Friday, October 22, 2010
Some Black People Are Not Ready to Have Nice Things: Introducing Baracka Flacka Flames--Head of State
I am stupified. Double facepalmed. Struck dumb.
As the old saying goes, you can't polish a turd. Stated differently, satire is perhaps the hardest of genres with which to work. The shear amateurishness of the Baracka Flacka Flames "Head of State" video is revealed by the fact that the basis of the "joke," the neo-minstrel crooning of Southern race minstrel Waka Flocka Flame (and others of his ilk), is itself already a parody of what hip hop could and ought to be. Thus, the potential for creative genius is already compromised from the onset, as how does one satirize what is already satire (be it intentional or otherwise) poorly done?
As a child I recall watching television with my mother. That day a public service announcement implored viewers to adopt a foster child. In said appeal, one of the children proudly announced that if he had a family and his own room that he would draw rainbows all over the walls. I said to my mom, "wow, that is so touching." Mom looked at me and said, "No, it is sad. That child has never had anything nice in his life and the first thing he wants to do when he finally gets a room is to ruin it. Sometimes you can't give people nice things who aren't ready for them."
Years later I would see the wisdom of my mother's words in the once nice neighborhoods ruined by Section 8, suburbanized public housing, and absentee landlords. The weight of her words is also made clear when the first signs of scattered site housing and a "neighborhood in transition" inevitably appear--the litter on the ground, people sitting five deep on porches when a perfectly nice backyard is available, overflowing, naked garbage cans left curbside, corner boys, gang tags, and broken cars in various states of disrepair now parked on residential lawns.
While sociologists and others talk about social capital, social disorganization, and the merits of value neutral approaches to the different "cultural norms" that govern the use of public space, I simply fall back on my mother's wisdom: Sometimes folks just aren't ready to have nice things. And ultimately it is a crime to give them nice things before they are ready.
The Baracka Flacka Flames video is simply more proof of that self-evident truth. The Baracka Flacka Flames video is also proof of an instinct I have long held dear and (usually) kept private to myself: white supremacy is the greatest invention of all time, not because of its durability per se, but rather because of how the subject internalizes it, reproducing the conditions of their own self-hatred and subordination.
I am unafraid to speak to the obligations of black respectability. Sadly, while some of us are ready for the responsibility of having our first Black President, others have clearly demonstrated that they are not. How pitiable and tragic that some confuse a poverty of material circumstances with a poverty of self-respect and black pride.
The We Are Respectable Negroes News Network (WARNNN) has been steadily expanding its network of contacts. We always work hard to bring you, our readers, the stories and information that you care about most. In the three years since our founding, we have had the good fortune to bring you candid interviews with such public figures as Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan. Two of our greatest victories to date were exclusive interviews with the nebulous figures of "Racism," and with Glenn Beck's elusive Blackboard. And of course, Brother X-Squared made his Internet debut on our site.
Today we scored a coup. Although many Bothans died to bring us this information, WARNNN has secured THE interview to end all interviews. In response to Glenn Beck, the self-described rodeo clown of television news and his channeling of the Star Wars Trilogies, Obi-Wan Kenobi, legendary Jedi Knight, friend and mentor to Darth Vader, has agreed to an exclusive tell-all interview with Bill the Lizard, guest interviewer for this most special of conversations.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I haven't gone by the name Obi-Wan since oh, before you were born.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I felt a great disturbance in the Force...as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
WARNNN: Well, perhaps I can I play you a clip?
Obi-Wan Kenobi: A fighter that size couldn't get this deep into space on its own.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
WARNNN: Very strong words. However, there does seem to be a lot of intentional political trickery on the part of Fox News personalities. Especially Glenn Beck.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
We live in an age of colorblind racism, a world where racism exists, but there are no racists. True, we see the echos of bigotry on a frequent basis as the election of Barack Obama, changing racial demographics, and the Great Recession have brought the tea party brigands, the nativists, and the violent extremists out of hiding. But, there is little debate that the racism of today is structural, often impersonal, and more benign than in the dark days of Jim Crow.
For those activists, educators, journalists, policy types and other fellow travelers, this can make conversations with the post-Civil Rights multicultural generation on these matters quite difficult. Even when faced with the realities of racial inequality in housing, health, wealth and income disparities, incarceration rates, and other life indicators, the facts are often dismissed as "big" concepts that do not seem "real" or "personal." Thus, they are rendered untrue. When shown a vast literature that clearly demonstrates the realities of enduring racism in the Age of Obama, colorblind multiculturals also make a parallel move of denial and deflection: "sure this stuff is real, but I have never experienced it."
At times I feel like I am a conductor, a teacher in front of an audience, directing a symphony for a group that appreciates the aesthetics of the music, but doesn't get its power, complexity, or how the note and the drum are commentaries on our human existence. Or alternatively, I imagine myself an intrepid explorer, looking for the dodo bird, Bat Boy, the Yeti, or The Ark of the Covenant. I know these things are real, but I need to have the proof--"habeaus corpus"--to be able to produce the body. In short, theory needs to meet practice.
As a habit I do not engage in flame wars with Internet trolls. I enjoy a good fight. But these exchanges are often a waste of too valuable time. I broke my rule last weekend. On a popular black conservative's website I had a two day back and forth with a White arch-conservative libertarian, one who recites all of the mantras of the Right and the "reverse racism" crowd (and who by the way also believes that the Nazis were in fact "progressives" and "Socialists"). At the two day mark I disengaged, exhausted from punching water.
Nevertheless, it was wonderful proof that all of our high minded talk about racism, colorblindness, white racial resentment, and the white racial frame are reflections of the real world. I do truly believe in the virtues of what social scientists call "methodological individualism," that individual cases can tell us something about the broader social world. My conversation with said angry white man has only reinforced my allegiance to that key concept.
The whole exchange is worth reading, but the following post is an ideal-typical case of the politics of anger and white racial resentment that have long been with us, and are at present the beating heart of the New Right and the frothing at the mouth anti-Obama crowd.
What follows is akin to a critical race theorist's game of "Where's Waldo?" How many white deflections are present? What racial frame is being used? How is this an example of colorblind racism (or not)? What tired tropes are being deployed?
“When white Americans find it within themselves to say ‘I must be compensated for a past injustice done to me' but the same logic evaporates when the injustice concerns black Americans, they are staring straight at bias,” Banaji said.Banaji thinks exactly like you. Note the interesting seque from individual to group, and how he twists the issue. If you, Mr. Devega, were discriminated against by the Government, I'd be right there defending you. You've already indicated where you would be in my case, given your commentary on what I've already revealed about Governmental discrimination -- you'd be on the other side, saying "he got what he deserved because people with his skin color have been living off of the sweat of my ancestors way too long". So I do see an interesting bias -- and it ain't me.
Now, I wonder how many people Mr. Mazzocco could find to join his putative lawsuit if he stated that half of the owners of the company today avenged the shipping magnate in hand to hand combat, and suffered great harm to themselves, with many of them dying...
You see, when you try to construct a simile, you have to make sure that the simile addresses the proper aspects of the thing you are simulating.
On my side, I'll let FUBU not hire white sales reps -- if they can grow their business and become fabulously wealthy by not doing so, well -- that's all right by me. In fact, it's all right by me if they damage their business that way, because Darwin is at work here -- big time.
You have been as much a slave in your lifetime as I have -- and perhaps less, given how much less you claim to pay in taxes. I have no sympathy for the argument you present -- or, to put it another way, exactly as much sympathy for your argument as you have for mine.
My Scottish forebears lived on a small island in the north of Scotland. Their land was assigned to one of the British royalty, and their lord got it into his head that he wanted to grow sheep on their island. So he did, on every available acre of arable land. 50% of the population died of starvation, and 50% of the remainder emigrated to North America before the lord figured out that his sheep were also dying and stopped the whole thing. Now, do I have any cause for action against Great Britain for what they did to my family? Should I curse the Queen and demand redress from her? Well...when I look at the descendants of the 25% who stayed alive, and the lives they lead, I'm not about to go there. My family struggled here in the USA, but we made ends meet and then some, in the end. Yup, an anecdote -- which undoubtedly you'll find useless.
Let's go back to you. Good education. Nice computer. Good internet access. This is not the hallmark of someone who's had some slavelord over them for even the smallest fraction of their life. You have freedoms those people left back in Africa can only dream of having. Sure, things could be better -- perhaps in Africa, your family was royalty, had palaces and such and even sold slaves themselves... But I presume too much, as do you.
I'm for rights given to people in the present, and how those rights are used or abused in the present. I'm for individual causes of action, not group causes. I find it interesting what my great great grandfather and my grandfather and even my parents had to go through to raise up their children, but I don't let any injustices from those bygone eras, as they are, drive my relationships in the present.
As for the Germans and the Italians, it was merely a point to counter your point of white self-interest. If whites were truly uniformly self-interested as you posit, there would have been no major movement to abolish slavery and no question that the Constitution of 1860 was exactly correct....and the Germans and the Italians would have been compensated but the Japanese would not.
You are absolutely right -- there were so few of them -- in the low thousands, that
Given the above, you will almost certainly have to add a few more syllables to your artfully constructed name for me.
Monday, October 18, 2010
In Defense of Glenn Beck: The Peanut Gallery Speaks in the Letters Section of the New York Times Magazine
I try to take folks at their word and do sincerely believe that the inability to talk across lines of partisanship and party--and a profound lack of empathy and sympathy for those with whom we disagree--is driving much of the political rancor of the moment. Now, this does not mean that all points of view ought to be elevated to the level of a considerate opinion or that half-cooked beliefs should be treated with the respect reserved for well-trodden and researched fact.
Simply put, my "Sarah Palin head full of stupid rule" will always apply: let's call a spade a spade, because then we can move forward from a shared understanding of the facts at hand.
In keeping with my prime directive of letting folks find voice, I thought it useful to repost the following entry from the Letters section of The New York Times Magazine. Last week they published a very flattering and none too rigorous piece on Glenn Beck, resident brigand pied piper of the willfully ignorant and delusional Right-wing in America. I often wonder who buys into his charade. After reading this letter, I have a better sense of who they are.
Question: should we pity this woman? Or should we (in the spirit of Noam Chomsky's suggestion) try to understand what is driving the adulation by the foot soldiers of the Right for figures such as Beck, Savage, Limbaugh, Palin, Angle, O'Donnell and other such false populists? Stated differently, is "their" pain "our" pain?
I do so badly want to pathologize the supporters of this new/old conservative populism and 21st century Know-nothing John Bircherism. But I can't bring myself to do it, for I do not know if folks such as Helga Olsson are to be pitied or feared.
Leibovich’s snide reporting of Beck as a human being, much less the country’s favorite television sage, is true New York Times muckraking, solid antitruth rhetoric par excellence. It made me sick to read such belligerence. But then Leibovich shows his own colors, seeming to relish his repetitive observations of the many times Beck has cried on TV or said something provocatively unfavorable to left-wingers. The constant smear of this kind of verbiage did not work on those of us who admire him and are everyday listeners. I am grateful for Beck’s teachings, which are also borne out by the truth of his scholarship, as well as his fears, that under the current administration we are entering a politically bankrupt “transformative” period in our country, identical to what I and other former East Germans experienced when Communism reared its ugly head there. Some of us overcame many odds to escape to America and are incensed that now we are about to taste that ugly kind of brainwashing, big government, lies and misrepresentations once again, here on our new home soil. Those of us who know the truth can identify with Beck’s teachings. We are going down the blind path to the loss of our individual freedoms, forced to hand over our hard-earned savings to make others richer, seeing corruption on the largest scale we can imagine, all under the name of “redistribution of wealth.” Nowhere in the world has this awful method ever worked. Nowhere. And you make fun of the message-bearer?
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Sunday Afternoon Thinking Project: Dr. Na'im Akbar on the Normativity of Whiteness and the Power of Eurocentrism
You know you are hearing a genius at work when a brother can connect Santa Claus with Colonialism, Imperialism, and the arrogant myopia that is whiteness and Eurocentrism.
I strive for precision in my language when I write about and discuss racism, politics, and white supremacy. Sometimes I succeed. More often than not I fail.
It is easy to do get locked into jargon's seductive gaze. Many academics like the shorthand. It sounds smart, sophisticated, and sexy (at least to our ears). But when pressed, many scholar-professionals-teachers cannot offer a simple, rich, detailed explanation of the concepts at hand. Nor can they explain why these concepts matter to students or the general public.
Dr. Naim Akbar's deconstruction of white supremacy possesses none of these common failings. By comparison, his lecture is a wonderful example of what academics and teachers should strive for as he offers clarity, precision and theory without any slight of hand. Folks, there is no academic kayfabe or trickery here.
There is a also a double irony in Dr. Akbar's comments. I have long thought that dilettantes and the semi-qualified have co-opted the language of white privilege without doing the hard and foundational work necessary to really understand this concept. Simply put, many liberal white racists have started to play the white privilege game. Not surprisingly, many of these same folks couldn't tell you about anything more than sister Peggy McIntosh's Invisible Knapsack of Whiteness. They certainly couldn't tell you about Theodore Allen, Andrew Saxton, or W.E.B. DuBois and his Souls of White Folk. Lord knows they have never heard of A Rage for Order.
The practical consequence of this backdoor entry into critical race studies is that many of these well-intentioned souls end up (re)centering whiteness as their normative lens. Once and again, white folks remain the center of the universe even as they are ostensibly moved from being the "universal I" to the level of mere "object."
A question for teachers, allies, students, friends, and fellow travelers. What is the lecture or talk you can give with effortless ease and with profound clarity and directness as measured not in your own estimation, but by that of your audience? What is your worst? The one where jargon seems unavoidable and your failure of communication (and students' reception) is made painfully evident as you read their papers come midterm and finals?
For those on the other side of the table, what is the most informative and powerful lecture or seminar you have experienced? One that you still think about to this day?
Friday, October 15, 2010
A bit late on this one, but well worth it...
The Republicans and the Tea Party are the gift that keep on giving. In one party we have quite likely to be mentally ill Christine O'Donnell, secessionist kook Sharon Angle, Republican Senators such as Glenn McConnell who attend galas (with happy slaves and auctions) set in the "Good Ol' Confederacy," and now a Nazi role-player in Richard Iott who dresses up as a Waffen SS officer for weekend sport. As someone with more than a passing interest in military affairs and issues of historical memory I was going to chime in. But, I am also practical.
Why do something yourself, when you can have a friend--one who actually has a forthcoming book on Weimar-era Germany--do it for you?
As always, Werner Herzog's Bear has kindly obliged us by emerging from his comfy cave to bring some sense to this tea party brigand nonsense.
Like a lot of people, I was both dismayed and amused by the news that a Tea Party-approved candidate for the House used to spend his weekends in a Nazi uniform re-enacting the exploits of a Waffen SS unit in World War II. The amusement came from seeing a bunch of middle-aged, suburban beer bellied slobs playing dress up like they could have survived ten minutes on the Eastern Front. The dismay came from the fact that they were not re-enacting a regular Wehrmacht unit, but one from the Waffen SS, the military arm of the institution responsible for carrying out the Holocaust. Not only that, the material on their website claims that members of the original Wiking unit were just doing their patriotic duty:
“We salute these idealists; no matter how unsavory the Nazi government was, the front-line soldiers of the Waffen-SS (in particular the foreign volunteers) gave their lives for their loved ones and a basic desire to be free.”
As anyone who actually studies these things can tell you, the German military’s invasion of the Soviet Union was a war of racial conquest, extermination, and enslavement. Anyone who tries to downplay that fact, or to celebrate the perpetrators behind it, is either horribly naïve, deluded, or a closet fascist.
There are a lot of ways to analyze Iott’s participation in the Wiking re-enactors. On the surface, it must be said, is the ultimate irony that Tea Partiers have been foaming at the mouth over the supposed parallels between Adolf Hitler and Barack Obama. To me, it’s increasingly easier to read those slanders as a desperate attempt to cover up the hard Right’s fascist tendencies.
That being said, I think we can actually go much deeper. Beyond the hypocrisy and the authoritarian fever dreams lurking in the Teabagger id, Iott’s hobby reveals the Tea Party’s ignorant and false understanding of history. Ultimately, the Tea Party views history as a vindication of their ideas, but they understand history as a kind of playground emancipated from any rules of historical fact and interpretation.
Tea Party events are infamous for the participants dressed in powdered wigs and tricorn hats. Their mouthpiece, Glenn Beck, likes to pose in costume himself, and constantly uses a distorted view of history to brand Progressives “fascists.” As I have pointed out in the past, he took Thomas Paine, an avowed enemy of organized religion and a proto-socialist, and turned him into a Bible-thumping free marketer. Why did he get away with this? Because his followers do not know or care about the real historical record, just as Iott seems to be unaware of the realities of the Eastern Front. (I will actually give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he’s not a Nazi, he’s just stupid, confused, and insensitive.)
They use and abuse history in this fashion because they need its authority to give their blinkered worldview some legitimacy. Their ideas have failed miserably in the present, so why not create a false, idealized distant past where they worked? I think that professional historians like myself need to do a lot more to set the record straight, since Teabagger history not only distorts the truth, its funhouse of costumes and invented facts threatens to confuse the past so much that Teabagger fabrications will be accepted for reality. After awhile it does remind one of a certain political group that blamed their nation’s military defeat on a “stab in the back” from their political enemies and used the resulting anger to grab power for themselves. Gosh, I wonder who they were again…
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
A new poll found that just 36 per cent of voters now believed that relations between black and white was getting better.
This is compared with 62 per cent a year ago and 55 per cent in April.
According to the Rasmussen survey, black respondents were less optimistic - with just 13 per cent believing that understanding between the races was heading in the right direction, compared to 39 per cent of whites.
Confidence that America had broken through a major race barrier with Mr Obama’s election two years ago appears to have sunk along with the popularity of his administration.
For Barack Obama, these responsibilities, and the incumbent, imagined, erstwhile power of the presidency seem to be magnified. As the first black president he is viewed by many as a messianic figure--a man who is one part Superman, with the power of Star Trek's Q, and infused with the magical appeal of Kennedy-Camelot redux. Obama, especially Candidate Obama, was imagined by some to be able to lay hands, heal the sick, and part the seas of American malaise and decline. Inversely, for many of his ideological foes Barack Obama is the harbinger of doom, all things evil, and a Manchurian half-rican anti-Christ "Progressive" "Marxist" "Socialist" long-legged Mack Daddy who lays awake at night plotting the destruction of their beloved United States of America.
After the fuzzy glow of Election Night 2008 had morphed into the real business of practical politics--the honeymoon now over--we witnessed a predictable backlash. The loyal opposition had decided that President Obama was not moving fast enough and had betrayed the vocal Left. Conservatives, both ideological purists as well as those of the New Right, neo-John Birch, Tea Party crowd, had decreed that they would stand in the schoolhouse door and stop President Obama's policy agenda at any cost...even if it meant burning down the village in order to liberate it.
Obama is truly a "bound man" because the symbolic weight of his racial identity adds a burden, one both positive and negative. For the former, the symbolism of Obama as President is aspirational wherein African Americans and others expect more from Barack precisely because he stands on the shoulders of the Black Freedom Struggle. For the latter, the very fact of his blackness (and that as a black man he had the unmitigated gall to run for the presidency and to win) is a lightening rod for all manner of white racial resentment, and is used as evidence for an insincere neo-liberal colorblind politics that imagines racism to be now dead, slain by the election of America's first non-white President.
Given this mix of impulses in the American body politic, the meme that race relations are now made worst in the Age of Obama is a predictable one. There is always a backlash when a society experiences a system shock. To point: the election of Barack Obama most certainly shook the metaphorical bushes and encouraged the racially resentful, nativist, and bigoted vipers to come out of hiding. But this push-back against America's first black president, to the degree that ideology is intermixed with racial hostility, also leaves some basic questions unasked. For example:
Alternatively, are the policy choices of President Obama (to act or not) on certain issues actually making race relations worse?
As a third option, did the election of Barack Obama along with changing demographics in a time of economic uncertainty stimulate a white racial backlash, an out-sized response that would inevitably overflow into the mass public?
The full story from the Daily Mail can be read here.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Black Revenge Fantasies, White Manhood, and Historical Memory: Boardwalk Empire's Episode, "Anastasia" Reviewed
HBO's Boardwalk Empire is a lush television series. Do not be mistaken: Lushness does not necessarily mean a completeness of superficial physical beauty or the trap of ephemeral and pretty things. Lushness can also be depth. It can be intelligence. Lushness can be breadth and reward. As noted philosopher Slavoy Zizek said of the seminal dystopian film Children of Men, some artifacts of popular culture reward "deep viewing." For those who study film, popular culture, or the semiotics of mass culture, this means viewing a film with obligatory seriousness, intensity, and broadness of field.
For scholars of film, this understanding is a wink to the concept understood as "Mis En Scene." Translated: Boardwalk Empire frames a shot in such a way as to encourage a careful attention to clothing, the positioning of the characters relative to one another, and of the scene at large. The most damning observation that one can make of a television series such as Boardwalk Empire, a period piece set in the 1920's, is that it is a wax museum come to life. On its worst of days, and in the hands of a lesser steward, Boardwalk Empire could be the pitiable performance of a once great Motown band singing at a county fair when all the magic is gone, and the agents involved are in full denial about how far low they have fallen. Boardwalk Empire is none of these things--it is a window into the past, carefully constructed, and indelibly committed to the best that dramatic television can offer.
Boardwalk Empire is set is the great age of Prohibition-era America, when flappers danced upon the stage, temperance societies of now empowered (white) women reigned for a moment as they spread the wings of their now found political agency, and gangsters (with their liquor) were king. This is also the moment when white ethnics--those Italians, Irish, Greeks, and others--fought to burn away their ethnicity in the crucible of a soon to be found full whiteness in the post-World War One moment, as they become erstwhile Horatio Algers, when like James Cagney, they came to understand that "the world is mine."
The setting that is the literal boardwalk in Boardwalk Empire is also a complement to how race was made in early 20th century America. The sites, sounds, and spectacle of this space, the World's Fairs and mass culture were locations for race making through popular culture. Moreover, the iron cage of white manhood, its imagined fraternal order, and the creation of "normal" bodies were all made real through the accessible spectacles featured on the boardwalk of places like Atlantic City, P.T. Barnum's enterprises, the "freak show," Ripley's stages, and the great midways of cities such as Chicago.
Boardwalk Empire contains all of these elements. It has acknowledged the racist spectacle of The Hottentot Venus. The marquis of the theaters featured in Boardwalk Empire's deep scenes all signal to this history. Cigarette store Indians are omnipresent. Black popular culture is the ether of The Roaring Twenties, all the while black folks are dismissed as schwartzes who don't polish the crystal ware correctly. As whiteness exists only in juxtaposition to blackness and the Other, black folk are peripheral to Boardwalk Empire while being central to the American mythos. This is especially clear in Sunday's episode, "Anastasia." Because popular culture, especially television shows such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, traffic in the malleability of historical memory, the white gaze doesn't see "us," but "we" are forever there.
The greatest moment of Boardwalk Empire's "Anastasia" episode signals to the power of blackness in American memory, and of this country's popular culture at large. To this point, Nucky, Steve Bushemi's (main) character, the top dog of Atlantic City, is playing chess not checkers. If politics is "what have you done for me lately?" and "who get's what, when, and why?" Nucky must reach out to Chalky, Omar of The Wire fame and the boss of the African American political machine in Atlantic City. Ultimately in "Anastasia," realpolitik trumps white supremacy and provincial notions of the supremacy of white bodies over those black and brown.
There is also a fantasy element to collective memory which Boardwalk Empire is so keenly aware. Some viewers may indulge dreams of flappers, finely tailored suits, and bootleg liquor. For those with a blue's sensibility, our freedom dreams may be a bit different: How many of "us" have ever gotten to sit across from their sworn foes? To make them render onto Caesar? To act out justice upon their bodies?
In "Anastasia," Chalky indulges this dark dream--an Inglorious Bastards moment--of providential justice. He sits across from the Grand Cyclops of the KKK in Atlantic City. Chalky, in the longest monologue on the show to date relays a tale of class, race, and "uppity" negroes who dared to step out of line. For this, Chalky's father swung like strange fruit. And as Chalky opens up the leather clutch that contains his father's tools to torture the Grand Cyclops, we understand that pain will be a form of cathartic vengeance.
Here, suffering rendered onto the enemies of black folk, the Knight Riders, Klansmen, Klanswomen, and others is also a fantasy of sorts. How many black Americans can really recount a family story--one that is "true"--of relatives hung on the lynching tree, of uppity negro Catcher Freeman runaways, and where we, all of us, had grandmas who had Colt revolvers hiding under the hemline of their dresses ready for any white man (or anyone for that matter) who crossed them?
And we certainly cannot forget the stories about former chattel who ran away and came back as Union soldiers--much to the chagrin of their former masters; of slaves who posted bounties for their "owners" during Reconstruction; slaves that evicted masters on the plantation as they built a nation under their feet, or of the ultimate "go to hell letter" written by Jourdan Anderson to his white "employer." These are collective memories that may or not be literally true. Nevertheless, this does not take away the power of these communal truths because collective memory is none diminished by appeals to empirical truth.
In relief, Boardwalk Empire is a story of class, aspiration, and the Horatio Alger myth. Boardwalk Empire is also a tale of revenge and fantasy on the part of "us" against "them." Per our tradition, some questions about the Easter Eggs and Mis En Scenes of Boardwalk Empire:
1. What have you noticed in the background? What is your favorite shot of the series so far?
2. Of fashion choices and body sculpting. Am I the only person who has noticed something amiss with Lucy's beautiful breasts, or the choice of "female grooming" to this point so far?
3. Harlem. I need to see Harlem in its heyday. As an Easter egg, Boardwalk Empire could feature some former Harlem Hellfighters as badmen and now gangsters. Alternatively, some former white officers in those famed units would make for suitably complicated characters that are nonetheless racist, but somehow "progressive" for their contemporary moment in Jim Crow America.
4. On that note, Steve Bushemi's character dismisses the obviously "racist" cop during their meeting. Am I being cynical, or does the white racial frame always find a way to protect itself through a narrative where white racism is an outlier and most white folk are always good people--despite the politics of the epoch?
5. The Romanovs. What a great meta-narrative for this episode as Boardwalk Empire is a show centered on the pretenses of class mobility, uplift, social betters, and striving towards the good life.
6. As we saw with the slashing of Jimmy's prostitute lover, do the little folks always have to suffer for their associations with the marginally more powerful?
7. Why the emphasis on premature babies? Is this some signal to technology, progress, and America? Or is it a wink to a fascination with abnormal bodies during the early part of the 20th century?
8. We have Chalky as the bad black man and one of the machine bosses of Atlantic City. Are we going to see The Queen, the real queen, who was marginalized by the Hollywood myth-making machine in Lawrence Fishburne's movie Hoodlum?
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Saturday Afternoon Thinking Project: Is Islam a Religion of Peace? Chris Hitchens Versus Tariq Ramadan
Returning to the evening’s assignment, Hitchens said Islam requires the belief that the prophet Muhammad was “a perfect human being” and that the Koran is “a perfect book.” “These are categories that do not exist,” Hitchens said. “Yet any challenge to them is heresy. The demands that you believe these imperatives do not lead to peaceful outcomes.”
It is good to see Christopher Hitchens in the ring throwing punches and scoring points.
This debate is a good one that is akin to the classic rivalry between Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat and Ric Flair. Both Ramadan and Hitchens are at the top of their respective games. The latter a secular humanist, the former a religiously informed scholar. Styles make fights: Tariq Ramadan is at a profound disadvantage in this exchange as intellectuals who proceed from a faith perspective have already ceded too much territory in the terrain of rationality, empiricism, and truth to win any debate against Christopher Hitchens (or any other exemplary informed atheist or agnostic). Nevertheless, Tariq gives as good as he gets.
So, is Islam a religion of peace?
I have little taste for such questions as they are imprecise. Moreover, the trope that Islam is a religion of peace seems akin to a set of tired talking points that the well-intentioned and naive can recite without having to ask hard questions about the deeds committed in the name of Islam--and how said deeds are supported by selective citations of a text. But, I also don't think that Judaism or Christianity are religions of peace either. For in practice, individuals, States, charismatic personalities, and mindless followers of faith have committed any number of murderous deeds over the centuries in the name of their personal "God" (or "gods"). Here religion and "faith" seemed to embolden human wickedness and not temper it.
In these matters I follow a shorthand rule: in a secular society the religiously minded should learn to play nicely with others. Despite what some on the Right would suggest, religion and the claims thereof do not a priori and prima facie demand respect by virtue of their mere existence.
For example, in Europe there is a real struggle between the forces of the secular and politicized Islam. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the obvious when free speech is imperiled by threats of violence and murder; the obligation of the radicalized faithful to create a global caliphate, and where Sharia law is creeping forward. Likewise, in the United States the influence of Christian Nationalists, Christian Zionists, and Christian Dominionists is a dangerous encroachment on the public good in what is ostensibly a constitutional republic where church and state are separate.
Ultimately, I would respectfully suggest that the mysterious and the unprovable should remain private matters, as by virtue of the very necessity of faith to remove certain priors from debate what remains are matters unresolvable in the public square or through reasoned debate.
The full text of the Ramadan versus Hitchens debate can be found here.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Radical Feminism or Female Misandry? Duke University Undergraduate Student Karen Owen's "Fuck List" Goes Viral
Question: Is Karen Owen a radical feminist or a woman who hates men?
My parents gave me a pretty good birds and bees talk before I went to college. It was direct and went something like this: "You are going to have opportunities to hook up with lots of women. Be careful and before you have sex with them ask yourself if you really want to be either stuck with them forever if you knock them up, or alternatively have to deal with someone who will put your business in the street."
Over the years I have crystallized this down to my "crazy eyes" litmus test, i.e. does she have those eyes that indicate something is amiss (an imperfect rule because crazy eyes often do not appear until post-coitus) and if it becomes known that I took said lady to space mountain will I be ashamed to be publicly linked with her?
In the era of Facebook and social networking this age old rubric seems to have been thrown aside by a generation of millennials who are constantly connected, who bathe in the glow of the false intimacy provided by sexting, texting, i'ming, twittering, friending, and the like--yet are often incapable of effectively communicating in person. They want the closeness. But many do not have the maturity or life skills to deal with the consequences of their generations' shattering of the divide between public and private.
At Duke University an enterprising young undergraduate has provided an object lesson in this phenomenon. Karen Owen has compiled a Powerpoint presentation titled, "An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics." In short, this is Karen Owen's "fuck list" (I am too lazy and simply use a napkin and pen for this obligatory task). Inevitably, our intrepid undergraduate researcher then sent this document for the ages to her friends.
Gasp. Shock. Surprise. Karen's sex list was circulated online and has now gone viral. Helicopter parents of the featured Lotharios are calling the Dean of Students at Duke (Can you imagine that phone call? "Hello, I am Mr. SuperMcCool beerpong playing lacrosse dude's mom. Karen Owen hooked up with him, and wrote a report where she discussed the size of his penis and how he is a lazy lover. It is upsetting him. Please tell her to stop sharing this personal information or I will sue the school!"). And predictably, in our era of ritualized and empty apologizes for outcomes that ought to be predictable, Ms. Owen has responded to her critics with the following script: "I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that."
The report itself is an entertaining sociological document that provides more insight into the life of college age students than the obligatory My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student--the current favorite of many a university's Center for Teaching and Learning. Yes, it is true that Karen Owen's methodology is sloppy. Her style of presentation also suggests something is amiss in higher education (and our culture at large) when Powerpoint is somehow imagined to equal either intellectual rigor or clarity of thought.
A helpful note to Miss Owen (and all other undergraduates, colleagues at conferences, and folks in general who rely on this technological crutch): Powerpoint should be used only as an aid to communication and not as a distraction from your primary message. Long lines of unbroken text and endless bullet points obfuscate your message. Use Powerpoint to highlight key concepts and to create powerful visuals that could not be communicated in another fashion. Please avoid animations and flashy transitions between slides as they annoy the audience.
Nevertheless, there is much to be applauded here. Of note, while Ms. Owen's reach does not equal her grasp, the intervention of using such criteria as creativity, aggressiveness, talent, and the size on her lovers' penises as metrics is a nice wink to scientific rigor.
Substantively, Ms. Owen's anthropological record is one of drunken sex, athlete chasing and quasi-groupie behavior, the role of black men's genitals in the libidinous imaginations of poorly endowed white frat boy athletes, passion filled nights, the ability of hip hop legend DMX to inspire a morning rutting session, and the soothing soulful notes of Trey Songz as the preamble for a hooking-up session with a near-stranger (apparently he is the millennials' version of Barry White).
There are so many questions to be asked. Is this ironic karma in action, that the infamous and entitled Duke lacrosse team would have the tables turned on them? How does race and gender play into this? If a man had compiled a Powerpoint list of his female lovers and circulated it, would there be an outcry? What does this incident tell us about the campus climate and undergraduate culture at elite universities in the age of Facebook and the Great Recession?
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Libertarianism's Dystopian Dreaming: Fire Department Lets Family's House Burn Down Over a $75 Membership Fee
In a thousand years I never would have imagined that I would write the following:
On September 30, 2010, a family watched their house burn down because they did not pay a seventy-five dollar "membership" fee to the fire department. They pleaded for help as the fire department stood by, while their home, animal family members, and dreams were turned into ashes. A neighbor offered to pay the "fee" and was ignored. The Right and their pied piper Glenn Beck (along with others drunken on the noxious stew that is Ayn Rand infused libertarianism and Tea Party ribaldry) find mocking joy in the Cranicks' loss. Welcome to America in the year 2010.
Americans (whether intentionally or otherwise) frame their understandings of politics around the notion of "freedom dreams." For some, this is a dream of mass mobilization and a return to the "glorious" 1960s. For others, it is a belief in the virtues of "small government" and "freedom to" as opposed to the necessities of "freedom from." In the imagery of the modern myth that is Ronald Reagan's "a shining city on the hill" and his "morning in America," the freedom dream was one of a renewed country that inexorably triumphs over an "evil empire" and where wealth came to all through trickle down economics and the fictional bounties of The Laffer Curve. The election of Barack Obama under the banner of "change" and "hope" was another type of freedom dream--one where young people along with folks across all boundaries of race and class could come together to heal the economic, social, and political wounds caused by the Bush administration.
Sadly, these freedom dreams seem to have reached an impasse. As America grapples with the Great Recession, a pair of permanent and seemingly endless wars, the contraction of the middle class, and how to best manage its fall from grace as the preeminent power in the world, we are witness to the rise of alternative framework. Enter: libertarianism's dystopian dreaming.
Here, local and state governments offer mandated furloughs to employees. Basic services such as police, fire, and 911 have been drastically curtailed. Public municipalities are on the verge of bankruptcy. The gap between rich and poor is widening while wages remain stagnant and the middle class contracts. One in six Americans receive public assistance. Tent cities have sprung forth for the indigent and semi-homeless, while others wait days at a time for medical care from traveling health clinics. Citizens are tired and exhausted. And ultimately as the inevitable result of the Right's dogma beginning from at least the 1970s and early 1980s that government is the problem and not the solution (where the Great Society is imagined as an abject failure) the public has come to expect little from the State and its elected leaders.
As brilliantly highlighted by Sheldon Wolin in his book Democracy Incorporated, there is a sense on the part of the American people that democracy is a sham, an artifice run by two major parties distinguished only by the degree to which they are beholden to a corporate kleptocracy. In America's managed democracy presidential elections can be stolen with little outcry. Profit is the motive for all things--even the most basic of services such as fire protection, education, and health care that ought to be granted to citizens by virtue of their membership in the polity.
This is a creeping rot. For example, on one day it is the most basic of "public goods"--the non-excludable items that every Introduction to Macroeconomics student learns about the first day of class--that are taken away because of an inability to pay. Tomorrow, it may be police protection. The following day, the exclusion could extend to something as basic as national defense--a service to be outsourced to the highest bidder.
We saw a hint of the selfish egotism and empathy-less madness that is inherent in the libertarian, anti-statism that cheered on the burning down of the Cranick family's home in the moments following Hurricane Katrina. While some rightfully focused on the narrative of race and poverty in that American tragedy where the white racial frame deemed black Americans scavenging for food to be "looters," and white folks in the same perilous straits as "looking for food," there was another narrative at play. For some on the Right, the fall of New Orleans was not a parable about the logistical failures of the federal and state governments. Instead, Hurricane Katrina's enduring lesson was that the poor (read: the underclass and blacks at large) need to get an education, end the cycle of poverty, and then purchase cars so they can get out of town if another hurricane were to strike the city: A cruel calculus that ignores any questions of the common good, or of the obligations, merits, and value of citizenship.
Ultimately, the dismantlement of the State, and a breaking of the expectation that the government has obligations to all citizens (and we to our democracy) serves only the rich, the privileged, and the powerful. They can wallow in the sophomoric musings of Ayn Rand and libertarian philosophies best suited to the drunken meditations of college age trustifarians because those with resources simplistically imagine that they are islands onto themselves with little to any need for the government. The Rand Pauls of the world can muse poetically about a repeal of the Civil Rights Act because to them it is an odd historical factoid, not a law that governs their treatment as full citizens. Beck and company can harp on about the evils of unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and "progressives" because they are rich off of their unique brand of faux-populism and its appeal to the tea party, astroturf lemmings. More generally, the New Right and its supplicants can harp on about nullification and "second amendment" remedies precisely because the repeal of the federal government's power serves their politics of "us" as opposed to "them."
As a function of our freedom dreams, we often spend a great deal of time talking about American exceptionalism. What is a core tenet in American society, held in different and varying ways by folks on both the Left and the Right, that America is a unique place, almost singular in destiny, origins, and claims to the greatness of its democracy. But one must also ask the hard questions: How "exceptional" is a country where citizens are deprived of basic services? Where folks like the Cranicks can be made to stand and watch while their home burns to the ground over a membership fee? Is America exceptional because of its infant mortality rate? The educational achievements of its students? The longevity of its citizens? Her status as a debtor nation? The amount she spends on the military?
The burning of the Cranick's home is a sign of a deeper malaise. In total, their loss was an object lesson in the Right's libertarianism infused dystopian dreaming, where empathy and sympathy are trodden over by selfishness and a pure profit-loss calculation.
Nevertheless, I remain a dreamer. Thus, I must ask the following: Is all truly lost? What can we do as Americans on the Left, in the middle, and on the responsible Right to regain our freedom dreams? Are these dreams now and permanently in the dustbin of history, never to be reclaimed? Or is there some undiscovered country that awaits us all?
Friday, October 1, 2010
I am a pragmatist. I believe that education can have a transformative effect for some students. I do not believe that I am some collegiate version of Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. My only expectation is that my students meet me (at least) halfway and take ownership for their own learning--and at some bare minimum grapple with the ideas presented in class in an intellectually honest and rigorous manner. Nevertheless (and despite our best intentions), we may encounter
"Do you remember when?" is usually the most banal form of conversation in existence. Nevertheless, for my purposes today a trip down memory lane proves most instructive. One of my favorite professors (we will call him Dr. Kurt) in college relayed a story to me when I was contemplating graduate school. This wise soul of Sociology told me about one of his best students, a young man who was curious, excited by the material, and eager to absorb all that my then mentor had to offer. Dr. Kurt had found a holy grail: What is seemingly a dream come true--a padawan to our Yoda; a Mr. Miyagi to our Daniel. Said student absorbed everything taught in his classes on race, class, and gender. And he was especially fascinated by the politics of housing segregation and the built environment.
Dr. Kurt was both pleased and gratified. Years later, Dr. Kurt would meet his protege at a class reunion. Excited to share how his life had been indelibly marked by Dr. Kurt's classes, said student explained that sociology was the basis of his career success. My mentor was overjoyed. "How?" he asked. Our young friend explained that "I work in real estate. All that stuff on redlining and blockbusting was so useful for me. I apply those techniques and I'm now a millionaire because of how well I use them. Thanks!"
Dr. Kurt laughed as he told the story, the laughter a complement and mask both to, and for, his intellectually infused gallows humor. As a newbie I didn't understand the nuances of the tale. Finally, I think I am starting to "get" Dr. Kurt's wizened wisdom. For in these last few weeks I have witnessed the following episodes...what could be great fodder for a never to be written set of memoirs:
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number One: In one of my classes, we are discussing the spatial dimensions of neighborhoods, segregation, and how race is a cognitive map, a floating signifier that organizes our world, and that white supremacy is still a real, trans-historical, social force. In what I thought was an accessible way to demonstrate the power of this point, I showed my class the infamous This American Life episode on the restaurant Weiner Circle, where white racism is on full display when the mask of civility is dropped in the whee hours of the night at this legendary Chicago eatery. The next class session one of my students was visibly excited as she exclaimed, "Professor, I went to Weiner Circle over the weekend with my friends! The food looked so good in the video I just had to try it. It was awesome!" Epic. Face. Palm. Moment.
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number Two: I spend a great deal of time on racial formation theory. Accordingly, I go for the jugular and don't flinch. Whiteness is the center of the conversation. The relationship of Whiteness to power is the frame. How white ethnics earned their bonafides as fully White citizens by hating, distancing themselves from, and participating in often violent rituals against black Americans is the ugly history that we will confront together.
Some students are enraptured. Others are sitting nervously with the "did he just go there?" look on their faces (I hold my breath waiting for my evaluations each year by the way). With great passion, a young quasi-White student raised his hand. Upset he offered, "my relatives have done everything we have read about. I am so frustrated. Why haven't we, Hispanics, earned our whiteness and white privilege! This is so unfair." Rendered. Speechless. Despite. Intervention. Moment.
Race in the Age of Obama Pedagogical Failure Moment Number Three: There is often a disconnect between what students read and how they believe it does (or does not) apply to them. If it is positive and reinforces their priors about how wonderful, grand, great and post-racial said students believe themselves to be, this information seems to be retained. When this information challenges said priors, or calls their own behavior into question, the data is discarded. Often, despite the best efforts of some to dismiss challenging information, students often prove the very logic of the theories of which they are so suspicious.
Several of my assigned readings focus on the scripts that white folks in the age of colorblindness use to deflect charges of racism specifically, and of the overwhelming power of race to over-determine life chances, more generally. As a daily task, I ask my students to critically evaluate their readings for a given day. Not surprisingly--and perhaps most depressingly--many of them deploy the same tactics highlighted in the readings for the class. "I am not a racist, but..." "I have black/brown/Hispanic/gay/minority friends and..." "My relatives came to America a hundred years ago and we never owned slaves so..." And my favorite, "Okay, all this stuff may be true but it doesn't apply to me or my friends and I don't really believe it and..." No. Comment. Not. Ever.
In the interest of transparency, my worries are not that the disconnect between teachers' intent and students' reception is anything new. These are common laments across time, culture, and generations. But, how do we go about teaching race, and the realities of colorblind racism in the Age of Obama? When for the post-Civil Rights generation to even talk about race is itself "racist?" How do we overcome this gap in language, understanding, and application?
More generally, is this is a classic story of a gallon's worth of information being poured into a pint size glass size of intellect and preparation? Or are these moments an example of a collective failure on the part of teachers, universities, and colleges? Moreover, are the expectations we hold for our "millennial" students too high?
Pray tell my fellow teachers, students, and other allies, how do you respond to these moments of utter pedagogical disconnect? Tips, suggestions, or strategies?