Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Echoes of Gatling and Maxim: Barack Obama's Drones Are Perfect For Killing Those Brown "Savages"

The oldest and strongest form of propaganda in this country is the belief that white America has the right to dominate everyone else on the earth, and as president Obama functions as the whitest man in the country. The siren song of Manifest Destiny outlived the 19th century and is still alive now in the 21st. It has been called many things, anti-communism during the Cold War, and the war against terror now, but it all amounts to the same thing. 
We are told to fear the communist, or militant Islam, or whatever the enemy du jour happens to be. The end result is the same from a people who are convinced of their own goodness and paradoxically their right to have their violent way in the world. It is never very difficult to get support for killing and maiming among people who think themselves morally superior.
As a ghetto nerd member of the hip hop generation, I came of age in the 1980s and early 1990s. In that moment, there were a few movies that were fixed in the rotation. Star Wars, Star Trek, Conan, The Final Countdown, and Flash Gordon were all canon. Star Trek fans will argue that Roddenberry's franchise invented the future. They are partly correct. However, Terminator is the movie most eerily prescient of the post 9/11 endless War on Terror world.

The original Terminator is a wonderfully efficient action movie. Its mix of sci-fi elements, action, and warnings about "the future" was the topic of many a ghetto nerd salon. How many of us argued about the Terminator time travel paradox? Debated if T2 was better than the first film? Endlessly quoted Arnold's gun shop dialogue?

Other 1980s movies like The Day After and Threads were terrifying. Damnation Alley was memorable for the giant cockroaches that ate Paul Winfield. War Games was provocative. Red Dawn was teenage circle jerk war porn that made no sense at all...except in the minds of Reagan era jingoists like Oliver North, the white militia crowd, and teenagers who had never heard of the stopping power of water.

Terminator was the source of nightmares: I know I am not the only person of a certain age who had disturbing dreams where they hid from Hunter Killers and tried to fight T-800 series cyborgs who were impervious to our weapons. Funny though, we always found a way to win in the end. Perhaps I am the eternal optimist?

We are officially adults when our future fantasies become the real, the mundane, and the stuff of the day-to-day. There is a black man in the White House. Barack Obama, my favorite "space coon," is quite literally the stuff of science fiction. Because the genre has traditionally solved the "race problem" by writing people of color out of the story, there is a tension when we are present--one that the white racial frame must resolve if it is to remain coherent.

For example, in many recent films and TV series a black man is cast as President of the United States. But, the world is in turn faced with calamity and disaster. This motif is not a coincidence; rather, it represents a deep insecurity about what occurs when the racial order is upended.

To point, in the Terminator franchise it is a black man who is most directly responsible for Skynet and the apocalypse it visits upon humanity. President Obama is not Miles Dyson; however, Barack's willingness to unleash his UAV-Terminator army on the "enemies" of the United States is worthy of the best pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s.

I am not suggesting that the Predator and Reaper drones of today are at all comparable to the monstrosities of the Terminator films. The former are simply more fully evolved remote controlled airplanes that the military has been experimenting with since at least World War 2. The 3rd or 4th generation UAV's (depending on how far back you count) are not independent, could not survive in a reasonably defended airspace, are prone to mechanical failure, can be easily hacked, and their capabilities are exaggerated by those who are on the payroll of the military-industrial complex.

While the next generation(s) of these machines will incorporate "ethical governors" that help dictate semi-autonomous operation, i.e. the robots will decide who to kill according to a set of rules (terrifyingly, these machines will even be used to torture "enemy prisoners"), at present they are just in their relative infancy.

Obama's drones are an extension of a belief that war can be done on the cheap. Coupled with the large disconnect between the small percentage of the American people who serve in the military, and the general public (as well as policy making elites), this makes conflict more (as opposed to less) likely.

There has been much information released as of late detailing the industrial scale killing apparatus of the Obama administration. There are secret kill lists. Decks of playing cards are used as visual aids in order to decide who should live and who should die. American citizens and their families are immolated by remotely piloted vehicles. Bureaucrats control multiple UAV's at one time, killing people overseas who are just image enhanced pixels on a targeting screen.

Imperial America is based on a premise of cheap life. Ultimately, some people are considered less than, and more worthy of extermination by virtue of national identity, location, color, or imagined affiliation with some political cause that is at present "hostile" to American elites' geopolitical interests.

Who can argue against sending robots to kill foreigners? No skin off of our proverbial backs, right?

There are technologies of racism and dominance. The UAV is one of these devices.

It is important to note that the Racial State was also an imperial and colonial project. As such, rationalizations for how technology could be used to kill and oppress were a necessary part of the Racial State's bureaucracy. Consequently, there were certain weapons which were only deemed fit for killing "savages." No white man should be subject to such "dishonorable," impersonal, or "cruel" devices.

This logic is a cousin to that of American Exceptionalism. By implication, the lives of people in this country are worth more than those of human beings elsewhere.

In this way, the UAV of the 21st century is like the machine gun of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Consider the following passage from John Ellis' book The Social History of the Machine Gun:
By now then the picture should be clear. The machine gun was a vitally useful tool in the colonization of Africa. Time and time again automatic fire enabled small groups of settlers or soldiers to stamp out any indigenous resistance to their activities or to extend their writ over large parts of the African continent...The reasons for this complacency are not hard to find. 
They are to be found in the ideology of British imperialism, whose very essence was an unquestioning belief in the innate superiority of the white race, and the British in particular. 
Without such beliefs it would have been impossible for the original colonisers to set such a low price on African lives. For only by holding them so cheap could the slaughter of natives seem to be morally acceptable. The belief in white supremacy was the very bedrock of Imperialist attitudes, and is evident in all their manifestations. At best the Europeans regarded those they slaughtered with little more than amused contempt... 
Thus, when it becomes necessary to kill those who stand in one's way, the problem is seen in technical rather than human terms. It is simply a matter of "bagging" as many natives as possible with the minimum effort. The machine gun filled these requirements admirably... 
Thus, because the machine gun had become so much a part of the imperialist sideshows, it came to be regarded, by definition, as a weapon that had no place upon the conventional battlefield. The European was so obviously superior to the African, so why would he be so stupid as to be baulked by a weapon that was really only good for bowling over 'niggers' and 'Kaffirs'? 
Of all the chickens that came home to roost and cackle over the battlefields of the First World War, none was more raucous than the racialism that had somehow assumed that the white man would be invulnerable to those same weapons that had slaughtered natives in their thousands. 
So the machine gun became came to be regarded as a weapon suitable only for use against native Africans and the like. Of the Ashanti campaign of 1873, the Army and Navy Journal said, 'We are not surprised that the Ashantees were awestruck by the power of the Gatling gun. It is a weapon which is specially adapted to terrify a barbarous or semi-civilized foe.'
Sound familiar?

What happens when UAV technology proliferates and America's enemies use the very same logic that the leadership class in the Pentagon, CIA, and White House does today? Is it okay if China or some other country decides that killing 10 or 20 or 50 Americans to get one "terrorist" is a reasonable return on investment?

How will the American people respond when it it is their kin who are killed by robots? Will the gloating cease? Will there be a moment of inward looking critical self-reflection, or will the mouth-breathing classes ask (as they did on 9-11) "why do they hate us?"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Rampart Dilemma: Social Scientists in Search of Parsimonious Racism on Google and in The New York Times


Once more, we have empirical evidence which suggests that racism is a social fact, as opposed to an illusory and/or imagined opinion.

The last few weeks have offered a nice bounty of data in this regard. Brown University's Michael Tesler demonstrated that white racial animus is a powerful indicator of how respondents view policy in regards to President Obama: in seemingly neutral and benign examples, white folks who possess high levels of anti-black animus "flip" their opinions on matters of policy when the President is mentioned. This week, The New York Times has doubled down by highlighting the promising research by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz which supports the claim that (now) President Obama's "blackness" cost him support among white voters during the 2008 campaign.

Apparently, the much discussed Bradley effect is not a poltergeist. The core thesis, that white racism hurts black candidates, and that white people lie about their vote choice when queried, remains largely intact.

I would suggest that Seth's methodology is more powerful than the finding. There are several studies which already support the argument that race was no friend to President Obama. As I have stated many times, if one grants that white privilege and white supremacy are governing superstructures for the Racial State, how can being a black or brown person provide a substantive, long-term advantage in any area of public (or private) life in such a society? The math and logic do not add up:
Barack Obama won 52.9 percent of the popular vote in 2008 and 365 electoral votes, 95 more than he needed. Many naturally concluded that prejudice was not a major factor against a black presidential candidate in modern America. My research, a comparison of Americans’ Google searches and their voting patterns, found otherwise. If my results are correct, racial animus cost Mr. Obama many more votes than we may have realized... 
Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally. 
Yes, Mr. Obama also gained some votes because of his race. But in the general election this effect was comparatively minor. The vast majority of voters for whom Mr. Obama’s race was a positive were liberal, habitual voters who would have voted for any Democratic presidential candidate. Increased support and turnout from African-Americans added only about one percentage point to Mr. Obama’s totals. 
If my findings are correct, race could very well prove decisive against Mr. Obama in 2012. Most modern presidential elections are close. Losing even two percentage points lowers the probability of a candidate’s winning the popular vote by a third. And prejudice could cost Mr. Obama crucial states like Ohio, Florida and even Pennsylvania.
In all, Davidowitz's article is one more brick in the wall of common sense that slayed the "post-racial" lie which many young Obamabots, naive multiculturals, and neoconservative colorblind racists were drunk on during the 2008 campaign.

[If you want a glimpse inside of the white racial frame look at some of the comments at The NY Times, and how some folks excuse-make, claiming that it is common to google "nigger." Thus, the model is incorrect because Davidowitz's conclusions proceed from a false premise of assumed white racism. Maybe I am an outlier? But, I do not routinely search online for racial slurs. Call me crazy...or naive. To this tired set of eyes, the construct validity seems pretty damn high.]

Students of public opinion have long understood that people lie, misrepresent, and mislead pollsters.

Evidence that white racism operates in the backstage, in private, and outside of "public" eyes, is validation of what most intelligent people already know. This is also a site of one of the main disconnects between social scientists and the general public--many of the former are excited when their research validates social reality. The latter simply answer "Duh!" "Of course we knew that!"

There is real power when data neatly mates with theory generation and pushes us past conjecture and mere hyperbole. Those in academia need to do a much better job of explaining the broader social value of such rare moments.

As social scientists, we/us/they look for parsimonious answers, the neat hypothesis and solution to the puzzle that tells us something we otherwise would not have known. The puzzle is the thing. How you resolve it, and your ability (as well as opportunity) to communicate the "so what?" to a larger audience, is what separates superstars like Davidowitz and Tesler from the rest of us.

I have not indulged in a politics of popular culture moment in a while. The great movie Rampart, starring Woodie Harrelson (playing a corrupt LA cop), is a perfect fit for problematizing what I like to call "neat" racism. The real world is messy. People hold conflicting and contradictory views on any number of issues. While there is a common disciplinary vocabulary among social scientists--our Esperanto or Lengua Franca--how do we confront the inconveniences of the "real world?" 

Or stated differently: what do we do about the "asshole problem?" 

In Rampart, Harrelson is a garden variety jerk, a broken and corrupted man, and a piece of human debris. He is also other things too. Borrowing from the film Nurse Betty, Harrelson's character in Rampart is a garbage man of the human condition. Given his existential condition, a career as a cop is a perfect union of form and function.



Harrelson and Ice Cube's exchange is also a beautiful example of racism denying and deflection--the former's character has sex with black women, provocatively offers up an "apology" for slavery, and makes it clear that he has no use for brigands of any color. Ice Cube rebuts, bobs, and weaves. He is pissed; but does not score any blows. Revenge will apparently come later...though not too satisfying in the moment.

For an astute viewer, the joke is readily transparent: both characters are playing Los Angeles police officers; police blue trumps black or brown. If structural racism is real, then the "blackness" or "whiteness" of any given cop is superseded by his or her allegiance to a racist set of social institutions and practices.

Are are all racists assholes? Or do some assholes just happen to be racist, and the first personality trait trumps the second? Is there no room for a neat model of racism, one that actually tells us something about flawed, confused, complicated people living in the "real" world, one where such independent variables are not so cleanly separated?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

When Blacks Attack! The Right-Wing Media's Race War Fantasies

George Romero’s classic 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead begins with the famous warning that “they are coming to get you Barbra!” In the movie, the “they” were hordes of zombies, hungry for the flesh of the living and intent on destroying human society like a plague, an inexorable natural disaster, a tsunami of the undead.

Decades later, and perhaps inspired by Romero’s master work, the conservative media has conjured up a new terror: black young people are the “new” monsters, causing chaos and sowing destruction across the United States. Who is their prey? Innocent white folks that are being waylaid, murdered, and assaulted in an imagined race war by roving bands of black “zombies” whose barbarism is inspired by the election of Barack Obama.

Several weeks ago Bill O’Reilly, the most watched TV personality on Fox News, ran a series of stories on what he suggests is a “racially motivated” attack on two white journalists in Norfolk, Virginia that he claimed was covered up by the local press. 

As Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins details, the facts reveal a different reality: a rock was thrown at a car, the occupants had an argument with a group of men and a fight ensued. The reporters were not severely injured. Although an unfortunate incident in a city that is struggling with violent crime, it was neither particularly noteworthy or an anomaly. In fact, the newspaper for which the journalists worked thought the event was a non-story. This did not deter Bill O’Reilly. He could frame the story as part of a national race war by introducing one fact--the victims of the assault were white and the perpetrators were black.

The National Review’s Thomas Sowell legitimated this narrative of a race war against whites in a column which circulated widely throughout the Right-wing media and blogosphere. There he listed a series of such assaults in major cities such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, which involved groups of young black people committing random assaults on pedestrians, robbing people of their cell phones and Ipods, and fighting on beaches and in malls.

These narratives of white victimhood at the hands of blacks have even gained traction internationally: the London based Daily Mail recently featured a story about a white man who was attacked by a black gang of “twenty hooded youths” outside of a pub.

Once more, instead of a story about random street crime in major cities (something all too frequent), white racial anxiety is used as the connective tissue tying these disparate and unrelated events together. As Sowell observes, "What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettos launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places.” Apparently, in the conservative imagination there is a nationwide plot and a scheme to silence white pain and anger as they are made the targets of systematic, brutal, anti-white racism.

The Conservative media’s race war narrative falls apart when one encounters the facts. In an effort to stir up white anxiety, these stories ignore that violent crime in the United States has been declining for decades. Oftentimes, these mob attacks are either random street crimes or actually a byproduct of long standing feuds between the participants and victims. And looking to context, most crime in the United States is intra-racial and committed by family members, friends, and associates. And one cannot generalize from aggregate crime statistics down to the probability that a given person will commit a criminal act.

Nevertheless, the conservative media keeps up the drumbeat of alleged black on white crime.

History matters. The conservative media’s suggestion that the country is in the midst of an anti-white race war does not come out of the ether.

While these fears were born in slavery and Emancipation as a means to justify white terrorism against people of color, there are many noteworthy examples in the near past as well.

Up through the first half of the 20th century, The New York Times featured many news items about “giant negroes” who would attack police, any innocent white people nearby, and have to be brought down by overwhelming police violence. In an eerie foreshadowing of the conservative media at present, The New York Times archive also contains stories with headlines such as the following: “Mobs of Blacks Retaliate for Riots”; “Negro Mob Terrorizing the Citizens of Jacksonville”; “Negro Mob in South Shouts for Lynching”; and “Negro Mob Killed Sheriff.”

Stories about black mob behavior were also common during the 1960s. And of course, American popular culture during the Reagan era featured a recurring motif of white vigilantes such as Charles Bronson and Dirty Harry who protected “normal” white society from black gang violence and “wilding” teens.

The conservative media’s pandering to fears of black violence is a sophisticated effort. The race war must be brought home to predominantly white areas. Places like Iowa and Wisconsin do not have large populations of black people; but in the conservative media, this is no protection from the race war apparently being waged against white Americans. The Daily Caller and other conservative websites repeatedly featured coverage of what was labeled as “beat whitey night” a state fair in Iowa. The conservative media doubled down on their “white folks imperiled even in Red State rural America” meme by giving extensive coverage to how white people were ambushed and beaten at a similar event in Wisconsin.

All of these news items are part of an effort to craft a dramatic, exaggerated story that plays on racial fears, and channels many of the themes common to Right-wing identity politics in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era. Crime; black violence; a fear of black young people; and an emphasis on cities and urban areas (and the people who live there) as embodying everything wrong with America, have mobilized Republican voters and right leaning Independents since (at least) Richard Nixon’s appeals to “the silent majority.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Poor Bo, Research Reveals That Racially Resentful White Folks Even Hate Barack Obama's Dog



Tesler’s body of research suggests that instead of delivering what many suggested would be a post-racial presidency, Obama will have polarized corners of American politics previously untouched by race. 
Not only have racial considerations affected whether voters will support Obama, but they are beginning to renovate the entire architecture of public opinion... 
A respondent’s views on discrimination (on a spectrum of “very common” to “very rare”) was three times more influential on his support for Sotomayor among those who heard Obama’s name compared to those who didn’t. 
Tesler started looking for “issues that people don’t have strong feelings about, and issues that weren’t already folded into the current partisan alignment,” as he put it. Obama started feeding plenty of them—the stimulus, health care reform, cap-and-trade, all relatively new issues without firmly established loyalties. Tesler began working with the polling outfit YouGov to match how voters’ changing views on them matched up to their answers to the racial-resentment questions.  
He found a “spillover of racialization” into health care reform: Voters who heard descriptions of the contrasting components of the 1993 Clinton and 2009 Obama proposals were more likely to grow disapproving of Obama’s when they heard the presidents’ names—as long as they demonstrated racial resentment elsewhere in the survey.
During Barack Obama's first presidential campaign my mother and I would talk about his future prospects. Like many black folks of a certain generation she went from disbelief that he even had a chance of winning, to worry about his safety from assassination, to tears on election night, and disappointment at his tenure to date. These conversations are undoubtedly quite common among many Americans who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. She, like me, still supports the President. In 2012, he is the best of a horrible set of alternatives. Ultimately, while he is not a "Black" President, Obama is still a President who happens to be black...for what that is worth.

And there lies the sad truth of his predicament, does it not?

Those progressives who dreamed that Obama would combine the cool pose of Shaft, and the anger of the Incredible Hulk, in the form of a black Lyndon B Johnson, are predictably quite disappointed. Obama is a Right leaning centrist. Despite his efforts to compromise with the Republican Party at any cost, Barack is tarred as a Socialist-Communist-Authoritarian-Anti-American by the conservative mouth breathing troglodyte classes and their masters at Fox News. In total, President Obama is a bound man incapable of pleasing anyone.

Some of the opposition to the President is rooted in "principled" partisanship--the common good be damned. Other opponents cannot stand Obama because he is not "progressive" enough, having to their eyes abandoned the "radical" potential of his candidacy. In these examples, hostility to Barack Obama is conscious and intentional. By comparison, there are others whose opposition to Obama is rooted in the deep subconscious.

For these people, President Obama is damned both because of his policy orientations and his race. Serious political observers immediately identified the notion of a "post-racial" America as a lie and chimera. White supremacy is one of America's greatest inventions: it was refined and perfected here. One election cycle will not vanquish such a powerful social force. As my mother keenly observed, there are white people who hate Obama because he is black, breathing, and in the White House.

Recent research on race and political psychology reinforces this point. As demonstrated by Brown University's Michael Tesler, white respondents who score high on measures of  "racial resentment" are much more likely to change their basic opinions about political matters when Barack Obama is mentioned.

I am not surprised by these findings. White supremacy is a type of mental sickness. That many white folks would reflexively reverse their support of a given issue based on a frame that introduces Obama into the equation is expected. Why? Because white privilege, white racism, and the white racial frame are social pathologies that orient and ground people in a given reality. Race trumps reason and becomes a decision rule in a racially perverse cognitive schema.

Nevertheless, I remain fascinated by one aspect of Tesler's research:
Even presidential pets were viewed through the same lens. Tesler showed 1,000 YouGov respondents a picture of a Portuguese water dog and asked how favorably they felt toward it. Half saw the dog introduced as Bo Obama, and half as Ted Kennedy’s dog, Splash. (Both political dogs are the same breed, but the picture was of Obama’s.) Those with negative feelings toward blacks thought less of Obama’s dog.
I love dogs. Tesler's finding that white racial resentment extends to Bo, a canine, is a sign of how damaging white racism is to those afflicted with it. The social science suggests that the activation of white racial animus and hostility is a halo effect which extends to anyone associated with President Obama.

I understand the methodology and argument: But yet, I am still left asking how can you dislike a dog based only on his owner?

Redd Foxx, the legendary African American comedian, had a running joke about "black habits." This was his way of deconstructing the ugliness of racism and its arbitrary rules. He goofed on the idea that there are stereotypes about black folks, where if you don't fit those tropes one had best catch up in order to validate the white gaze.

By implication, are there "black ways" of acting, seeing, knowing, behaving, and thinking? Does this extend to our pets?

I have two dogs. In my mind both are still with us. Luke and Leia were part of the same litter. She passed away from cancer last November. He is still here, being difficult, charming, loyal, and funny. After 16 years--alive both in the flesh and spirit--they are indulged their eccentricities.

Dogs are humankind's original Frankenstein monsters: we made them. They also take on our attributes and traits over the years. And yes, our animal friends do begin to look and act like their human parents as the years advance (any pet owner will support that observation).

Are there "black" dogs? Do they have "black" ways?

Let's work through some anecdotes as we try to arrive at an answer.

Monday, June 4, 2012

War Made Easy via a Featured Reader Comment: They've Got Us in a Foggy-State in Which They Can Even "Admit" to Owning Key Points in a Connect-the-Dots Portrait of Total Evil...



I have not bumped up a reader's comment in a while. Steven Augustine's observation during our earlier conversation about white working class voters and the resilience of the false consciousness meme deserves some more attention. There he wrote:
USS Liberty? Check. October Surprise? Check. The Maine? Check. The Mossadegh/ Lumumba / "interventions", et al? Check and double-check)... shit confirmed in the frickin NYT, ferchrissakes... and rather than see these "limited hangouts" as confirmations of an entirely predictable and much larger pattern, we shrug them off as aberrations of a supposedly dark age the Gubmint has long-since outgrown!
(sfx: phlegm-rich Satanic chuckle) 
Don't feel bad, though. Our minds have been terraformed (and our material realities constricted and metered) by some of the finest amoral minds recruited from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT. In fact, if the Evil Ones haven't recruited your ass by now, you can't be very good at what you do, Negro!
Damn.
One of the foundational concepts in the study of American public opinion is that attitudes are remarkably unstable. As such, they can be influenced by how questions are presented and framed. The American people are also relatively non-ideological. Here, they do not hold what students and observers of politics would understand to be a consistent worldview. There is an exception: on matters of race the American people do know how they feel, are willing to express their feelings, and their opinions are well-structured.

In total, the American people do have "values" which they ostensibly advance through the political process. But, the American people meander and muddle through the specifics of these issues, groping and feeling, trying to find their way with a relative lack of sophistication.

As I have shared here many times, I am resolute in my belief that the masses are asses. The question then becomes is the public's lack of sophistication, limited knowledge about public policy, and attraction to spectacle and empty political rhetoric cultivated or natural? Is the Culture War/Real America White right wing populism organic? Alternatively, is such zeal handed down from on high by elites? Likewise, are the symbolic politics of the Left substantive? Are the people really speaking back to Power? Does Power even care?

There is one area of public concern where this question is a settled matter. The American people are manipulated by political elites into supporting unnecessary wars and conflicts abroad. When I discuss this question with my students, and offer up the obvious--at least to my/your eyes that the political leadership class in a democracy is dependent on propaganda for legitimacy--they look shocked and upset. As I turn the knife a bit and include how their consumerist impulses are manufactured and manipulated by the dream merchants, and not an expression of an authentic self, the hurt is tangible.

I learn a good deal from my students as well. When we talk about the War on Terror, 9/11, and America's imperial exploits, they more often than not confess their ignorance about such matters. These college age students feel powerless. They have a world of information, quite literally at their fingertips, but choose not to engage it substantively.

In response to Steve's observations about the truth hiding in plain sight, and the public's complicity on these matters, I have a standard list of explanations which I offer. Our politics are sick, and this sickness can be explained by a few things:

1. There are approximately 30 million illiterate people in the United States. The politics of spectacle, culture war, and faux populism are a response to this fact.

2. Americans have been socialized into being citizen consumers in a market democracy. Consequently, they are not active, responsible, forward thinking, or virtuous.

3. There is no liberal media. There is only a corporate media. Consent is manufactured; the terrain for "approved" discourse is narrow. For example, see the howls in response to Chris Hayes' very reasonable intervention regarding the overuse of the word "hero" in regards to members of the military that he made over the Memorial Day weekend.

4. Hard news is dead. Long live soft news.

5. Information is not knowledge. All of us in the Internet age have witnessed a revolution in how information is shared and circulated. The Facebook Millennial generation have come of age in this moment and know no alternative. Unfortunately, as a society we have not developed the critical skills necessary to synthesize citizenship, information, and knowledge. Moreover, as I wrote about here, for many young people "politics" and "activism" consists of clicking "like" on Facebook or wearing plastic wristbands or hoodies. This can be parallel or even pre-political behavior. It is no substitute for substantive political engagement that involves personal commitment, risk, and material resources.

6. The public schools have utterly failed. They are producing passive citizens who are drones for the neoliberal order. The universities are complicit: they fashion an experience which is prefaced on a logic where "the customer is always right," and critical pedagogy and learning are secondary to high course enrollments, sports stadiums, and trends such as "smart classrooms," iclickers, and the empty rhetoric of "student centered" approaches to learning.

7. The dreams of digital democracy and a vibrant Internet that brought together people of different views and beliefs has not come to pass. The blogosphere and online news media are balkanized. Epistemic closure is real. This is especially true on the Right. We are (more often than not) quite literally talking to ourselves and those other folks who already agree with us.

8. The life worlds, communities, and realities of conservatives and progressives, Red State and Blue State, are increasingly divergent, separate, and apart. How can we even come together to solve common problems when basic empirical facts cannot be agreed upon? Add in the bastard marriage of radical religion in the form of Christian Dominionism to Ayn Randian libertarianism and matters are made even worse.

The sum effect of these elements is crystallized in the following ideal typical example. The public actually believes that the enemies of the American government hate the American people--notice I separate the two--because of our "freedoms."

This con is no accident. What would you add to the above list? And can this "mental terraforming" be undone?



Friday, June 1, 2012

The Masses Are Asses: Financially Struggling White People Support Mitt Romney?



During every presidential election campaign in recent memory the pundit classes have tried to figure out the riddle of the white working class (male) voter. Why do they support Republicans? Is the support by white people who are not "middle class" for a political party whose economic policies grossly favor the rich a sign of false consciousness? Is this dynamic a function of how white race prejudice is manipulated in the service of white identity politics?

We have discussed this dynamic many times. In fact, given the perennial nature of the white working class who vote against their economic self-interest meme, many people who write about American politics could simply go to their archives, update essays written several years ago, and they would likely still read as current.

The topic is worthy of recurring discussion because it hits on the intimate relationship between race and class in the West, specifically, and in the United States, in particular. Race and class evolved together from the 17th century onward; in all, the latter is the crucible in which the former was made. We cannot escape this shadow even in the Age of Obama.

To my eyes, this puzzle, while fascinating, is not particularly difficult to unpack. The "white working class" as understood by Thomas Frank and others is often vaguely (if not incorrectly) specified. When the white working class is defined as those white men without a college degree, then yes they do tend to support Republicans much more than Democrats.

When this same cohort is defined by income, then the white poor, as poor folk generally do, tend to overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party.

The fear by Democratic strategists that the Republicans are making huge inroads with the white working class can be largely explained by 1) how the South was flipped to the GOP over the last few decades; and 2) that the Republicans have been pealing away support from the Democrats with voters at almost all income levels.

The other key element for deciphering white working class support for Mitt Romney is that white people are the single largest, and most protected racial group in this country's history. They have uniquely benefited from the Racial State and its focused efforts to create wealth, generate income for, and transfer assets (almost) exclusively to white people from the Homestead Act, through to the invention of the white middle class in the post World War 2 era, and into the present.

White privilege is deeply attune to any threat at its status. Consequently, as recent public opinion data details, whites see racism as a "zero sum" game where racial equality means that there are clear winners and losers. Here, a (perceived) end to discrimination against people of color is interpreted as a threat to white people's group position and the inauguration of  "reverse racism" as the status quo ante.

White Americans, and white men in particular, are also more likely to be less hopeful about the future during the time of the Great Recession. Interestingly, while black and brown folks are suffering much more, it is white men who are feeling the most aggrieved. Finally, despite Barack Obama's careful avoidance of any type of serious policy advocacy on behalf of people of color, the symbolism of a black President, and America's demographic shifts, have primed a deep reservoir of unconscious and implicit racial bias that plays off of white racial resentment, and makes the white working class less likely to support the Democratic Party.

Last week, The Washington Post offered up another chapter in this long running conversation. Cohen and Tumulty's article had a gem of writing that neatly captured the diametrically opposed life-worlds, as well as the differing political calculi of (a particular cohort) of white voters as compared to people of color.

Are the masses asses?
Fifty percent of all voters say Obama would do more to advance the interests of the middle class more generally, and 44 percent say so of Romney. 
On that question, Obama has an advantage of 53 percent to 41 percent among those who think their foothold in the middle class is relatively secure, while the two candidates divide about equally among those struggling to stay there. 
That overall parity, as has been the case in the past, disguises a vast racial divide. Among white voters trying to stay in the middle class, Romney is considered the better candidate for that group by a 20-point margin; Obama is preferred by better than 3 to 1 among middle-class nonwhite voters, regardless of their sense of security. 
Whites and nonwhites — as well as voters across party lines — agree that Romney would do more than Obama to advocate for the economic interests of wealthy Americans. 
By a 23-point margin, voters say it’s Romney, not Obama, who would do more to advance the interests of Wall Street.
Mitt Romney would actually continue many of the Bush era policies that created the Great Recession. His austerity politics, Ayn Rand dreams, and naked desire to further starve demand by forcing income and resources further up to the plutocrats would make the economy worst and not better. I grant that the American voting public is not sophisticated. Nor, do they have a deep grasp of public policy. But as revealed by this survey, even they know that Obama is more likely to help the middle class, and Romney is an exclusive agent of the rich.

Yet, it seems that white racial group affinity trumps economic self-interest for many white voters.

Reversing the gaze. What of minority voters? They have suffered the most under the Obama administration, but are among his most ardent supporters. There is much evidence that people of color, both as a life necessity in a country where politics was/is very personal, and because we are keen students of power, are quite sophisticated in our political assessments. Obama may have had his finger in a bursting damn, and most certainly has done little as a "race man," but could it be that people of color understand that he is the better candidate when faced with the hellish alternative of a Tea Party GOP President?

In all, the model of a "rational" voters may be misspecified. Those white voters who support culture war issues and will do anything to get the black guy out of the White House, even at their own financial expense, may simply have a different set of values upon which they base their political behavior. Likewise, those black and brown folks who support Obama despite the economy may be moved by racial symbolism (never forgetting that white voters are deeply motivated by White identity politics too) and a sense of realpolitik that sees Barack as the best of two less than ideal options.

Who are we to judge?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Racial Aikido: The Genius of Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama is a Lazy Negro Who Ain't Working" Ad Campaign



Well played Mr. Romney. Very well played indeed.

Mitt Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a genius political move. Less clumsy than the infamous Willie Horton ad, it is a more elegant and refined racial appeal for a slightly more civilized "colorblind" age.

As such, Mitt Romney's suggestion that Barack Obama is "not working" deftly draws on a set of stereotypes from the American popular imagination where black people, and black men in particular, are depicted as lazy and not self-sufficient. This is one of the core attributes of what social scientists have termed "symbolic racism."

This stereotype is central to contemporary right-wing political discourse, and can trace its lineage back to the Southern Strategy under Richard Nixon, and through to Ronald Reagan's mobilization of anti-black sentiment with his allusions to "welfare queens" and "strapping young black bucks" who buy steaks with food stamps. As part of this pattern, the 2012 Republican campaign has featured such onerous moments as Rick Santorum's suggesting that black Americans are parasites who live off of white people, as well as Newt Gingrich advising young people of color (because they are especially lazy and pathological) that they should be janitors in order to learn a "work ethic."

The polite and more refined bigotry that drives Romney's "Barack Obama Isn't Working" campaign is more careful than that of his Tea Party GOP brethren. However, it still plays off of the same sentiments and crude racial stereotypes about African Americans. Moreover, Romney's more "polite" racism resonates because it exists in a right-wing imaginary that considers Obama a "Socialist," wallows in birtherism, and has marshaled faux populist zeal in order to mark out clear boundaries of civic belonging where to be a "real" American requires that a person be White. In all, the right-wing echo chamber is unapologetic in its use of racial stereotypes, mobilization of white racial resentment, and outright race prejudice. Romney can fly above the racist fray, but still benefit from how such attitudes have helped to prep the political battlefield for his success.

Romney's devious narrative about President Obama's lack of success, incompetence, and implied laziness is masterful on a number of levels.

1. The claim that Barack Obama isn't working has a veneer of plausible deniability. Romney claims that the slogan is "historical" in nature, borrowing from Thatcher's anti-Labour campaign in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s. Through this logic, there is no racial animus at work; racism cannot possibly be present in the suggestion that Barack Obama isn't working because the slogan is inspired from events both decades ago, and in another country.

In the United States, and given how the color line has structured American life, operates in the country's collective subconscious, and provides a set of scripts which impact our perceptions of one another, the wellsprings of Romney's slogan are of little importance.

Question: would there be an equivalent silence if a politician campaigning for high office suggested that his Jewish rival was cheap? Or that his Asian-American competitor for the same office was devious, sneaky, or untrustworthy?

I would suggest that the precarious position of blacks in American society makes them uniquely vulnerable to the use of racial appeals in political discourse.

It is also important to note how language involves both the transmission, reception, and circulation of ideas between a speaker and the audience.The repeated suggestion that a black man "isn't working" signals to deeply held biases that link together the black body, black personhood, and stereotypes about poverty, work ethic, and respectability. A listener, or in this case a voter, does not have to be conscious of how these concepts motivate his or her behavior. As research on racial attitudes and political behavior has repeatedly demonstrated, white voters "get" these racial cues and are quite responsive to them--conservatives and right-leaning independents especially so.  

2.  Any effort to call out Romney's use of racial stereotypes would play into the politics of white racial resentment and white backlash that came in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. The associated and invented language of "the race card" and "reverse racism" are based on a premise that white supremacy is a thing of the past. Since the election of Barack Obama, the right-wing media and other elites have been able to push this narrative even further--white people are now oppressed, and despite all available sociological data that suggests otherwise, anti-white racism is now a plague upon the land. To attack Romney's campaign slogan is to fuel the howls of white victimology.

3. In the age of conservative "colorblindness," racism is defined by intent. This is a function of the personalization of race prejudice wherein racist social structures and institutional arrangements of power are conveniently ignored. Racism is universal. It is no longer a sin unique to white people. Consequently, the intent behind a person's words and deeds trump both the context and consequences of their actions. If Romney were to deny that his ad was "racist"--which Romney would most certainly do--one of the evasions would be that "he did not intend it that way." The same deflection would be flipped around on the critic who pointed out the problematic nature of Romney's appeal to Obama's imagined laziness in order to win over white voters. In keeping with the colorblind/reverse racism script, Mitt Romney would now become a victim, as the act of calling someone a "racist" in post-Civil Rights America is a bigger sin than racism itself.

4. Accidents and coincidence. Mitt Romney's choice of a slogan that leverages one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted stereotypes about black men in American society (next to the myth of the black rapist) is no accident. Romney did not personally select the language "Obama Isn't Working." His consultants (a cadre of psychologists, marketing experts, political advisers, and focus groups) perfected the language, visuals, and narrative of Romney's campaign ad. The way that the campaign mines white animus and stereotypes towards the country's first black president, while skillfully playing along the edge of being an overt racial appeal, is a delicately choreographed balancing act: this grace does not come without much practice and reflection.

Mitt Romney's "Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a racial smart bomb aimed at white Independents (and other right-leaning fence-sitters). Ultimately, Mitt Romney is vulnerable on many issues such as his gangster capitalist roots, insincerity, aloofness, religion, the Tea Party GOP's failed economic policies and obstructionist behavior. Romney's flank is also exposed because he is the nominee for a political party that is possessed by Culture Warriors whose views are outside of the American mainstream. These are weaknesses to be exploited.

However, I would suggest that folks not sally forth and engage Romney regarding the racial invective present in his "Obama Isn't Working" campaign theme. To do so, would be to fight on Romney's chosen terrain. Nor would such an engagement offer up many political gains. The cause would be noble; the battle would still be lost.

Once more Mr. Romney, well played, very well played indeed. You are a worthy foe.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Does President Obama Look "Presidential?" Considering the Problem of Unconscious White Racial Bias in the 2012 Race


Time to get our rhythm back. I hope your holiday was restful. Mine was interesting. I was reminded of the fact that I am a "civilian" and not a bad man (I knew that, but having it reinforced was useful), I saw Men in Black 3 and Bernie (both are good fun, the former had some particularly pleasant surprises), and many comment worthy news items came and went without an intervention because Memorial Day weekend is not generally a time during which folks spend that much time on these Internets.

As such, we are going to do some catching up this week. I have an obligatory comment on the "white working class men who hate Barack Obama" meme, as well as some more begging to do for our collective effort to raise funds in order to buy some slavery artifacts on EBAY (we can do better folks, much better). I have learned one thing from my virgin foray into fund-raising: repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition is how one gets the change out of pockets.

Last week, there was an interesting item in The Wall Street Journal by Andrew Roberts that explored the idea of "looking presidential." What signals to a voter or a public that a given person is the "right" type to be President? Is it height, name, speech patterns, confidence, style, personality, or some combination of all of these traits? Alternatively, does a person begin to look more "presidential" in hindsight, where the longer one holds the office, the more that the public adjusts their expectations of the position to fit him?
What does it mean to "look presidential," and why does it matter? An enormous amount of the media coverage of presidential candidates is focused on whether or not he (or, very rarely, she) "looks presidential." 
Grow up, America! Has the great democratic system of the Republic really come down to choosing leaders not on the basis of what they say, or even the way they say it, but on the way they fill a suit while saying it? 
Looking presidential can be broadly translated to mean being around 6 feet tall, relatively slim and broad-shouldered, and having a full head of preferably pepper-and-salt-colored hair and a ready, winning smile. It isn't being only 5 feet 6 inches tall and slightly balding that makes me want to blaspheme at the TV screen whenever I hear approving talk of Messrs. Romney, Perry and Huntsman "looking presidential." It's because I'm a historian—and where would the United States be if she had always adopted such blatantly look-ist criteria in the past?
And yes, I said "him," as gender is very much a key part of the equation in how authority is assessed in these United States.

I understand Roberts' desire to elevate oneself above such "petty" concerns as race and gender in working through how a person can look "presidential" (or not). However, this is insufficient for a critical examination of such a question as it applies to President Obama. In all, Roberts' choice to ignore race is an example of the white racial frame in action (who needs to talk about race stuff?), and an object lesson in the failure of colorblind politics (we can just pretend that Obama is just like all the other presidents). 

For example Roberts writes:
Yet surprisingly few great American presidents have "looked presidential" (Ronald Reagan and JFK being the obvious exceptions). A much larger and more interesting number looked the part but never made it to the White House. Think about it: John McCain, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Adlai Stevenson (despite baldness), Bob Dole, Barry Goldwater (very much), and even Al Gore until he opened his mouth—they all could have come from central casting. Even Thomas Dewey might have qualified until he was fatally described as looking like "the little man on the top of the wedding cake".
Ultimately, in his efforts to be race neutral, Roberts ignored one of the most important variables influencing how Barack Obama is assessed by the American people: Obama's race is symbolically potent for voters across the color line. Such an omission is willful--however well intentioned--and not accidental.

It is a given that much of the opposition to Obama is purely partisan. By extension, in the United States, political ideology is in turn influenced by racial attitudes, feelings, sentiments, and anxieties. Some love Obama because he is a person of color; others despise him precisely because of that fact. 

What to do when much of that hostility is rooted in unconscious bias? Can a black man look "presidential" when on a deep social, cultural, and cognitive level many in the public are incapable of seeing a non-white person as being a "real" American? What does this hold for the 2012 election, when Obama now has a record to be assessed against?


They say once you go black you never go Black. Unconscious racial bias may suggest an alternative decision rule: you ain't had it right till you did it White...and once you had black you go running back to White.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Zombies are Real: Man Shot and Killed While Eating Face of His Victim on Side of Highway in Miami


Some "light" fare while you all enjoy the holiday weekend.

As a ghetto nerd, I am also an expert on zombies. This is one of our core competencies. I have a novel (and associated screenplay) I am writing about the rising of the dead. One of the basic plot details is that State authorities will try to hide the initial outbreak in plain sight. They will simply report the killing and eating of human beings by zombies as random acts of violence.

This subterfuge will work at first; but the outbreak spreads exponentially. Consequently, when 4 zombies create 16 more, and then 256, and so and so on, the obvious truth will be impossible to conceal. The police and military will be able to stop small scale outbreaks. I also do not foresee a Battle of Yonkers type engagement with hordes of the undead. The U.S. military is simply too expert at killing large numbers of people who gather out in the open--MLRS, cluster munitions, claymore mines, canister shot, gunships, artillery, and good old fashioned machine gun fire would devastate a large group of zombies. 

There are a few complications though: 1) the outbreak will spread so fast that it will be difficult for the military and police to mobilize effectively; 2) most American military power is forward deployed and not available for civil defense (think 9/11 on a far larger scale); 3) there would be civil uprisings and mass hysteria, making the zombies the least of the military's worries; 4) if containment can be achieved an area can be swept and cleared, however the battle space (if you can call it that) will be so kinetic and ill-defined that such control may not be possible. In short, I think we would be screwed. Alas.

I closely monitor these stories in the media, and over the years have compiled a long list of seemingly unrelated incidents of human cannibalism.

For example, this week it was reported that a man ate at least 12 people in the Yunnan province of China. In Miami yesterday, a naked man was shot and killed while eating the face of another person next to a busy highway. 

They are coming to you get you Barbra us. I would have my bug out bag prepped and ready folks. Here are some documents that may be of assistance. But, if you don't have access to a U.S. Army or Marine fireteam and their organic weaponry, the manual may be an entertaining distraction while the world goes to hell around you.

Here is the original story that was posted on the Miami Herald website. They have since changed it, adding details about "cocaine psychosis," and that the officer shot at the assailant at least 6 times before he finally dropped him.

****

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Miami police shot and killed a man on the MacArthur Causeway Saturday afternoon, and police sources told CBS4 they had no choice: the naked man they shot was trying to chew the face off another naked man, and refused to obey police orders to stop his grisly meal.

The bizarre shooting happened shortly after 2 p.m., when police responded to a 911 call about two naked men fighting on a bike path along the Causeway, which was packed with traffic on a busy holiday weekend.

Miami police have not confirmed the details of what happened next, but sources close to the investigation told CBS4 News that officers found one man gnawing on the face of another, in what one police source called the most gruesome thing he’d ever seen.

The fight was taking place at the causeway exit near the Miami Herald building, and amazed officers tried to stop it, ordering the man making a meal out of the other man to stop.

Sources told CBS4 that the man refused to obey, and continued his attack. Investigators sharing limited details about the confrontation, saying only that the two men were fighting and the officers felt they had no choice but to take deadly force.

“During this confrontation an officer did discharge his weapon striking one of the individuals, said Det. Willie Moreno, spokesperson for Miami Police.

But the sources close to the investigation say that dry recitation of the facts apparently doesn’t go far enough. They said the man still would not give in to police commands, so officers fired again.

“That individual has lost his life right now,” Moreno said.

With the attacker dead, lying nude on the pavement, officers and paramedics were able to get to his victim and rush him to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Police sources say the man had virtually no face and was unrecognizable.

Police have shared no information about his identity or condition.

Once the bizarre confrontation came to an end, police were left with the task of figuring out what had happened. The investigation forced the closure of the causeway from Miami Beach to Miami, and also closed an exit to the causeway from I-95.

The investigation snarled traffic for hours and delayed thousands of motorists until ways could be found to get them off the causeway.

Police have had little official to say about the details, and have not released the name of the cannibalistic attacker.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: Chauncey DeVega is on the Radio Three Times This Weekend


As always, I am sharing news so that you can be brought to your knees--suffering in pain as you try to follow along with my horrid news analysis, commentary, and hellish voice.

Cue self-deprecating drums.

More seriously, you have three opportunities to get a dose of my respectable pimp juice. The good folks at The Ed Show have invited me to do a live radio interview today at approximately 2:30pm EST. Check out his website in order to find out how to stream it in real time. Saturday, I will be on Ring of Fire radio. Mike P is always giving WARN love. I appreciate him for that. To my ear (and I am my harshest critic), our interview is one of the best that I have ever done. He and I were improvising off of each other and our convo went to some unexpected places. Please check it out. 

Sunday, I will be on Joshua Holland's radio show. He is one of the head muckety mucks over at Alternet. I have a piece that I have been working on these last two days--thus my light posting on WARN--which we will be discussing. My newest long form essay explores white victimology, black crime, mobs, and racial violence. I like it. Hopefully, it will resonate and perhaps go viral--either as a function of praise or disgust.

Please share these links with your friends, and on your websites, Twitter, and elsewhere. We are Respectable Negroes is growing. I owe it all to you. And I will always acknowledge that I am only as good as you folks push me to be.

Thank you. 

Here is a random breaking kayfabe professional wrestling moment. This is the visual that I always keep in my mind in order to stay on point: never be the Shock Master. Repeat. Never be the Shock Master:



Thursday, May 24, 2012

Are These the New John Browns? "I am not Trayvon Martin." White Anti-Racists Talking to Cameras on Youtube




Reverend James Reeb. Jonathan Daniels. Andrew Goodman. Michael Schwerner. Viola Gregg Liuzzo. John Brown. These are the names of white folks who lived ethical lives and placed themselves in harm's way for the freedom of Black Americans. They also died trying to save white America from its own self-destructive racial wickedness.

In the Age of Obama, the Internet, and post-Civil Rights America, where have men and women of this type of iron will and principle gone? Are they on the lecture circuit? Occupy Wall Street? In the academy? Doing community organizing? Working silently in the shadows?

The nature of white supremacy and the Racial State have most certainly changed and evolved. One does not necessarily confront institutional white supremacy and meta racism with the same strategies and tools that forced down Jim and Jane Crow. Styles do makes fights; perhaps, there is no better example than considering people's movements and how the State and market democracies are vulnerable (or not) to them.

My concerns are not limited to white anti-racists. The same questions can be extended to black and brown people. As I have mentioned on numerous occasions, there is a desire to buy into the myth that all of our people marched with King, stood up to white power and Bull Connor, wore berets and leather with the Panthers, or hunkered down with Brother Robert Williams.

The reality is that most people, in any society where collective action occurs, are free riders who benefit from the blood, sweat, and tears of others. But, these same folks do not want to be left out of their generation's defining struggle--just like the many adult children who find out either during a deathbed confessional, or organizing the deceased's estate, that their dads lied about fighting in World War 2.

Many African Americans discover a similar truth. Mom and dad were not at the sit-ins.  Perhaps for fear of going to jail, losing their jobs, or other practical concerns, they were on the sidelines. Nevertheless, they/we/most of us benefited while not contributing though direct action.

I hold a key appreciation for the idea that "the political" is an expansive concept that is not limited to formal political behavior. Yet, and as I have grown a bit older, I have become increasingly suspicious of a tendency to embrace the symbolic, and often the trivial, as constituting purposive politics which substantively challenges arrangements of power and resources.

"Hoodie" politics. Wearing multi-colored rubber or plastic wristbands. Clicking "like" on a cause that will circulate around Facebook. Posting a comment on a blog. The Stop Kony campaign. All of these examples involve making one individual feel like they are participating in a grand struggle. There is no risk, demand, threat, or cost. Thus, can it really be considered substantive political action?

A broadly inclusive public sphere is integral to a healthy democracy (these behaviors can in fact be "pre-political" or serve as a barometer of the public mood; we must also be careful to note how there is also a rich history of debate societies, salons, pamphleting, and public rallies that online spaces are a direct descendant of).

However, my ultimately worry is that for a whole generation these online acts may constitute the limit(s) of their political engagement. There is a double bind at work here as well. On one hand, the major organs of power which influence the day-to-day lives of those born in the neoliberal age that came into being in the 1970s are profoundly anti-democratic. The banking, finance, military, marketing, as well as the commercial and industrial actors who constitute the global superclass, could care less about a given person's vote, sit-in, "approved" protesting, or the like.

Moreover, the sleight of hand is that while they have disdain for democracy, these same agents benefit from the illusion of participation and legitimacy. Thus, the need to create alternate spaces for "democratic behavior" like social media and the Internet. The illusion and spectacle of shows like American Idol and America's Got Talent are cousins to this phenomenon: Americans can "vote" for the winners in a meaningless human freak show; but their votes in the "real world" are a choice between two bankrupt and moribund political parties, an act that has little transformative power over the forces which impact the contours of their society.

The young woman in this video offers up a smart and sharp reflection on race, white privilege, and the lazy thinking that motivates much of the liberal shared empathy crowd who believe that slogans are a challenge to power.

Is this the best they/we/us have to offer? Talking into a camera on Youtube is the new face of politics in the 21st century? What type of politics come from a virtual public sphere that is all chatter and no action in the real world?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Are Names Destiny? Of Race and Media Framing: What if Trayvon Martin had a "White" Name?

Last week, the drip, drip, drip, of evidence surrounding the Trayvon Martin case became a deluge. George Zimmerman's hunting and killing of Trayvon Martin has been a national play, one that I described as a farce and tragedy, which reminds us of how the United States is still in many ways a country that is "separate, hostile, and unequal."

The divides in public opinion about the guilt and respective innocence of Zimmerman and Martin are screens upon which differences in race and life experiences across the colorline have been projected. Interestingly, the most obvious element in this narrative about justice and the color line has gone little commented upon.

Yes, Martin's killing by Zimmerman is "about" race. But, race works in ways that are both subtle and obvious. Trayvon is blessed or cursed--depending on one's own point of view--with a "black" name. Names may not be destiny. But, as social scientists have demonstrated, they do tell us something about class, race, community, neighborhood, social capital, families, aspirations, norms and culture.

Consciously or not, individuals make judgments about one's relative worth or personhood based on their names. These judgments are also implicitly about belonging, national identity and citizenship--for an object lesson in this reality, one does not need to look any farther than President Obama and the conspiranoid Birthers.

For example, researchers at the University of Chicago sent out resumes with "black" sounding names and "white" sounding names to prospective employers. The former were imminently qualified with Ivy League pedigrees and great job experience. The latter were former felons with fewer skills. Not at all surprising to students of race, white privilege, and racial inequality, the white applicants were contacted for job interviews at a far higher rate.

In a complementary example, there is a social psychology experiment in which participants are given a story to read about a young woman with a child who goes shopping at a store for batteries.

There are two versions of the story offered. In one, she is a black woman (as indicated by her name and other clues); in the other story, the protagonist is a white woman. The other facts of the story are identical. When asked identical questions about the narrative(s), respondents envision the black woman as a welfare queen, a thief, and irresponsible. The white woman is noble, a single mother trying to do the right thing by her kids, and a good person.

Framing has been critically important in how various public(s) have responded to the Martin-Zimmerman saga.  

The Right-wing media depicts a black, man-child, giant negro, thug ready to rape and kill at will. Here, Zimmerman is a noble victim. The mainstream and "progressive" media offers a different depiction of events. There, Trayvon Martin is an innocent person walking home with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea who is killed by an overzealous racist vigilante.

These divides are 1) significant because conservatives are motivated in their political worldview by racial animus in ways that others are not and 2) self-fulfilling where these disparate views of reality and political events are self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating.

The story is the thing. As an experiment in perception and framing, I have removed any overt signals to either the race of Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman. Moreover, I have renamed Trayvon Martin "Dale Hill." To my eyes and ears this is a very "white" name. I thought about playing around with the genders of Martin and Zimmerman--but parsimony and efficiency ruled out such a counter-factual.

I have also updated the story based on the new information about the investigation that has been made available these last few weeks. My framing of the story leaves out certain incidental facts, emphasizes other bits of information, and of course has a particular narrative.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cultural Studies in a Time of Crisis? A Call for Essays on Tyler Perry's Body of Work



Something fun to start the week...

Just because one can do a thing, does not necessarily mean that they should do a thing.

My research interests are centered broadly on race and popular culture. In fact, one of my main questions involves race and representation in mass media, and how those narratives both legitimate and reinforce  racial ideologies and "common sense," as well as tell us something more broadly about hierarchies of power in American society.

Given those interests, I have concluded that Tyler Perry's body of work constitutes one of the most pernicious, befouled, racist, and "ugly" depictions of black humanity that I have ever seen. As such, his "art" and role in the black culture industry is more than deserving of study.

Those qualifiers noted; proceeding from the love principle; and giving respect to folks that are working on this proposed project, I do have to wonder about how we explain our efforts at knowledge generation to those outside of our small world--assuming that we ought to feel obligated to (which is an unsettled question).

In addition, this dilemma is a nice segue back to the controversy over at The Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks back regarding a vicious and ill founded editorial about Black Studies and the quality of the dissertations written in that field.

Dr. Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist and one of my favorite ghetto nerd man crushes, has a great story about how scientists are often incapable of communicating with the general public about the importance of their work. There, he explains how one of his colleagues was unable to explain to a government committee why Congress should fund a particle collider that would have been revolutionary in the capabilities it would have granted the scientific community.

During the hearings one of the representatives begged for a story, some excuse to give this researcher and his team the money for the project. Sadly, the scientist was unable to offer up a pitch that went beyond techno-babble. Predictably, the funding was denied. Dr. Kaku had a great suggestion: all his colleague had to say was that this machine would enable humanity to understand the mind of God as we took one more step closer to deciphering the most basic secrets of the universe.

Don't be mistaken. A collection of essays on the coonery and buffoonery of Tyler Perry is not going to help us understand such profound matters. This collection is also privately funded and subject to the free market (and how a niche audience will choose to embrace such a book or not). But, to those in academia, writers, and others who work in narrow disciplines, how do we "sell" our work to outsiders?

Ultimately, is how we approach such matters the difference between "specific" and "universal/general" intellectuals? Which of the roles should we strive to fulfill?

Here is the call for submissions. Perhaps one of you will forward a proposal.

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CFP--Essays on Tyler Perry; Abstracts 6/15/2012 and Essays 11/1/2012


full name / name of organization:

Critical Perspectives on Tyler Perry--Book Collection

contact email: 
tperryanthology@gmail.com
Call for Papers
Critical Perspectives on Tyler Perry
An Edited Book Collection
Due Dates: 6/15/2012 (abstracts); 11/1/2012 (full essays)
For over a decade now Tyler Perry has entertained popular audiences with live, televised, and filmed performances of signature characters, including his most recognizable character, Madea. While some of his films have sparked public controversies about aesthetics, race, and respectability (or what some have described as the retrogressive and embarrassing nature of his work), Perry’s influence in contemporary media culture is undeniable. For instance, prior to his film career, Perry success on stage (ticket sales, video recordings of the plays, and merchandising) provided him with an estimated $150 million dollars a year. Not only has Perry has directed, produced, or starred in at least one film a year, his role in the television industry is increasing at a comparable rate. He is reportedly working to launch his own network, Tyler TV. Perry is at the center of aggressive media empire and production studio that has released over twenty commercially successful films and videos about parenting, marriage, morality, incest, domestic violence, and trauma in black families.
In light of these facts and the limited critical attention attributed to Perry, we are editing an anthology to examine his role in contemporary media culture. The essays in this edited collection will explore his work from a variety of critical and industrial perspectives by examining his self-presentation and public image as well as the films, television shows, theater performances, reception history, and academic and popular critiques and debates about his work.
Suggested essay topics can include (but are not limited to):
Christianity and Perry's films
Perry and trauma
The Madea films and the cinematic history of black men in drag
Oprah Winfrey and Perry
Television networks and Perry
The television shows (Meet the Browns, House of Payne, etc.)
Perry and "Black Aesthetics"
Perry and genre
The Boondocks “Pause” episode
Black Femininity/Masculinity
Perry’s stage career
Perry’s films and conventions of melodrama
For Colored Girls (2010)
Please submit abstracts (500 words maximum) along with an academic bio and contact details to tperryanthology@gmail.com by June 15, 2012. Final papers will be 6000-7000 words and should be submitted no later than November 1, 2012. Please address any questions to Karen Bowdre, TreaAndrea Russworm, and Samantha Sheppard to the e-mail listed above.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Caught Up in Chicago's NATO Fever: I was Just "Detained" for Being "Suspicious." My "Crime?" Sitting on a Bench at Navy Pier and Feeding the Geese


There is a pre 9/11 America and a post 9/11 America. After that day a new lexicon came into being. The Patriot Act, warrantless wire tapping, GITMO, and the Department of Homeland Security were birthed in this moment of our “great national derangement.”

In all, the national surveillance apparatus was turned inward on the American people in ways that were unprecedented.

For example, as The Washington Post documented in its series Top Secret America, the 30,000 or so employees who listen in and monitor emails and phone conversations, do so both largely out of sight, and out of mind, of the average citizen. And that is the trick is it not? Power is an abstraction until you encounter it personally.

Chicago is in the grip of NATO fever. Police are everywhere. Helicopters and fighter jets are in the sky. The roads are being closed and public transit diverted. The city is in the midst of a spectacle. Before the city unofficially hunkers down for the weekend, I decided to go to Navy Pier—tourist trap, beach, convention center, Ferris Wheel spot and people watching place—and sit, read a book, and feed the birds.


I love animals. I am the guy who has a special voice for when he meets a new doggie friend. As one of my friends observed, while she gets all excited for babies, I could care less, as I immediately focus in on our canine friends. I am the guy who saves old bread for birds. I keep it in a plastic bag, a partial concession to my OCD (there is something fulfilling about watching the bread pile up), so that once or twice a month I can feed the pigeons that wait by the 'L' stop mocking the humans who are forced to rush to and fro in our middling work-a-day routines. 

But my real joy is the fantasy of raising a bird army that I could use to conquer the world. For that I need geese and seagulls. I go to Navy Pier in order to recruit them.

Over the course of several years, I have gotten pretty good at making friends with the geese. I imagine they know me as "He the human with the tasty garlic bread and barbecue potato chips." My bird foot soldiers are pretty cool. The geese will eat out of my hand. They even follow me when I go to sit down on the benches near Lake Michigan.

I would soon discover that this hobby and habit of feeding birds at Navy Pier, in a city deep in the throngs of NATO fever, can be a “suspicious” and dangerous thing.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Another Right-wing Perpetual Political Priapism Over Reverend Wright

Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama’s opinions of America and the world were formed,” the proposal says. “And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.
Larry Elder will be paid 25,000 dollars for two weeks of work as an "articulate black" figurehead for a race baiting anti-Obama smear campaign. I always told you that being a boot black, lawn jockey, grinning from ear to ear, black conservative political coprophagist was extremely lucrative. Now you have third party confirmation of said fact.

[I cannot help but call attention to the racial micro-aggressions at play here as well: the favorite assumption being that black people are by definition inarticulate and stupid, thus the need to mark "articulate" as a qualifier.]

The NY Times has something for everyone today. For the Trayvon-Zimmerman crowd there is a piece on the Sanford, Florida police department's incompetence. White nationalists can get riled up about this story on declining white birth rates and the genetic/racial annihilation of those who we are presently categorized as "white." History buffs can learn about Brother Doctor King's forgotten manifesto and his call for President Kennedy to revisit the Emancipation Proclamation.

The item that will be getting the most attention is an expose on the plan by a cabal of Right-wing consultants and their billionaire sponsor to revisit Reverend Wright and his connections to President Obama. Unlimited Resources of one person determined to game the political system for personal gain. Super Pacs. White racial resentment. Conservative demagoguery. Slick media production values to dupe the mouth-breathing public.

All of these elements are present in “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good.” I would like to believe that this complementary strategy--the dirty boxing--to Mitt Romney's more refined Barack Obama is a traitor, treasonous, and does not love America tactics, would be all balls and no shaft. To point, who would be compelled by this sort of claptrap?
The metrosexual black Abe Lincoln has emerged as a hyper-partisan, hyper-liberal, elitist politician with more I than a bit of the trimmer in him. He's not only unable to command our country's greatest concern, the economy but he also finds himself sputtering in foreign affairs, engaged in bumbling, crude attempts to inject social issues and class warfare into this election and utterly unable to make a positive case for why he should president.  
Yet we still "like" him. 
This crumbling of the Obama phenomenon, properly exploited and explained, should have a devastating impact on the elusive independent, who doesn't pay all that close of attention but knows thin are bad and feels that it could get a whole lot worse. 
But, they still "like" him.
The answer: millions of people. The practical puzzle then becomes are these voters already predisposed to vote for Romney anyway? Or will these types of racial appeals push right-leaning Independents in battleground states over the edge?

The architects of this Reverend Wright Gate 2.0 anti-Obama black animus strategy are also well aware of their vulnerability to "the race card." Here is their proposed shield and immunizing agent:
The instant response liberals give to any attack is to deem the attack as racist. In the case involving an African I American president, even more so. We have two ways to help mitigate that potential. First, include an extremely literate, conservative African American in our spokesman group. Our recommendation is Larry Elder, a prominent ABC talk radio host in California. We have discussed our approach with him in confidence and he immediately understood and "got it."

Larry was considered a potential U.S. Senate candidate in California during the last cycle. Mr. Elder will be in addition to ]oe Ricketts, Brian Baker and any other members of your group who would like to help spread the message. We have also had very tentative talks with a group of African American business leaders who could get substantially behind this effort. We will continue those talks only after concept approval. 
The second way we will lessen their ability to attack from a racist angle is to carefully utilize a series of focus groups. First, on the storyboards, then on a rough cut of the final film, making fine-tuning adjustments in wording and visuals to increase the impact, while lessening any elements that could reasonably be deemed "racist."
The NY Times is reporting that the principal agent involved in this proposed campaign is already flip-flopping as he offers denials and repudiations of its content. Smoke and mirrors as they got caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar.

But, I do have to ask one question: Is the Right-wing Black Conservative bench so thin that the best clown their white handlers can summon up is Larry Elder?