Wednesday, December 29, 2010
I hope your holidays were fun and restful. Next week, I will resume my normal schedule of black genius in the form of my witty and wise meditations on all things I deem worthy.
On Christmas, I was tempted to be a party pooper and put some proverbial coal in your stockings. But alas, the angel on my shoulder won out over the devil on my side. As one who has both denounced and disavowed religion, I sit back on my perch and laugh with glee as Conservative Christian reactionary types "defend" Christmas against some imagined "assault." The religiously minded don't get me. I don't get them. We agree to disagree...usually in a peaceable manner.
Likewise, I snicker at some members of the Afrotocracy that muse about Kwanzaa as some type of authentic marker of one's negritude. I laugh because a central premise is not satisfied--how can you defend a thing from assault when the object of defense is itself a fiction?
Are you defending a lie that you believe to be true? Or are you defending your right to believe in a rite that itself may be based on some truth that you believe to be Right (or not)?
[Wasn't that turn of phrase not unlike wiping your behind with silk after a particularly full, potent, and satisfying bowel movement?]
Let's have some real talk: All holidays are fictions--made up bits of convenience that serve some practical need in the real world. For some, this fiction brings comfort and joy. For others, it is the power of faith and routine. And sadly for too many, a shared faith and belief in some given holiday is symbolic of who is outside of the tribe--a marker against those not included. Thus, the latter is made necessarily less than.
We all need our mythologies, our imagined stories. Sure, I wish that all children would be taught about Santa's black slave. That is not quite likely to happen. But this is America, the greatest country on Earth....insert finger into throat to induce vomiting. And because we are free, I can begin my own set of Christmas traditions.
I look forward to the day when I can tell the little ones that the historical Jesus, a "Black" man, soul brother number one who fought pimps and money lenders, was not born in December (where after this revelatory moment I will give them a Jeffersonian Bible). In the far, far, far future, when I am feeling really mischievous and feigning senility as a defense against criticism or familial disagreement, I will tell my grandkids (if so blessed) that Christmas is a pagan holiday, founded as a function of practical politics in order to get nature worshipers and free spirits away from their sex filled celebrations and under the control of the boring, sterile, bureaucratic State.
Either way, I will encourage my scions to bathe in the glory of their existence and explorations of the world, be they physical, metaphysical, or spiritual; to enjoy pleasures both small and large; and to always drink deeply from the cup of life.
Me? I am grateful for so much, including all of you. Enjoy the New Year and heed the words of the Black Israelites, lest you fall victim to the evils of Christmas...that most foul of hellidays!
Saturday, December 25, 2010
I could say Merry Christmas. But, that is already implied.
I could write about gratitude in the time of the Great Recession. But, that is understood.
I could be naughty and not nice. But, I did that earlier.
Instead, I bring you a little ghetto nerd nostalgia from a more innocent time.
Can any show do it better than Robotech? I don't think so...
Have a very happy and safe Christmas. And stay classy people. 'Cause if you don't, Robot Santa is going to come for that ass!
Friday, December 24, 2010
How about a duel of the comedy iron mics? We have two contenders, both equally talented, either of which would make a great finale for a Christmas Eve movie marathon. Which would you choose? The criminally underrated Zack and Miri Make a Porno:
Or the blockbuster 40 Year Old Virgin?
On what criteria do you make the call? Timing? The intangibles of chemistry and heart? Quality of writing?
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Are you ready for Christmas yet? One more day to go and between the mindless shopping and inevitable grumpiness that results, please be mindful of the little things. Be happy for friends, family, and health. Be grateful if you have a job. Be hopeful if you do not. And please do something nice for a stranger--put some change in The Salvation Army bucket; give a homeless person some money; or donate to Toys for Tots.
The holidays are also a time for marathon TV viewing. This year I will be alternating between the Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon and a few obligatory hours of A Christmas Story. The latter was also the subject of one of my favorite WARNNN features. Did you ever watch A Christmas Story and wonder what happened to its black actors? We ventured forth and tried to find out.
From the archives.
In keeping with our interviews with such notables as Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, and the irrepressible Brother X-Squared, the We Are Respectable Negroes News Network (WARNNN) is proud to bring you the newest installment in our hard hitting special investigative series.
The movie A Christmas Story has become a new classic. Based upon a collection of short stories by Jean Shephard, what was once a niche movie has become a staple of the holiday season. A Christmas Story is genius in its simplicity: a young boy who only wants a Red Ryder BB gun, the machinations necessary to make this dream come true, and the adventures of an "all American" family as a date with Santa Claus approaches. It is of no small coincidence that A Christmas Story saw a rise in popularity during the Culture Wars of the 1980s--a moment of increasingly toxic and fractured politics. In many ways A Christmas Story is a salve for those heated debates about what America is--and what America is to become in the future. No doubt encouraged by this appeal to a simpler age of Norman Rockwellesque 1940s America (the film itself is set in nondescript Hammond, Indiana)--as well as 24 hour marathons on TNT and TBS--A Christmas Story has generated a huge following that has given birth to conventions, tours of the home featured in the film, and a cottage industry based upon A Christmas Story related memorabilia.
Every holiday season A Christmas Story brings so much joy to so many. What became of its actors? We know that some have been able to parlay their childhood success into some amount of fame as adults. We must ask: What happened to A Christmas Story's African-American actors and actresses? Seemingly lost to history, WARNNN has conducted an expansive search to bring the struggles of these actors to light. While these brave actors and actresses of color are forever linked to what is now an indispensable fixture in American popular culture, as is so often the case they have been denied the success, fame, and wealth earned by their white peers.
WARNNN brings you their story.
Almost invisible, the black characters in A Christmas Story are conspicuous by their absence as central characters. Present on the margins, muted both literally and figuratively, the African-American characters carry a heavy weight on their shoulders as embodiments of the role played by people of color in the American imagination: black Americans are rendered forever present through the fact of their exclusion from the master narrative.
A Christmas Story is set in pre-World War 2, 1940s Indiana, a time when legal segregation and white supremacy were still very much the rule of the land. Thus, A Christmas Story's exclusion of people of color in its vision of American suburban life is to be expected. Not to be denied, several black Americans responded to the casting call for A Christmas Story. They were determined that the presence of black Americans in this nostalgic vision of America's past be acknowledged. These pioneers would not be white washed out of history! However, what these actors would find would be no small amount of struggle...and experiences that would forever impact their lives in the decades to follow.
WARNNN had an extremely difficult time locating the black actors of A Christmas Story. They have seemingly been erased from any record of the film's production and distribution. It was only through a series of interviews with the film's cast, and a poignant confessional by Director Bob Clark (during which he expressed great sorrow at the treatment of African Americans in the film) that WARNNN was able to rediscover these heretofore lost tales of personal tragedy and triumph. There were four black actors in A Christmas Story. What follows is the first of 3 installments on their post A Christmas Story lives.
Percy Jones was the first actor that we were able to locate. Sadly, our ability to find Mr. Jones was made easier by his new identity--inmate number 203157 in Attica State Correctional Facility. While A Christmas Story is Americana come to life, Percy's life story is that of urban America gone wrong. Like so many young men of color caught up in the system, Mr. Jones (the oldest black actor in A Christmas Story) could not escape the sad mix of Hollywood fame, drugs, and the trauma he suffered while filming A Christmas Story.
We scheduled a meeting with Percy during a lazy after Sunday afternoon in November of 2009. Mr. Jones awaited us in the visitor's center. Since his arrest in 1989, he has been a model prisoner. Because of his exemplary status, the guards afforded him some degree of privacy as we were seated in a semi-private area in the corner of the main visitor's room. A tall man, now in his 50s, Percy has a hard earned dignity to his features. Sharply intelligent, yet understated and modest, Percy greets us warmly and with an exhalation of relief, "You came to talk about A Christmas Story? Do I have a story to tell you..."
We began by asking a simple question: How did you end up in Attica?
Percy looked down, "It was a random series of events that were simultaneously unavoidable. A Christmas Story gave me so much, but it also took much more than it gave. I simply couldn't avoid its clutches." He began to spin a story that was at one time utterly predictable, yet imminently fascinating. Percy continued, "I was a hustler, always was. I grew up in Cleveland in the late 1960s, I came of age in the 1970s after the riots. I was running with different gangs, you know all the Black Power groups that fell out with each other and lost the politics and picked up the guns. I got arrested a few times and had an epiphany. I had to get off the streets. I hooked up with my first high school girlfriend and started taking acting classes at the local community college."
At this point, Percy looked nervous and a bit saddened. He looked down to the shoulder of his orange jumpsuit and wiped a tear away from his eye. Percy continued, "the directors of the film were scouting local schools and colleges. They found me. It was immediate. They said they were making this Christmas movie and that I was perfect for a pivotal role. I immediately said yes. I didn't have a SAG card so I had to get one...the film subsidized it. I also got an advance. 1,000 dollars for my appearance. Man, I was so happy. I took my girl out, lord it was nice, we conceived Nichelle that night...she is my daughter. I got my mom a new tv. I brought my lady a necklace and I got a record player cassette player combo for my car. We were living large."
I asked the obvious question, one that often hints at the trouble awaiting Hollywood's newest stars, "did you sign a contract? What about residuals? What about back end money?" Percy looked up at me with heavy eyes, "come on brother, of course not! I didn't know about any of that stuff. So, I got to the set. It was supposed to be 3 days of filming. I thought this was my chance to break out, you know? To bring some dignity to the role I was playing. The wardrobe people walked up to me and sat me down for a fitting. Something wasn't right. I looked at the costumes and they had a black mask, and a striped shirt and some tight pants. I was like come on now, who the hell dresses like this!"
As viewers of A Christmas Story know, Percy is one of the members of the Black Bart gang that attacks Ralphie's home during the pivotal Red Ryder BB gun fantasy. This is a key scene in the film that helps to set the stage for the near fetishistic power that Ralphie's Red Ryder BB gun holds over him that holiday season.
"I accepted the role as criminal as par for the course. You see I had a plan, I wasn't some lame who would get played. I was gonna make the role something special. I was gonna be James Cagney in Scarface. The world is mine! The director approached me and said that he wanted me to method act, to go to that dark place I lived in when I was on the streets. To really live the role is what he called it. That was the beginning, that energy was always there, but I had suppressed it."
This is the moment where Percy's troubles began and A Christmas Story would exact a heavy toll on his well-being and life. Like a junkie remembering his first hit and retelling how he would relapse over and over again...from sobriety to and fro addiction...Percy's relationship with A Christmas Story was that of an unhealthy relationship, toxic, painful, and with an unavoidable ending.
"You see, the role didn't involve any speaking. Nothing at all. I was supposed to jump over this fence and get shot. Man it hurt so bad. They were slave drivers on the set. 3 days became 10 days became 15 days, on and on and on. I didn't know that the contract said they could do this. Of course, they threw me a little more money. But, I was internalizing the pain, you know what I mean? That little white kid kept shooting me with that BB gun. I kept dying over and over again. To add to the humiliation I was the first member of the gang shot. How humiliating. It hurt my soul."
I leaned forward and comforted Percy. His pain was so evident. I was curious, how did his costars feel about this treatment? Did he suffer alone? I carefully extended my hand to his shoulder and asked. "Chauncey, me and the other members of the gang...that is what we were called...were kept separated from the child actors on set. The directors wanted to create a sense of tension and menace about us. We were almost like real criminals. So, we would drink, use drugs...you had to use painkillers to keep doing those damned stunts, and would sleep with the prostitutes and groupies on the set."
Inevitably, the movie shoot would end and Percy Jones returned to the "real world." He would go from job to job. Percy even cut a rap album, "Rapping with A Christmas Story." Sadly, it never sold more than 1,000 units. He was unable to get consistent work in Hollywood on his own. Percy secured an agent but the relationship was not fruitful. Mr. Jones had long spent the 1,000 dollars he earned from his role in A Christmas Story. Nevertheless, A Christmas Story still beckoned to him.
"I would watch the movie every year as it became more and more popular. Each year, I would become more and more enraged. So full of anger. I hoped a check would come, something. Never. I did a little research. Did you know that I was never even in the Screen Actor's Guild? Nope. Those crooks gave me a fake id card so they could exploit me! All that I had was the costume from the movie. I tried to sell it at a pawn shop, but got no takers. This was before Ebay and the Internets. It started to beckon to me, almost talking to me at night. I would lay there in bed next to the wife and that costume would call me. Quite literally it would whisper to me, telling me to man up and get mine."
I knew the ending of the story, but had to ask the inevitable question.
"Brother Chauncey, I did it! They wanted me to be a thug, a criminal again. And I couldn't resist. I put on that damn outfit and mask and got me a gun. Sure as hell did. I went on a rampage. I robbed everybody I could find. I became like a real life version of Omar on the show The Wire. Hell, in Cleveland I was The Ghost of Christmas Past. I was the king and I was putting some coal in your damn stocking!"
In a sad end, Percy Jones explained how he was arrested on Christmas Day, some six months after his crime spree began. High on crack, exhausted, and sleeping on a dirty mattress in a cheap motel, Percy (still in costume) was taken down by the Cleveland police department's SWAT team. Percy Jones, the Black Bart stickup man, became an urban legend. I heard the rumors, the poetic irony of his story had long been on the tongues of folks in Cleveland, so I had to know if the details were true.
"Yup, the rumors were true. I never had a real gun. I used a Red Ryder BB gun--I sawed off the barrel--and robbed folks. They were so scared...my victims had no idea I was playing them. I got 50 years, can you imagine that? I would have actually been better off if I had been using a real burner, at least I could have fought off the cops."
Our time together had come to an end. The prison guard politely motioned towards us that we should end the interview. Percy leaned in, happy to have made a new friend. Yet, his countenance was heavy with thought and reflection..."Tell the people that I am not the only one. Go out and find the other brothers and sisters from A Christmas Story. Trust, I had it comparatively easy. Find the others, what they have gone through will blow your mind! We were struggling, trying to do the right thing for all of the black folk out there. But that damn movie just got us caught in its clutches! Maybe, just maybe, justice will be done if the truth is known."
In our next installment we bring you the story of Little Red Ryder, once an innocent young school child, now a fallen woman...
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Indulge me. It is the holidays. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, fellow ghetto nerd, shared in his book The Beautiful Struggle, "Go see Kamala the Ugandan Giant. And you will understand. As I do, that the nigger is from Alabama." Nevertheless, I remain a mark for all things Kamala and Kamala-related.
Some quick thoughts:
Who would have thought that Kamala was such a keen observer of public affairs?
Or that he was an artist of the first degree, a veritable wordsmith through song? A master of double meanings, metaphor, and flourishes of language?
And why do I get a Mississippi Masala vibe from watching his reality show (those who have seen the movie will the get joke. If anyone knows Sarita Choudhury please send her my email for she is still the goddess of my dreams.)
Aren't production values everything? If you had the producers of Hogan Knows Best working on the Kamala and Koonta (minstrel) show their humble home would indeed be a mansion. Literally.
Hot damn. Kamala is so talented that you can only contain him. He can't be beaten.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
He's a Naughty Boy! Haley Barbour's Fond Memories of Jim Crow and a Gift Giving Guide for Less than Respectable Children Everywhere
Christmas shopping is all but complete. I brought Starcraft 2 (aka "Starcrack") and Black Ops as gifts to myself. So if folks want to get down to business online look for me under my nome de guerre "Musashi2001."
Stupid keeps on being stupid--New Confederate Republican white trash such as Haley Barbour kept it classy this week by appealing to the worst part of the White Soul. Is there any better example of the myopic nature of whiteness than the oft-offered rationale that because I don't see a thing, it must not exist? That the way I/we remember a thing, must be 1) correct and 2) how others necessarily see it. We see this pathology when straight people deny the realities of heterosexism. This ugliness is present when men deny the realities of sexism against women. As the Vox Populi White Soul often relays, "why don't you people just get over it?"
Stated differently, as Haley Barbour defends White Citizens Councils and the good old days of benign white racism and "folksy Jim Crow," the universal I that is whiteness wins (loses?) again. [How do you like that Oscar Wilde inspired wordplay?]
But practically, Barbour and his ilk are a gift that keeps on giving as the New Right likes to put the best of their "American exceptionalism" on blast for all to see. Quite frankly, the New Right and the Palin crowd are beyond dog whistle politics at this point. The Tea Party GOP is showing you who they are, and have always been--bigots; nativists; and a crowd drunk on the possibilities and dreams of a politics based first and foremost on conserving white power as the baseline normal.
And regarding gifts. I don't know if Haley Barbour is worthy of any of the following, but here is a holiday themed flashback to one of my favorite posts from Christmas 2008. Enjoy!
What gifts would you add to our esteemed offerings?
Christmas may have passed, but our love of gift giving continues. Last week, I highlighted gifts that should not be given to respectable young negro boys and girls this holiday season. Never wanting to be accused of favoritism, I also care deeply about our young ign't boys and girls and would never want those less than respectable negro boys and girls to be left out the holiday season. These young people have special needs. Their lifestyle and culture should be respected. Our children, all of them, be they 'hood, ign't, or "ghetto underclass" should have their unique values nourished and encouraged. In the spirit of the holidays, We are Respectable Negroes brings you the following guide:
Hip hop has had a profound influence on American (black) popular culture. Wealth, women, violence, luxury goods, and consumerism are the core values on display in commercial hip hop. Because hip hop is a fantastical canvas for ghetto wish fulfillment, the absurd is the norm in a type of carnivalesque performance of black masculinity. Big things, be they big cars, big money, big houses, or big diamonds are signifiers of success in this imaginary. Because young ign'ts take commercial hip hop as THE barometer of life success, they should be socialized into this lifestyle as early in life as possible. Our solution: the ghetto dreidle. This toy will entertain young ign't children for hours on end. For preteens, spinning the ghetto dreidle implants a subliminal message of economic and social uplift at an early age. For older children, the ghetto dreidle is a literal symbol of, and encouragement towards, the good life. While they may have started out life with only one 22 inch ghetto dreidle, it will impress upon young ign't children an irrepressible drive to "earn" 3 more rims...and the luxury car to put them on.
Many ign't communities are struggling because of an absence of morally responsible and economically productive men. Because of the prison industrial complex, poor life choices that see many young men of color murdered or otherwise removed from the labor market (and the domestic sphere), single parent, female headed homes are increasingly the norm. These strong women need help. It is a profound injustice that young ign't women, women who have already been victimized by the young ign't men of their communities, should have to raise children alone. Adding an additional layer of complexity to this problem is that a lack of male role models in these communities is synergistic: single parent, female headed households are more likely to be under the poverty line, and this lack of resources may lead young ign't men to join gangs or to otherwise participate in the "underground" economy. These young men are also significantly more likely to be incarcerated and to father children out of wedlock, thus perpetuating the baby mama drama to prison pipeline.
To interrupt this cruel cycle, I suggest that a DVD of the movie Scarface be placed in every young ign't boy's stocking this year because Tony Montana, the movie's lead character, is a perfect role model for the hyper competitive and often violent world that many young ign't boys will eventually find themselves in as adults. The movie's motto, "the world is yours" will encourage young people to be successful. If baby daddy isn't in your ign't child's life, simply place Scarface on perpetual repeat in the background of his room while he sleeps to ensure that your young ign't internalizes the sum total of wisdom offered by this classic film:
When used with older children, Scarface can function as a surrogate father where during difficult parenting moments ign't mothers can simply skip to the appropriate section of the movie for some of Tony Montana's wisdom--if mom is especially ambitious she can use the life size cardboard standup that can be purchased with the special edition of the DVD. In short, Tony Montana as Scarface is the perfect surrogate father for the holiday season--and for every day thereafter.
3. A Cell Phone with Unlimited Texting and 500 Ringtones
Young ign't boys and girls, as well as their suburban counterparts, love cell phones. This generation texts when it drives, they text when they are sad, they text when they are happy, they text in the toilet, they text helicopter parents after exams...you get the point. Ironically, young ign't boys and girls are amazingly proficient at text messaging yet continue to score poorly on standardized tests of writing and reading. Quite an irony me thinks. Random thought: apparently, this generation is confusing the abbreviated grammar of texting with the wording and explication required for proper essay and research paper writing. And yes, language does in fact evolve, but it would be really funny to see a sentence diagram that included text-speak. Would the grammar be the same? How would it change?
In addition to creating confusion and consternation among those who adhere to the rules of the king's English, the cell phone has brought another plague upon the land, the insufferable ringtone. It could be Soulja Boy, Lil Wayne, T.I., T-Pain, Shop Boyz, Flo Rida, Rick Ross, or some of other crapper, but the ringtone has become an invaluable revenue source for commercial crap rappers with some 270 million tones sold in 2007. The ring tone is the new arms race among ign't youth. As much a necessity as the latest overpriced NBA cross-branded sneakers, young ign'ts must have the latest, "greatest" ringtone to rep for their favorite artist, and to get the young female ign't whom they would like to win the baby mama jackpot with.
The perfect gift for the young ign't in your life? a cell phone loaded with 500 ringtones and an unlimited text package. All day and all night, the favorite ign't child (or manchild/baby boy) in your life, can walk around the house and/or hold down the block while playing his ringtones and texting to his "peeps" and "fam."
4. The Maury Povich Baby Mama and Baby Daddy Game of Life
Ign't young people face many perils on the road to adulthood. Unfortunately, one of the most common obstacles faced by young ign'ts is premarital sex and teenage pregnancy. The Maury Povich Baby Mama and Baby Daddy Game of Life will improve your child's decision making skills as they face this inevitable challenge. To accomplish this goal, the game integrates artistic, critical thinking, and strategy skills. To play, your child rolls a pair of 6 sided dice in order to move their game piece around the board. Designed for play by 2 boys and 2 girls, the goal of the game for young male ign'ts is to avoid responsibility while impregnating the female players--all the while pinning responsibility on the other male players. For young female ign'ts, the goal of the game is to place responsibility for your child on the baby daddy with the most resources. Young girls can also win by earning the trifecta--section 8; child support; and by drawing the rare, paternity test card that allows her to name one of the male players as the baby daddy. This innovative game is full of many exciting twists and turns such as:
1. the "Momma's Baby Boy" card which protects her little "angel" from responsibility card (the male player's mother grants her son several rounds of immunity from any "attacks" by the female player(s));
2. the "You're Going to Jail" card (pulling this card is actually a positive as it protects male players from responsibility for several rounds of play);
3. the "You Are a Guest on Maury" card where ign't girls do their best to convince the audience that baby daddy X is in fact the biological father of said baby:
If an ign't boy draws this card, he enters the "You Are Not the Baby's Father" round. Here, young ign't boys get a chance to shine as they dance to one of the pre-recorded songs included with the game:
The Maury Povich Baby Mama and Baby Daddy Game of Life is a must have for any young ign't boy or girl. It entertains, educates, and provides practical guidance for overcoming the challenges which ign't children and teens will be forced to confront as they grow into adulthood. The Maury Povich Baby Mama and Baby Daddy Game of Life is also an amazing value. In a limited time offer, this wonderful game includes a gift certificate for the newest Maury product, Fat Babies Everywhere!
Monday, December 20, 2010
The holidays are upon us. Thus, this week I will be doing a mix of "flashbacks" and some quick posts...
Here is some Monday madness for you. My mother and I have a standing bet that one day in the near future Americans will awaken to a day when Right-wing domestic terrorists have exploded bombs all over the country and killed hundreds if not thousands in the name of "liberty" and "freedom."
This sounds morbid and dark. But, when you take the words coming out of the New Right's horses' mouths seriously--with their talk of States' Rights, secession, nullification, and Obama as a closet Manchurian candidate Socialist--the reality of what could be (and has happened: see the Beck, New Right inspired murderers) is painfully clear.
A new survey reveals that Fox News viewers are grossly misinformed about current events (even by standards of the mass public), and quite frankly believe the lies that Fox News offers as "news." I am unsurprised by said research.
That having been said. Yes, this new research is important and should be greeted with a warm embrace. However, some big questions regarding causality and causation hang over the findings.
Are Fox News viewers primed for ignorance, a rejection of facts, and a binary world view that rejects differing points of view? Are Conservatives oriented this way more so than Liberals or Progressives? Is there something about the Conservative personality type and its overlap with authoritarianism that makes Fox News an especially effective venue for the dissemination of Right-wing talking points to its public and a clouding of reality?
As I tried to get at with "When Stupid People Don't Know that They are Stupid," this new research by WorldPublicOpinion.org and the University of Maryland is especially troubling for the body politic because it highlights the power of the propaganda model of the news. If a healthy, functioning democracy is prefaced on responsible elected officials, a public that both believes in and works toward the common good, and is given fair information by the Fourth Estate in order to facilitate political decision making, the power of Fox News is truly frightening because their viewers are quite literally operating from a different set of facts, reality, basis of reason, and understanding of the today.
In short, we cannot talk across the divides of partisanship and ideology because the basic facts of the matter are in such disagreement.
By implication, if one is immersed in the Right-wing, Fox News, circle of epistemic closure it makes perfect sense to oppose the Democrats at every step, to believe in "death panels" and that President Obama is a closet Muslim, Anti-American, white folks hating, Socialist. To not do so would be unpatriotic and anti-American.
There is also a second narrative operating within the the Fox News, Right-wing talking point model of the news. Coming full circle, if one listens with any care to Conservative talk radio or television news there is a meme, almost daily, where those on the Left (and Progressives in general) are portrayed as a cancer, something toxic to be eliminated from the body politic. This is the evil of eliminationism, a belief that consists of the following elements as offered by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his monumental book, Worse than War:
Transformation is the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.
Repression entails keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.
Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.
Prevention of reproduction is a fourth eliminationist act. It is the least frequently used, and when employed, it is usually in conjunction with others. For varying reasons, those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.
Extermination is the fifth eliminationist act. Radical as it is, killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a “final solution” to the putative problem.
My worry is that while those grossly misinformed by Fox News are also bathed in the light of these assumptions. It may not come tomorrow. It may not come next week. But trust, the streets is watching. Sadly, some (or is that many?) on the New Right have internalized the logic of eliminating Liberals and Progressives if not only in spirit or metaphor, but rather in fact and deed.
A few questions. Are my worries just histrionic fits of flight and fancy? Or are they worries regarding the necessary and logical consequences of the New Right echo chamber and Fox News propaganda for those immersed in those noxious fumes as though they were breathable air?
Friday, December 17, 2010
I am in a provocative mood today. Why not, it's Friday?
Question: whose mustache is better? The Rent is Too Damn High Brother or Mr. Pony Play?
Random factoid: In Brazil during the slave regime, white slave owners would adorn their favorite human property with gold, jewels, and other accouterments in order to signify prosperity and power. In the United States, slave children were often given as human dolls to white children to be abused and used for fun and frolic.
As I watch two adults indulge in human pony play in the 21st century, I see echoes of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Please indulge me as I share a thought. How is whiteness operative in this? No, I am not bounding the erotic by virtue of race, for a brother or sister who chooses to be a dominant or a submissive is not necessarily negotiating away their blackness in my book. Why? the freedom to be, is by definition the freedom to be a freak.
But let's be real,would you look askance at a person of color indulging in pony play with someone across the color line? And finally--so many questions tonight--how is this play exclusive (or not) to the relationship between those fully enrolled in Whiteness?
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Echoes of History: Reading Race Back into the Constitution Through the Eyes of Theodore Bilbo, Southern Reactionary
Sometimes one can be wrong in spirit, yet correct in implication and analysis.
These moments are awkward--especially for those inclined towards ideological purity. In thinking through the fight over Reagan's legacy, the Tea Party GOP's revival and misunderstanding of "American exceptionalism," "the framers," and willfully juvenile understanding of the Constitution, complexity seems to have been thrown out the window in the service of binary thinking and New Right orthodoxy.
By extension, one of the recurring fights between Left and Right centers upon how the United States Constitution ought to be interpreted. Is it divinely inspired, sacred, and never to be changed from the intent of its creators in the 18th century? Or, and we have explored this here at some length, is the Constitution a living document, made by flawed men, yet the wisdom of said contract is precisely in its adaptability?
I stand hands open and transparent in my suggestion that racism and white supremacy are central to the American project. At the time of the founding, the U.S. Constitution was a herrenvolk document by design. Not surprisingly, it reinforced the class, gender, and racial interests of political elites and the dominant classes. In the present, appeals to some mythic "original intent" are more often than not a lazy mask that dances around these preeminent facts.
To deny these facts is to deny the sum evidence provided by the historical record. But simultaneously, the greatness of the Constitution is that it is more than the sum of its parts. Thankfully, progressive, radical, and forward thinking Americans understand this truth and have been able to force the country to live up to its promise--a work that is still in progress.
While thinking about those questions, I was thumbing through The Age of Jim Crow (a great collection of essays and testimonies by the way) and came upon Mississippi Governor and United States senator Theodore G. Bilbo's 1947 essay "False Interpretations of American Democracy."
Bilbo was a virulent racist and forefather of much of the race baiting that we saw in the moments before the Republican Party's open embrace of the Southern Dixiecrats, and that are present in the contemporary as the New Right, "real American," Tea Party, neo-John Bircher crowd.
Funny then, that I found myself agreeing with his analysis of the Constitution, the White Soul, and original intent. As a qualifier, Bilbo was profoundly wrong in his reading of the Black Freedom Struggle and the transcendent power of the Constitution. Moreover, he was a contemptible human being. But, nevertheless, a broken clock is indeed right twice a day.
History is once more our greatest teacher:
The Negro leaders who are seeking social equality of the races and the abolition of every kind of racial segregation cannot justly claim that ideals of American democracy support their demands. They contend that democracy means "full equality" for all citizens, and they quote the Declaration of Independence as proof thereof. Discussing "Certain Unalienable Rights," Mary McLeod Bethune asks for "full American citizenship" for American Negroes. She says: "As long as America offers less, she will be that much less a democracy. The whole way is the American way."
There is absolutely nothing in the immortal declaration "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" to support this plea for social equality of the white and black races in the United States. Any person who uses the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution to bring about the social equality of the races in this country is placing a false and dangerous interpretation on these two documents which embody the ideals of American democracy...
It cannot be forgotten that Thomas Jefferson who wrote that "all men are created equal" also wrote the following lines concerning the Negro.
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free; nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.
...Jefferson believed that the race question should be solved by colonization of the Negroes at some place outside the United States, and he devoted much time and energy to promoting such a scheme. There is no indication whatsoever that either he or any of the other Founding Fathers interpreted the words of the Declaration of Independence to destroy the racial barriers which from the very beginning of our history separated the white and black races in the United States. Practically all of these men were owners of Negro slaves, and the indications are that they never even thought of the Negro when they announced to the world that "all men are created equal."
...How can the Negro leaders contend that it is "un-American" and "undemocratic" to preserve the government as our forefathers made it? As was once emphatically stated by Senator Robert Toombs: "This Republic was born of the soul of a race of pioneer white freemen who settled on our continent and built an altar within its forest cathedral to Liberty and Progress. In the record of man, has the Negro ever dreamed this dream?"
...The Negro leaders themselves say that never in the history of the United States have the members of their race been accorded full and complete equality with the whites. And it is true that "On no aspect of the race problem are most white Americans, North as well as South, so adamant as they are on their opposition to intermarriage." Then, what stronger proof than the actual practice of white Americans do we need in ascertaining how the majority of our people feel toward the demands of the Negro leaders today for the social equality of the races?
We have found that white Americans have never interpreted American democracy to mean that there would be no racial barriers between the white and black citizens of this Republic, and those who now seek to read such a meaning into the Declaration of Independence are misconstruing the immortal words which were penned by Thomas Jefferson. The social equality of the white and Negro races and the abolition of racial segregation have never been in accordance with the ideals of this Nation. Any one who advances such an argument is placing a false interpretation on the meaning of American democracy, and because he is willing, either consciously or unconsciously, that the future of this Republic be destroyed, he is a traitor to his country as well as to his race.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
On the Right he is elevated to the heights of a near deity by partisans that both simultaneously and eagerly overlook his violation of the U.S. Constitution and conciliatory gestures towards "The Evil Empire," the former Soviet Union.
On the Left, he is quite correctly criticized for his vicious assaults on the working class and the poor. And moreover, look no farther than Ronald Reagan for the wrong-headed Laffer's Curve that has brought nothing but trouble since its inception, and is no small part responsible for the Great Recession and legitimizing the foot stomping foot obstructionism of the Tea Party GOP as it insists on renewing tax cuts for the very wealthiest Americans (even though this will not stimulate the economy, and only further encourage a problematic maldistribution of wealth and the growing kleptocracy) at the expense of all others.
In total, Reagan's reach is indeed large (and disproportionate to the merits of his presidency) in the years following his tenure.
The cult of Reagan has also fascinated me because of its resonance with black conservatives. Stating the obvious: Former President Ronald "Welfare Queen" Reagan was certainly no friend of people of color--choosing to begin his campaign by speaking at Philadelphia, Mississippi on state's rights and thus cementing his commitment to the Southern Strategy and "State's rights." This is the root of my snicker at White American conservatives who proclaim their colorblindness, and at Black conservatives in particular, who defend all things Reaganesque.
Primarily, Reagan made it clear that Conservatism will use and abuse dog whistle politics and the accompanying succor of Lee Atwater's appeals to the worst of the White Soul in order to win electoral victories. So why support Reagan's political vision when you are decidedly outside of it? Second, the narrative of Black conservatives (and conservatives at large), is that black and brown folk are somehow confused, "on the Democratic plantation," and do not understand where their self-interest lies.
Funny, White conservatives are somehow rational actors, but black and brown folk--and Liberals at large--are somehow not. Thus, my delight when I talk to Conservatives who honestly admit that they care not for the common good. Rather, their immediate concern is for their pocketbooks despite the cost to the body politic. In the era of Obama that level of candor is so rare, as we live in a moment when the Tea Party GOP largely travels with the false passports of speaking for "real Americans" and "fiscal responsibility." So special that honesty is, I always applaud it whenever such true admissions are encountered.
Professor Robert C. Smith, a fellow searcher who kindly offered drinks and sage advice to me some years ago, has penned a great new book on this topic. Conservatism and Racism and Why in America They Are the Same works through the ambivalence of black folks towards Ronald Reagan, and the racist roots of American Conservatism far better than I ever could. Dr. Smith's argument is sharp, sweet, and to the point.
In total, American Conservatism cannot help but animate the forces of White supremacy and racism because those are the first priors from which it is sprung.
Courtesy of Robert Smith and ROROTOKO:
In this book I systematically demonstrate the inescapable racism inherent in American conservatism. The argument unfolds in layers.
First, I show that ideological conservatism is everywhere and always the conscious and reflective defense of established institutions and ways of life. In the United States this has meant a defense of racism and white supremacy. The first conscious conservative movement in America emerged in the South partly as a reaction to the movement to abolish slavery, and the modern conservative movement in America is rooted partly in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
Second, the substantive ideals of American conservatism—limited government, states’ rights, individualism, property rights, and the prioritizing of liberty over equality—when applied consistently inevitably result in racism.
Third, I show that the ascendancy of the conservative movement to national power with the election of Ronald Reagan was partly based on the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” of exploiting racist and white supremacist sentiments in the electorate beginning with the election of 1964.
I am acutely aware that the argument will strike many Americans—and not just conservatives—as outrageous. Therefore, I approached the analysis and writing with unusual care. I spend the entire first chapter defining the terms of the discourse—conservatism, racism and white supremacy. The remaining chapters are thoroughly referenced and documented. By design, the book combines philosophy, history and political science.
This is first a book about ideas and how they can have consequences in politics, if they are linked to powerful, well-financed movements.
I excavate the ideas on race of the leading conservative and neoconservative intellectuals from the 1950s to the 1980s. The ideas examined, among others, are those of Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., James J. Kilpatrick, Milton Friedman, Robert Bork, Irving Kristol, Edward Banfield, Nathan Glazer and Aaron Wildavsky. These ideas helped to shape the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, the two leading conservative statesmen of the modern era.
For example, Bork, the conservative movement’s leading jurisprudential scholar, objected to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He described the landmark legislation as “unsurpassed ugliness” because, Bork argued, the core principles at stake in any civil rights law are individual liberty and property rights; it was the freedom of individuals to do with their property as they wished, even if they wished to deny access to a BBQ joint or motel to other individuals because they were black.
Similarly, Friedman, the movement’s apostle of unfettered, free market capitalism, compared the equal employment title of the 1964 Act to “Hitler Nuremburg laws” because “such legislation clearly involves interference with the freedom of individuals to enter into voluntary contracts with one another.”
The book includes detailed study of the Reagan presidency and race related issues. Using archival material from the Reagan presidential library, I focus on affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, the Grove City case, welfare reform, South Africa policy, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. I conclude the book by showing how the conservative movement and the Reagan presidency have had an enduring impact on presidential elections, the presidency, the Democratic Party, racial liberalism and the continuing struggle for a more racially just society.
A section of Chapter 8 on the ascendancy of Reagan to the presidency is titled “It’s the Ideology, Stupid.” President Reagan is a central character in the book, because he is undoubtedly the most significant conservative leader of the present era and one of the most significant in American history.
Reagan was frequently accused of being a racist. Nothing angered him more. As he writes in his presidential memoir “the myth that has always bothered me the most is that I am a bigot who somehow surreptitiously condones racial prejudice… Whatever the reason for this myth that I am a racist, I blow up every time I hear it.”
In close, careful study of the biographical and historical records, I found no evidence that Reagan was a racist or white supremacist. It was Reagan’s principled, ideological conservatism that led him to oppose every civil rights bill enacted in the 1960s.
Reagan’s opposition to the Civil rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was based on the conservative principles of limited government and states’ rights. In California he opposed the state’s Fair Housing Act on the conservative principles of individualism and property rights, declaiming that the right of an individual to dispose of his property as he wished was “a basic human right.”
Reagan prioritized these conservative ideological principles over the human rights of African Americans to be served at a Georgia BBQ joint, to vote for president in Alabama or to purchase a house in California. In doing so, he clearly made conservatism and racism the same.
As if to symbolize this relationship, Reagan’s first campaign appearance after he received the Republican nomination in 1980 was in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Philadelphia was the site of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers by the Ku Klux Klan. In his Philadelphia speech Reagan invoked states rights, code words in the South for the right of whites to oppress blacks.
The public, politicians and the media are often puzzled by the consistent failure of conservatism to have much appeal to African Americans. This book provides the answer to those puzzles.
I decided to write the book shortly after Ronald Reagan’s funeral. In the long lines of mourners that gathered to pay their respects to the President at the Capitol in Washington and the presidential library in Simi Valley, California there were very few African Americans.
In the course of the nearly week long commemoration of Reagan’s life and legacy—where he was lauded as one of the nation’s greatest presidents—I was asked in the media to explain the absence of black mourners in Washington and Simi Valley. My explanations dealt less with Reagan as an individual or as president than with conservatism as a philosophy and ideology.
Ronald Reagan was not mourned by many African Americans because he was a conservative; the most successful conservative president of the post civil rights era and one of the most successful conservative presidents in the 20th century. Conservatism as a philosophy and ideology, I explained, are and always have been hostile to the aspirations of Africans in America; incompatible with their struggle for freedom and equality. Thus, very few blacks could mourn the passing of a man who was an icon in the cause of 20th century American conservatism.
In the nature of modern media it was difficult to convey this rather complex idea in a brief interview. I found that even in extended interviews it was difficult to fully explore this complex relationship between conservatism and black aspirations.
Repeatedly, I was asked: Are you saying that conservatism is racism? That all conservatives are racist? Aren’t there black conservatives? Are they racist? Are the millions of Americans who supported President Reagan racist? Are President George W. Bush and the conservatives who control the Congress and the courts hostile to African American interests?
My answer to most of these questions was a qualified yes. But the many qualifications and caveats left me, the interviewers, and the audience, without the kind of clarity one would hope for when professors are called upon to explain complex issues to the public. Thus, this book.
Monday, December 13, 2010
I was thinking a bit more about our convo on Howard Stern, racially profiled garbage, and community norms...
For granted, I take it that small things matter. Now this isn't purely because of my belief in the power of methodological individualism, but likely more because I am an avid student of human nature. Folks reveal a good deal about themselves through seemingly small things: how a person stands, the words they use, if they wear a watch or not, the type of shoes they wear, the grooming of their nails and hands, and one's style of haircut can tell you so very much. Maybe I have read too much about Harry Houdini's career as a genius breaker of the con game, or watched The Sting more than is recommended? But little things do indeed matter in this signal game called life, and I try to take them all in as best I can.
Politics of course is no different.
In coming full circle from our conversation about garbage, race, ethnicity, and class, Slavoj Zizeck's observations regarding the politics of the toilet are quite apropos. Because ultimately, on a personal level you don't really know a person until you see (and snoop around their bathroom).
Random factoid: in the best Seinfeld inspired spirit, I was hanging out with a quite pretty black Finnish sister. She wanted to take a ride on space mountain and I was more than willing to oblige her. On said evening, I looked about her bathroom and discovered The Tower of Babble in her garbage can, a twisted pile of nasty used tampons that was at least one foot high. I made an excuse and quickly left. My reasoning: if you that nasty, I will remain in blissful ignorance, for I do not want to know what other hellish mess you may have in store later in the night. Case. Closed.
As a complement to Zizek's insight, Theodor Adorno of the legendary Frankfurt School offered a powerful theory wherein the amount of punitive violence used during potty training was correlated to a given person's propensity for authoritarian politics ( a hypothesis clearly influenced by Freud). Zizek ups it one level and examines the collective political unconscious of a society as revealed through its waste disposal apparatuses.
I must wonder, given the New Right populist wave sweeping the country, what are the collective toilet politics operative in the Conservative political personality type that marches lockstep for the Tea Party GOP and the Palin brigades? Immaculately clean or horribly foul? Only made presentable when guests will be coming over and sitting upon the royal throne? Or (pardon my turn of phrase) are the Tea Partiers anally possessed and so clean that one could eat out of their toilet bowls Ramen Noodle prison style?
Just a thought.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
It is yucky, cold, and so blah outside here in Chicago. For those other denizens stuck inside, here is a fun Saturday evening distraction for those so inclined.
This clip from The Howard Stern Show (now re-signed with Sirius for another 5 years) is one of my favorites. His show is consistently one of the few places where honest conversations about race occur on a near daily basis in this country. For example, Stern's Harlem interviews during Barack Obama's presidential campaign remains one of the best demonstrations of the dynamics of mass opinion in the American public that I have ever seen.
The above clip featuring the King of All Blacks (Wack Pack sanitary worker extraordinaire) is also a true gem: Stern and company explore an impolitic but obvious question; what is the relationship between race, ethnicity, and refuse?
As someone who subscribes to the broken windows theory, I believe that neighborhood decline begins with little things. Consequently, the norms of public space resonate quite strongly in my worldview.
Random factoid: My particular data point of interest for measuring the socio-economic trajectory of a community is the care taken in how air conditioners are installed.
Consider the following. How many times have you seen air conditioners precariously hanging out of windows? Cardboard and plastic in the spaces between the air conditioner unit and the window casement? Now ask yourself: Are these communities generally desirable to live in?
I am suspicious of uni-variate explanations of complex social phenomena. Nevertheless, the garbage/race/ethnicity/class puzzle is a fascinating example of applied social science.
What are the little cues that you pick up on when assessing a given neighborhood's standard of living and community norms?
Friday, December 10, 2010
Featured Reader Comment: "Obama is an Outcome of his Cultural Dna Which is Bi-racial and as Such He Reacts Accordingly"
Obama is exactly what we observe a mild manner colored man handcuffed by his bi-racial cultural dna..Obama's restraint and tilt toward avoidance is his deliberate posture..His entire inner circle is absence of any strong outspoken Black males and this truth has hurt him...Obama is not going to change his true being..,We are stuck with a guy driving the car that likes to stay within the speed limit when we need him to race the engine and get to the ER...
This comment was worth bumping up. And let's tread carefully as we want to avoid the essentialist politics of blood and identity. But, maybe Thrasher has stumbled upon something of note.
I have been thinking a bit about our earlier conversation on the psychologizing of President Obama as either battered partner or hostage. The jury is still out on his tax deal with the GOP (some think it is pragmatic brilliance), but I have been struck in recent weeks by how the pundit classes seem unwilling to address how the sum of Obama's life experiences and racial identity are interrelated variables, variables that are most certainly impacting the president's approach to politics.
Sure, race is omnipresent as a narrative framing for the presidency of Barack Obama. For example, he is routinely tarred and feathered as an "uppity" black man by his enemies, an anti-white bigot, or somehow "unAmerican." Conversely, the president cannot show the type of passion and anger that his populist base demands because he would then risk being branded as an "angry black man." Thus, being reduced to being like those "other" black people--a political liability if there ever was one.
What we have not seen to this point is an explicit reference to how Obama's experiences as a black man of a mixed racial background, and the President's struggles to negotiate his identity, have impacted his approach to politics and life. Now, we most certainly don't want to be hand-tied by old, flat, and binary narratives of tragic mulattoes that 1) either want nothing to do with their blackness and run toward whiteness and imagined salvation or 2) become anti-white firebrands who hate all white people. And as I am so fond of saying, there are some 30 million ways to be black.
Ultimately, there has to be a nuanced middle role that acknowledges the complexity of Obama's life experiences, while also signaling to how, like Commander Data in Star Trek, he is more than the sum of his parts.
Obama's biographies are a great and obvious place to start: He openly discusses the processes through which his identity was negotiated, and the ways in which blackness for Obama came to have meaning--politically, socially, culturally, and intellectually. President Obama is a brother: a healthy and whole black man who happens to have a white mother.
I would propose that the true Rosetta Stone for understanding Obama, both as the pragmatic politician and as a black man of mixed race background, lies in his much lauded "A More Perfect Union" speech. While justly praised for how it was a sophisticated and mature reading of race in the post-Civil Rights era, I found the speech noteworthy for a different reason. There, Obama made a subtle tactical move that telegraphed the type of President (and decision maker) he would soon be.
In "A More Perfect Union," Obama made the frustration, hurt, and struggle of Black Americans as they fought for their fair share of the full fruits of American democracy somehow equivalent to White rage, anger, and resentment at having their centuries of de facto race privilege challenged. This was not a shocking move on Obama's part. Part of then candidate Obama's appeal was precisely because he does not share the blood lineage or family legacy of slavery. For some, a vote for President Obama could be a get out of white guilt free pass; he was a candidate without the blood of slaves, and thus a perfect salve and leader for post-racial, twenty-first century America.
However, the way in which Obama so casually conceded the moral justice and superiority of the Black Freedom Struggle to the petty spitefulness of white anger was and remains troubling. If then candidate Barack Obama was willing to surrender the metaphorical Mount Rushmore of moral high ground, what else would he be willing to surrender at the bargaining table if elected President? At the time this was just speculation. Two years later we are seeing just how "pragmatic" President Obama actually is.
To what ends remains the question.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Is President Obama Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Is He a Battered Spouse in an Unhealthy Relationship with the Republican Party?
Two memes are circulating in the aftermath of Barack Obama's seeming surrender to the Tea Party GOP on a two year extension of Bush the Second's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and a deep cut in inheritance taxes in exchange for a one year continuation of the unemployment insurance needed by those Americans either on, or frighteningly close to being in, the bread line.
Some have suggested the Obama is a battered spouse in an unhealthy relationship, wherein the GOP emotionally abuses the President and holds his agenda hostage all the while playing a foul game of blame the victim. The second narrative suggests that Barack Obama is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Here, Obama is America's first Black President turned Patty Hearst, and is in a twisted relationship where he has come to identify with the hostage takers that are the Republican Party.
Both of these analogies seem a bit flat to me. True, the Republicans are obstructionists acting against the common good. But, President Obama has the greatest bully pulpit of all. He is President of the United States, the national cheerleader, champion of the national prosperity, and informal head of state. Obama also inherited a majority in Congress and a mandate for change. In total, the logger jam he finds himself in is 1) a function of a failure in communication where charismatic candidate Barack Obama has been replaced by a much too modest Adlai Stevensonesque persona and 2) he is dealing in a reasonable manner with clearly unreasonable people who are determined to see him--and the Democratic Party--fail at any cost.
Upon the beginning of his term, Obama (instead of slapping the Republican Party with a steel hand covered in silk) extended a naked hand of conciliation and friendship to mouth frothing ideologues. He was bitten because of his own willful and poor decision making. Consequently, President Obama is no battered spouse or hostage, as he is responsible for making his own bed and must now lie in it. In short, Barack Obama, the most powerful politician in the world, is a victim of his own doing.
The latter point is especially revealing as we try to make sense of President Obama's difficulties as of late.
Breaking kayfabe as I occasionally do: Several years ago a fellow traveler and colleague of mine studied under then Professor Obama. In the latter's constitutional law class there was a very outspoken, provocative, and often wrong student that was quite disruptive as he seemed to revel in contradicting a young professor--especially one (who was coincidentally) not White. Throughout the term, Professor Obama would handle him politely and delicately, in the best professorial sense finding merit in said student's comments and redirecting the course appropriately.
One day the seminar was discussing Reconstruction, the Emancipation of Black Americans, and the Equal Protection Clause. The arch-Conservative student in question suggested that African-Americans were not prepared for freedom, had not demonstrated a propensity for democracy, and would have been better off in a state of servitude until they could appreciate the fruits of liberty as taught by White people. Shocked, with students on the edge of their seats, Obama smiled, did not respond, and then once more salvaged this intentionally provocative, racially tinged, and disruptive set of assertions. Many students were stunned. The line of reasoning offered by our provocateur was both intellectually lazy and unfounded by the historical record. Obama could have destroyed this observation and the specious reasoning underlying it with little effort...what could and should have been a truly teachable moment. Instead, then Professor Obama chose to make lemonade by adding bar sugar to a noxious mix of rotten lemons.
In that moment President Obama signaled to a type of too good-natured naivete, and a belief in the generosity and reasonableness of people, that is to this day vexing his presidency. Because he is a preeminent compromiser, even when to his own detriment, Obama believes that you can deal reasonably with unreasonable people. Sadly you cannot. Just as bullies are encouraged by appeasement, Obama's version of realpolitik signals that he is trading territory for maneuver room. Unfortunately, the American people will be the losers in this gambit.
Question: Is President Obama playing a deep game of chess, the fruits of which we cannot see in the near term? Or, and it pains me to write this, is Obama in over his head, monsooned by the craziness that he faces by the lockstep, single-minded, "principled opposition?"
Monday, December 6, 2010
Faced with a fading superpower incapable of paying the bills, China, India, Iran, Russia, and other powers, great and regional, provocatively challenge U.S. dominion over the oceans, space, and cyberspace. Meanwhile, amid soaring prices, ever-rising unemployment, and a continuing decline in real wages, domestic divisions widen into violent clashes and divisive debates, often over remarkably irrelevant issues. Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair, a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.
Under pressure, is she not? What a fitting soundtrack for the United States' managed (?) decline.
I do not know if the Imperial United States will go out with a whimper or a bang. As I wrote a few weeks back, I never would have imagined that the passing of the guard from America--failed hyperpower in the moments following the fall of the U.S.S.R.--would occur in my lifetime. But alas, all signs seem to be pointing to "go." The pundits at Tom Dispatch have been kind enough to map out a few possible scenarios, some bad, others horrible, and a few truly frightening.
I would like to believe that just as the British Empire bowed out (and America filled the vacuum) that this transition to a post-American world will come with a whimper and not a bang. Here, vacuums are filled by rising powers, regional hegemons, and other actors. But the decline of the United States is occurring at a moment coterminous with the end of peak oil. The new powers, China and India, have just as much need for these resources as the former big dog on the block. So is a graceful handing off of the reigns even feasible? I would not hold my breath.
Because of the collateral damage caused by the religion of American exceptionalism, some folks may forget that there is a global context for domestic politics. Moreover, one that determines the contours, health, and trajectory of the centuries-long Black Freedom Struggle.
For example, the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought about modernity and linked much of the world together in a forced exchange of cultures, peoples, thoughts, and ideas. The Cold War and the global struggle against Communism, as well as for the "hearts and minds" of Third World peoples, was the context for the Civil Rights Movement and American elites' understanding that Jim Crow was a net liability. The post-Civil Rights moment, globalization, and the end of the Cold War was the stage upon which the managerial class of the United States embraced diversity as a mantra. In that moment it became self-consciously more integrated, all the while the rank and file remained racially segregated.
For a variety of reasons (as this past created our present) it appears that the confluence of events at the nadir of American Empire could be a perfect storm which upsets much of what has been accomplished since the end of the Civil Rights moment.
First, the end of American empire will no doubt impact the intersections of race, politics, and society. Race will continue to over-determine life chances, all the while macro level forces relentlessly impact all Americans across the colorline. Whiteness will remain a buffer. But the breakwaters provided by white skin privilege will be fewer. And we know that Whiteness does not surrender its power easily...
Second, in this time of economic decline, the State will have no choice but to further limit services. The Culture Wars will only be amplified by this practical reality of realpolitik. Consider the following set of circumstances for a moment. Ironically, Red State America Tea-Party GOP country receives more federal monies per capita than any other part of the country--all the while these same anti-government types rail against the nanny-state. Unaware of their own entitlement, these folks are perhaps most sensitive to any change in their share of the federal lucre.
America is becoming more diverse and less white. The Black underclass remains mired in pathology, even while the black middle and professional classes have grown at record rates. Perhaps most damning, the American middle class is being decimated by extreme wealth inequality, outsourcing, flat wages, and a global kleptocracy continues to gain traction by marshaling the misdirected Right-wing populism of the tea bagger set to act against their own economic self-interests.
The racial resentment mined by the Palin Tea Party GOP in the Age of Obama is a signal to these bigger forces. The "us versus them" politics of the New Right is one more data point that the racial heliocentrism of Whiteness, as interchangeable with privilege, and an almost divine right inspired belief in by the birth entry into middle class status, is under siege.
Ultimately, the liberalization of American race relations occurred if not precisely because of economic prosperity, but was most certainly strongly correlated with it. What happens when the apple cart is turned over? When the gravy train dries up? The buffet closed? How soon until the implicit economic privilege of Whiteness becomes explicit race baiting, bigotry and provocation that goes beyond code words, anti-immigrant sentiment, the "real American" nostrums of the Palin Tea Party crowd, neo-secessionist, quasi-polite brown shirts, and evolves into something more naked?
The juvenile platitudes of American exceptionalism aside, "It" can happen here. Empires rise and fall. This is one singular lesson of history. Why should the United States be any different?
The full piece, "Taking Down America" can be found here. The most frightening scenario (at least to my eyes) is excised and follows:
World War III: Scenario 2025
The technology of space and cyberwarfare is so new and untested that even the most outlandish scenarios may soon be superseded by a reality still hard to conceive. If we simply employ the sort of scenarios that the Air Force itself used in its 2009 Future Capabilities Game, however, we can gain "a better understanding of how air, space and cyberspace overlap in warfare," and so begin to imagine how the next world war might actually be fought.
It’s 11:59 p.m. on Thanksgiving Thursday in 2025. While cyber-shoppers pound the portals of Best Buy for deep discounts on the latest home electronics from China, U.S. Air Force technicians at the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) on Maui choke on their coffee as their panoramic screens suddenly blip to black. Thousands of miles away at the U.S. CyberCommand's operations center in Texas, cyberwarriors soon detect malicious binaries that, though fired anonymously, show the distinctive digital fingerprints of China's People's Liberation Army.
The first overt strike is one nobody predicted. Chinese "malware" seizes control of the robotics aboard an unmanned solar-powered U.S. "Vulture" drone as it flies at 70,000 feet over the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan. It suddenly fires all the rocket pods beneath its enormous 400-foot wingspan, sending dozens of lethal missiles plunging harmlessly into the Yellow Sea, effectively disarming this formidable weapon.
Determined to fight fire with fire, the White House authorizes a retaliatory strike. Confident that its F-6 "Fractionated, Free-Flying" satellite system is impenetrable, Air Force commanders in California transmit robotic codes to the flotilla of X-37B space drones orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, ordering them to launch their "Triple Terminator" missiles at China's 35 satellites. Zero response. In near panic, the Air Force launches its Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle into an arc 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean and then, just 20 minutes later, sends the computer codes to fire missiles at seven Chinese satellites in nearby orbits. The launch codes are suddenly inoperative.
As the Chinese virus spreads uncontrollably through the F-6 satellite architecture, while those second-rate U.S. supercomputers fail to crack the malware's devilishly complex code, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of U.S. ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised. Carrier fleets begin steaming in circles in the mid-Pacific. Fighter squadrons are grounded. Reaper drones fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing when their fuel is exhausted. Suddenly, the United States loses what the U.S. Air Force has long called "the ultimate high ground": space. Within hours, the military power that had dominated the globe for nearly a century has been defeated in World War III without a single human casualty.