Thursday, October 27, 2011

Red Down Below: The Place of Indians in Black/White Dialogue

Preface: It appears that being swamped with work doesn't mean I blog less often, it means I blog more often in shorter bursts. Who knew?

In Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize Winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he condenses US history in this bit of poetry that forms the song's refrain and gives the work its title:

Blood on the fields
King Cotton grow
Brown soil yields
White up above
Red down below
A depiction of cotton-pickers in Texas. Source unknown. .

Marsalis produces a chilling portrait of the entangled violence and forced labor production that made the US a financially independent nation. In Marsalis's words, a shadowy, unknown force wields the whip and attacks black women's bodies: the blood is already on the fields. If we were to personify these metaphors, it would seem as if the brown soil of black female bodies is giving birth to cotton instead of children. In the lyrics that precede the refrain I quoted, we can see black hands (male and female) "picking, hoeing, feeding, and seeding." In this imagery, enslaved African America births a white supremacist nation ("white up above").

But what of this racial hierachy: white above, red at the absolute bottom with a layer of brown soil between? Black workers and mothers are dramatically present, while the presence of white masters and overseers can be inferred. Indians, however, are already disappeared. While Marsalis's oratorio begins with a wordless chant "To call the Indians out" -- the only place of the so-called "red" people in Blood on the Fields would seem to be in a past that runs quite literally underground: "Red down below." Any blood on the fields would have to be that of tortured African Americans; North America's indigenous peoples are not onstage in this racial conflict, their presence is subterranean, subtextual.

Marsalis's poetic history forms an interesting contrast with Dessalines, the revolutionary general and former slave who is said to have had this reflection on the achievement of Haitian independence from France in 1805:
We have avenged these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country. I have avenged America.
Bucking Columbus's insistence that flesh-eaters were around every corner when he landed at Hispaniola--Dessalines insists that Europeans who decimated and enslaved were cannibalistic in their use of other human beings. But, in reviving the first inhabitants' name for the island, calling the new "black Republic" by the Arawak name of Haiti, was he asserting kinship with an injured but still present people? Or was he promising that blacks would carry on in the name of a cruelly extinguished Amerindian population? In other words, was Dessalines trying to make political connections in the present, or was he lending luster to the first black postcolonial nation through association with the nobility of a vanquished people?

I ask these questions about black uses of the Indian past to open up another question related to a particular conversational habit I've encountered. You might say it's a move akin to that made by whites who would prefer to "talk about class" than about race. Where I posed some pretty stiff rebuttals to that false substitution, I have to say, this one leaves me genuinely perplexed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

If David Brooks Dislikes It...

then it is probably the path you should take.

In his most recent column, David Brooks suggests President Obama should reverse his recent more combative turn and make (more) conciliatory gestures toward Republicans. I think the only reason Mr. Brooks would advise that President Obama's attempts to uphold some Left values (such as increasing the real share--and not just the symbolic/patriotic one--that citizens share in the nation) is "suicide" is because such a strategy will work. Brooks pretends sweet reasonableness when he is actually a partisan unafraid of bending the truth to make his arguments (see his very intentional misquotation of Justice Sotomayor during her confirmation hearings. Attention, Mr. Brooks: "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life," is absolutely not equivalent to "a wise Latina woman would make better decisions than a white male." The first is a wish; the latter is a statement of fact. And you knew that when you misquoted it).

I have no problem with Brooks's partisanship. I have a problem with his feigned moderation, his pretense toward a (pseudo)scientific objectivity (with all his nonpartisan articles on individual and social psychology). This is not to mention his insistence that his position is always coincident with that of the American people. Now, that's a game I'm sick of from both parties. I could stand for everyone to stop saying "the American people want" or "the American people don't want." How about some truth?: "I believe this is the best course of action because it will have these effects." Or: "I think this is the right thing to do for these reasons." Or, even: "I think this is the right thing to do because it fits these core national values -- or, even better, because it furthers the cause of human rights." 

I know these latter words are not perfect, but at least they offer the possibility for a persuasive argument. We are stuck in an argument about who the American people are. When, in fact, the argument should be over what actions and policies are just and humane. David Brooks contributes very little to that debate. And President Obama's insistence that Congress pass a jobs bill is, finally, a turn in the right direction because it is framed as a question regarding the right thing to do, the responsibility of government to its people. Conservatives can disagree, and I hope they do. But the ensuing debate could be about persuading Americans to go in one direction or another, instead of politicians and pundits claiming (ad nauseam) that the direction they advocate is already what all Americans want.

So... (as a follow-up to my last piece), I suppose we'll see if our black President can represent the working-class underdogs our nation typically imagines as white and move our government to do something to help their plight. (It's too much to hope he'll address the ways that race affects class, so I won't).

Friday, October 21, 2011

Great Expectations, Frustrated: or The White Face of "Class Diversity"

Dear Readers:

Posts will be fewer and farther between for another month or so as I venture into the job market incognegro. That's right: your friendly blackademic is applying primarily for jobs that are not marked "colored only." This is not an entirely conscious choice; this year, there are few positions in African-American Literature or History before 1865. And, though I have a chapter that deals with Cherokee audiences of Shakespeare, I am not a specialist in Native American history and culture.

However, there are Shakespeare, Early American Literature, and 18th Century British Literature positions galore. I have always wanted for the consideration of those forces that shape the distribution of property and pleasure (race, gender, and sexuality among them) to be central to academic study rather than peripheral and subordinate. We shall see if my applications--which speak to those areas but do not announce where I sit in them--are appealing.

Have we come a long way, baby? Would my being hired without announcing my blackness be a sign of postracial utopia? Or does the success of critical race approaches in the academy have unintended negative consequences? Often, minority scholars celebrate not having to study their own identity group as progress. But the more meaningful victory, I think, will be when such study is neither disallowed nor deemed mere partisan advocacy, a dead-end avenue that never opens onto the "big issues."

This thought brings me to the language of class, in its Marxist and populist incarnations--both of which have been reactivated by Occupy Wall Street and its galvanizing slogan, We are the 99%. Two caveats before I begin: first, I am tremendously supportive of the OWS protest. Their courage to be there and to stay give me hope that a new social contract might be negotiated. What I say below is an attempt to help provide a different way of looking at the old "identity politics is tearing our movement apart" conundrum. My second caveat relates to that: this is an early draft, a work in progress that I will continue to edit and revise.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Race and Masculinity, Sports and Swagger -- Second Thoughts after Justin Timberlake

One day I was watching C-Span's Book TV. Toni Morrison was speaking to a room of librarians. She read from the first pages of her then-new novel, Love. When she finished, she closed her portfolio and said: "This is from the new novel, Love, which--as you can tell--is perfect."

I hollered.

The combination of audacious pride and irony tickles me to this day. But if I like pride and audacity, why was I so repulsed by Punk'd and then, again, by Timberfake's and Fallon's History of Hip-Hop (the topic of last week's thoughts on the Timberlake phenomenon) ? Why do I find it ok for the senior black diva to show this arrogance and not the junior white boy?

Well, to start, I'd have to say I consider the artist's back story. I know that Morrison didn't just waltz into her position in national (not to mention global) arts and letters. Her success came relatively late in life -- she was nearly 40 when her first novel was published. The acclaim for her work was not immediate and universal. She paid dues. And, to this day, some cultural critics take it as a badge of honor to despise her writing.† So, I like her for the same reason I like the way Navratilova and Boris Becker played tennis. (Schiavone has the mantle now). I admire people for whom it doesn't come easily, but who persist and excel nonetheless. I admire people who take a risk and leave it all on the court (or on the stage). Conversely, I also admire those--like Morrison and Roger Federer--who can produce magic, seemingly at will, yet have a humility about it, even if slyly expressed.*

But the obligation to work hard and the freedom to express self-satisfaction often get distributed unevenly in a race-and-gender matrix--especially in an economy that sells us fantasies of race- and gender-specific properties (see: the Jersey Shore, or, actually, nearly any reality show where there is no task at hand). So, in the interest of taking a risk of my own, I am going to step down from my academic pedestal and try to explore the roots of my contradictory distaste for white braggadocio and admiration of the diva mode... but through autobiographical rather than sociological means. Of course, I don't think that social and historical forces can be taken out of the picture, but those can be delivered via pronouncement or implied in a narrative. I'm going to try the latter as an experiment.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Meet the New Dad, Same as the Old (Deadbeat) Dad: Justin Timberlake Pt. 1

In a previous post, I talked about the unexpected trouble caused by the success of African-American Studies (broadly) and black feminism specifically. It's a common story about subnational cultures or youth subcultures. When the underground comes above-ground, more often than not, the community that nurtured the art when no one else respected it suddenly finds that the fruit of their unassisted labor-- newly popular and profitable--is claimed as common property.

Some of you are old enough to recall (and others should avail themselves and look into) the bad old days in the history of hip-hop. Once, MTV wouldn't touch the stuff. Then they played it on a restricted hour on a Saturday night on a show called Yo! MTV Raps. From those marginal beginnings, hiphop has replaced rock as the sound of the US, exported to the world. Well, this is the way of things. And it is certainly a kind of success.

But then there's the moment when you turn on the TV, and Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon are performing a "history of rap." They aren't apologizing. They know the songs and they're doing it. Am I just jaded and paranoid for noticing the Roots, the all-black back-up band whose musical talent underwrites the white boys messing around up front? Does anyone listen to what The Roots actually play behind them, or is it just assumed that, since they are the black back-up band and they sound fine that they must also sound good (enough)?

What did I want from Fallon or JT? Certainly not a disclaimer: We apologize for being white and performing these songs. That would have been ridiculous. Yet, some other things stuck out to me--and this, with only one viewing. The one song they referenced by a white rapper was cut extremely short. They just gave us the Alright stop of "Ice, Ice Baby." What's the message there? That one of the first rap songs to hit #1 on the Billboard charts did not deserve to be performed? (Ice's single and album went to #1 on Billboard's pop charts, the first double-whammy in the genre's history. Well, I suppose if I can root irrationally for the Williams sisters and any black contestant on Jeopardy, white people can go nuts for white rappers in a black-invented and -dominated genre).

Timberlake's and Fallon's refusal to sing the lyric said to me that "Ice, Ice Baby" was simply too uncool to perform. But isn't part of its uncoolness that Vanilla Ice's roots in the vanilla suburbs were exposed? So isn't part of what is happening when Fallon and JT do not deign to perform it a refusal to inhabit the illegitimate white rapper position? It seems to me that this moment establishes distance from the old white person who couldn't hang. We are the new white party boys, it says. And we don't even need your permission to be in black cultural territory, because we've moved the hood to a sound studio at 30 Rock and hired you to bring the funk to us.

In the end, I just want good art. I love Michael McDonald's soulful singing; I agree with New Yorker film critic David Denby that the best black actors clamor to get in John Sayles' movies because he writes such amazing parts for them. I think John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is among the very smartest, most beautiful narratives of race, class, and sex in our literature. So it's hard for me to put my finger on what makes me defensive when it comes to Timberfake (now that he's off Saturday Night Live, I quite like Jimmy Fallon). I suppose it is that with the artists I enjoy, I sense they are hard-working and humble, and this combination wins them amazing, uncommon insight. They don't think they already have black culture down (hell, I been black for thirty-three years and I still don't have it down).†

Milan Kundera once wrote that love is a continual interrogation of the other. I take this to mean that when you have no more questions, you have fallen out of love -- the opposite of love being indifference (or dis-interest, as it were). So the white artists that I enjoy are those who show a continued curiosity about the black thing, the way it may overlap with their experiences and, right at the moment of identicality, breaks off again... only to return, at the moment of extremest difference, to another point of convergence. This is our shared history in this country. Its inequalities are not simply dissolved through the arrival or acknowledgement of the multiracial. To reverse a point made by Mahmood Mamdani, even if cultural identities are cumulative, political identities tend to be singular. In other words, bilingualism, mixed-parentage, and cosmopolitanism do you little good when the person sitting in judgment of your job application or your court case has one of those switches flipped. You become citizen or illegal, man or freak, Israeli or Palestinian, family man or sexual predator, and your fate proceeds accordingly until the next reading.

But it is a bit strange, now, after channeling culture, geography, and money along racial lines for centuries to suddenly declare that your black blues ain't so black after all. I find myself hearing things like That's not black: it's Southern--as if something couldn't be both. As if black is exclusionary in the ways that white was. Hell, as a discard category, black has had far less capacity to reject what gets thrown into it. The real estate (and symbolic space) of blackness has not been typically been sealed by restrictive covenants. Speaking generally we have been obliged to take in all shades and all kinds--those who wanted to be with us, and those who were banished and had nowhere else to go.

But the fact that white American culture is hybrid is the result, it would seem, either of intentional appropriation or of minority influences that had to overcome white indifference or dismissal. Claiming, then, that black cultural production is hybrid is an entirely different enterprise--one that comes perilously close to staking a claim to the very baby you once dropped at the side of the road and left to fend for itself. To the extent that white America has been a deadbeat Dad to black America (to borrow from Hortense Spillers' "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe"), white scholars and cultural producers might tread lightly when returning to embrace the children, all grown up with no help from Dad. A rapprochement can happen, but it takes time and effort.  The claim of genetic similarity will not be enough, just as the knowledge that we've all been here together on this continent as one (un)happy family has not been enough.

 --- In one week, Part Two -- "Sports and Swagger"

† Guare, for example, builds an enormously moving story out of a simple dilemma for the white female protagonist. This gay black hustler comes into their lives, after having memorized the connections of Manhattan's social circles and learned an amazing amount of art and literary history. She decides, at his request, to take him in, to teach him the family business. Her children want nothing to do with her, but this kid wants in. After he is arrested by the police on nebulous charges, he disappears into the prison system. She tries to find him but realizes, sadly, "We weren't family. We didn't know Paul's name." This person who knew her, loved her, touched her life and invaded her dreams was gone to her forever, as if he'd never been there at all. It's this loss, and the desire to prevent it, that sparks a massive change in her life. Guare was smart enough not to pretend that we get a complete passport into someone else's community--or even into their individual psyche. But we get the possibility to work on it, to turn it  over and over like the film famous Kandinsky canvas in the film, painted on both sides.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Recently, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Jennifer Boylan which contended that trans people always come last when it comes to LGBT rights. The article participates in a longer discussion that I can't recapitulate here. Suffice it to say, that conversation is about the use of gender normativity to grease the wheels of gay and lesbian assimilation into middle America -- only faintly tomboyish women marrying each other, while muscled, still-manly men do the same. Since trans people can't be gender normative, their struggles are necessarily marginalized when campaigns for gay equality emphasize gender normativity. Many indignant commenters insist that gays and lesbians cannot be opposed to trans people, that only the straight majority can do that. Unfortunately, that's just not the case, as people opposed on one topic can share ideas on another. I like to think of such partners as strange bedfellows, indeed.

This article and the resulting backlash prompted me to think about my own travels, relocations that often transformed my way of thinking about gender and sexuality. With that, here is "Translocations."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

When Police Are the Anarchists

When in grad school, I taught an SAT prep class to keep afloat financially. I remember going over some of Greek and Latin roots of words to help my students (mostly Korean, nonnative speakers) get better access to meanings. Drifting away from the pure rote memorization the program demanded, I instigated a discussion about "anarchy" -- a word that literally means "without a chief or head" but has also come to mean tumultuous disorder. Why, I asked them, does the absence of a ruling authority immediately convert into a picture of violent chaos? And what constituency was behind the drive to fuse the literal meaning (no leader) and the figurative meaning (orgiastic riot)?

If I were willing to lose that job, I would have sermonized about contradictions on the political right. They have a libertarian streak that says with less government, citizens would actually be more virtuous. Hence, businesses and property owners should be free to engage in any contractual activity they like (besides, of course, same-sex marriage contracts). However, at the same time, they support "tough on crime" policies against people whom they pre-emptively define out of the category of citizens. Those people, apparently--those poor people, the ones that are immigrants, or don't speak English, or those criminals who don't wear business suits--are inherently immoral.Ω  The story goes that the police are the only protection from the anarchy that these people aim--every moment of their lives--to impose. Therefore, the absence of police automatically means that chaos and disorder are rampant.

I find myself thinking of these slides (from libertarian to authoritarian styles, from the absence of a leader to the absence of social cohesion) with the guilty verdict handed down in the case of New Orleans officers convicted of shooting six citizens (and killing two) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I remember being furious with the stories that were coming out--not only from the 24-hour speculation channels but also from "old media" like the august New York Times: babies being raped in the Superdome, a gang of 400 armed black people crossing a bridge to loot, deranged black people shooting at military helicopters.

Anyone who has reflected on being targeted by police knew immediately that all of this was sheer nonsense.  We didn't need the later articles retracting the reports. The reason? We never believed black people (the poor ones who haven't made it into the middle class) are so savage that the instant the police presence is suspended they'd do every manner of evil--hell, improvise new types of evil like it was a jazz solo or a freestyle rap. We were smarter than that. But, unfortunately, law and order/tough on crime talk has been so effective that even people in targeted groups repeat it. When the police cat is away, the negroes unleash anarchy.

•People displaced by the storm provided some of the sensationalized stories. Perhaps they thought heightening the amount of danger they were in would get them help. After all, the hurricane and flood were not enough to arouse many people's charity for those people.

• Police Superintendent Edwin Compass offered "babies getting raped" on Oprah. To be clear, he's black. But his skin color helps prove my point about the success of "law and order" talk. Being black doesn't make one immune from parroting that discourse. In fact, he might have felt he had to master it to rise in the ranks of the police department. By being so fully indoctrinated in police thinking, he is as fluent in "those people are animals" as anyone else and clearly believed that a "thin blue line" separated good law-abiding folks from near-animals waiting to be uncaged.

• Tiger Woods said (I'll never forget this and he's unlikely to ask for forgiveness for it):
"It's just unbelievable. Not only the devastation, but how people are behaving, with the shootings and now with the gang rapes and the gang violence and shooting at helicopters who are trying to help people out, trying to rescue people, I just don't understand that whole concept. You figure if anything, they would all come together and try to help one another out, but they are doing the exact opposite. From that standpoint, I just can't see how the community is doing that to themselves."
Doing that to themselves?!?!  Two words on the broken levee ("the devastation") and then sentence upon sentence of paranoid fantasies of Negroes Gone Wild: Hurricane Edition?!?! Better, I think, for Mr. Woods to have remained silent.

How much of those nightmares turned out to be true in the light of day? Well, no 7-year old was found raped and with her throat slit--much less a whole group of babies.† And considering that the National guard was sent to New Orleans with guns before water or medical supplies arrived, how would a citizen know whether a helicopter was being sent to help them or kill them? If you thought the latter, you had good reason and may well have shot at a plane.  Or maybe the shot was fired in an attempt to get attention to be rescued--or even arrested. The accommodations in prison beat dying of thirst on your roof, I'm sure.

The point is that the presumption that it must have been lawless, looting, gang-raping, gang-banging insanity is the least likely explanation. After all, these were people who had no food, no water, no medication. They were unsure of where their loved ones were and if they were alive, unsure of whether or not they would have homes to go back to. What person, in the midst of that, decides to rape a baby--much less participate in a gang-rape of a baby? Can you imagine the unfortunate victims of any of the tsunamis being described this way? Or the tornados that ripped through the Midwest this year? I can't. Those New Orleans blacks must be super-negroes, because even without food and water, they can still commit unimaginably, heinous crimes. So why send food and water?

And that conclusion, dear readers, is the reason for this whole law and order/tough on crime mantra. It's not meant for unique cases like Katrina. It is meant to paint a general portrait of a certain segment of the population in effect at all times. It doesn't need proof. It already predicts this behavior because it knows those people.

So, let's be clear: Katrina didn't unleash black anarchy, it unleashed the authoritarian imagination--the same imagination that confuses the absence of an uninhibited police force with an anti-social paradise for crime. (More on the "liberal media's" participation in paranoid racial fantasies below...)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Queer Auntie for the Straight Black Family: A quick follow-up on Tyler Perry

For AJC and DLM

It has often been said that Tyler Perry's films are homophobic. But what if that's not the case?

Could it be that Tyler Perry is trying to find the oddly gendered person a stable and necessary place in the "family" that is the black race? We know that some families beat, disown, or try to correct gender-inappropriate family members. Could Perry really be saying that his wild, transvestite character Madea--warts and all--is actually the most important aspect of her extended family, even if she does not have a hetero/nuclear family of her own? Could this actually be a blow in favor of new family formations, instead of the insipid, worn-out, impossible gender oppositions his films claim to sell?

Certainly this is the effect of the films. Whether Perry knows that this is what he has done, I'm not sure. And, even if he does, the cost is high: Madea gets to stay in the family, it seems, because of her perpetual offer of service to help them meet their hetero dreams. It's not clear what she gets out of it... any more than I could ever figure out what the guys on _Queer Eye_ got out of being straight guys' fairy godmothers... or what Lisa Turtle (yes, I went there!) got out of being everyone's matchmaking confidante on _Saved by the Bell_ .(For those of you who are too young to get the reference, take lonely Mercedes from _Glee_, subtract her singing voice and about 80 lbs, and you've got Lisa).

Apparently, it easier to imagine all these black feminine figures as lacking desire -- the more so that they can help you get what you want. Or, put another way, their only desire is that you get what you desire. It's a beautiful fantasy for the one getting. But it seems a bad trade for the person giving: you won't banish or annihilate me as long as I promise to spend all my time helping you get what you want. Umm, ok. I guess that's the assimilation two-step. Glad to know who's leading that dance.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Madea Is Her own Baby's Daddy: Thoughts on Tyler Perry's latest

So, here's an unexpected confession: I didn't find Tyler Perry's latest (Madea's Big Happy Family) that bad at all. Up to this point, I had avoided all the Madea movies, thinking that his work with stronger actors would be better. Not so: his misuse of Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard (in the incoherent Family that Preys) and his utter failure to translate Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls were tear-out-my-hair infuriating.

The most recent Madea film (my first) was actually pretty pleasant.† I smiled often. I laughed a few times and seldom grimaced. I could see that some aspects of his film-making are improving. He seems to do a better job of mixing the genres that influenced him: the gospel stage-plays were present in his ad-libbing and prominent musical numbers; Eddie Murphy's Klumps clearly inspired Perry to attempt multiple characters, each requiring mounds of makeup and prosthetics; and the talk-show influence actually surfaced in the person of none other than Maury Povich. To top it off, Madea also briefly mentioned that Oprah doesn't want her to text and drive--a brief nod to Perry's real-life friend.

While typing that last sentence, I nearly wrote "him" for Madea. This impulse has nothing to do with wanting to make fun of transvestism by playing with pronouns. I want to account for the array of things that are out-of-place about this character. In a certain sense, Madea is well-acted. Perry is very credible in the role. I never get the sense that he is out of character, losing his accent or posture. Interestingly, he is equally consistent as an elderly male (Uncle Joe, if I recall). His only unconvincing performances are actually when he plays a fairly young, heterosexual male: in films like The Family that Preys... or when speaking as a young heterosexual male (i.e., himself) in interviews.

This film ends ** SPOILER ALERT ** with a trip to Maury Povich. Madea and Mr. Brown are there to find out the paternity of Madea's light-skinned adult child (whose name I forget). From what I could gather, Madea had only recently told her  daughter that Brown was the father. But, in this film, a trip to the hospital (first) and a full-on DNA test (on Povich) prove that this is not the case. I am sure the series will resolve it another way, but I would like to contend that Madea is her own baby's daddy.

I'm asking you to think of Madea as the "phallic mother." If I remember my Freud, the father of psychoanalysis said that the infant thinks of the mother as an all-sufficient figure. She provides both the nursing breast and physical protection (because she is so much larger than the baby). In that sense, she fulfills social duties that Freud's  Victorian contemporaries divided between men and women. As the story progresses, children age and discover that this phallic mother is umm--missing something. She has been castrated. To explain with a less hyperbolic metaphor, one could say that society typically does not authorize the mother to display aggression and lay down the law in the way that a father figure can. This proper white Victorian woman doesn't have balls. But Tyler Perry's Madea does.

Madea is part of a long line of black female characters who take on both roles. In the infamous Moynihan Report, this strong black matriarch was considered The Problem with black American family structure. But in the Perry films, she seems to be the solution--or, at least, an instrument for rescuing the only version of stable families the films can imagine: two-parent, nuclear families, with a strong man at the helm and a submissive woman under him. But why is the instrument of correction--the one who is supposed to stabilize black families by creating respectful children, responsible fathers, and dutiful wives--why is this figure so gender (and age) inappropriate? And how can such a supposedly mis-gendered person bring about gender normalcy?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Discovering Inhabited Lands: Black Studies Becomes Everybody's Business

In honor of Ann duCille's "The Occult of True Black Womanhood," I offer an article-in-progress that, like hers, was "difficult to write and...will be, for some, a difficult article to read."

The trend of turning African-American intellectuals' work into a straw man seems to be gaining currency among scholars these days. In an earlier post, I discussed David Reynolds's admonition that black people should re-read Uncle Tom's Cabin and return to the style of nonviolent resistance that Stowe champions. I still am unsure what good this would accomplish, except returning his favorite writers and heroes to popular favor and, perhaps, rendering some black people who scare him less frightening.

I could just as well have pointed to some black writers of the Anglophone Caribbean who disdain black Americans as culturally impoverished (Orlando Patterson), provincial (the Paul Gilroy of The Black Atlantic, Hilton Als), or even fascistic (the Paul Gilroy of Against Race).† I'm going to put that part to the side for now, because I'll have to find out more about this inter-diasporic beef. But I do want to turn my attention to some full-length scholarly works I feel more ready to comment upon.

In his Lying Up a Nation, ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano claims that there is no African-American music that isn't influenced by the overarching presence of white racism. His emphasis is on white transcriptions of black singing and how these early musicologists took interracial religious ceremonies and insinuated that black vocality was different. While Radano may be right that the literary records of what black music "is" are influenced by literate whites' preconceived notions of black difference, he is not therefore correct that all black musicians were perpetually looking over their shoulders wondering what white people thought while they made music. While he may think the feeling of black community is simply the collective delusion of people who want to escape the violence and amalgamation of life in the Americas, I would counter that the violence of racism is not all-determining. There are moments--however brief--in which the violent separatism of racism seems to fade away. Our thinking has to be able to account for those as well as the tenacious persistence of racism.

*[Addendum 8/1/11: As I mention below in the comments, Radano puts forward a "mulatto" thesis, arguing that American culture--on both sides of the color line is utterly entangled. This makes one of his text's strategies even stranger. The book is meant to overthrow the entirety of African-American scholarship on black music -- from the oral history of Bernice Johnson Reagon to the detailed musicological analysis of Samuel P. Floyd. His contentions: 1) There is no such thing as a black musical tradition, there is only sound that then gets classified within a racist discourse run (it seems) by whites. 2) African tradition also stopped in North America because drums were confiscated and all the enslaved had left were their voices. So the so-called continuity of the drum is an illusion, based on slaveholders' diaries.

Now, he is going against what every living black music scholar (academic or independent) believes. And that's fine. But then he has this strange tactic of using *dead* canonical black figures (such as DuBois and Hurston) to support his stance. Now, who is likely to be closer to DuBois's ideas: someone who went to Fisk, or a white academic who did not? So, it becomes very strange to hear him talk about what DuBois or Zora Neale Hurston "knew" -- and have their knowledge reflect perfectly what he believes today, rather than the beliefs of people who come from the places and institutions they helped found. And, besides, if black culture is a nonentity and all we have is hybrid, then why is none of the "tour guides" in Lying white? In an irreducibly mulatto culture, there should be dead white intellectuals who had as much insight into black music as the super-canonical black intellectuals he revises. 

To be clear, it's not the argument Radano makes that grates; it's the way he goes about making it.]

Eric Goldstein differs from Radano in that the black people who just don't get it in his The Price of Whiteness include the living and the dead. In addition, Goldstein's black people are not just mistaken, they actively perpetuate racial problems. When it isn't blaming African-Americans for controlling the US racial discourse to produce simplified notions of Jews as white, Price is an astute, wide-ranging history of the complex and regionally specific ways American Jews situated themselves as a race or in relation to the black/white paradigm of race. His discussion of American Jews' relationship to the category of race in the twentieth century is unparalleled, necessary, and nuanced. Yet, he couldn't allow the book to be that. Instead, he begins with a strange attack on James Baldwin for having a supposedly "simple" view of Jews' relation to whiteness. Yet, in a later chapter, he repeats, almost verbatim, Baldwin's claim that many Jewish shop owners were as charitable as they could be to black Harlemites considering the middleman status of Jewish merchants in the US's white-over-black economy. Still, Baldwin and every other black thinker Goldstein invokes signify unsophisticated thinking that Goldstein is there to correct. [Reynolds, too, attacked Baldwin who, to be sure, makes some errors in his interpretation of Tom, but makes a larger point that cannot be dismissed: namely, that the impossible goodness of some of Stowe's characters is as dehumanizing a portrayal of African-American men as is the standard fare of morons, sambos, and studs.]

It may not be politic to say this, but it appears that the result of integrated academic units, such as American Studies, is that everyone can have one chapter about race in her book, or speak with authority on topics that, for decades, no one with academic ambition would even touch. I am happy to have knowledgeable white colleagues and mentors, let me be clear. But the presumption of a sort of over-arching knowledge informed by a more objective position... this just seems like having the supposedly objective, disinterested, and even-handed whites take over fields that they had no hand in building (and that their predecessors actively stifled). 

This is not to say that every white scholar has to defer to scholars of color. We know you don't have to be one to study one: some of the most important advances in queer theory have come from women partnered with men--Eve Sedgwick and Madhavi Menon, to name two. So, by all means, welcome to the party. But a caveat: to deem that the field was unsophisticated and amateurish before you showed up is not an opening gesture likely to win friends and influence people. But, even more important, it is likely to weaken the scholar's own work with misunderstandings that could have been avoided by presuming that the the knowledge in place before he arrived (like Columbus on inhabited Hispaniola) issued from intelligence and not simply superstition and paranoia. 

It is also crucial to do some of the careful self-scrutiny that anthropology demanded: knowing who you are and what your interests and investments are might shed light on why you see the situation so much differently than "the natives" do. In that case, it might not be that they were gabbling Calibans who did not know their own meaning all along but that they fit differently into your universe. African-Americans have long been deemed partial or marginal, rendered vulnerable to being resituated within science, Christianity, liberalism, Marxism or some other European universal. Of course, since Af-Am Studies doesn't occupy the high ground of the universal, the gesture can't be reciprocated. 

In another future post, I want to think and talk about the ways that the pressure to distance ourselves from the alleged provinciality of Af-Am has affected my generation of African-American scholars.

† I am considering an essay about the reasons for this rivalry between black people coming from Britain's orbit and those from the US. 1) It seems that black immigrants to the US often receive the same message that their white counterparts did--specifically that the native-born African-American population is lazy slime that is beneath them. 2) I'm sure there are remnants and reconfigurations of black American nativism that appears in Harlem Renaissance novels--African-Americans directing insults and violence toward Caribbean and African immigrants they considered less civilized "monkeys." Perhaps #1 above is just a reversal of fortune. 3) My understanding is that Britain's commonwealth education system steeps students in the supposedly universal canon of dead white masters--Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Thackeray, Austen, et al. This might account for the occasional accusation that African-Americans are comparatively provincial, what with the pride and interest many take in African-American art. 4) There may also be a rivalry and jealousy because of the US's dominance in the cultural marketplace. Because most of the media companies with the widest distribution are here, US products go out while even an international star like Bob Marley had trouble getting his work in. This imbalance may have changed, but it still seems that to become an international superstar, internationals must pitch themselves to the US market, while US stars can become international stars by virtue of being American stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Seizing Difference or Having Difference Thrust Upon Him: President Obama and Democratic Strategy

For SC and NEP
I'm not an Obama hater, but this from Krugman was so startlingly true it made me laugh: "It looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions."
Since the early 1990s (at least), the Democratic leadership has had some success in stealing Republican initiatives and making them their own. For President Clinton, it was welfare reform. Currently, President Obama seems to be trying to take deficit reduction and spending cuts from the Tea Party. There's no doubting the political advantage to stealing an issue that has galvanized your opposition. However, snatching the rug out from under your opponents and making it your cape is not the only strategy. In fact, I would say it is best as a short-term strategy and what the Dems lack is a long-term one. Hence, they lost their majority in the blink of an eye. (Let's not forget, the Democrats--fractured though they were by region--controlled the Congress from the 1950s to the Gingrich-led revolution of 1992. Why do Congressional majorities shift so frequently now?)
Think back to 2004. Remember all the excitement around Howard Dean before the infamous post-primary press conference where he somehow mixed "Yeah," "Yee-haw," and "Ow" in an over-inflated show of optimism? The excitement Dean generated came from the clear alternative he offered to the sitting President--one who, we should remember, won the office by the narrowest of margins (and that's a generous interpretation). As the Democrats struggled to find a military candidate to steal President Bush's war mantle, they eventually settled on John Kerry. Most of us recall him--with some help from late-night television--as a dry and boring senator. However, what I would say was most boring about him was not his demeanor but his political unoriginality. 
I remember watching one of the debates and hearing Kerry say, repeatedly "President Bush is right..." or "I agree with the President..." My question, at that point, was simple: Then why should I vote for you to replace him? It's difficult enough to unseat an incumbent; drawing only faint contrasts can't improve the odds. (Kindly correct me if a candidate has ever taken an office by vowing to do the same things as an opponent who is still living).
Kerry's copycat strategy had appeared before in 2000 when candidate Gore said that he supports the death penalty despite the fact that its application is notoriously  in thrall to racist fear, the capacity to buy an excellent defense team, and judicial caprice.  Krugman's point above helps us to see the unnecessary "pre-emptive concessions" made by politicians who seem to have taken themselves hostage. It makes me laugh, but then it makes me want to tear my hair out.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rip Van Negro: From the Rock of Race to Postracial Sands

For Twunch.

I remember reading a Frank Rich op-ed in the New York Times, a year or so before he retired from that position. During the campaign of then-candidate Obama, Rich had written a few pieces about the social fault line of race, describing his own segregated childhood, surveying the current scene for improvements and regression, and offering insights about the significance of Obama's campaign and opposition to it. As I recall, his take was optimistic, as he insisted that those attempting to re-entrench white supremacy were on the losing side both demographically and in terms of shifts in public opinion. In response to his column, a young white mother wrote that he was harping on an issue that had died. Her children, she exulted, would be completely unaware of race as a way of identifying people. Rich, she explained, was one of the last of his kind. If he still thought in racial terms--even anti-racist terms--he was using terminology that was already antiquated and soon to become alien.

Although I have a number of retorts that I think disable her claim, it's still one that chilled me in a way I've never been able to shake. I'm thirty-three. Is it possible that the framework and vocabulary I have used to analyze the world are already outdated? Unlike Rip Van Winkle, I didn't sleep for twenty years. I was awake the whole time! During my childhood in the 1980s, the era in which we tried to become postracial by becoming colorblind, racism was not a force I could choose to notice or blissfully ignore. How could acknowledging the force of racial hierarchy become optional while I was awake?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Uncle Tom's Champion

The New York Times recently ran an appeal from a noted American Studies professor, CUNY's David S. Reynolds who wishes to rescue the term "Uncle Tom" from what he deems popular misuse. His quest strikes me as a foolhardy attempt to regulate popular meaning via academic authority. What makes this attempt more lamentable is that his premise appears to be a deliberate mischaracterization of the criticism of Stowe's novel. According to Reynolds, adaptations of Stowe's novel for the stage promulgated misinterpretation. These distortions, in Reynolds' view, left black militants of the 1960s with the misperception of Tom as "a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race." 

Reynolds' article could not have been better timed, appearing as it does in the wake of Grant Hill's lengthy insistence, in the pages of the same newspaper, that he was undeserving of the name of Uncle Tom bestowed on him by Jalen Rose. Were it not for the Rose/Hill affair and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (allegedly sparked by Stowe's novel), I find it hard to imagine the Times considering this op-ed timely. I do not begrudge Reynolds the press; this nod will surely increase his book sales, a very necessary thing in the book industry in general and in academic publishing more specifically.

However, I cannot say that I am looking forward to reading the book. In this op-ed, Reynolds tries to locate an original, pure and unsullied version of Uncle Tom--one independent of stage productions that supposedly bowdlerized the novel. Theater historian Loren Kruger notes that the first "anti-Stowe minstrel sketch" actually appeared before the serialized narrative was compiled in the book form we now know. Given this crossing--as well as the entanglement of Tom's illustrations with minstrel imagery on stage and in print--it seems inaccurate to posit an absolute distinction between the text and its stage iterations.

The distinction between the text (as Reynolds interprets it) and the stage history is crucial, because Reynolds imagines civil rights-era African-Americans' exceptions to the novel as rooted in a regrettable misunderstanding induced by the stage shows. Does Reynolds think himself the only person who ever decided to set aside popular representations of Tom to go back to Stowe's novel? He'd be sorely mistaken. From Richard Wright and James Baldwin to Hortense Spillers, many African-American intellectuals have carefully assessed the novel. Reynolds may disagree with their conclusions, but he may not use all of their work to make a straw man humming Yip Harburg's famous "If I Only Had a Brain." 

In vernacular usage since the Black Power movement, the accusation of Tomming certainly conjures an image of groveling and cowardice. Reynolds defense is that Tom was no coward, but a nonviolent resister in the tradition of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong, and Jackie Robinson. After all, he rightly notes, Tom refused to tell the whereabouts of runaways. For Reynolds, this is proof that Tom did not collaborate with slaveholders. 

However, this defense does not answer the primary charge Black Power advocates would have levied against Tom. For them, non-cooperation was not sufficient, nonviolence itself was suspect. Based on whites' participation in or indifference to anti-black terrorism, Black Power advocates doubted that hearts would be softened if black people endured suffering without retaliation. Tactically, they considered nonviolence a losing strategy in the face of concentrated, armed police efforts in every region of the country to contain antiracist protests by means of beating, killing, and incarceration. Reynolds' invocation of Tom's Christian forbearance does not answer the likely charges of Black Power advocates who  considered a self-defensive posture the only viable one in a country so committed to preserving its racial hierarchy. Ironically, while the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party found themselves confronted with major opposition from law enforcement, specifically--and from white America (more broadly)--their stance on the intelligence of armed self-defense mirrored the stance taken by American Patriots against occupying British forces two centuries earlier. But you won't hear any Tea Partiers talking about the intelligence of armed black self-defense any time soon.

Stowe's rejection of slave rebellion in favor of faith in God's deliverance has been a longstanding thread in black critics' dislike of the novel. To frame it otherwise is either a result of poor research or deliberate stacking of the deck against his opponents.

This is, it seems to me, one of the great dangers of academic publishing (or publicity-seeking). On the one hand, academics are often so steeped in a particular period and genre that our attempts to speak across specialties are vexed by massive gaps in expertise. Worse is that, with waning of academic influence (especially in the humanities), some scholars have taken more and more strident but (dare I say) preposterous positions about the value of their work to contemporary life. 

Reynolds' admonishing black people to re-read the novel, to respect Tom for his valor and Stowe for her contribution to ending slavery in the US, could not be of less contemporary relevance. What does reading this novel--and agreeing with his sanguine interpretation of it--have to do with closing the gaps in education and health outcomes? Based on the op-ed and Andrew Delbanco's subsequent generous review, it would appear that Reynolds is advocating a return to Tom's stoic, nonviolent, Christian resistance. That may very well be his preferred model for the transformation of racial hierarchy. I think it is reasonable to say that this model is not responsible, solely, for halting the momentum of white supremacist social structure. That is, moral awakening was not the sole cause of legislative actions prohibiting slavery and segregation. A widespread fear among whites of having their heads cut off in the night also played a small part. 

In the end, Reynolds seems to want support for an author and a character that he admires. Certainly, that's acceptable. But is the job of the literary critic or the cultural historian to advocate for an author? Even if this partiality is desirable (or, at least, inescapable), it is not a vital intervention in contemporary social life. A young black person who reads Stowe, encounters our shared history, and emerges with her own well-considered ideas about her past, present, and future is in far better shape than one who merely accepts Reynolds' static version of the story. As the saying goes, the best instructors help students learn how to think not what to think.

I recall my own experience as a high school sophomore with Huckleberry Finn. On the first day, the teacher told us we weren't to say "the N word" and that the book isn't racist. The idea that it might be was simply not to be entertained. Reynolds seems to be taking a similar position toward Stowe, and I can't say (based on what I've read thus far) that I feel sufficiently respected to engage his book or to re-engage Stowe's.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Faith and Reason, Treason and Blindness

When I was a child, I idolized two historical figures: Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman. I suppose that, even then, I was in awe of people who, despite their perceived insignificance, pursued what they thought was right in the face of deterrents and derogation. I was a skinny kid, and I admired these brave, unshakable women. So, it saddened me to see a political cartoon clothing Michelle Bachmann in the military armor of the maid from Lorraine. Perhaps, to artist Victor Juhasz, any figure claiming religious motivation is equally harmful. Perhaps, he would consider Tubman, the Moses of her people, no less a demagogic megalomaniac than the Congresswoman from Minnesota. I can't make myself accept that equivalence. (And, looking again, Juhasz does have Bachmann moving in the opposite direction of a God pointing her to the Left. She is too mesmerized by the Bible in her hand to heed the true instruction).

The theme of the accompanying Rolling Stone article is that when educated elites from the coasts laugh at Bachmann, they simply make her stronger. Although journalist Matt Taibbi does an excellent job documenting Bachmann's rise, he never offers any evidence for his primary thesis--namely, that her supporters like her not because they agree with her on specifics, but because they identify with her experience of being laughed at by haughty intellectuals. It would not have been difficult to substantiate this idea by visiting states where candidate Bachmann has appeared and asking Republican supporters what appeals to them about her. So, while Taibbi may certainly be correct, the article's central claim remains, at present, a tantalizing hypothesis.

However, this hypothesis leaves us with a conundrum. If laughing at Bachmann's misinformed statements and quixotic quests strengthens her prospects as a candidate, what are people opposed to her ideas and political vision to do? Are we supposed to patronize her, go easy because some people share her factually mistaken notions? That is, are we supposed to avoid being intellectual bullies to a political bully? I would think not. To pity them would be to fall prey to the same opportunistic thinking that suggests that Bachmann and Palin, by virtue of their sex, are automatically at a disadvantage in a conversation with any male. The Mama Grizzly, I think we all know, gets in more than a few swipes of her own claws, all the while protesting she's just a beset wife and mother. (On this matter, I'm with Chris Rock. I won't hit a woman who has hit me but I'll sure as hell shake her!)

Bachmann has also used her sex to her advantage. Take, for example, her confusion of past and present tense when claiming, ten years after her last child left the house, that she rushes home to cook for a large family every weekend. If the statement is untrue--and uttered merely to misrepresent herself as not a full-time politician but an everyday working mom--then why should political opponents not be able to call it out?

While silence can be an effective rope-a-dope move (see Obama's long silence and delicious victory in the Birther matter), it cannot be the only strategy--especially when your opponents have gained political power and implemented state and national policies that one thinks are wrongheaded and unjust.

After all, no one can say that Fox News (for example) goes easy on President Obama because, say, black people, Ivy League graduates, or immigrants identify closely with him. It does not seem reasonable for the Left, in the era of Fox News, to take a "go easy on em" stance. Besides, figures like Palin and Bachmann would continue to cite "lamestream" media bias against them even in its absence. Despite the fact that they are political bullies, they pretend (like abusive spouses) that they are the persecuted ones. God knows it is unbearably difficult to be a white Christian mother in these United States. The number of lynchings alone (committed, ostensibly, on their behalf) would keep me up at night.

So here's how the switcharoo plays out. Remember the Katie Couric interview with Palin? Certainly, Couric is not known as a hard-hitting Marxist critic. She's the same woman who (no lie) asked Condoleezza Rice if they could be girlfriends during a 60 Minutes interview. This moment is not part of the transcript here, but I recall it vividly from the broadcast. "You just seem like you'd be so much fun to be friends with," was the tenor of the gushing compliment. Is this a sleepover or an interview with the Secretary of State at a time of war?

So much for major network media selectively dragging conservative Christians through the mud. (It should not be forgotten that Rice, like the majority of the Bush administration, is an evangelical). What we're really dealing with, then, is a persecution complex. Palin still asserts that a journalist asking her what news sources she reads is playing "gotcha journalism" and exhibiting liberal bias against a beleaguered conservative. And this martyr complex travels: I recall sitting next to a very nice white woman from Tennessee who informed me that she loved Palin, who was then a candidate for the Vice Presidency. "Katie Couric has always been prejudiced against white people," she sniffed. Come again? So now we can just invent a whole archive of Katie Couric interviews bashing white people? I don't think you get to be "America's Sweetheart" by making it a habit of tearing down white people--and only white people--on television. I mean, she could have just said, "I don't think Katie Couric likes white people." But I guess that would have been somewhat close to what other English speakers mean when they use words to correspond to things in the world.

Now, according to Taibbi's article, I should not laugh at this woman (and I didn't, until the first time I told someone else the story and every time thereafter). But should I reason with her?

Cognitive social scientists say no. There may be some validity to this caution. People don't like to be wrong, especially in a public forum in which they can lose face -- and, yes, even a one-on-one conversation can be public, if you fear losing stature in the other person's eyes. Cognitive social scientists are putting forth the idea (not unfamiliar in post-structuralist literary theory) that reason is not an independent tool but a servant of the powerful. That is, whoever has the most social or institutional power can set the first principles that guide the subsequent discussion.

Elegant statements of logic, such as "if x, then y," all hinge on who gets to stipulate the if. "If God wanted gays to marry" is one sort of proposition. "If all citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law" is quite another. Where you reason from each of those is not solely up to your own free-ranging mind but, actually, somewhat prescribed by that all-important first stipulation.

As I think of how to confront political opponents like Bachmann, I find a serious challenge. Confronting them appears to be futile.

To borrow from philosopher Linda Alcoff, such confrontations are a battle between opposing modes of reasoning. The classical Greek model identified reasonable statements based on their content. If a lunatic said that the sky was blue on a clear day, then he (always he) was rational, no matter what process he used to get there. The model of Descartes was entirely different: the conclusion did not prove reasonableness; rationality was evident by the plausibility of the steps one took to get from assertion to assertion. Descartes might be seen as the originator of the idea that reasonable people can differ. The older, Platonic, version insists that all reasonable people must agree. Politicians of Bachmann's or Palin's kind, it appears to me, believe that certain conclusions are the only reasonable ones. If you conclude that environmental regulation is a necessary thing, then you must be wrong--no matter your reasons for coming to that conclusion. To differ (from them) is to be irrational, treasonous, and heretical, all at once.

It appears to me that there have been two effective ways to confront them: first, to agree to their stipulations but show them that their terms can lead to other outcomes than they expected or, second, to argue for a different set of stipulations (say, that the Constitution and not the bible should be the guide for national law). The broad left coalition seems to revel in the latter, insisting (for example) that the Bible should be mute in discussions of public policy. I tend to lean toward the former. Too often this has been taken to mean conceding to right-wing interpretation of the Bible and the Constitution. The more appropriate strategy (for those so inclined) would be to argue for different outcomes on their very ground. Maybe this would indicate "not laughing at them" while also not patronizing them with silence. I can't recommend ignoring what they wish to do -- from defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and eliminating labor protections to rolling back the clock on racial equality and enshrining gender and sexual inequality in stone. In that battle, Bachmann et al can play the Dauphin, I'll be cutting my locks to play Joan.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Luxury of No Stance

We're caught in the middle, Carol.
We're middle class. We're middle aged.
We were wild in the old days...
-- Joni Mitchell "Chinese Café"

An old saying runs that a young person who is not liberal has no heart and an old one who is not conservative has no brain. The idea, of course, is that in all situations, the Truth or the Best Path lies between two extremes. While this seems a reasonable statement on its face, the problem has always been in determining what really counts as extreme. Opposing parties in a dispute are not necessarily at extremes: think of the considerable overlap between the major political parties in the US. President Obama, for example, is not a socialist, despite Republican rhetoric to the contrary. An opponent does not necessarily indicate a pure extreme. Taking the middle point in any dispute strikes me as not only morally lazy but also, eventually, paralyzing.

In the last post, I considered the idea that one can and must maintain political ideals even while realizing that political negotiation demands compromise. I was hoping to communicate that certain short-term concessions might be necessary in order to achieve a long-term goal. As the old spiritual says, "Keep your eyes on the prize/Hold on."

Today, I had the opportunity to read an excellent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, marred by one flaw: it has an insightful recognition of the seeming paradox that the academic arena of queer theory shares the fundamentalist Christian belief that gayness is not a core aspect of one's identity.  However, the author then forgets this point and wrongly suggests that someone who adhered to queer theory and then became a fundamentalist Christian switched from one extreme to another. The writer and many of the commenters then suggested that a middle way between gay orthodoxy and Christian orthodoxy was necessary. A big helping of moderation all around.

I am happy to report the NYT selected my immoderate comment as one of the editors' highlights. Perhaps my academic knowledge can be translated to the popular sphere after all!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Play Politics -- Or Take Your Ball and Go Home

One of the more interesting developments of the last few years is that President Obama seems to bring about very polarized responses within the Left -- which for current purposes I'm calling that wide swath from Clinton Democrats to doctrinaire socialists, pacifists, and the like. At least since the George W. Bush era, we have heard of increasing polarization within the US electorate: red states versus blue states, evangelicals versus "secular-progressives," the heartland versus East Coast elites. In the Bush era, the most vicious disagreements seemed to be between liberals and conservatives (again, broadly construed). As Iraq dragged on and New Orleans flooded, you could pretty much count on anyone to the left of Donald Rumsfeld to despise the Bush administration. What we have now, though, is a bit more surprising: a rift within a bloc that was unified by their anti-Bush sentiment. This unity was, it seems, as short-lived as any alliance made against an external foe -- like a Bin Laden. With the foe vanquished or vanished, all the old disputes resurface. And so it seems that among those who voted for President Obama, we now have staunch defenders who will not brook an unkind word said against the administration and disgusted partisans who consider him to be a spineless panderer or "worse than Bush."

This last claim seems inflated by hysteria. Certainly, one can find single issues on which the administration has either continued Bush policies (Guantanamo and black ops prisons), compromised with Republicans (the deal to extend tax cuts for the most wealthy), or imposed more Draconian measures of their own (immigration). However, one can also find single issues on which President Obama was able to succeed in ways that has Democratic predecessors had failed: outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military, passing health care reform, mandating gender equity in pay.

Within the fraying leftish coalition is a group who decries failures of the administration to impose policies that we would like as proof of either the President's weakness or the Democratic Party's secret conservative agenda. I would say that this group does not like politics -- a strange aversion, considering how often they utter the word. Outside of autocracies, politics does not work by imposition. The process of political negotiation proceeds based on what you can get others to agree to do. Therefore you do not get everything you want -- even if you are "right." Being "right" barely enters the equation, sadly. Moreover, even when you get what you want and what is right, that victory often has unintended consequences -- foreseen and unforeseen messes that have to be cleaned up. That's why the song goes: Pressure. Persuade. Negotiate. Rinse. Repeat.

To say that participating in political life means accepting the fact of concessions does not mean that one should not hold positions. It means that the difference between pragmatism and idealism is not determined by the supposed cowardice of the pragmatist. (The loud insistence that the reason the Left has not achieved total victory lies in Obama's secret conservative ideology or well-concealed lack of vertebrae run on variations of this theme).

Idealism is a worthy game, but it is a different one from engaging in the political process. In any group situation, from a theater to a business or government, no one ever reaches the ideal. There are too many egos and ideological differences to contend with--not to mention the fact of human fallibility. But one can still get tasks accomplished in these settings. They are simply unlikely to reflect exactly any one participant's ideal. And even if one person's ideal were achieved, sustaining it becomes dependent upon the leverage and charisma associated with that personality.

That gulfs separate ideology from legislative settlement -- and both from enactment -- does not justify abandoning ideals--far from it. Still, it is time to recognize that the fight of politics takes more than simply stating the ideal with eloquence and force. It takes all the persuasion, negotiation, and concession necessary to inch (and sometimes leap) forward on important matters.

While I find the exposé style of Obama's Left-intellectual critics to be ineffective, I also cannot support the strategy of those who put their true beliefs aside and overlook the President's concessions. Disagreeing with the President's choices and demanding that the Democratic party return to some core principles is not an act of disloyalty--even in the midst of virulent right-wing attacks on the First Black PresidentTM. It's really what being a constituent is about: reminding representatives of who they represent and what we expect of them. We need not accept the rightward drift of the Democratic Party and should continue showing up and pushing in the opposite direction. Taking our ball and going home is not an option. But neither is allowing the party to ignore us.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Because For Some People It's All President Obama's Fault Until Something Good Happens...

Sports, War, and Politics from the Couch Potato Perspective

Don't get me wrong, I prefer President Obama to the Republican alternatives for 2012. And I realize that his taking credit for being the Action Hero who took out bin Laden increases his chances of being returned to office. But, at the risk of arming the President's enemies (some of whom are mine, too)... What is with our country's addiction to guilt and credit by association? President Obama did not kill bin Laden. Yes, he is the Commander in Chief. Yes, the execution was carried out by his order. But the Navy Seals did it.

On the other hand, I can see why the President gets credit. At least he was directly involved in the chain of command. There is some sense in which the old "body politic" metaphor holds, when the Head of State gives an order to be carried out by Foot Soldiers, as it were. But the celebration on the couches and in the stadia? Unless one has served in the military or has loved ones serving, I cannot understand the cheering, the drunken frat party hooting.

These are the times that I wish I studied sports and fan psychology more. Because it seems the couch potato is the proper metaphor here.

Sports fans as couch potatoes live vicariously through their sports heroes. The athletes' risks, leaps, triumphs, and humiliations are the couch potatoes' own. The fans in the bleachers and on their La-Z-Boys want to have in their own lives the feelings that they imagine athletes have: the agony and the ecstasy, as it were. Most important, they want their decisions to matter as much as Derek Jeter's or Peyton Manning's. They want to be the guy entrusted with the ball when there are only 2 seconds left in the game and someone has to shoot the three-pointer.

Ok. This is great. No problem. I am not against entertainment. No doubt, those who enjoy music, theater, dance,  and movies have the same feelings. We want King Lear's earth-shaking emotions, Ouisa Kittridge's revelations, Dave Chapelle's outrageous imagination, Michael Jackson's unequaled grace. The difference is that the sports world has become a metaphor not for the individual psyche but for political life. personally feel uplifted and inspired at a Dianne Reeves concert. The whole city is supposed to rejoice when the Heat wins. The whole country is supposed to rejoice when US Hockey beats Russia.

But, for me, the relationship between athlete, spectator, and city or nation is not a straight line, no matter how much we have been induced to think that way by the infotainment media. I understand ESPN doing it. Sports is their baby and they have to make it seem as important as possible. But to see so-called news channels behaving like ESPN? This makes no sense. There is no national unity. And the proof of this will be in how quickly whatever alleged unity comes from the killing of bin Laden evaporates.

I'm not precisely sure why we are all expected to be happy about this execution.
  1.  Did all of us participate in it? I can understand the Navy Seals or even the National Security Team celebrating. They were, more or less, directly involved. 
  2. Does it retroactively justify the illegal aspects of the War on Terror, freeing those who have been detained or even tortured without cause for a decade? (*Note that if "all is fair in love and war" then so is flying planes into buildings). 
  3. Does it do anything to address the political crisis we have in this country, the massive disagreement over the responsibilities of citizens and governments to each other, especially in the midst of a new age of robber barons?
I suppose we all need a break from such things. I suppose that sports provides that respite. But since the first Gulf War, we have also had military conflict as home entertainment. Isn't there something wrong with the transition of bloody war into the space where I view sports and play video games without having to see the consequence? I would venture to say there are at least two things: first, with the exception of rare cases in soccer, the outcome of sports matches is not a life-and-death matter. War always is. Second, just as with the athletic contest, when the euphoria of shared emotions wanes, as it must, all the petty team dynamics come back to the surface.

Until we decide what ethical principles are going to guide our relationships with each other and the rest of the world, both sports and war will be a momentary distraction before we return to the strange combination of apathy, impotence, and vicious indifference that characterize our unhappy relationships with each other and our country.