Thursday, March 31, 2011

They're Poor, Scared, Less Educated, and Left Behind: New Data from Gallup on Conservatives and Red State America

In college one of my sociology professors observed that the real divides between red and blue state America weren't necessarily ideological. He joked that you can look at the rise of Meth use and rates of church attendance on a state by state level and that will predict voting patterns just as well as party identification. Funny, it seems that he may have been onto something.

Gallup has released some new polling data which suggests that America is become more and more "conservative." Political scientists and others have long discussed how the electorate is polarized and that voters are "sorting out" by party affiliation and ideology. The results of this are plain: the noxious tone of our political discourse; the naked appeals to eliminationism by the Right; and a sense that the other side isn't just wrong, no, instead they are evil.

Using Gallup's information, The Atlantic's Richard Florida generated some great graphs which showed that the march of Conservatism across America is correlated with a number of variables including religiosity, poverty, education, and the income level of a given state. All in all the data is compelling. But it is not surprising. Moreover, there are also a few qualifiers to Gallup's findings that America is becoming a more "conservative" that need to be highlighted.

1. Primarily, it has long been noted that Americans are not very ideological--here meaning a coherent schema of political values and beliefs that is internally consistent. While the American electorate is certainly passionate (the ear damaging shrill tones of the White populist Tea Party being people's evidence number one), they do not necessarily hold beliefs that are stable across issue positions.

2. The survey asks respondents if they self-identify as "Conservatives." Again, this is open to slippage as many people for a variety of reasons may label themselves as such. But, these same individuals may vote for the Democrats or identify on issue positions as being more Left/Progressive. And on specific issues (a set of data points that give a better sense of the real lay of the political land) the positions and personalities of the New Right Tea Party GOP are increasingly unpopular.

3. While the media is fascinated by the frame of "Red State versus Blue State", the real action is occurring on the county and regional level where the central cities are becoming more blue and the suburbs and rural parts of many states are becoming more red. Hence the notion of a "purple America." Quite simply, Americans are living in communities where their values are reinforced. Thus the irony that in an increasingly globalized world, with instantaneous information available at one's fingertips, a good number of people are seeking similarity and confirmation, as opposed to a richness of diversity in ideas, values, and beliefs.

[One must ask: Is Cosmopolitan America dead? Did she ever truly exist?]

However, the Atlantic's analysis is spot on and frighteningly prescient in the following observation.
Conservatism, at least at the state level, appears to be growing stronger. Ironically, this trend is most pronounced in America's least well-off, least educated, most blue collar, most economically hard-hit states. Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind. The current economic crisis only appears to have deepened conservatism's hold on America's states...

Liberalism, which is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places, is shrinking across the board and has fallen behind conservatism even in its biggest strongholds. This obviously poses big challenges for liberals, the Obama administration, and the Democratic Party moving forward.

But the much bigger, long-term danger is economic rather than political. This ideological state of affairs advantages the policy preferences of poorer, less innovative states over wealthier, more innovative, and productive ones. American politics is increasingly disconnected from its economic engine. And this deepening political divide has become perhaps the biggest bottleneck on the road to long-run prosperity.

This is the formula for a reactionary politics that does not serve the collective good. Here, the tail wags the dog and the most frightened, least resourced, and most backward voices rise out of the polity. Elites who have long been disconnected from the masses manipulate this anxiety into a politics that serves to gut the social safety net and chase down the chosen bugaboos of the Right--the "evil" unions, "liberals," "intellectuals," teachers, Muslims, immigrants, racial minorities, gays and lesbians, "overpaid" public employees, and/or anyone who is not a "real American."

In the end game, the authoritarianism infused White reactionary Tea Party AstroTurf politics of the New Right are the road to inverted totalitarianism--an order that rises out of a failure of democratic politics, a collapsed and exhausted economy, a triumphant corporatism, and the false promises of popular Conservatism.

Conservatives and the Right-wing echo chamber will be crowing about their success in light of Gallup's findings. They will scream that Conservatism is on the march and that Gallup's polling data is a vindication of their ideas. Those who live in the reality based world can easily foil those claims. But, the cries of victory will appeal to the true devotees nonetheless. Sadly, the foot soldiers of Conservatism do not understand that they are winning a Pyrrhic victory, one which indicates a deep and systemic rot in this country, as opposed to a triumph of ideas and values that can lead us through the decline of empire and towards a brave new future.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Young Ones Don't Have Friends They Have Associates Revisited: On the Wisdom of Fresh and the Seduction of the Innocent

A clip from Fresh seemed appropriate given the earlier post on the calculating and coordination-game behavior practiced by children born to the ghetto underclasses. In light on Dr. Small's hypothesis, I wanted to quickly revisit the chess and life analogy so deftly used in that film. I wonder is there a bit of nobility in the fact that black folks in this country--and those who have historically suffered (and fought against) power--have to grow up earlier than the children of the privileged? Or in that necessity is there a bit of tragedy where many of our young folks learn "what it means to be a problem" early on, and are thus robbed of the freedom and innocence that ought to come with childhood?

I am at a loss. On one hand the strength of black folks in America is our ability to manage smiles and cries along with a deeply held, tragicomic sense of irony. However, I worry that as a function of our understanding of the ways in which life can be fundamentally unfair, many of us harden our children in order to give them the magical armor necessary to do battle in a world that was not necessarily designed for their success.

Are my worries misplaced or are they both necessary and reasonable?

Ol' Dirty Bastard is for the Children: In the Culture of Poverty the Young Ones Don't Have Friends, They Have Associates

I have been sitting on this for a while and the timing seemed ideal...

The role of social networks and social capital has been looming large over many of the conversations we have had as of late here on We Are Respectable Negroes. For example, much of the literature on black political thought and public opinion suggests that black conservatives who kiss the ring of white folks and shine their shoes for a living--the Herman Cain, Clarence Thomas, Juan Williams, et al. of the world--are products of a weakness (or even lack) in connection to the cultural, social, and political institutions of the African American community.

No great riddle of the Sphinx needs to be deciphered in order to explain their political loyalties. There is no feeling of linked fate for these garbage pail kids of American politics because they have no sense of shared struggle in union with other black folks in mass. Ultimately, there is no contradiction to resolve between their split loyalties to the well-being of black folks and the common good, and black conservatives' bended knee, boot licking loyalty to the worst sort of white populism as offered by the Tea Party GOP.

The ghetto ign't Burger King Bikini Brawler is also a product of a different type of social network, one in which her socially maladapted behavior is rewarded as virtuous and normal--the mark of a "strong black woman"--as opposed to deviant acting out with no purchase beyond her local 'hood. And of course as we try to navigate the Great Recession, one of the greatest determinants of access to job opportunities is one's connection to folks who already are employed. Thus, those with wealth, money, access, and jobs tend to know other folk in a like position. Those without said resources tend to have truncated job opportunities because they are part of a network where other people also lack work. Given that Horatio Alger is long dead, once more it isn't what you know, it is who you know--or your name--that determines if you get a foot in the door.

To point, sociologist Mario Small's work is broad and deep. His research on social networks and young people in Chicago's schools resonates because it is one more example of how race, class, and networks matter for both our life chances in the present, as well as future life trajectories.

In reading his work on social networks and urban youth I must ask the following: Are things truly this dire? Are the lives of our young people destined to be such that they live a Hobbesian existence that is nasty, brutish, and short? What will come of these young boys and girls as they enter adult life as citizens, employees, leaders, community members, and parents?

...We interviewed about forty to forty-five students in each school. We interviewed some of the mothers, fathers, teachers, staff; almost no difference. The reason? In both schools, the students did not trust anybody. The students expressed a great deal of reluctance to admitting that they had best friends. Many said, “I don’t have friends, I have associates,” and the reason had to do with the extraordinarily high levels of violence in both neighborhoods.

If you look at how sociologists typically study networks, there is no finding more universal than the idea that homophily, similarity determines everything. So people tend to have friends who resemble them. So if I am eleven, you like soccer, I like soccer, we become friends because we both like soccer, this kind of a thing. There was almost none of that. Instead, the children were extremely strategic and instrumental in how they thought about their friendships.

One, they thought about friendships who could protect them if there was a problem, and this was the boys and the girls. Second, they were strategic about even forming friends. So one eleven or twelve-year-old boy, for example, said, “You know, before I decide to be friends with somebody, I watch them. I just watch them for months and months and months to see what they are like. Because I want to see if there is a problem if they are going to come in and have my back.” An extremely strategic and really disturbing way of thinking about friendship. Now these are ten, eleven, twelve-year-old children. This is the time in your life when you learn how to form friendships with others. You learn trust, you learn effective social relations.What can we expect of these children when they are twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, forming romantic relationships, trying to form effective relationships in the workplace?

It is going to be extremely difficult because, my hypothesis is that the high levels of distrust developed early on in response to violence are going to have an impact in their later lives. Now there is no way to think about this question without thinking about some aspects of what is called culture. Now, again, notice it is not culture about values, I mean that is just the wrong way to think about it. It is really a cultural response to a violent environment. Anybody in that same kind of environment would develop this sort of bunker mentality, that you have to protect yourself first.
Damn. How did we stoop so far to Gomorrah? What can be done to recover?

Monday, March 28, 2011

More Pathologies of the White Conservative Soul: Did You Know that Socialist Thought Has Crippled Black America?

Act fast because for a limited time only, the Right-wing website Townhall has a good two-for-one sale on pandering foolishness and ahistorical race baiting.

As I have said many a times, the White conservative soul is quite ill. It is filled to the gills with the poisonous crack rock that is the politics of white racial resentment and victimology. In turn, this addiction is enabled by black garbage pail kids conservative, professional negro sycophants such as Herman Cain, Niger Innis, Juan Williams, Michael Steele, Allen West, and "journalist" Star Parker. Collectively, they are the metaphorical (if not literal) smokescreen for some of the most onerous policies of the New Right.

In their broken record-like performance, popular black conservatives hit all the talking points as they smile, grin, shuffle, and legitimate a narrative in which Black Americans are dumb, stupid, on a "plantation," and incapable of making well-reasoned political choices. By implication, white people, and conservatives in particular, are endowed with a special wisdom and agency that black Americans are not. The premise from which the black conservative imagination flows is excreta filled because of its utter disdain for the Black community. The implications for their parroted Right-wing dogma are just as vile precisely because the well-springs are so befouled.

Even given the low standards of intellectual rigor common to the Right-wing echo chamber, I always try to find a kernel of fact or historical truth in their utterances. John Rossomondo's piece, "Socialist Thought has Crippled Black America" (where he as the good, noble, white "father" offers resplendent insights into the "pathologies" of Black people) is an epic fail even by the Right's low standards.

Some choice excerpts:

Leading black conservatives lay blame for black America's rampant poverty and other ills squarely at the feet of the socialist orientation of black leaders such as Al Sharpton.

They say the black intelligentsia’s rhetoric has created a defeatist and demoralizing climate that has robbed millions of black Americans of hope and has sentenced them to an impoverished existence..

Niger Innis, national spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, says Marxists have worked hard to exploit blacks for the past century and divide them from the rest of society...

“The biggest tragedy in all of this is that the blacks did not know the poison of socialism and communism,” Innis says. “And they were led to believe it was the only alternative for fighting Jim Crow and pushing back against segregation...”

The black elites’ Marxist dialectic has pit white versus black and rich versus poor, and has disempowered countless black Americans in the process by promoting collective hatred and jealousy.

“It has really hurt the black community because the real uplift in this country is through individual initiative, activity and entrepreneurship,” says Bishop E.W. Jackson Sr., a prominent conservative black minister and Tea Partier. “This mindset that you are owed something and everything has to be the same for everybody is a very dangerous and insidious attitude that has crept into the black community.”
Beyond what is an obviously piss poor reading of history, there is so much wrong here.

Nowhere in Rossomondo's piece is there a signal to the realities of white supremacy, the power and influence of structures, the intersections of race and class where capitalism was used as a bludgeon to under develop Black America's economy, or the realities of the Racial state--in either its color conscious past or its colorblind present.

Even more absurdly, in the racial imagination of contemporary conservatism it was somehow super powered black villains such as the dastardly Jesse Jackson and the maniacal Al Sharpton who created a two tiered labor market, slashed the federal budget, and implemented racist bank lending practices which red-lined neighborhoods to make them ineligible for VA and FHA loans.

Conversely, John Rossomondo's race baiting essay ignores the deep traditions of capitalism and entrepreneurial behavior by black Americans from slavery to freedom where bonds people rented out their own labor and worked independently of the plantation as mechanics and artisans, to the importance of such legendary figures as Madam CJ Walker, or even to the near present where the Civil Rights Movement was struggling for equality in the consumer's republic.

Moreover, the idea that black resistance to white supremacy is somehow morally equivalent with white racism is the most problematic of the many fictions offered by the race baiting, yellow journalism of the Right. A belief in equal culpability is so historically myopic as to be dim. Nevertheless, the lie of false equivalence has become one of the key tenets of conservative victimology because it fuels the Right's specious and laughable claims that white people are somehow oppressed. Sadly, the big lie that equates black anger at white supremacy with white resentment (at being forced to deliver in some small ways on a metaphorical check stamped "insufficient funds") has so seeped into the neo-liberal, post-Civil Rights dialogue, that even President Obama in his vaunted 2008 campaign speech on race was forced to kneel and kiss said ring.

In total, the Right's deployment of the phrase "black Marxist intellectuals" is a catchall laden with buzzwords designed to scare and frighten the White Conservative soul. Those "crazy negroes" are fifth columnists and Socialists who cannot be trusted--a frame echoed by the charges that President Obama, a die hard corporatist, is somehow a "Socialist." Those "intellectuals" are also high foreheaded, book reading "elitists" who dare to think that they know better than the White populist, "real American" tea baggers such as the mama grizzlies and Joe the Plumbers. And most frightening to the racial id of the White Conservative Soul, as kin to the "giant negroes" which haunt the darkest recesses of the White racial id, those black Marxist intellectuals are interested in redistributing America's resources, getting reparations, and stealing the "well-deserved" monies of good, hardworking white people to give them to the undeserving masses of brown and black folk.

I have a simple request. If popular black conservatives are going to play the role of a succubus riding the chest and whispering into the ear of their White conservative masters as they lay intertwined in an intimate embrace on top of the soiled carcass which was the common good and the American middle class, that black conservatives at least make an effort to tell better lies, and to obfuscate history with more deft aplomb, as it would make for better sport.

Black Americans are a blues people. With that comes an appreciation for the ironies, tragedies, and triumphs of this country. We are also radical in our commitment to justice and equality. But in no way are we traitors to the American tradition. If anything, black Americans loved a country which did not love us back, and worked, died, and struggled so that the promise of democracy would be made whole for all.

And while this will be news to some, Conservatives are not the exclusive flame holders or guardians of American liberty. As exemplified by the muckraking tone of pieces such as "Did You Know that Socialist Thought Has Crippled Black America," the Right, already teetering on the wrong-side of history, is poised to fall into its maw as they lean over to take one more hit of the crack like, meth-infused drug that is white racial resentment. I only hope that they fall gracefully and do not reach out for a saving hand as I am loathe to interfere with gravity's inexorable pull.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Thinking Project: Muhammad Ali's Storytelling Prowess and Peter Gruber's Wisdom on the Merits of Selling a Story

Some more weekend randomness for you all...

We have talked much about the sweet science and my personal hero the one and only Muhammad Ali. I came upon the above interview while reading broadly--race men and race women need to do so as nothing frustrates me more than a retreat from the "classics," "the dead white men," and a holding on to a provincial intellectual terrain that goes for the familiar, and not the "traditional." Life ain't fair and we have to know the wisdom of all and the ofays, as well as our radical and revolutionary takes on all things. Embrace that fact. Do not retreat from it.

Muhammad Ali is not a perfect man. But he was a visionary. If we are honest with ourselves, one sees that Ali was a bit of a mercurial villain who played race politics to his own gain...especially if you reflect on his bouts with Foreman and Frasier. That is not the official line. But, it is of oh so much import if we are to understand the man, as opposed to worshiping the legend. For me at least, the former is far more compelling a story.

As a complement to this discussion, Peter Guber's book on presentation and communication is very useful. If you are a teacher you are an entertainer. If you give presentations at conferences and/or in boardrooms you are an entertainer. If you are a story teller by habit or necessity Ali and Gruber will help you.

As my grandmother, she who was a griot extraordinaire, told me years ago, the dates don't matter, get the facts right and embellish, enhance, and shift the narrative to fit your audience. If you can do that you are a winner. Or alternatively stated, always work to sell ice to an Eskimo. Master that skill and people will give you money. To this point, grandmother has not been proven wrong yet.

That decision rule will never fail you. It will always serve you well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Of Eddie and the Cruisers and the Random Tapestry of Life

It is okay to dance in one's office to some blue eyed soul seasoned music, no?

Friday is here and there is lots of good ghetto nerdness to be had this weekend. I was going to see De La Soul in concert but slept on buying the tickets. Thus my having to find other (mis)adventures. The world is indeed small. While looking at Aint It Cool News for information on Sucker Punch (a movie that seems damned to either brilliance or inane tomfoolery pretentiousness), I came across an interview with Michael Pare, who is in the current movie Lincoln Lawyer, but most important to my purposes also appeared in the 1980s B classic flick Eddie and the Cruisers--a film that was an anchor of my childhood and teen years.

What is a little factoid that is one more kernel to help those so inclined figure out who the man behind the kayfabe mask that is "Chauncey DeVega" really is.

[What a sentence that was. It was almost as joyous and smooth as Eros lube on a plastic sheet wrapped around 3 curvaceous sisters exhausted by my mix of vigorous yet tender, empowered by yohimbe root and ginseng thrusting.]

Eddie and the Cruisers was the reason that my father finally gave in and purchased a VCR from Crazy Eddie's electronics store (if you are not from the tri-state area I cannot even begin to describe the sheer madness that was the Crazy Eddie experience). Apparently, one of his closest friends and fellow travelers in the world of almost famous, yet highly respected musicians, was Mr. Michael Antunes: he was the featured sax player in The John Cafferty and Beaver Brown Band, which was in turn the actual group Eddie and the Cruisers.

Lord have mercy. I was dragged to the theater more times than I can count to see this movie. Mr. Antunes would call the house and update my father on his adventures. My father would repeat them to me...again and again. In fact, I can recall him being no happier than when he would go see The John Cafferty and Beaver Brown Band live and sit in on a set or two (as this was his one degree of separation from Hollywood "fame.")

The world is funny. Without Eddie and the Cruisers I would not have been able to watch Star Wars hundreds if not thousands of times. Without Eddie and the Cruisers I would not have stopped playing guitar (at which I was horrible) and picked up the alto saxophone, which I in turn dropped for two Technic 1200s and a mixer. Without Eddie and the Cruisers I would not have gotten serious about hip hop and popular culture. And for better of for worse I would not have gotten into radio, studied the things that I did, and have the life I do at present.

Now my life is quite far from perfect and there are many hurdles still to be overcome. But I follow the Captain Picard rule from the great TNG episode "Tapestry," in which he chooses to fight the Nausicaans and live with the consequences of that impetuous choice, rather than play it safe and end up a dull, pitiable man.

Pray tell my respectable friends and co-travelers on these Internets, what seemingly innocuous event or random choice made during your early years was in hindsight out-sized in its impact on who you became (or are becoming) as an adult?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Armchair Sociology: The Burger King Bikini Brawl, Black Feminity, and the Social Determinism of Ghetto Names

I am fascinated by the ways of the urban troglodyte (or as I more affectionately call them the "ign't" classes). Given that the emphasis on exploring the notion of black respectability was the founding impetus behind starting WARN, my curiosity regarding these matters should be taken as a given. But, I am always surprised when these explorations of race and class often bump up against the expectations held by some black folk that we ought not to air our dirty laundry. Moreover, that any critique of the ghetto underclass (a term I still use and embrace) and a support for the notion that economic disadvantage ought not to equal a poverty of the mind, soul, or spirit, is somehow unfair or mean spirited. In short, to borrow a phrase from Michael Gerson, my rebuttal has, and will always be, that we must never embrace the soft-bigotry of low expectations.

Those qualifiers having been noted, we holders of the flame of black respectability still need to be able to laugh without shame or embarrassment at both our own foibles, as well as at the stupidity of our social lessers. To point: The Burger King Bikini Brawl is my happy pill of the day. It is a given that fast food restaurants are notorious for bringing out the worst in folks (and please, don't get me started on the mayhem which inevitably ensues every Popeye's Eight Piece Chicken Holiday). But this episode is doubly fascinating because of how dense it is with opportunities for sociological analysis.

1. The mayor of Blacktown has commented on this crudely. Brother Malcolm has done so eloquently. But, what is the state of black womanhood and femininity today? And is it even fair to talk in such broad terms? Would Weber and Durkheim want us to be narrow and more specific, and to explore how local constructs of masculinity and femininity are in conflict with broader social norms?

2. Sociolinguistics. What is our young heroine saying in the first portions of the clip? I know I am not alone in noticing that what was once called "African American Vernacular English" has become something else. What it is, I do not know. After trying my hand at translating the first portions of this clip, I now understand why the DEA is seeking experts in "ebonics."

3. The life chances and economics of names. Our champion caliber bikini brawler's name is "Kimesia." The wisdom of Freakonomics and applied economics in regards to "ghetto names" would seem to apply here. As noted in the article, "First Names and Crime: Does Unpopularity Spell Trouble?" :

Gyimah-Brempongand Price (2006), for example, use the Scrabble score of a person’s first name as a tangential explanatory variable (their key independent variables measure skin hue) in regressions trying to explain age at incarceration and length of sentence. In the majority of their specifications, a higher Scrabble score is associated with either an increased hazard of criminal activity or a longer sentence."

Ultimately, names may not be destiny in all things, but names certainly do reveal something about social capital and life chances.

What other bits of data were you able to tease out of the Burger King Bikini Brawl video? Is there something to be said about intersectionality? Group behavior? The parenting styles of various ethnic/racial/economic cohorts? Or is this just another example of the alternative cultural norms and conflict resolution styles of the urban poor, where any criticism of Miss Kimesia's behavior is really a function of high minded bourgeois norms of class and respectability that are outmoded and unfair?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wednesday Randomness: Of Babe the Blue Ox and Making Sense of Teaching Evaluations

Moving on from Cain for a second. I occasionally share bits of the random things I read on the bus. When something strikes me as compelling I dog ear the page and promise myself that I will post said tidbit that evening. Usually, other things interfere. But, as I sit here reading my evaluations (and yes, another post on pedagogical failures is forthcoming) I thought of one of my favorite comic book characters and his profound and understated "thought bubble" wisdom.

I rarely shill for a product of any sort, but Fables is a must read. With both long time devotees of the medium and non-comic readers alike, I have not shared this title with anyone who has not fallen in love with it.

Babe the Blue Ox is wise. His words resonate as I try to make sense of how Mrs. and Mr. Snowflake Millennial understand the world (and the responsibility they have for their own learning). All told, there is no problem that Babe the Blue Ox cannot illuminate and make clearer to those who bow before him.

The Progress that is Black Mediocrity and True Freedom: Herman Cain is not too Fond of Muslim Cancer Surgeons Saving His Life

There is an old joke that goes as follows:

What does a white man with a penny hate more than anything else? A black man with a nickel. The Herman Cains of the world would give that white man their last five cents just to make him happy.

Like Sarah Palin, Herman Cain is the gift that keeps on giving. Consequently, whenever I am going to move on and post an essay on pedagogy, sex, African American history, or comic books, Uncle Ruckus opens mouth and inserts foot.

This feels so dirty that I am loathe to even write it: Tea Party GOP presidential candidate was relieved to find out that his cancer surgeon was not a Muslim. Wow. Rendered. Speechless.

Yes, I just wrote that sentence. As long time readers of my work here and elsewhere know, I have little use for religion as I find it a net negative for society. Nevertheless, I believe in intellectual honesty and some adherence to a modicum of consistency in argument and thought. To point: I can only imagine the histrionics that would ensue if an American Muslim dared to suggest that a Christian by virtue of faith was somehow unqualified to be a surgeon. I must have been asleep that day in school, because I have always believed that there were no litmus tests of faith for employment or office-holding in this country. Likewise, I did not know that there were special medical boards exclusive to Muslim Americans where standards were systematically lowered.

There is a deep irony at work here in the sheer resplendent stupidity of Herman Cain's deep and sincere Islamophobia--Brother King suggested that the arc of history is long and true. He also dreamed of a day when true equality would exist between the races. Cain, despite his fond yearning for a return to Jim Crow America, is proof of the radical vision at the heart of the Black Freedom Struggle.

How? True equality is the ability to be mediocre, dumb, bigoted, foolish, and possessing the special qualities of a turd that cannot be polished. In his pandering to the religious Right, Herman Cain has demonstrated that he is just as common--in the worst ways possible--as the other Tea Party GOP ilk with which he lays.

History looms large over Cain's comments. As Herman Cain certainly knows--because he is a proud "Morehouse Man"--Black folks in America have always had to be 10 times as good, to get half as far, as white folks. Barack Obama's America has apparently changed that calculus. Ultimately, Black Archie Bunker Uncle Ruckus Herman Cain's most recent episode of verbal diarrhea has demonstrated that the collective mediocrity of African American Black Conservatives is rapidly approaching that of their white brethren.

That is progress my friends. Yes, it is.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

He's So Prolific! Muammar Gaddafi: Fashionista, Financier of Farrakhan, Friend of the El Rukns, and Connoisseur of Women

I spent my weekend at the C2e2 convention here in Chicago. It was a good time. My talk went extremely well (I always try to bring it; thus why I go last on a panel whenever possible). I saw some great costumes, got an autograph from Bill Willingham of Fables fame, and made some preliminary forays into collaborating on a book project. C2e2 also reminded me of my early socialization into the lifestyle that is ghetto nerdness.

I have many fond teenage and childhood memories of going to comic book, Star Trek and science fiction conventions, often held in dingy, dilapidated hotels before the mainstream embraced Comic-Con and other such gatherings. In those same years, my interest in military affairs began to develop. As a child of the Cold War, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Ronald Reagan's America, and the Cold War, we ghetto nerds of the hip hop generation couldn't help but have some interest in things that go boom and which cost billions of dollars in the name of "national defense."

There were interventions aplenty during Reagan and Bush the Elder's reign--much to the delight of a young hawk and militarist in training. I vividly remember Iran-Contra and the Right's defense of Oliver North as an American "patriot." While the fiasco invasion of Grenada was a vague memory, the bombing of Libya was my proverbial baptism by fire: I remember staying up all night watching ABC News, learning about F-111 and A-6 strike aircraft, and getting drunk on a bit of TV news war porn as the "experts" scrambled to come up with compelling angles.

Top Gun would come next. The rest is history. And of course, we black and brown ghetto nerds had to invent an on screen character during our reenactments in order to feel included in the Hollywood military industrial complex homo-social fantasy that was Top Gun.

Thus, my fascination with Muammar Gaddafi has percolated and aged, like a fine wine, over these many years. Like Kim Jong-il, he is one part James Bond villain, and two parts thorn in the behind of American power. By comparison Saddam Hussein always seemed horrifically terrifying. To my eyes, Gaddafi was always more of a character, a guy who would throw a great party and later regale you with stories of his exploits both real and imagined.

As a policy matter, I am of two minds on the intervention in Libya. I believe that Obama, if he were to go down this road, should have acted earlier when Gaddafi's forces were on the run, as opposed to now when the lines are more settled. I am also not a fan of a decades-long mission where our pilots will be performing a series of perpetual left or right hand turns, flying in circles over a foreign country for little appreciable gain. Nor, do I think the American people understand that there have been boots on the ground for weeks--commandos, combat air controllers, parajumpers and others who are doing the requisite targeting and recon work for the air assault. But alas, an intervention of indeterminate length and possessing a vague goal has begun. Let us send well-wishes to our warriors such that they return home safely.

As an avid Gaddafi watcher, here are some fun and random stories about our intrepid dictator to complement the mainstream media's coverage of Operation Odyssey Dawn:

1. He is so prolific! Muammar Gaddafi invented a rocket shaped car designed to revitalize the Libyan auto industry by producing a vehicle that would provide unprecedented protection to passengers in the event of a collision.

2. He is quite a ladies man. From being cared for by a buxom Ukrainian nurse, to personal bodyguards who are so compelling their habitus and sexuality alone would distract potential assassins, Gaddafi is that dude. In fact, Muammar has so much game that he invited 500 models to an Italian villa for an evening confab. While any other man would have enjoyed an evening of decadent and lascivious delights that would have shamed Caligula, the leader of Libya instead chose to give said women a lecture on morality and the virtues of Islam. Talk about game and self-control. There is no better way to make a woman want you, especially a goddess, than to ignore her charms. Trust for I know it be true, he who has bedded beautiful Sikh sisters as well as sexy Tamil queens...all in the same day.

3. Know your history. Muammar's connections to Chicago are deep. In fact, the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan's line of personal health products were started with some 5 million dollars in seed money from the good dictator.

4. But be careful. Connections to Gaddafi were apparently used as a pretext in order to trip up the local Chicago community organization and street gang the El Rukns. Their leader Jeff Fort along with other El Rukns are serving decades-long prison sentences for a range of "terrorist" activities including a purported plot to blow up the (then) Sear's Tower, assassinate Americans, and commit other subversive deeds.

5. Gaddafi is mighty dapper. Make careful note of his range of clothes and how he can innovate for any occasion. For my dollar, Gaddafi is so fashion savvy he should have his own show on the Style Network or perhaps a guest appearance on Mad Men.

6. Judge him by his enemies. Gaddafi was the target of a CIA disinformation campaign in the 198s0s. The men in black circulated all manner of lies and half-truths on Gaddafi's mischief making around the world. They also hit Gaddafi below the proverbial belt, suggesting that he was impotent, a cross-dresser, and insane. Now that is just unkind!

So my friends and fellow travelers, do you have any other Gaddafi factoids to add to the list? What are your thoughts on President Obama's Barbary coast (mis)adventure?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Is Sarah Palin Becoming the New Al Sharpton?

A few things.

I have a feature piece on the front page of Alternet. I asked if I could call Clarence Thomas a "black golem." The editors obliged. I am pleased. But more seriously, I was kindly pitched to develop something on Herman Cain, my favorite Uncle Ruckus black conservative of the moment, and how he made light of Jim Crow a few days ago in order to win points with the white tea bagger crowd. So please check it out.

I am also going to be doing my thing at the 2nd annual C2E2 convention in Chicago. So, you can find me there if you are so inclined.

And now on a more substantive note...

To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Al Sharpton is a friend of mine. You Sarah Palin, are no Al Sharpton. Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

We have dissected Sarah Palin quite a bit, from entertaining a counter-factual in which she were black, to working through how Palin performs "rural blackface." But, Politco's piece on "Palin Becoming Al Sharpton" is a new high in Palin Studies.

[Wow, I think I just coined a phrase. What exactly would the field of Palin Studies look like? What would be its foundational texts and principles? What are its epistemological priors?]

A broke clock is right twice a day. Thus, it is rewarding to see conservatives more publicly calling out Palin for her crass anti-intellectualism and know-nothing appeal. She has made stupid a brand name and is an Eva Braun figure for the worst Right-wing tea party knuckledraggers. The Tea Party GOP is up against a generational wall and is going for the low hanging fruit of naked racial and ethnic reactionary politics. Palin was/is the cheap sugar high and linchpin for that effort. Hopefully, the grown ups will reign in the kiddies on the New Right and get them to act responsibly. But, I won't be holding my breath.

An attempt to link Palin to Sharpton resonates for the Right because black activists, of any stripe, are de facto "race pimps" in the conservative imagination. Conservatives have no small amount of disdain for folks who attempt to speak truth power. They also have no real amount of love for black folks. Thus, race pimp is a powerful word in their slogan filled, talking point lexicon along with "Dred Scott" and "personal responsibility."

But, what exactly is a race pimp? And aren't white racial reactionary conservatives such as Buchanan, Beck, King, Barbour et al. also race pimps...of a far more dangerous stripe?

I do not know if linking Palin to Sharpton is more of an insult to the former than the latter. Nevertheless, the full piece on Politico is well worth checking out in its entirety.

A choice selection from the full essay:

Palin defenders say she has good reason to be dismissive of elite critics — she has outpaced their low expectations at every turn. And while intellectuals may disdain identity politics in theory, in practice nearly all successful national politicians in both parties succeed in part by striking a populist chord — catering to the pride of targeted groups and giving voice to their grievances. So far, Palin has been uncommonly effective at channeling the anti-Washington, anti-establishment energy powering the right since Obama’s election.

But Palin’s skeptics said a successful presidential candidacy would need to be buoyed by genuine policy vision, not merely grievance. For now, however, Palin’s appeal is largely rooted in the sympathy she’s gleaned from her loudly voiced resentments toward the left, the news media and the GOP establishment.

“The appeal of conservatism is supposed to be people taking responsibility for their own actions,” said Labash. “But if you close your eyes and listen to Palin and her most irate supporters constantly squawk or bellyache or tweet about how unfair a ride she gets from evil mustache-twirling elites and RINO saboteurs, she sounds like a professional victimologist, the flip side of any lefty grievance group leader. She’s becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska edition. The only difference being, she wears naughty-librarian glasses instead of a James Brown ‘do”...

Over two years later, Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, said of Palin: “She is living up to the most skeptical assessment of her.”

“Practicing identity politics completely undercuts the idea that you don’t have to be white to govern whites or black to govern blacks and that gender and chromosomes are completely irrelevant job qualifications,” said Mac Donald. “It’s just a total rejection of a very important principle which is that race, gender and class don’t matter.”

Asked specifically about Palin’s attempt to woo women through her “Mama Grizzlies” appeals, Mac Donald sighed and complained about “the feminist strain” among even conservative females.

“A lot of women have it, unfortunately,” she said.

Voicing the conservative ideal, Mac Donald said: “The public should stop wanting to see itself reflected in a leader. There is something narcissistic about that. It’s really irrelevant if a political leader has any affinity with my life. The only thing that should matter are ideas, experience and executive ability."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of Nuclear Meltdowns in Japan and the Story of Prometheus

Like you, I too sit holding my breath as we await what seems like an inevitable nuclear conflagration in Japan. Perilous moments bring both great heroism and heady questions. If fate is just, there will be songs sung in honor of the Fukushima 50--samurai of the nuclear age. And sociologists and anthropologists will continue to muse on about Japanese respect for order and discipline even in the face of a horrible disaster long after these events have passed.

But in this moment, I keep wondering if the human race has either the maturity or wisdom to master the nuclear Djinn which we unleashed from its bottle decades ago. Thus, my thinking back on the story of Prometheus. Given the happenings in Japan it seemed appropriate. No?

"The Story of Prometheus" from Old Greek Stories by James Baldwin:

I. How Fire Was Given to Men

In those old, old times, there lived two brothers who were not like other men, nor yet like those Mighty Ones who lived upon the mountain top. They were the sons of one of those Titans who had fought against Jupiter and been sent in chains to the strong prison-house of the Lower World.

The name of the elder of these brothers was Prometheus, or Forethought; for he was always thinking of the future and making things ready for what might happen to-morrow, or next week, or next year, or it may be in a hundred years to come. The younger was called Epimetheus, or Afterthought; for he was always so busy thinking of yesterday, or last year, or a hundred years ago, that he had no care at all for what might come to pass after a while.

For some cause Jupiter had not sent these brothers to prison with the rest of the Titans.

Prometheus did not care to live amid the clouds on the mountain top. He was too busy for that. While the Mighty Folk were spending their time in idleness, drinking nectar and eating ambrosia, he was intent upon plans for making the world wiser and better than it had ever been before.

He went out amongst men to live with them and help them; for his heart was filled with sadness when he found that they were no longer happy as they had been during the golden days when Saturn was king. Ah, how very poor and wretched they were! He found them living in caves and in holes of the earth, shivering with the cold because there was no fire, dying of starvation, hunted by wild beasts and by one another–the most miserable of all living creatures.

“If they only had fire,” said Prometheus to himself, “they could at least warm themselves and cook their food; and after a while they could learn to make tools and build themselves houses. Without fire, they are worse off than the beasts.”

Then he went boldly to Jupiter and begged him to give fire to men, that so they might have a little comfort through the long, dreary months of winter.

“Not a spark will I give,” said Jupiter. “No, indeed! Why, if men had fire they might become strong and wise like ourselves, and after a while they would drive us out of our kingdom. Let them shiver with cold, and let them live like the beasts. It is best for them to be poor and ignorant, that so we Mighty Ones may thrive and be happy.”

Prometheus made no answer; but he had set his heart on helping mankind, and he did not give up. He turned away, and left Jupiter and his mighty company forever.

As he was walking by the shore of the sea he found a reed, or, as some say, a tall stalk of fennel, growing; and when he had broken it off he saw that its hollow center was filled with a dry, soft pith which would burn slowly and keep on fire a long time. He took the long stalk in his hands, and started with it towards the dwelling of the sun in the far east.

“Mankind shall have fire in spite of the tyrant who sits on the mountain top,” he said.

He reached the place of the sun in the early morning just as the glowing, golden orb was rising from the earth and beginning his daily journey through the sky. He touched the end of the long reed to the flames, and the dry pith caught on fire and burned slowly. Then he turned and hastened back to his own land, carrying with him the precious spark hidden in the hollow center of the plant.

He called some of the shivering men from their caves and built a fire for them, and showed them how to warm themselves by it and how to build other fires from the coals. Soon there was a cheerful blaze in every rude home in the land, and men and women gathered round it and were warm and happy, and thankful to Prometheus for the wonderful gift which he had brought to them from the sun.

It was not long until they learned to cook their food and so to eat like men instead of like beasts. They began at once to leave off their wild and savage habits; and instead of lurking in the dark places of the world, they came out into the open air and the bright sunlight, and were glad because life had been given to them.

After that, Prometheus taught them, little by little, a thousand things. He showed them how to build houses of wood and stone, and how to tame sheep and cattle and make them useful, and how to plow and sow and reap, and how to protect themselves from the storms of winter and the beasts of the woods. Then he showed them how to dig in the earth for copper and iron, and how to melt the ore, and how to hammer it into shape and fashion from it the tools and weapons which they needed in peace and war; and when he saw how happy the world was becoming he cried out:

“A new Golden Age shall come, brighter and better by far than the old!”

...The next thing that Jupiter did was to punish Prometheus for stealing fire from the sun. He bade two of his servants, whose names were Strength and Force, to seize the bold Titan and carry him to the topmost peak of the Caucasus Mountains. Then he sent the blacksmith Vulcan to bind him with iron chains and fetter him to the rocks so that he could not move hand or foot.

Vulcan did not like to do this, for he was a friend of Prometheus, and yet he did not dare to disobey. And so the great friend of men, who had given them fire and lifted them out of their wretchedness and shown them how to live, was chained to the mountain peak; and there he hung, with the storm-winds whistling always around him, and the pitiless hail beating in his face, and fierce eagles shrieking in his ears and tearing his body with their cruel claws. Yet he bore all his sufferings without a groan, and never would he beg for mercy or say that he was sorry for what he had done.

Year after year, and age after age, Prometheus hung there. Now and then old Helios, the driver of the sun car, would look down upon him and smile; now and then flocks of birds would bring him messages from far-off lands; once the ocean nymphs came and sang wonderful songs in his hearing; and oftentimes men looked up to him with pitying eyes, and cried out against the tyrant who had placed him there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

He's Back..."Colorblind" Herman Cain Plays the Race Card Banjo While Stumping to Republicans in New Hampshire

Sometimes they make it all too easy...

Once more, Herman Cain proves true my observation that Black Conservatives are indeed the garbage pail kids of American politics. Like an expert at Three-card Monte or a proverbial "race pimp," Herman Cain expertly dealt from the bottom of the "race card" deck during a fund raising appearance before Republicans in Nashua, New Hampshire. There, Cain explained that white people should not have buyer's remorse over the election of Barack Obama, America's first black President. Instead, Cain suggested that (white) voters should realize that:

"...there are some people who will say, 'I'm not going to vote for another black guy because this one didn't work out.'
"And my response is, 'Well, what about those 43 white guys you put in there? How did they work out?' "Don't condemn me because the first black one was bad."

The levels of hypocrisy demonstrated by Cain and his supporters in this moment are so glaring as to almost not merit comment for they are so utterly obvious. Presumably, Conservatives are colorblind. Yet, race is central--as it was in his minstrelesque CPAC speech several weeks ago--to Cain's performance. Again, Herman Cain suggests that he is "one of the good ones." Ultimately, Herman Cain is not like "those other blacks over there."

For a political ideology that ostensibly embraces individualism and rejects the politics of group identity, grievance, and victimology, it is ironic then that Cain has to signal that he is a different type of black man from President Barack Obama. That Cain needed to explain to a Republican audience that black folks are individuals, and not a nameless, faceless, horde of negritude that all walk lockstep like zombies is frightening to say the least--and a damning indictment of those that Cain would call political allies.

This is a twist on the trope where a white person slurs people of color in mass and then says to his or her "black friend" that no offense is meant because they are "a special one." Black Conservatives are garbage pail kids precisely because they smile with glee and acceptance as they are being patted on the head because of their status as "exceptional negroes." What Cain does not understand is that he is currying favor with a public which has demonstrated time and time again that they look upon black Americans with what can most politely be called racial resentment and hostility, and in the worst cases, naked bigotry.

The evidence that the New Right and the faux populist reactionaries of the contemporary Republican Party are awash in an ether of racial animus is legion. From the signs at Tea Party rallies where the President is cast as a monkey or a witch doctor, to racist emails sent by prominent Republicans, to a refusal by Republican Party leadership to condemn the xenophobic and obnoxious birthers, and a support for the Jim and Jane Crow tinged States' Rights movement, race is certainly central to popular Conservatism.

The above proposition becomes "check and mate" when public opinion data from sources as varied as the New York Times, Newsweek Magazine, the Pew Research Center, and the University of Washington all indicate that the Tea Party GOP is racially homogeneous, more likely to believe that black people are not hard working and are less intelligent than whites, that too much is made of "racial discrimination," and that white people are oppressed in America.

As a rebuttal to the charge of racism, Cain and other Black conservatives provide a smokescreen where they exonerate and protect White conservatives from any charge of racism in their hearts, deeds, spirits, or acts--despite the decades of evidence to the contrary. The Conservative pundit classes and the Right-wing rage machine will respond predictably: these facts are red herrings and distractions because the opposition to President Obama is based purely on differences of principle and policy, and never upon race.

This is a false dichotomy. The almost apoplectic hostility to President Obama by the Right is rooted in how the symbolic power of having a person of color as President is an existential upset to the White Conservative Soul. Their rage at Obama is inspired both by race and policy. They hate President Obama because he is a Democrat. And moreover, they doubly reject President Obama because as a black man he had the unmitigated gall to run for the presidency...and to win.

Black Conservatives are vexing in this regard because they deny the role which they play in contemporary Conservatism's race-baiting politics. For example, the Michael Steeles of the world play the buffoons and toadies who will bring the "fried chicken" and "potato salad". While the Juan Williams clique play the attack dogs who bare their teeth and attack "racists" at NPR and in the "liberal media" at large. And Herman Cain plays the loving apologist and embodiment of White conservative fantasies.

Herman Cain ended his trip to Nashua, New Hampshire by telling a story about how in the darkest hours of Jim Crow, he (then a high school student and ranked second in his class) was denied admission to the University of Georgia because of his race. Rather than embrace "bitterness" or "rage," Cain explained how "rather than get mad or lose faith in America...That experience inspired me to continue and believe in those beliefs that my parents instilled in my brother and I.”

I will not judge the many individual paths that people took to victory in the Black Freedom Struggle. Nor, will I comment about how there were some souls who played the free rider while others struggled, died, and faced unimaginable hardship while working to perfect American democracy for all. But I do find it curious that Herman Cain, rather than be enraged at the forces of political and social conservatism that denied him the full fruits of American citizenship, now chooses to lay in bed with them.

As opposed to expressing rage at racial injustice, Cain and others of his clan choose to express anger and consternation toward black and brown folk who are not Republicans--the ancestors and heirs to a struggle that won contemporary Black Conservatives their freedom--who they describe as still being on "the Democratic Plantation" or as "slave catchers" that run down "free thinking" black people. Once more, this is a tragic play on the stage of American life where in an oddly racialized version of Stockholm Syndrome, Cain and other Black Conservatives play the quislings to their White Conservative masters.

Denied a blues sensibility and sense of linked fate with other people of color, black garbage pail kids Black Conservatives will keep tap dancing to this tune because it is one of the few songs they know by heart. As the 2012 election approaches, they will continue to do so ever more enthusiastically.

Featured Reader Comment: "What Cultural Phenomena Coalesced to Make Us Not Only Aware of Our Whiteness But Also Uneasy in Its Overwhelming Presence?"

I guess my question is: what cultural phenomena coalesced to make us not only aware of our whiteness but also uneasy in its overwhelming presence and the way it asserts its privileges? Your thoughts?

I have promised to bump up interesting comments more often. Leslie M-B's comment is well worth following through on that policy. And of course, I am always open to a good conversation about Whiteness and white racial identity.

The color-line and the "race problem" are almost always framed as "what shall we do with the black/brown/red/yellow people?" As Ethiop offered a century or more ago, I have always preferred the alternative formulation: race (and racism) are problems for and of white folks. Therefore, the correct question should be, "what shall we do with the White people?"

In my own writings on race and American politics, I have tried to crystallize the problem that is Whiteness in the following way. Whiteness is property, privilege, normality, and invisibility. Ultimately, Whiteness is the ability, in this society at this time, to determine how and when one will experience discomfort. Thus, the memes of reverse discrimination, white "victimhood," liberal "racism," and white conservative "oppression," when Whiteness is even a tiny bit unsettled or its primacy challenged. In total, its status quo ante is dominance.

By implication, for signatories to Whiteness it is the greatest of contracts, one where a person gets all of the benefits, but retains both the cover of ignorance and (im)plausible deniability (thus the difference between "White" and "white" when discussing the relationship between Whiteness, power, and white racism).

Leslie M-B's observation demands to be parsed a bit more specifically and carefully.

Are (all/some?) White folks aware of their whiteness? Are White folks uneasy with its presence? Do they deny its privileges?

I have two interventions to offer. First, that so many in the West and elsewhere, of all racial backgrounds, have so internalized what Joe Feagin has termed the white racial frame, that they are utterly incapable of confronting that 1) Whiteness is power and 2) is just one way of being--and which ultimately serves the interests of one group over another. Instead, they idealize Whiteness as their unstated goal and barometer of assimilation, acceptance, self-worth, and humanity.

Second, there is a reluctance by many to call Whiteness what it is--a world organizing, philosophical, moral, ethical, economic, and epoch defining framework in the service of White supremacy. Whiteness cannot exist without dominance of Whites over "subordinate" racial groups. Thus to Noel Ignatiev's powerful observation, that Whiteness must be destroyed if we are to have a just world.

Can Whiteness and White people be salvaged? Your thoughts?

The Week Begins Well: Oprah Winfrey the Mammy, Oprah Winfrey the Religious Icon

Here is a twofer for you: Salon writes about Oprah Winfrey as a religious figure; the Mayor of calls out Oprah Winfrey as a mammy figure.

Let slip the dogs of war...whenever you write about the most high priestess of daytime TV Oprah Winfrey, there is always upsetness. This rage is equivalent to that hypothetically expressed by devout Catholics if one spat on the divine robe of the Pope and then fed said person some mystery meat filled tacos before sending him to an unclean squatter toilet filled with snakes in the rural environs of India...without baby wipes.

It would seem that fate works through serendipitous timing. My disdain for Oprah Winfrey, she who builds schools abroad (and not here in the States) because Africans appreciate learning and education--as we black Americans do not--is well known. I have always said that Oprah is the emotional surrogate for white suburban womanhood. She, like the mammy figure of yore, is asexual and lives to serve (white, female) others. One would hope that Oprah learned a lesson when she endorsed Barack Obama, and subsequently her suburban sisters damned her for "choosing" race over class, as she supported a black man over a white woman (in Hillary Clinton). But, I will not hold my breath.

When the Mayor of Blacktown shares a thought in common with me, what is an act of living collective consciousness that proves the idea that the spirit of a given age does indeed exist, and is not a fiction, I have no choice but to smile. And to share said moment with you all. These are indeed interesting times my friends. The week has begun well...oh yes, it has.

Courtesy of

"Oprah: Gospel of an Icon": Worshipping at the church of Oprah Winfrey

In the past quarter-century Oprah has become shorthand for self-help: a spiritual guide, a confessor and a warm shoulder for her adoring American public. Now in the final season of her revolutionary daytime talk show, Oprah's pronouncements have become the Word to live by for a staggeringly diverse audience. In fact, you could argue she is a religious leader for an America increasingly skeptical about organized religion.

It's an idea that Kathryn Lofton explores in "Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon." Assistant professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, Lofton sees religious preaching methods in the way Oprah hosts her show, as well as a formulaic, sermon-like approach to every topic -- whether it's healing the wounds of sexual abuse or what new exfoliating cream you should buy. Oh Oprah, who art on television, tell us how to live a good life.

Salon spoke to Lofton over the phone about Oprah's message, the daytime guru's own skeptical views of religion, and what our love of Oprah tells us about the American hunger for help and guidance.

What was it about Oprah that made you think of her in the context of American religious history?

Within these very corporate formats of daytime television, extraordinary forms of suffering were being confessed to and described. There's a great book about Oprah by Eva Illouz, "Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery," and Illouz points out something that I dig into, and that is the strange way in which the extremity of human despair -- not merely estranged spouses, we're talking stories of people coming home and seeing that their spouse has murdered all their kids and then themselves -- are being dealt with in the same way as these topics that are seemingly shallow. Good glasses for a spring party, best new strategies for boyfriend wear. This exposure of human need at 4 p.m. on a weekday afternoon made me think, "What is this thing?" We're so accustomed now to reality programming and a whole spate of shows spun off from Oprah, but, as a scholar of a religion, I think it's one of our jobs to be cued into how people manage pain, and the idea of evil, or whether or not we live in a just world.

What is Oprah's religious background?

Oprah talks about a Baptist church that her grandmother took her to in Mississippi. She tells an anecdote about how she was a successful young churchgoer and was asked to preach in front of that audience and was a very good girl who memorized scriptural passages. Then in her adulthood, she has some criticism of male figures in the church and the dominance of male authorities and it seems that by the time we get to the '90s, it's circulating that she's no longer a member of the church but she continues to use Christian idioms in her conversational speech. She says, "Jesus lives." She'll say, "Amen." She'll occasionally sing lines from obviously Protestant hymns, but she claims now that she's no longer interested in organizational religion, and she's more interested in a personal relationship with God. Indeed, she has around her a large collection of spiritual purveyors of a wide variety: Buddhist, Hindu, Unity Church. Every flavor of the contemporary, spiritual rainbow is welcomed into her studio.

What does our reverence for Oprah say about our culture and religion in America today?

I think it says that most Americans see very little that is contradictory about connecting consumption and spirituality. I think it also shows that no matter how anti-establishment, or anti-authoritarian, or freedom-hungry Americans claim to be, they are also, always, hungry for help. Hungry for recognition. Hungry for guidance in the mad excesses of the American material world. Hungry for someone to limit their choices a little, and offer some discriminating preferences on your behalf.

If Oprah is a preacher, what is she telling us? What is her gospel?

Her gospel -- her good news -- is you. The good news is that if you take hold of your life; if you discover (as she says) your best life, anything is possible. Of course, this good news is translated not only through her exhibition of you -- you through her audience members, guests, columnists, message board commentators -- but also through the unending rehearsal of her. The good news is her revelations about her best life -- lived, she says, in service to you.

Why do you think so many people who shun religion are comfortable looking to Oprah for "spiritual guidance"?

Precisely because she says she doesn't seem typical in her authority. Because she represents -- in her race and gender and origins -- being utterly outside established power. Also, she isn't preaching to sell you something singular. She says, over and over: I am here to let you be you. My answers are mine, and they made my struggling life something fantastic to share. You're not joining a group, you're just finding your inner fabulous. This is appealing to people who associate religion with controlling authority, rigid dogma or social adherence. This is a religion for those who don't want to be religious, but want to feel revelation.

You connect Oprah to early traditions in American evangelical preaching. Not just her charisma and eloquent speaking ability, but less obvious connections. Can you explain that?

I connect her to two figures -- George Whitefield, a prominent 18th century minister, and Charles Finney, a 19th century minister -- who weren't merely interested in spreading the gospel but also eliciting conversion. There's an idea that a gospel is true if the purveyor is willing to talk about how it's made. Oprah does that every time she does a show about "Oprah without makeup" or a confession about her weight gain -- this is her showing the strings of her own construction.

The other tradition I connect her to is the emergence of women as evangelical preachers, who always had to be conscious that they were being somewhat insurrectionist to the Word by even being out in the public. Oprah tries to appeal to an audience that wants to see a successful and capable woman without being too perfect. She can't be too obnoxious in the face of the conservative domestic idea that we still have for women. So Oprah isn't married nor does she have children because if she had those things and was also trying to be Oprah, her audience would be uncomfortable. That she is free to minister only to them and is not responsible to a domestic life actually puts her in a long line of preachers with similarly ambiguous lives.

What do you think of Oprah after spending so much time scrutinizing her?

I think that I'd be doing a great disservice to her work if I don't emphasize that her viewers take from her inordinate comfort and a life that they describe as asking too much of them. The second thing that I think about is the extraordinary American fact of her. She talks about this a lot too, and this is where she becomes a great subject for me. She is an indication of the American dream. I'm interested in how that dream is unbelievable, extraordinarily powerful, and possibly corrupt.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday Afternoon Thinking Project: Why Socialism? by Albert Einstein

Whenever I come across a gem I make a mental note to share it. An essay by Albert Einstein, legendary ladies man, thinker on the race problem, and genius numero uno, seemed quite fitting given the political moment of the last few weeks.

In the aftermath of the Right's continued assault on organized labor and the American Middle Class as manifest by Governor Scott Walker's skulduggery in Wisconsin, I have been wondering if we have finally reached "the crisis moment" (as legendary political philosophers Michel Foucault and Slavoj Zizek would describe it). Or stated differently: is this time of rising corporate profits and record unemployment, an inflated stock market, and the continued gutting of the social contract, one in which the New Right knuckledraggers of the Tea Party brigades and the detritus of the Reagan Democrats will come to see that they are in fact with "us" and not "them?"

Ultimately, pragmatists (of which I count myself), moderates, progressives, liberals, and reasoned conservatives need to wake up and realize that the Tea Party GOP assault on collective bargaining, efforts to silence dissenting voices at NPR and PBS, and the Right-wing's big lies of "liberal racism," "birtherism," and "White oppression" are all tied together. The Tea Party GOP is playing a long, deep game. The other side is left in the dust, hand-ringing and confused, as they try to take the moral high road to no where. As I have long said, it is time to put on the brass knuckles and fight back. But alas, it may be too late as the battle is in its denouement.

Thus, Albert Einstein's brilliant explication of his own political beliefs seemed quite appropriate. Here are some select excerpts from his classic essay Why Socialism?

Please share, consider, and reflect, as Einstein's words speak eloquently to our troubled times.


I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil...

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of the smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterized main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labor contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the "free labor contract" for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present-day economy does not differ much from "pure" capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an "army of unemployed" almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers' goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depressions. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals...