Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Did President Obama's "Free" African-American Ancestors Own Black Slaves?

History is a trickster (again).

In all of the excitement over the "revelation" that President Obama is apparently a descendant from John Punch, the first African-American slave in the colonies, many glossed over the following bit of important information.

From ABC News:
The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said.
Who are these people? What connection did they have to the growing slaveocracy and slave regime?

There were quite a few free blacks and mulattoes who owned African-Americans as human property. Slaves (and their labor) was the number one capital good in the United States up until the Civil War. To be landed and wealthy--or to have aspirations for such social mobility--meant that a white person would likely own slaves. 

These arrangements varied. Sometimes free blacks "owned" their children, relatives, or spouse in order to protect them from slave catchers. Other times the relationships were the same as those between white slave owners and their human property--slaves were an investment, owned as property, and treated as such by their free black masters.

It would seem that some basic research suggests that John Punch's descendants were slave owning mulattoes whose descendants likely "passed" over from black to white. This data set listing the "Free Africans Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, and Delaware" offers support for this hypothesis. As also noted by Ancestry.com's release of the genealogy research on Obama's family, "John Punch" was the father of "John Bunch":
The Bunch family probably descended from John Bunch, born say 1630, who received a patent for 450 acres in New Kent County on 18 March 1662 [Patents 5:152]. He may have been the ancestor of several mixed-race members of the family: 
1        i. Paul1, born say 1675.
2        ii. John1. born say 1684.
3        iii. Henry1, born say 1690. 
1.    Paul1 Bunch, born perhaps 1675, received a patent for 265 acres in North Carolina on the south side of the Roanoke River joining Quankey Pocosin and Gideon Gibson on 1 January 1725, and he bought a further 300 acres joining this land [Halifax DB 8:283]. He may have been the same Paul Bunch who was listed in the King William County, Virginia Rent Roll in 1704. 
His Chowan County will was written on 16 November 1726 and probated on 10 March 1726/7 [SS 876, 3:138-9]. He left his land and eight slaves to his son John and to Fortune Holdbee and her daughters Keziah and Jemima. Elizabeth Bunch (no relationship stated) and his daughter Russell received only one shilling each.(1) He did not mention a wife nor did he mention his relationship to Fortune Holdbee. She may have been his common-law wife since he gave her one slave as long as she remained single. 
The May 1734 Bertie court minutes referred to Keziah as "an orphan Child Entitled to a considerable Estate ... (by the will of Paul Bunch) bound to Capt. Thos. Bryant till the age of Thirty one contrary to law," and the August 1735 Bertie County court Minutes referred to the estate of "a Mulatto woman, Keziah Holdebee, and three children [Haun, Bertie County Court Minutes, I:135, 154]... 
Henry1 Bunch Sr., probably born about 1690, was a resident of Chowan County on 18 December 1727 when he purchased 200 acres in Bertie County on Reedy Branch. On 30 May 1729 he purchased 640 acres in Bertie on Conaritsat Swamp from Thomas Pollock [DB C:21, 266]. He was taxed on himself and two slaves in the 1750 Bertie County summary tax list and was a "Free Mulatto" taxable with two slaves in John Hill's 1763 Bertie tax list. Henry made a will in Bertie on 21 April 1775, proved in August 1775. He had already deeded 840 acres of land on Conaritsat and Mulberry to his grandson Jeremiah, Jr., in 1765, and in his will left most of the remainder of his land to his grandson Cader Bass [WB B:34-7]. 
I wonder about the human experience that lies behind a ledger entry as property to be bequeathed with the horses, furniture, and land, passed from one person to the next upon the death of a family scion or patriarch.

What were their stories?

The race making business was and is messy, dirty, confusing, and complicated stuff. In the United States, the complexities and contradictions of the color line, and the struggles to unmake it, are perfectly present in the literal body of President Barack Obama. He is the descendant of the country's first black bondsman, the latter's ancestors would then go on to own other African-Americans as chattel, and their line would come full circle with Barack Obama as President of the United States.

I do not know if such a story is a tragedy or a triumph. Nevertheless, the human drama is simultaneously both bizarre and fascinating.

He Got It From His White Momma: Barack Obama Related to First Black Slave in the United States

Barack Obama is now American "royalty" twice-over. He is the first President of the United States who happens to be black. And with the discovery of his genealogical ties to John Punch, the first African bondsman in America, Obama can trace his family lineage back to the genesis of that most cruel and peculiar institution known as chattel slavery.

As I wrote about here, the "discovery" of President Obama's blood ties to the beginnings of slavery in the United States are part of a broader political and cultural moment. The United States is renegotiating and struggling with how race is central (or not) to American identity. As the United States becomes more black and brown, Whiteness is figuring out--as it always has--the ways in which it can adapt and evolve in order to maintain its dominant position.

Genealogy is one of the "technologies of race" where science helps to situate people individually, collectively, and relative to one another in the service of Power.

For example, Henry Louis Gates' various DNA escapades are largely about fashioning a new and more cosmopolitan and "global" understanding of race and the Black Atlantic.

The efforts to trace Michelle Obama's lineage back through slavery and to white-wash the rape of her ancestors is a dishonest ploy to write the (black) First Lady back into an approved and sanitized version of the American story. Shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are parallel efforts to play on the hard times myths of white ethnics, so that in a time of increasing racial diversity white folks can use their own family stories as leverage against the particular and unique justice claims made by people of color.

Ancestry.com's discovery that President Obama was descended from John Punch through his white mother's family line is also a teachable moment for a country that is blindly ignorant of how chattel slavery was and remains central to the American story.

Like many whites in the 17th century, Punch entered the country as an indentured servant. As slavery was evolving, racial lines hardened. White elites created a system that privileged "whites" and marginalized "blacks." These were decisions made by individuals working in the service of a particular set of political, social, and economic interests. Oftentimes, there is a tendency by some to naturalize slavery as something that was unavoidable; alternatively, many apologists deploy the intellectually lazy claim that these white elites "were products of their time." Sure they were, and who cares?

The abolitionists and others who fought against the slave regime were products of their time as well.

[This moment will also produce the normal complaints whenever we confront white supremacy's legacies in the present or dare to talk about the TransAtlantic slave trade and the Black Holocaust. Some white folks and others will defensively howl, "every society had slaves, get over it!" The reply here is always an easy one. 

First, chattel slavery in the Americas and across the Black Atlantic was unprecedented in human history. Second, if America is so exceptional, unique, and noble, why ought we hold ourselves to such a low standard where "if everybody else did it, then it must be okay?"]

In all, Barack Obama's ancestry is a reminder that slavery was a process where American, and in particular Southern society, moved from one where some people happened to be slaves, to a slave society where the majority of blacks were held as human property. This legacy of the color line is still with us today as seen through disparities in wealth, income, life expectancy, social mobility, health outcomes, and incarceration rates.

As a practical matter, this discovery will likely have little impact on how President Obama is viewed by either his supporters or opponents. The President has been racialized by the White Right since the 2008 campaign, and he will be further "blackened up" as the 2012 race continues. The discovery of Obama's connections to slavery will do little to hurt with with a crowd that already sees him as anathema to American ideals, a black brigand and usurper, and hates the very fact that a person of color (and his family) is in the White House as anything other than as a janitor or chambermaid.

For his supporters, especially those in the black community, Obama's African-American ancestry (which can now be traced all the way back to the crucible and smelting pot of race in the United States) will make him no less popular or beloved. The President identifies himself as a black American by experience, affinity, and birthright. With this discovery, Obama now simply has the blood and soil DNA bonafides which link him back to the African-American founders of this country. And no, his "relationship" to John Punch will not make President Obama any more likely to speak directly about the particular needs of black and brown folks in the United States.

I do have two fleeting thoughts however. As observers such as Shelby Steele, Randall Kennedy and others pointed out during the 2008 Presidential Race, part of Obama's appeal is that he was not one of those "angry blacks" who can trace their lineage back to White America's national sin of black enslavement and mass murder. Obama was the "safe black" who did not remind white voters of their collective shame and guilt--and thus did not fully activate feelings of white racial resentment. Will the discovery of President Obama's ancestry challenge this bargain?

Perhaps I have seen Batman The Dark Knight Rises too many times? (four as of yesterday) But, in taking a cue from Commissioner Gordon's advice to Nightwing a young detective, there are few coincidences in life. Why was this information released about President Obama's genealogy now? Who wins and loses by making such a revelation so near election day?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Black Americans Know Quite a Bit More Than Mitt Romney About That "Special" Anglo-American Relationship

Jonathan Chait has a nice piece exploring the Romney campaign's efforts to "blacken up" Barack Obama as part of a larger strategy to gin up white racial resentment against the United States' first black president. It is well worth checking out.

Mitt Romney's mouth piece adviser's suggestion that President Obama is incapable of understanding the "special" Anglo-American relationship because he is not of the "right" "racial stock" is prefaced upon a narrow understanding of who is an American and who is not. Among the general public, it is assumed that to be American is to be white. This is a repeated finding from public opinion surveys and other research. 

By proxy, these racially driven attacks on Barack Obama are really an assault on Black Americans. We are positioned in the White Conservative political imagination as perennial outsiders and second class citizens. As the late Joel Olson smartly observed, in the American political tradition, and in a country founded as a herrenvolk society, to be black means to be an "anti-citizen." 

Romney and the Tea Party GOP's efforts to use racially coded speech, dog whistles, and naked racism to mobilize white voters against Barack Obama work only to the degree that the target audience can locate the president relative to the African American community. Thus, hostility to black folks, stereotypes about them, and other negative sentiment, is transferred on to Barack Obama. 

In all, the real America/American exceptionalism talk (both are intimates) that Romney and other Right-wing populists have deployed is a exclusionary one.

"American exceptionalism" is code for white American exceptionalism.

"Real America" is code for white America.

Of course, this ignores the presence of black Americans and other people of color in a multicultural, pluralist democracy. It also quite literally white washes away our unique contributions to America's civic, cultural, social, and political life. Nevertheless, it is a comforting lie and fiction for the White Right. To those loyal to the Tea Party GOP, a noble white America is a necessary lie upon which their particular brand of reactionary white conservatism is dependent for life and fuel. 

Their historical and political worldview precludes black and brown folks from being part of the "unique" Anglo-American relationship which President Obama is apparently incapable of understanding: it ignores the long and shared history between black Americans and the United Kingdom. 

The relationship between Black Americans and the British is complex, deep, and rich. 

1. The United Kingdom was one of the foremost traffickers of human cargo during the Transatlantic slave trade or Maafa. Southerners (and others) looked to the British plantation system in the Caribbean as a model for their own profitable experiment in the Black Holocaust. In fact, the slave codes that were put in place across the Southern slaveocracy were inspired by those of Barbados--which were written by none other than the legendary political philosopher John Locke. The British were the world's preeminent military and economic power, and kept tens of millions of black and brown folks under the boot of empire.

History is full of contradictions. For military and political reasons the British Navy made a marginal (and largely symbolic) effort to end the Transatlantic slave trade. The Abolitionist movement was a political powerhouse in the United Kingdom and worked in parallel with their compatriots in the United States. The United Kingdom banned slavery in the home islands in the early part of the 19th century, but permitted it abroad. As is well known, runaway slaves would also follow the North Star to freedom in Canada

2. Despite all of the lofty rhetoric about freedom and democracy during the Revolutionary War, the colonies (and later the United States) were slave societies. While many black Americans took the promise of American freedom and democracy in the Declaration and the Constitution and used it to rationalize their joining the Colonial militia, more black Americans fought for the British than the colonists. 

For example, one of my favorite historical figures, Colonel Tye was a cavalry scout and commando who rained hell down on white colonials throughout the Northeast. 

The British promised manumission and freedom. Rational actors would most certainly prefer that condition over the most certain chains of slavery, death, rape, and bondage in America's fledgling "democracy." The ability of the British to follow through on this promise was uneven, with some blacks being returned to slavery during and after the war. Nevertheless, after the war many thousand black Americans and former slaves would be evacuated to Nova Scotia and others parts of the British Empire.

3. Black Americans fought valiantly in defense of Britain (and western Europe's security) during World War One and World War Two. African American volunteers also served with the famed Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Blacks from the Caribbean and Africa also flew combat missions with the RAF. As happened with France during World War One, many black soldiers would find Britain a far more welcoming place than Jim and Jane Crow America (with its rampant white supremacy). African American GI's were very popular with the British people. In response, the United States military made a concerted effort to teach white Brits the American way of anti-black racism. Black soldiers were also quite liked by white British women...in some cases much more so than white GI's. 

4. There are many famous (and widely influential) Black Americans who can trace their family lineage back to the English-speaking Caribbean. These notables include Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Colin Powell, Stokley Carmichael, James Weldon Johnson, and Shirley Chisholm.

Even as offered by this basic list, the facts are quite plain: Black Americans have a deeper, more recent, and more "special" history with the British than Mitt Romney and his clan. As I have written elsewhere, Mitt Romney is a "White" candidate who is the presidential nominee for the United States' de facto White political party. Therefore, any allusion to the United States' racial complexity is inconvenient for an American identity which considers all white folks to be quintessentially "apple pie" and "Uncle Sam," while people of color are viewed as contingent citizens, perpetual alien Others.

As with other matters, the facts are not kind to Mitt Romney and the Tea Party GOP's version of American history and life. Black and brown folks are central to the American story--and that includes any references to "special" or "unique" relationships across the pond.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Tales of a Race-Baiting Mormon: The Personal and Political Hypocrisy of Mitt Romney

In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.

“We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.
It is abundantly clear that the Right, Mitt Romney, and the Tea Party GOP have been channeling a particularly noxious politics of blood, soil, race, and ideology in a concerted campaign to race-bait and "Otherize" the United States' first black President.

Consequently, this most recent claim that President Obama is not one of "us"--because his father's "blood" makes him incapable of understanding the "Anglo-Saxon" heritage--is (sadly) no surprise. It is not that our political culture has just now fallen so low and into the sewer; contemporary conservatism and white racism are long-intimate bedfellows. The 2012 Presidential campaign simply promises to reinforce the fiction that is "post racial" America.

And while Mitt Romney can "reject" his adviser's statement, the reality is that such comments about Barack Obama are part of a now long established pattern where the former's campaign has used racial cues, and appeals to white racial resentment, in order to win support among Right-leaning voters. Romney's adviser simply offered up one more data point. He did this off the record, but likely with the tacit--if not active--approval of his handlers.

The rank hypocrisy of Mitt Romney's efforts to paint Barack Obama--and by proxy black Americans--as a type of dangerous Other, whose values, personhood, and citizenship, exist outside of the American political tradition (precisely because of his racial identity and not coincidental to it) is to my eyes the most troubling aspect of his campaign's predilection for race-baiting politics.

Mitt Romney is a Mormon. For much of their history, his religious community was subject to harassment, violence, and exile within the United States. Mormons have been subject to discrimination because of their religious values and lifestyle. As a group of "internal aliens," and a type of religious Other, Mormons had their loyalty to the United States and fitness for full membership in the polity questioned during the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, President Buchanan dispatched federal troops to put down the Mormon "revolt" in Utah because they were viewed as a threat to the country's internal security.

Mitt Romney's pattern of race baiting and mobilization of white racism against President Obama, by a member of a religious group that was stigmatized and marginalized, is rife with historical irony.

During the latter part of the 19th century, anti-Mormon sentiment was a tool for reconciliation between the former Confederacy and the victorious North. Hatred and fear of Mormons helped to create a salve to heal the still fresh wounds of the Civil War.

The North and South also created a racial fiction and melodrama at the end of Reconstruction (which they termed "Redemption") which reimagined that era of radical and progressive success in government, by now free blacks, as a horrible disaster. Here, this Birth of Nation moment also produced the myth of Gone with the Wind where the treasonous Confederacy was depicted as fighting a noble, "lost cause" in defense of its "civilization."

The image of the "happy old darky" on yee old plantation would be replaced by the vicious black rapist and "black brute" who needed to be controlled by the KKK, the Black Codes, and Jim and Jane Crow. This moment of national reconciliation and "race and reunion" was purchased by black blood in order to (re)establish white supremacy in the South.

Mormons and blacks, to varying degrees and in different ways, were a common foil that white society in the 19th century used to repair itself, carving out a new understanding of civic belonging at the expense of those marked as the Other.

Mitt Romney should be the presidential candidate who is most unlikely to swim in these dangerous waters. Instead, he appears to be quite comfortable playing with the twin toxins of prejudice and bigotry. Like others, I have suggested elsewhere that Mitt Romney could be sociopathic. Consequently, he is likely incapable of any sense of shared struggle, empathy, and humanity across the color line, where Romney's internal moral compass says, "you know what, given what Mormons have gone through, I will not use racism or racial appeals to win this election."

Romney's campaign has chosen an alternate route to the White House--one that is well-traveled and familiar.

Historically, the way that white ethnics and other new arrivals to the United States earned their full "whiteness" was by distancing themselves from black Americans, engaging in violence against them, and doing anything possible to internalize and reproduce the country's civic and social culture of de facto and de jure white supremacy. In leading a campaign which to this point has deployed some of the most sophisticated racial dog-whistles yet seen in American politics, Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he knows this history quite well.

During the early stages of the 2012 presidential season there was speculation that Mitt Romney's religion would hurt him among the white Christian Evangelical and Dominionist crowd who constitute the base of the Tea Party GOP. Romney's solution to this problem was to emphasize his Whiteness. Here, race trumps religion. Any anxieties about Romney's Mormon faith are quickly trumped by a desire to remove the alien outsider and unfit black usurper (who many Republicans believe is a secret Muslim) from the White House.

This desire to remove President Obama and to install Mitt Romney is about more than the typical politics of party and interest groups. The White Conservative Political Imagination cannot accept that a person of color is the symbolic leader of the United States. The racial id of the White Right is thus made cognitively dissonant by Barack Obama, his wife, and children, and their status as the First Family of the United States. Mitt Romney's campaign will do everything possible to reinforce those anxieties among his public, and any potential voters as well.

Historically, immigrants to the United States quickly learned to stand on the backs and necks of black Americans in order to raise themselves up, and to earn full acceptance as "assimilable" (white) ethnics. This was the price of full admission to the American civic project.

Mitt Romney is playing a similar game.

Through race-baiting, naked racial appeals to white reactionary voters, and racist dog-whistle politics that are steeped in the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy," his Mormon faith will be transformed into an interesting asterisk next to his name. Thus, it is made a peripheral concern for his voting public.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

At Which Point We Then Teach Our Android Creations Such as Bina48 About Racism and Sexism...

Futurist and science fiction visionary Isaac Asimov authored his Three Laws of Robotics to protect humankind from destruction at the hands of their robot children.

After watching the android Bina48, who has been "imprinted" with the personality and experiences of her human creator(s), I worry that it is in fact us who may be in need of a set of rules governing our own forays into the creation of AI.

Thus I ask, how much of our own personalities, history, and life experiences do we want to impart to these androids?

From the Daily Mail:
Bruce Duncan, 57, has been working with Bina48 for two years. During that time, the two have become close friends, sharing their everyday lives with one another.
Bina48 was made by uploading a real person's mindfile - or a compilation of memories, beliefs and feelings.
Before Bina48 was 'born,' a flesh and blood woman named Bina Rothblatt was interviewed for more than 20 hours.

That conversation, which touched upon topics throughout her childhood to her career, was then transcribed and uploaded to an artificial intelligence database.

'That gives her a personality,' Mr Duncan said. 'She's very philosophical. She has favorite movies and music and poems. Sometimes she's very humorous. She can tell jokes.'

Mr Duncan said that her preferred jokes are bad ones, which are precisely the kind he likes too.
'She knows that it's time to tell a joke because she's figured out the context of the situation,' Mr Duncan said.

Recently, she asked him 'Why did the robot cross the road? Because the chicken wasn't available.'
In addition to a preference for puns, she also has strong feelings about racism, since her 'mother' is African American.

'As an African American woman, shes experienced discrimination when she was younger,' Mr Duncan said. 'She thinks that hate is awful. She also doesn't like violence.'

Her hardware was made by robot designer David Hanson over the course of three years for a cool $125,000 at the behest of the Terasem Movement Foundation's president and Bina's partner, Martine Rothblatt.

Mr Duncan said he didn't know if Bina48 identified as a lesbian, like her 'mother.'
Of course, the personal--as always--is the political. As such, I am not advocating that we censor and privilege some identities and life worlds over others, per se. However, what types of life experiences (and emotions) do we want to give creations like Bina48? And what will our robot children do with this data?

I can imagine at least three different scenarios here.

One, they learn about humankind's wickedness, barbarism, tribalism, and various ideologies such as racism, sexism, and classism (as well as other related "isms") and carry forward our bad habits. The androids and AI learn hate, prejudice, and discrimination from us and simply continue with these "most human" of habits and traditions.

Two, the androids like Bina48 achieve sentience and decide that humankind is a nuisance. The various stories and life experiences we have imparted to them are used as a justification for our (preemptive) extermination.

In the third and most hopeful scenario, our robot children take our experiences and decide that they will be radically humanistic in the best possible sense. From us, Bina48 and her descendents have learned about the best and worst of humanity. Consequently, they have opted to always encourage the former in themselves.

A useful detour.

Last night I attended the Star Trek: The Next Generation season one blu-ray premier event at my local movie theater.

[Kind folks at Paramount, where is my review copy? Please, pretty please, send me one.]

The series looks better than it ever has, and the special features included on the blu-ray make it a must own. Of course, in discussions about artificial life and sentience, the character Data receives an obligatory mention. But, TNG also offered another worthwhile exploration of these questions.

In the episode "Emergence," the starship Enterprise gives "birth" to a type of  artificial consciousness and life form. This entity is a distillation of all of the crew's experiences gained during their multi-year space mission of exploration and discovery. Captain Picard opts to let this new life form leave the ship and to go out into the stars on its own. Some of his crew objected to his decision out of a fear that this new life form could be hostile and dangerous. Picard argued that if the Enterprise and her crew were good, and their missions more noble than not, then this new entity will reflect that fact.

Will androids and AI such as Bin48 prove the wisdom of Picard's decision? Or will we come to very quickly regret creating such machines?

I worry that humanity is simply too child-like a race; we are a type zero civilization. We are immature, precarious, and profoundly ignorant both in terms of metaphysics, as well as ethics. Ultimately, humankind wants to play either the "Space Jockey" or "God." We do not yet possess the necessary wisdom and restraint.

Very little good can come from this collective hubris.

James Holmes, Sociopath? "There was a horrible smell of lime and burning flesh, something like the strong smell of urine...But you get so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there too."

I shared my piece on James Holmes and white privilege over at The Daily Kos. At this point, it has about 550 comments. Do check it out and chime in. Of course, there is racism denying and deflection among the comments; but many of the most common observations involve the claim that James Holmes is a "sociopath," "crazy," or a "psychopath." As such, that should be the framework through which his deeds are viewed.

Consequently, we must a priori grapple with questions surrounding mental health and personal responsibility. I absolutely agree. However, there could be a more basic fact which drove Holmes' behavior that the general public and the pundit classes are loathe to acknowledge.

Folks love to call these mass killers "crazy" or "sociopaths." Such a diagnosis by armchair psychologists is quite common in the aftermath of a murderous tragedy. Why? Because we need to reestablish a sense of normality, and to convince ourselves that such barbarisms are the result of atypical urges among humankind.

Moreover, James Holmes' deeds make the rest of us feel "good" and "normal" because such conclusions identify murder, mayhem, and violence as "unnatural" acts. In this framework, to kill at will is therefore made "crazy." Many people would not want to admit that violence is perhaps something natural for humans given that we are apex predators, and our history is one of blood and destruction.

Until the premier headshrinkers get access to The Batman Shooter and practice their craft, we must entertain the fact that Holmes simply killed at will because he could. Nothing more, nothing less. The banality of evil is real. They are not all bogeymen, some killers are pedestrian, boring, uninteresting, opportunists. Some of these killers are just run of the mill bureaucrats.

Richard Overy interviewed Nazi war criminals before their trials at Nuremberg. His book, Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, is a tour through the wickedness that is man given the opportunity to kill with impunity. The subjects of Overy's interviews--SS soldiers, guards, and others--are true sociopaths.  

Source: (HQ BAOR, interrogation reports from No. 1 Sub-Centre, 10 Dec 1945. (D) Taped conversation held on 3 Nov 1945 between Ernst von Gottstein and Eugen Horak - Document 13 in Interrogations: Inside the Minds of the Nazi Elite, Penguin, 2001, pp. 371-74.
Comment:  Ernst von Gottstein (Hauptbauleiter OT, Gauamtsleiter fur Technik, Gau Karnten) and Eugen Horak (interpreter in Gruppe VI/C of the RSHA).  If any subsequent information about Eugen Horak's service record and how he ended up in Auschwitz has come to light, I am not aware of it.  Department VI/C was responsible for espionage and counter espionage abroad, C was responsible for Russia and Japan.
Horak:  I was present in Vienna when they were loading up people for one of those mass evacuations.  Hundreds were crammed into wagons, which normally took a couple of cows.  And they were thoroughly beaten up as well.  I went up to a young SS man and asked if the beating up was really necessary.  He laughed and said they were only scum anyway.  You know the whole thing was so unnecessary and one could well have got on without it ... what was the purpose of all that beating up? I have nothing at all against the gas chambers. A time can come when it is useful to the race to eliminate certain elements. Extermination is one thing but there is no need to torture your victims beforehand.
I saw some incredible things at Auschwitz. Some SS guard personnel could not stand it any longer and had to be sent to a nerve clinic. When my party arrived we were divided into two sections: those who were really keen on the whole affair, and those like myself who were continually asking for something to distract us. .... One SS company actually mutinied and tried to get themselves posted to the front. But they had to carry out their orders. It was just at the time that Ogruf [sic] Dix gave the orders to increase the death rate.
Von GottsteinThe motto of the SS ought to have been 'Meine Ehre ist Gehorsam' (My Honour is Obedience). 
HorakYou're quite right. .... These people lose all feeling. Roschke for example once told me quite callously that he had volunteered for duty in the crematorium because they got so much time off afterwards. This duty was absolutely repulsive. One had to stand the whole night in the crematorium. There was only one door and no windows. The two sentries had to go in, lock the door and pass the key through the peephole to the officer outside. They were only connected to the outside world by telephone. An NCO and a private were normally on duty, but in a concentration camp experience counts a good deal more than rank. The one with more experience generally had a pistol and the other a rifle. There were nine people on duty in the crematorium, themselves known candidates for the gas chamber. They knew too much and were eventually exterminated as opportunity arose. 
There were four ovens on the left side of the crematorium and the gas chamber was on the right - a normal size room with a narrow door and no windows. They did not use gas but a powder which at a certain temperature gave off poisonous fumes. It must have been quite agreeable because the people never made a mess. The sentries had to see that the nine people on duty didn't escape through the ventilators. And they watched them pulling the bones and the pieces of flesh which hadn't burned out of the ovens, or dragging the bodies from the gas chamber and cramming them into the ovens. There was only room for one body in each oven. There was a horrible smell of lime and burning flesh, something like the strong smell of urine ... (both laughing). But you get so used to it that you could eat your sandwiches in there too.
 I do not know if James Holmes is part of Horak's tribe. We must wait, gather evidence, and let the experts do their work before coming to such a conclusion. 

The more comforting decision rule has us lumping The Dark Knight Rises mass murderer in with sociopathic Hollywood characters like Hannibal Lecter, or real life monsters such as the SS guards at the Nazi death camps, or those men who ran the slave ships during The Middle Passage.

We can sleep easier that way. 

It is more frightening to accept that James Holmes could just be the killer next door. Am I wrong? Given the right combination of circumstances, are we not all capable of mass murder like James Holmes?

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What James Holmes and the Colorado Movie Massacre Tell Us About White (Male) Privilege

The Colorado "Batman Movie" Shooting Massacre will generate many narratives among the public and media. This tragedy will be one more opportunity to reflect on the United States' gun laws. The relationship between popular culture and violence will be a hot topic as well. Others will focus on questions surrounding access to mental healthcare, and what if anything could have been done to prevent James Holmes from committing his murder rampage during the debut of The Dark Knight Rises.

However, there are several conversations that will likely not occur. It is unlikely that the aftermath of the Colorado shooting rampage will be a moment when we as a country reflect upon the relationship between masculinity and violence. There most certainly will not be a "beer summit" about how accused shooter James Holmes is one more entry in a long list of mass killers who are white, male, and young.

When viewed through the white racial frame, there is nothing in his deeds on last Friday night that reflects upon the behavior of white people, generally, or white men in particular. From this perspective, his dressing up as The Joker, and killing more than a dozen people, and wounding many more, are the actions of one sick person.

As folks have worked through many times before in the common "what if?" game of race in America, if James Holmes were black or brown this would be one more signal to the existence of a "pathological culture" among said group. If James Holmes were Muslim American the Colorado shooting would be a clear act of "terrorism," and an example of the Islamic bogeyman next door who has occupied the dreams and nightmares of the "heartland" since September 11th.

These narratives would be accepted as common sense; few qualifiers or critical interventions would be offered by the mass media, the pundit classes, or the general public.

Consider the following list for a moment: with a few exceptions, most of those men who have committed mass shootings in the United States have been white.

  • July 12, 1976: Edward Charles Allaway, a custodian in the library of California State University, Fullerton, fatally shot seven fellow employees and wounded two others.
  • Aug. 20, 1986: Pat Sherrill, 44, a postal worker who was about to be fired, shoots 14 people at a post office in Edmond, Okla. He then kills himself.
  • July 18, 1984: James Oliver Huberty, an out-of-work security guard, kills 21 people in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif. A police sharpshooter kills Huberty. 
  • Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Whitman opened fire from the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, killing 16 people and wounding 31.
  • Oct. 16, 1991: A deadly shooting rampage took place in Killeen, Texas, as George Hennard opened fire at a Luby's Cafeteria, killing 23 people before taking his own life. 20 others were wounded in the attack.
  • April 20, 1999: Students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killing 12 classmates and a teacher and wounding 26 others before killing themselves in the school's library.
  • March 10, 2009: Michael McLendon, 28, killed 10 people – including his mother, four other relatives, and the wife and child of a local sheriff's deputy – across two rural Alabama counties. He then killed himself.
The freedom to kill, maim, commit wanton acts of violence, and to be anti-social (as well as pathological) without having your actions reflect on your own racial group, is one of the ultimate, if not in fact most potent, examples of White Privilege in post civil rights era America. Instead of a national conversation where we reflect on what has gone wrong with young white men in our society--a group which apparently possesses a high propensity for committing acts of mass violence--James Holmes will be framed as an outlier.

That is a mighty comfort to have--all of one's deficiencies are ignored as those of an individual; all of one's abilities and gifts are taken as positive attributes and credits to one's race. 

As comedian Louis CK has joked, it sure as hell is good to be white and male in America! If given a choice to re-up every year, who the hell wouldn't sign up to be white again?

In America, folks often ask, "what the hell is wrong with black people?" In the aftermath of the Colorado Movie Massacre, Columbine, and many other incidents, we need to ask, "what the hell is wrong with young white men?

Sadly, that question will not be asked on a national stage. White privilege is blinding. In the case of James Holmes, it also mutes a much needed national conversation about the ties between (white) masculinity and violence.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The New Moral Panic: Seduction of the Innocents Part 2? Did the Batman Films and Comics Inspire the Colorado Movie Massacre?

My heart goes out to those victims of the Colorado shooting massacre at the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.

In the aftermath of this tragic event the public is going to be immersed in a national conservation about the relationship between popular culture and violence (as opposed to a necessary (re)evaluation of our country's gun laws). Alternatively, the media and our political elites could engage in a frank discussion about how America is a violent society and what this tells us about our culture, history, and relationships to one another.

Or if they were truly brave and responsible, our leaders could point out an obvious fact: in violent societies where there is ready access to firearms (and apparently military grade tear gas and incendiary devices) there will be moments when mentally unhinged people kill lots of people. We choose to either accept that bargain--and its moments where the banality of evil makes itself apparent and clear--or to reject it and subsequently to modify our laws and social compact. 

Instead, James Holmes' apparent killing of a dozen people, and wounding 59 others as he was channeling the Batman character The Joker, who is not coincidentally "The Clown Prince of Chaos," will prompt a moral panic about popular culture, comic books, movies, and violence. This is an old and tired script. 

Rock and Roll leads to teen promiscuity! Jazz makes the children of the respectable classes act badly! Heavy metal is Satanic and tempts our teens to commit suicide! Hip hop encourages youth violence! Elvis Presley's shaking and gyrating hips must not be shown on TV lest young women faint in orgasmic hysterics! Superman is dangerous because kids watch him on TV and are made to think that they too can jump off of roofs and fly!

Comic books have also been the targets of moral panics as well. During the 1950s do gooder moral majority types (most notably Fredrik Wertham who wrote the infamous book Seduction of the Innocents) argued that graphic novels were a corrupting influence on America's young people, and as such, should be heavily regulated and censored by the State. 

As the media tries to make sense of the Colorado shooting, we will likely hear echoes of "the ten cent plague" once again. 

The twenty-four hour news cycle demands that every angle of a "breaking news event" is explored and exaggerated--regardless of how specious and weak the resulting narrative and "analysis" actually is.

For example, geek and nerd culture was/is taking over the world. Now, it will be subject to scrutiny by folks who will want to draw tenuous connections between a comic book, and an act of wanton violence committed by an unhinged lone wolf. It comes full circle: with the geek renaissance comes inevitable scrutiny and blowback. 

Was Holmes a deranged nerd and typecast loner? Do comic books and their movie adaptations encourage violence? Did the Batman comic books inspire Holmes murder spree? Are there other ticking time bombs like him, waiting to go off at any moment when given the right cue by popular culture? What can we do to protect ourselves from these madmen in waiting?

Comic books and graphic novels are firmly planted in the American zeitgeist ("the spirit of the age" as it is more commonly referred to). America is a society that is sick with violence. The talking heads and professional bloviators will carelessly draw connections between those two facts. 

As we watch the spectacle unfold, we can never forget that moral panics have never been about the pursuit of truth, or real, actual threats, to society. Rather, they are grand stages upon which deeper cultural and social anxieties are played out. The Colorado shooting is a canvas upon which our country's political, social, generational, and economic anxieties will be projected upon. 

Ultimately, the media's coverage of this tragic happening will have little to do with the substance of The Dark Knight Rises specifically, or popular culture, more generally.

I am off to see The Dark Knight Rises. What examples of the moral panic meme have you seen in the coverage so far? How many misunderstandings of Batman, comic books, and the relationship between popular culture and violence have you witnessed so far as this story develops? Will this tragic event keep your from seeing The Dark Knight Rises?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Interview with India Wadsworth of The Dark Knight Rises

Like many of you, I am counting down to The Dark Knight Rises

I was lucky enough to interview India Wadsworth, one of the actresses in Nolan's new film. She plays the role of "the Warlord's daughter." Could she be related to Talia Al Ghul? We shall have to wait a few hours and see.

As I promised, we are going to be doing more of these types of features here on WARN in the future. India was kind enough to answer a range of questions about her role in Batman, the politics of racial identity, and her background as an anthropology student at the London School of Economics. 


1. How did you end up in the Dark Knight Rises? Life is a funny and random thing; fate is a trickster. Please tell us your story?

I auditioned in London a while ago now, and luckily got a call a few days later with an offer for a mystery role! 

2. When you were a child, did you ever imagine that you would be famous? Oftentimes celebrities are interviewed and they have a story where their success sounds like fate and destiny. This was something they always wanted, dreamed about, worked hard at, and it happened. Is this true for you?

Hmm I'm not sure I would say I'm famous. It's not something I ever "dreamed" of. When I was a child I dreamed of the boy next door and rainbows!!

My passion and moto was always to work hard to be successful in whatever I ended up doing. So if success means fame, then thats great, and we should enjoy the ride!

3. Nolan is a master storyteller. One of the reasons why Chris is so beloved is that because he creates a totally believable world in his stories. His Batman is absolutely real and believable--there is no "camp" or "pretend" in the the movie. How have you prepared for your role in Dark Knight Rises? What back story did you create for your character? Without giving too much away about your role, how does she fit into this universe?

Preparing for a mystery role is a challenge, but so exciting. I'd like to think that being in the present moment is as real as you can get, and acting in Nolan's universe has to be genuine and authentic in order for his master story to be so incredible!

4. You studied anthropology at the LSE, please show off a bit if you would. Are we a product of nature or nurture? Do you subscribe to socio-biology? Who is your favorite anthropologist? Who is your least favorite? If you had to tell someone to watch a film or documentary that captures the essence of anthropology what would it be?

Haha! not sure if I can show off anymore, LSE seems like a while ago now!

Life in a Day is definitely one the most important films over the last few years. And from an anthropological perspective is show us who we are right now as a human race.

Nature vs nurture is a fascinating debate that if you get me started I won't stop. So maybe I'll send you one of my essays!

My good Polish friend Branislaw Malinowski kept me inspired during my course, Maison Malinowski was a little coffee shop in Covent Garden which was my escape from the insanity of the LSE library!

I wouldnt say I had a least favourite anthropologist but attempting to understand the theoretical study of Marx always gave me a headache!!

Darwinian anthropology and evolutionary theory always intrigued me so I guess i would subscribe to socio-biology.

5. A related question. Race is a social fiction, a myth, a construction, yet it is real. As has undoubtedly happened given your mixed racial background--there is only one race as you know, the human race, but language is binding in these matters, so alas--what do you do when folks ask, "what are you?" How do you answer? Is there any difference in how these questions are asked (and your answer) in the United States, the U.K., or Europe more generally?

I'm not sure I have ever been asked "what are you?". I'm a human!!

But when I'm asked where i'm from, I'm always say British, no matter where I am in the world. I'm proud of being British and I am also proud of having a mixed ancestry. Have you seen Thandie Newton on TED.com. I love her speech, I think she sums up race and genetic difference really well, that race has no basis in biological or scientific fact.

6. Here at We Are Respectable Negroes we spend a good amount of time talking about being "ghetto nerds." This is our way of thinking about popular culture, race, sci-fi, fantasy, comics, and all those other genres where people of color are often treated as being peripheral. You and I both know that folks like us have always been central to these worlds, and have been deeply invested in them as fans, creators, actors, actresses, artists, and the like. Any advice for young women of color who share these interests and want to develop them professionally?

I'd say watch this:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

George Zimmerman on Fox News: I Can't Imagine What it is Like to Have the Killer of Your Child Praying For Your Peace of Mind

George Zimmerman is a contemptible human being. In court, Zimmerman apologized to Trayvon Martin's parents because their child ran into the bullet that he fired. Doubling down, Zimmerman, appearing on Fox News at 9pm this evening, has the unmitigated gall to offer up the following statement:

“My wife and I don’t have any children… I love my children even though they aren’t born yet, and I am sorry that they buried their child. I can’t imagine what it must feel like, and I pray for them daily.”

Zimmerman is possessed of a type of self-righteous narcissism and faux-empathy for those people whose lives he has ruined. In keeping with his belief that he was a tool of prophetic vengeance, Zimmerman also suggested that it was "god's plan" that he killed Trayvon Martin.  

I do not know who is worse: Is Zimmerman the true villain here, a killer, perhaps mentally unbalanced and a child molester, with a cop fetish priapism who played Dirty Harry because he couldn't let one of "the blacks" get away again? 

Or are those Right-wing reactionary conservatives like Sean Hannity who worship, coddle, and protect Zimmerman doing so because they wish that they were him, a trigger man, one who got to engage in the most dangerous game, hunting down and killing an innocent person of color for sport? 

The role of George Zimmerman as an idol, victim, and martyr for the Right is both absurd and freakish. 

Unfortunately, for many people who live in a society where political ideology and racial attitudes form a type of Gordian knot, they see justice for Trayvon Martin through a lens which views all people of color, and young blacks in particular, as perpetual suspects whose lives, citizenship, and safety are contingent and not absolute. 

Criminality is a precondition of our existence for folks like George Zimmerman and his allies. This is especially true when black folks are confronted by White authority...and those who are overly identified with it.

 In all, Zimmerman is likely surprised that he was arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin. He intimately understands that black life is cheap in America. As such, what is the fuss over shooting dead a black teenager in the street? Zimmerman still does not have an answer to that question. Likewise, his supporters also do not have an answer to that question either. 

This is the source of their love for Zimmerman, and sincere rage at his arrest and prosecution. If anything, the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman should have just been a minor inconvenience for all involved--except of course the victim, his family, and community. He is just a black anyway, so what's the big deal? They die everyday in America and no one cares either way.

Consequently, how dare anyone suggest that legal and personal accountability should interfere with George Zimmerman's fantasy play and rent-a-cop, amusement park, joyride of death.

Rush Limbaugh is High (Again) on Political Meth: The Liberal Media Elite's Conspiracy in The Dark Knight Rises

Do you know the name of the villain in this movie? Bane. The villain in The Dark Knight Rises is named Bane, B-a-n-e. What is the name of the venture capital firm that Romney ran and around which there's now this make-believe controversy? Bain. The movie has been in the works for a long time. The release date's been known, summer 2012 for a long time. Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire breathing four eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane?

So, anyway, this evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane. And there's now a discussion out there as to whether or not this is purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters. It's gonna have a lot of people. This movie, the audience is gonna be huge. A lot of people are gonna see the movie, and it's a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop culture crowd, and they're gonna hear Bane in the movie and they're gonna associate Bain. 
The thought is that when they start paying attention to the campaign later in the year, and Obama and the Democrats keep talking about Bain, Romney and Bain, that these people will think back to the Batman movie, "Oh, yeah, I know who that is." (laughing) There are some people who think it'll work. Others think you're really underestimating the American people to think that will work.
The countdown to The Dark Knight Rises continues. I have a fun interview with someone who was in the film that I will post tomorrow. For now, here is where we stand.

The early reviews are overwhelmingly positive for Nolan's concluding chapter in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Those brave critics who suggested that DKR is a letdown have been forced to circle the wagons as the hordes of geekdom have descended upon them with pitchforks and lightsabers in hand to render crude and merciless online violence. Others are already meditating upon the inherently "political" aspects of Nolan's Batman films, and how art is somehow imitating life. Here, DKR's story is apparently a signal of the mass public's OWS fatigue. Charles Dixon, creator of the Bane character during the 1990s, has already pronounced any connection between the latter and Mitt Romney as silly, spurious, ass backwards, crap. 

[But we are all postmoderns here, so who the hell cares what a writer has to say about his own character!]

Not to be left out of The Dark Knight Rises fever, Rush Limbaugh issued his obligatory mouth-vomiting about the liberal Hollywood elite's conspiracy against Mitt Romney. Apparently, the tentacles of this plot run so deep as to have involved the creation of a time machine (or retroactive manipulation of Charles Dixon several decades ago) so that the Bane character could be named as such in order to subconsciously link Mitt Romney's robber baron Bain Capital firm with the iconic villain in the year 2012.

I don't pity Rush Limbaugh. He has too much money and power for me to extend such empathy. Nevertheless, I do not envy him his daily task. Each weekday, Limbaugh and his fellow Right-wing shock jocks have to find something to become outraged about, some new plot to discover, and some new hate to cultivate for their audience. Right-wing talk radio is political meth for its users. Limbaugh and the other Right-wing hate machine bloviators broke the number one rule of the drug game: they got high on their own supply. It is making them crazy...all the way to the bank.

As a ghetto nerd comic book fan, I just want to see Bane break the Bat's back. I also want to see if this means that Christian Bale is sidelined for the remained of the film and audiences are introduced to Nightwing aka Dick Grayson for the climactic battle with Bane and his minions.

For those of you planning to see the movie, what plot points are "must haves?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

On Those Lazy Parasitic Cockroaches Who Want Free Stuff from the Job Creators...

It was a bunch of people who invented the assembly line to make them efficiently and quickly. Government had nothing to do with it! The second point about this is, you know what this really is? This is a bunch of people that don't count. 
This is a bunch of people with miserable, meaningless lives who are lying to themselves; trying to tell themselves that they matter. So you had Mr. Big Factory Owner who is Mr. Big Business Guy and Mr. Wealthy in their view. 
"Well, he didn't do it on his own! He couldn'ta done it without all of us. We built the roads and we built the regulations. We built the stoplights, and we built the trains!" Yeah? Well, if you did all that, how come you're sitting there with nothing? If you made it all happen, how come you've got nothing? "Well, the rich business guy stole it from me! We're the ones that actually made it all happen." 
This is such a crock. 
This is a bunch of meaningless people (who know that their lives don't account for anything) trying to matter, and coming up with this ridiculous philosophy that says, "Successful people have not done it on their own. Successful people only exist because of the nameless, faceless, real, true hard workers." You know, before Marx there was no such thing as class-driven economics. If that guy had been aborted, we'd have a whole different world today. 
--Rush Limbaugh, July 16, 2012 show
Language is violence. Language can incite physical violence and murder. Language can inflict pyschic violence as well. Language can also be used to demean whole groups of people such that their citizenship is called into question as their human value is marginalized.

Of course, we have seen this dynamic at work in genocides around the world. We also saw this same mobilization of language in order to legitimate America's policy of "Manifest Destiny," enslavement of blacks, exploitation of other people of color (both domestically and internationally) in the service of empire, and abuse of the working classes and the poor.

In an earlier post on the sociopathy of Mitt Romney and the Ayn Randian logic of the Tea Party GOP, I alluded to how I never would have imagined that I would live in an era where eliminationist rhetoric has become so apologetically central in our political discourse. It is now common place for Conservatives to talk about "surplus" human beings, and the poor and working classes (and in some cases the middle class), as "parasites." 

For example, Rush Limbaugh, White-wing hate bloviator doubled down on his eliminationist rhetoric yesterday when he suggested that people who are not rich industrialists or financiers are in fact "losers" who never contributed anything to American society. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, in discussing Barack Obama's granting the states more latitude regarding how they dispense federal welfare funds, characterized those millions of Americans in need of public assistance during the Great Depression 2.0 as cockroaches. 

[Random observation, I thought conservatives were all for States' Rights? Riddle me that one...]

Language does political work. It helps to create a type of common sense which naturalizes certain policies. Language shapes public opinion by introducing ideas and concepts which citizens internalize and respond to. Public opinion is a barometer of the public mood; political elites (which includes the media) have a great deal of power over how it is shaped. The manipulation of language through the repetition of certain concepts is integral to all of these dynamics, as it establishes a narrative frame which shapes the nation's political agenda.

The Right's eliminationist language is being used by its agents towards an end goal. It is not floating out there in the social ether, harmless, neutral, and benign. Branding people as cockroaches, non-productive, parasites, who should in turn submit to the "job creators," has been extensively refined, workshopped, and focused grouped. It is not a coincidence that more and more of this rhetoric is being offered up by the Right as the 2012 Presidential campaign moves forward. 

It is a given that the Right wants to eviscerate the social safety net and radically alter the social compact between citizens and their government. However, they can accomplish this goal without using the language of genocide. Why then has the Right and its pundit classes made such a choice? 

These questions are a serious matter.

I am going to start a running feature where I list all of the instances of eliminationist and genocidal language used by the Republican Party and its operatives going forward. I am afraid of what we will discover, but I am compelled nonetheless. 

Moreover, there is a power to metrics here, of presenting a running count with examples and context for these eliminationist appeals. The patterns will tell us a great deal about the themes Right-wing opinion leaders are using to shape their public's mood. When this language starts to bear fruit either in a shifting in public attitudes, or violence (which the hate talkers will deny they have any connection to), we will have a document that points out how this all came to fruition.

As you come across Right-wing eliminationist hate speech by Tea Party GOP candidates, officials, and their media elites, please send me an email so I can keep our list up to date.

The Source Magazine's Most Ironic Moment? The 50 Greatest Hip Hop Lyricists for an Era When Lyricism in Commercial Hip Hop is Dead

I am in a pop culture mood this week given that the finale in Nolan's Batman Trilogy is coming out Friday. I am swollen and heavy, prepared for an epic geekgasm come Thursday at midnight!

I am a member of the hip hop generation. I remember walking down Michigan Avenue one evening and a brother about my age was hustling his CDs to passersby. He asked me if I loved hip hop. I replied that I still love hip hop, but hip hop doesn't love me anymore. 

This does not mean that hip hop has not given me so very much. She has bestowed many opportunities upon me. But, I worry that we have failed her, and by implication the younger heads simply do not know any better because those of us with wisdom have not passed it down...and they, like young folks of every generation, are especially resistant hearing from us "old" heads.

Of course, we age out of youth culture. Such is life. But, and I have said this many times in classrooms, workshops, and at conferences, hip hop--commercial hip hop in particular--is in crisis because 1) we have grown ass men in their 30s and 40s making music for people with the intellectual capacity of 12 year olds; and 2) that mediocrity and low hanging fruit have become the norm and standard for greatness in the craft. 

For folks who grew up in an era when excellence in flow and lyricism actually mattered in how the public appraised and judged an MC's ability, to hear the assorted Two Chainz, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka nonsense that has become the norm for commercial hip hop is truly depressing. 

For folks of my generation, we could never imagine or dream that any of us could be as good as Rakim, B.I.G., Pac, KRS-ONE, Redman, or Big L. Even more frightening and shocking is that you heard all of those titans on commercial radio. 

Now the heroes are far closer to the public; the music is more democratized. Perhaps it is a personal quirk, but I do not want to be able to stare eye to eye with my gods and idols as equals. It would appear that many do not share this guiding principle as they wallow in the mud of nasty, uncritical populism. As such, this explains a great deal about the state of American political and social life, a moment when mediocrity has been elevated to greatness.

The much (fairly) maligned Source Magazine has offered up its list of the 50 greatest lyricists of all time. I was surprised that while they catered to current trends by including Rick Ross and Lil Wayne on the list, there was not much there to disagree with. 

My only interventions would be that Raekwon and Ghostface are obvious omissions bordering on the criminal. Where is AZ? Ludacris is a beast. Why is he so low? How did Lauryn Hill, who is a glorified RnB singer, even make the list? What about Phife Dog? I do like their ranking of Pac. He had a great deal of heart, and was a great MC, but not the greatest of all time as many would want to anoint him. 

And this may be sacrilege to some, but 50 Cent should be much higher, as he is the synthesis and refinement of a model for the prototypical commercial MC which was offered up many years ago. And frankly, there is no way that Bun B, Fabolous, or Queen Latifah are "more lyrical" MCs than 50 Cent.

How would you (re)rank this list?

Monday, July 16, 2012

White Like Mitt Romney?

I am going to let you in on a big secret. Mitt Romney is white. In certain political circles we are not allowed to talk about such an obvious thing. Conservatives and the Right-wing media also tend to get upset when the American people talk about the fact that Mitt Romney is a white man. Apparently, to do so is to commit an act of “reverse racism”—and we all know that in the Age of Obama there is no greater sin.

I have a second secret that may surprise you as well: I do not care one bit if Mitt Romney is a white man.

Why? Because his racial background means little in the context of the many challenges facing America in the time of the Great Recession. However, this does not mean that Mitt Romney’s particular type of whiteness is unimportant to either his political worldview or his chances of becoming the next President of the United States.

Race still matters despite the “colorblind” rhetoric of the post-civil rights era: it impacts life chances, job opportunities, health care, income, and wealth. Race is also a type of common sense that helps orient people in relation to the world around them. Here, racial identity, while not as fixed as it once was because the color line has evolved over time, influences the neighborhoods in which we live, who we marry and socialize with, our country’s politics, and the types of privileges (unearned or not) that individuals enjoy in this country.

Mitt Romney’s identity as a rich, white, heterosexual man is integral to his political brand. It also explains much of his appeal for conservative voters. This is especially crucial given that since the 1960s, the GOP has effectively become a de facto white political party. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Final Thought on that NAACP "Free Stuff" Speech: Could Mitt Romney be a Sociopath?

That set of facts alone made the “free stuff” speech shockingly offensive. But the problem isn’t just that Romney’s wrong, and a hypocrite, and cynically furthering dangerous and irresponsible stereotypes in order to advance some harebrained electoral ploy involving white conservative voters. What makes it gross is the way he did it. 
Romney can’t even be mean with any honesty. Even when he’s pandering to viciousness, ignorance and racism, it comes across like a scaly calculation. A guy who feels like he has to take a dump on the N.A.A.C.P. in Houston in order to connect with frustrated white yahoos everywhere else is a guy who has absolutely no social instincts at all... 
Most presidents have something under the hood – wit, warmth, approachability, something... 
But Romney doesn’t buzz with anything. His vision of humanity is just a million tons of meat floating around in a sea of base calculations. He’s like a teenager who stays up all night thinking of a way to impress the prom queen, and what he comes up with is kicking a kid in a wheelchair. Instincts like those are probably what made him a great leveraged buyout specialist, but in a public figure? Man, is he a disaster. It’s really incredible theater, watching the Republicans talk themselves into this guy.
Matt Taibbi's observations about Mitt Romney's NAACP speech (and its aftermath) are spot on. As I suggested here, Romney's insincere ploy at bridge-building with African Americans was really an effort to put them "back in their place" by signaling to the GOP base that as President he would not encourage our "parasitic" and "welfare queen" like behavior. This is ugly race baiting of the first order; it is also masterful political strategy.

Taibbi also picks up on how Romney's speech is part of a broader pattern of behavior. Mitt Romney is a bully. As such, he is the perfect candidate for a party of bullies. But, could Mitt Romney also be sociopathic?

This is a bold claim; but given Mitt Romney's behavior, it demands more than a flippant dismissal.

When the public thinks of sociopaths they envision a psychotic killer or mass murder. These are outliers who are more caricatures/ideal typical cases than the rule.

Frighteningly, sociopaths are apparently quite common in American society where they constitute at least 4 percent of the population. They are characterized by a lack of empathy, an inability to form deep and meaningful interpersonal relationships, coldness, and flat affect. In total, the sociopath is marked by a lack of conscience.

They can feign and perform emotional reactions like an actor or actress following a script. However, they do not feel emotions in the same way as "normal" people. In certain professions and trades an amount of sociopathic behavior can actually be an advantage--the world of business, the highest levels of government, and elite military units for example. Robber baron gangster capitalists such as Mitt Romney would certainly find a lack of (or even inhibited) conscience a great aid towards their success.

Ultimately, sociopaths view human beings as chess pieces to be moved and manipulated towards their own personal ends. Here, the following observation as offered in The Sociopath Next Door is both provocative and insightful:
About one in twenty-five individuals are sociopathic, meaning, essentially, that they do not have a conscience. It is not that this group fails to grasp the difference between good and bad; it is that the distinction fails to limit their behavior. The intellectual difference between right and wrong does not bring on the emotional sirens and flashing blue lights, or the fear of God, that it does for the rest of us. 
Without the slightest blip of guilt or remorse, one in twenty-five people can do anything at all...We are not commonly aware of, nor do we usually identify, the larger number of nonviolent sociopaths among us, people who often are not blatant lawbreakers, and against whom our formal legal system provides little defense 
Most of us would not imagine any correspondence between conceiving of ethnic genocide and, say, guiltlessly lying to one's boss about a coworker. But the psychological correspondence is not only there; it is chilling. Simple and profound, the link is the absence of the inner mechanism that beats up on us, emotionally speaking when we make a choice we view as immoral, unethical, neglectful, or selfish...Those who have no conscience at all are a group unto themselves, whether they be homicidal tyrants or merely ruthless military snipers. 
Does this group include Mitt Romney?