Monday, September 27, 2010

Of Secrets, Playboy Bunnies, the Military Industrial Complex, and Taboo Love: Mad Men's Episode, "Hands and Knees" Reviewed

Black folks have been obligatory bits of window dressing in the last two episodes of
Mad Men. Question: Which is more problematic, African-Americans center frame as giant negroes (last week) or as Playboy Bunnies (this week)?

The theme of Sunday's episode was secrets--secrets revealed; secrets confessed; and secrets at risk. As one more example of the sharp writing and Easter eggs aplenty in Mad Men, the closing musical cue of "Hands and Knees" was the Beatle's song "Do You Want to Know a Secret."

Mad Men has revolved around this theme since its first episode. Don Draper's secret is the life that is a lie, one adopted from a dead G.I. in Korea. Peggy's secret is her love child by Pete. Sal's secret is his life as a closeted gay man. Joan and Roger's secret is their love affair. More generally, the secrets of Mad Men are a polite wink to the lie that is advertising (for isn't the word "secret" just a polite cousin to deception?). By extension, Mad Men is at its heart a show about desires, wants, and greed--of the characters and of the mass public--as they are manipulated into being pliant consumers and self-perpetuating happiness machines.

But what to do when the wheels threaten to fall of off the machine? When the secrets we hold will be revealed to all? Or the Ponzi scheme, the house of cards the American economy is built upon (as The Great Recession has made clear) all threaten to fall down? Apparently, the characters of Mad Men delayed the inevitable in this episode, but at what cost to their souls and lives?

Per tradition, here are some questions and observations:

1. Got to love the clothes. The torpedo bra on Toni, the maternity teddy on Trudy. Question: Am I a deviant because I saw Trudy's playful garb, rotund belly, and come-hither look, and immediately said in my best Robocop/Smash TV voice that "I'd buy that for a dollar!"

2. One of the story arcs of Mad Men is the rise of the military-industrial complex and the national security (and now national intelligence) state. These companies employ hundreds, if not thousands of lobbyists, public relations personnel, and other consultants to sell the American people on the necessity of spending trillions of dollars on guns and not butter. As offered by "Hands and Knees," the Northrop Grummans, Lockheed Martins, and General Electrics of the world propagandize going to the moon, but never discuss the dead hand or MIRVs.

With good reason: The Consumer's Republic is now almost inseparable from the military-industrial complex because both are addicted to the technological marvels produced by this union, and to talk about destruction instead of pleasure would not fatten the bottom line. For example, the Internet, the personal computer, cell phones, and many advanced medical technologies are a product of the tax payers' subsidy of the military and its iron mongers. Question: are we talking to ourselves? Does Joe Q. Public even care about this problematic relationship and how it subverts democracy?Was anyone even listening to Eisenhower's prescient warning?

3. We know that Don Draper is going to bed Megan (can you blame him?). He is self-destructive and runs from the real intimacy offered by Faye. The latter is a keeper of secrets by trade, want, and character. Once Don takes his prize, will Faye reveal his secret in a moment of scorned love?

4. Random thought: Is Don a coward? Does he secretly want his secret out? (got to love that Oscar Wilde word play) Will this reveal and its resulting chaos complete Don Draper's story, one where he is a semi-tragic, anti-hero?

5. Apparently, Hugh Hefner was a civil rights visionary, the Rosa Parks of poontang. As the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel suggests, Hugh was a firm believer in the equality of the races and was sympathetic to the fight of Black Americans for full citizenship. Famously, Playboy magazine featured cutting-edge interviews with Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali. Less well known is Hefner's official policy of racial non-discrimination at his Playboy Clubs.

This is one more bit of smart writing on an already brilliant show that rewards close viewing. To point: is Mad Men's introduction of Toni a triumph over racism, because women (apparently, despite the color of their skin) are consistently treated as objects by the men around them? Or is Toni's character (a quasi-sex worker) rendered even more problematic because of how race and gender are configured on her body? What would womanists have to say about this one?

6. Charlie Murphy! No, not really. But Lane's father hitting him upside the head with a cane was worthy of Chappelle's infamous sketch. What reading did you take away from Lane, crumbled, on the ground, his father Robert hovering over him like a lord of the manor? Was Robert more upset that his son's lover is a black woman, his "chocolate bunny," or that Lane will not get a divorce and comport himself with more respect?

7. At the end of the episode Don was left a broken man. The cool operator, the iceman, cracked and was brought down so low by a panic attack that he curled into a ball, fetus-like, to be comforted by his lover. Does Don become all the more compelling because the lower he falls, the higher he seems to inevitably rise?

Friday, September 24, 2010

An Island of Safety from the Great Bed Bug Plague of 2010

If any of your homes are infested with bed bugs you can seek respite and safety in my apartment (only after I spray you down with DDT).

My building manager has ordered that an exterminator must certify each apartment bed bug free. Goodness, I do not envy the young brother assigned this task as God only knows the yuckiness he could potentially find (unclean sheets; sex toys; old condoms; food wrappers; stained underwear; etc. etc. etc.) in a stranger's bed.

[Insert Drum Roll] Just moments ago I passed what felt like the equivalent of a short arm inspection. My place of rest, sleep, and where I take the ladies to space mountain is now certified bed bug free. Now, I can finally exhale.

More seriously, my gut tells me that this bed bug panic is an exaggeration, a hoax, one that fills the coffers of the scurrilous, dishonest, and money grubbing insect-pest control military industrial complex. Sure there are some nasties about, but like dust mites, hpv, and other cooties, many folk probably have them and live in blissful ignorance.

A question: What do you think the bed bug plague is really a signal to? Are the bed bugs symbolic of a general insecurity that most are feeling in the Great Recession? Are the bed bugs signaling to a fear of terrorism, a metaphorical "they" which can attack at any time--a foe unseen and unstoppable? Hell, are the bed bugs somehow correlated with the New Right's nativism and xenophobia for all things not WASP, milquetoast and "authentically American?"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Racism Chasing in the Age of Obama: Avalon Restaurant Criticized For 'Black On Black Crime' Hot Wing Flavor

We live in blessed times. Racism is such a thing of the past that folks have to put on their racism chasing shoes in order to find it. As Brother Martin said, let freedom ring and justice rain down on us from the mountain top. We have truly reached the promised land when stories about buffalo wings are considered newsworthy, and when white and black can finally unite in common brotherhood as they sell chicken wings covered in "black on black crime" sauce.

You all know that I am a fiend for some good fried chicken. Now, I don't eat it in public or with mixed company lest some racial stereotype be fulfilled. But in private? I can't resist. From my most fondest of memories in which my dad brought home ill-gotten garbage bags full of Popeye's fried chicken, to my eating chicken fingers (this was off the kid's menu...I could not be denied) at a friend's wedding party reception at the great MK restaurant here in Chicago a few weeks ago, the bird is in my blood. Thus, my dedication to bringing you fried chicken related nonsense whenever I stumble upon it--black folks protesting over Popeye's; Latarian Milton attacking grandma over a disputed chicken wing; and of course the crazed chicken McNugget lady.

It ain't the reefer madness. No, fried chicken related madness is the real and most accurate barometer for our national mood. Somehow the yard bird speaks with deft clarity and precision to the collective political unconscious and the colorblind politics of the Age of Obama. Ultimately, the yard bird is Plato's chorus, for we have indeed walked through the looking glass when fried chicken chasing has replaced racism chasing as our national pastime.

Tocqueville and Myrdal would be so very proud.

The story follows.


Avalon Restaurant Criticized For 'Black On Black Crime' Hot Wing Flavor

At Big Shot Bob's House of Wings in Avalon, apparently it's everything. Channel 11 News featured the restaurant in the Pittsburgh “Best Wing” contest, but it’s a name of one of the flavors that caught the attention of many WPXI viewers and Facebook followers."If I had any idea this would happen, it wouldn't have gotten on our menu," said Big Shot Bob's owner Matt Cercone. "We've been getting threatening phone calls here, and there are people saying we're going to go out of business."Big Shot Bob's is more popularly known for its 100 different flavors of wings, but it was the "black on black crime" wing flavor that generated the negative publicity.

Channel 11 first learned about the controversy through our WPXI-TV Facebook page. A viewer wrote, "How about this for a story. There's a place called Big Shot Bob's house of wings and they have a featured wing called black on black crime."

Cercone said after he started receiving complaints about the wings name, he changed it. Cercone said he meant no harm and that the wing's inventor, a loyal customer who happens to be African-American, came up with the name."Offense was never part of anything," said Cercone.Big Shot Bob's changed the name of the wings to "Big Fine Woman 2000." Cercone said they allowed the woman who first brought the controversy to light to name them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Throw Whitey in Front of the Train? The Differing Moral Universes of Liberals and Conservatives

Turned out the racial identities did indeed, ah, color peoples’ judgments, but it colored them differently depending on their political bent. Pizarro, who describes himself as a person who “would probably be graded a liberal on tests,” roughly expected that liberals would be more consistent. Yet liberals proved just as prejudiced here as conservatives were, but in reverse: While self-described conservatives more readily accepted the sacrifice of Tyrone than they did killing Chip, the liberals were easier about seeing Chip sacrificed than Tyrone.

Are your moral codes flexible or absolute? Would you kill one person in order to save the life of another? If so, how would you make the calculation?

Apparently, if psychologist David Pizarro's findings are to be believed, liberals and conservatives would sacrifice different individuals if faced with this classic moral dilemma. David, using a version of the classic "trolley problem" asked college students if they would be willing to sacrifice one person by throwing him on to the tracks in front of a trolley if it would save a group of 100 people. Not content with a basic test, Dr. Pizarro mixed it up a bit--what if one of those to be sacrificed was black, the other white? Adding a further twist, what if the groups to be saved were of (presumably) different racial backgrounds than he who was to be sacrificed?

Enter: The Kill Whitey Study. Its findings? Self-identified liberals are much more likely to sacrifice a white man (named Chip Ellsworth III) to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. Conservatives are much more likely to sacrifice a black man (named Tyrone Payton) to save the New York Philharmonic. Apparently, both groups used post hoc reasoning to appear more consistent with how they frame their moral choices.

This raises a number of fascinating possibilities. Are conservatives more consistent than ostensibly pragmatic liberals?Are both motivated by their own unique sense of right and wrong? Do liberals embrace diversity as a principal, or is there some white/liberal guilt at work in their decision to save Tyrone and not Chip? Conversely, are conservatives just primed to throw black people in front of the proverbial train whenever they get the chance?

The trolley dilemma is a classic, made more so by Pizarro's application of it. How would you make your decision? Is jazz more valuable than classical music? Has Tyrone suffered enough in this life because of race prejudice and white privilege, so now it is time for Chip to pay Tyrone's long overdue freedom dues? Do you know someone named Tyrone and can't stand him, thus you would sacrifice his namesake on principle? Is your husband/best friend/school chum named Chip and you can't bring yourself to liquidate him?

A methodological question: Would the results change if black and brown folks were oversampled? What if one played with gender? Let's say Tyrone was replaced by Shaniqua Jackson and Chip by Becky Jones? Who would get thrown in front of the trolley then, and by whom?

"Kill Whitey. Its the Right Thing to Do" can be found on Wired magazine here.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Of White Feminism, Civil Rights, and Giant Negroes: Mad Men's Episode, "The Beautiful Girls" Reviewed

Mad Men has earned just praise as one of the best shows on television. As has been suggested elsewhere, there are few shows on television that speak as richly and sharply to the Age of Obama. The premise of Mad Men--a show about the creation of the true lie that is advertising and the happiness machine--is actually a window into the illusory power of memory. Ultimately, Mad Men is a meditation on the lie of whiteness, suburbia, American prosperity and consumerism. In exposing this true lie as such, Mad Men deftly engages questions of power and identity in ways that often go unnoticed by the casual viewer (and frankly by many professional reviewers who to my astonishment have not commented on the centrality of race to the show's melodrama).

This is the genius of the show. On the surface Mad Men is "just" about men of a certain age and their corporate machinations as they try to cultivate desire in the consumer's republic. More than offering a mere Easter egg of detail that some shows offer (of which my beloved Boondocks is a prime example), there is real meat to Mad Men.

The recurring vein in Mad Men's current season is change. The first two seasons offered an idealized world where white men were king, America was rightly ordered following the Korean War, and "those people," the minorities, women, gays, and young people knew their place. The political salience of this fiction is not to be underestimated.

It is the basis for the Leave it to Beaver, Norman Rockwellesque fiction that animates contemporary American conservatism from (at least) Reagan onward. It is a return to the world of Mad Men seasons one and two--"the good old days"--that animates Pat Buchanan and the Right's culture war ethos of the late 1980s into the present. And grappling at this illusion of "a natural order of things" is what Palin and The New Right presently pander to in their histrionic, crackhead-like, political meth-infused, herrenvolk yearnings for a return to "real America."

In Mad Men's third and (now) fourth seasons, those folks who existed in the shadows and on the periphery of Don Draper and his brethren's hermetically sealed bubble are moving front and center. The barbarians may not be at the gates, but the normative centrality of the white male heterosexual gaze is being disrupted. Whether from the Civil Rights Movement, a growing anti-war movement, or the increasing assertion by white middle class women of their own self-interested feminism, change is gonna come. The question remains, how will Don Draper and company respond?

Per tradition, here are some questions and observations:

1. Was "The Beautiful Girls" a pro-feminist or anti-feminist episode? Is the death of Miss Blankenship a signal to a changing of the guard? Alternatively, is her passing a portent of how work and the rat race will trap all of the women in one way or another, even those who were as ahead of their times as Miss Blankenship secretly was? Not to be forgotten--wasn't Burt Cooper's eulogy grand?

2. Could the signal to the various ways that women negotiate their own identities, work, and relationships be captured any more perfectly than the concluding shot where Faye, Joyce, Peggy, and Joan--all four of whom are very different women--enter their respective elevators?

3. Is Don Draper excited by the prospect of a serious, long-term relationship with Faye, a person who in theory remains semi-independent of him? Is Don capable of seeing the women in his life as anything other than secretaries? Is Faye overreacting in her rage toward Don?

4. Is Peggy a liberal racist? Does she honestly believe that black Americans fighting the tyranny of Jim Crow and formal white supremacy have anything in common with her struggle to become a copywriter? Contrary to the norms of center-Left political correctness, I have always suggested that oppressions can in fact be ranked. Here the oppression of middle class white women in the 1960s is quite low on the misery index. Once more, does sexism trump racism? Can Peggy avoid giving in to the power of white women's tears, and the narcissism of Whiteness?

5. You have to love the flippant wink to racism above the Mason-Dixon line in the meeting with Fillmore auto parts. You also got to love the Harry Belafonte/Dean Martin exchange.

6. A historical point. How long until Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has to reach out to the African American market? Will one of the self-interested, forward looking characters hire a black consultant? Alternatively, will Pete (as signaled to by his hapless conversation in Season three's episode "The Fog" with Hollis, the African American elevator operator, about black folks' television buying habits) work with an African American owned PR firm in order to fatten his bottom-line?

7. We are finally in the center of the frame. Was Joan and Roger's robbery a "giant negro moment?" Given the lack of non-whites on Mad Men, was this scene racist? Was it honest? Could it be both? What to make of the fact that an armed robbery is the spark for a curb-side rutting in the shadows of an alleyway? Depraved or erotic?

8. Talk about take your daughter to work day! Don Draper has to negotiate childcare duties without either the help of his wife, or the heretofore often forgotten Carla.

Question: how often do the white, second-wave feminists of the 1960s forget the role of class and race privilege in their struggle? That the suburban comfort that white women yearned to "escape" was in large part made possible by the working class black and brown women who took care of their kids and homes?

9. When will the 800 pound elephant in the room be dealt with: There is something amiss with Sally. She is oddly adult at times and is clearly the victim of more than parental dysfunction and divorce. The signals are all present: I would suggest that Sally was in fact molested by her grandfather. Thus, the root-spring of her sexual acting out earlier in this season.

There is likely one more dark secret afoot here--the smart money says that Betty Draper was also a victim of her father's advances. The clues are all present. Will Mad Men connect these dots?

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.