoming more aggressive.

• Wear marks on furniture (bunk beds or closet rods).

Police urged parents with questions to call Grand Central detectives at (312) 746-8282.

-- David Elsner, Pat Curry, Muriel Clair