“HOLLER IF YOU HEAR ME”


Just finished Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac book Holler If You Hear Me. As in his book on MLK, Dyson draws out radical intentions and implications of his subject’s work, wrestles with the problematics of his life, and considers what the mythology that’s developed since his death says about the culture around him. The discussion of Tupac’s relationship with his mother, Afeni Shakur, brings together several threads of the book: the contradictory meanings of black masculinity in Tupac’s work and his thinking; the currents of rage, indictment, forgiveness, and affirmation in his music; the personal as political; the relationship between the ’60s Black Panther generation and the next one. If anything, the book suffers from Dyson’s tendency to over-explain the significance of each sentence from Tupac. Good read, and I learned a lot from it.

One passage of interest:
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ANDREW BREITBART: NOT CONTROVERSIAL

From Andrew Breitbart’s attack on Congressional Democrats for walking outdoors:

The first sign that a plan was in place was the ham-fisted, high-camp posturing of the most controversial members of the Democratic caucus walking through the peaceful but animated “Tea Party” demonstrators on Capitol Hill. There is no reason for these elected officials to walk above ground through the media circus amid their ideological foes. The natural route is the tunnels between the House office buildings and the Capitol. By crafting a highly symbolic walk of the Congressional Black Caucus through the majority white crowd, the Democratic Party was looking to provoke a negative reaction.

Emphasis mine, because Breitbart’s use of the word “controversial” as a stand-in for “Black” pretty much tells you all you need to know about Breitbart and the right-wing drive to blame Black and gay congressmembers for going where angry White people could see them.

(This is the same school of thought in which “carefree” kids are ones who aren’t gay and don’t know about anyone that is)

Unless we’re supposed to believe that two-term Rep. Andre Carson became on of “the most controversial” Democrats based on the content of his character.

FIVE MOST MISOGYNIST SUPERBOWL ADS NOT FEATURING TIM TEBOW

“Honorable” Mention: Dove: Men + Care – This one got edged (barely) out of the misogyny top 5 because instead of going full-on essentialist it acknowledges that guys suffer from being socialized not to show the “sensitive side.” But you’ve still got the man saving the family from a bad tire while his ungrateful wife waits in the car – and the general “Life is harder cause you’re a man, but you triumph cause you’re a man” shtick.

#5: Dockers: Men Without Pants – What’s become of our society? If the men don’t “wear the pants” are we doomed to wander the fields forever? Have the trappings of modern civilization collapsed because of insufficiently dominant men, or have they just been abandoned?

#4: Mars’ Snickers: You’re Not You When You’re Hungry – Hunger makes young men play sports like old women. Get it?

#3: Bridgestone: Your Tires or Your Life – This time the wife gets thrown out of the car as bad-guy-bait so our protagonist can save his tires. “Man’s best friend” etc.

#2: FloTV: Injury Report – Like the pantless guys in the field, without the subtlety. A man who fails to boss his woman around enough might as well be wounded, or a woman (same thing?). Like the Moynihan Report, just less racist and more homophobic.

#1: Chrysler: Dodge Charger – The most interesting thing about this one is the way, like the Fight Club guy, it grafts a free spirit anti-corporate message onto a macho anti-woman one. Your wife is another boss, women crush men’s spirits etc. And don’t you want your wife to be civil to your mother?

POSITIVE PEACE WHICH IS THE PRESENCE OF JUSTICE

From Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fan in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

More on MLK Day here.

JARRING

I think Matt Yglesias is going too easy on Harry Reid when he says

To clarify what I said yesterday it’s the very lack of having really done anything wrong that makes Reid’s situation to sticky. It’s just jarring for those of us under a certain age to think of an old white guy walking around saying “negro” and wielding political influence. But Reid can’t really apologize for being the sort of old white guy who would say that because he is, in fact, just such an old white guy. On the merits, the observation that it’s a political asset for Obama that he doesn’t speak in a manner that’s racially coded as black is pretty much banal conventional wisdom.

First, I’m sure are plenty of senior citizens, including African-Americans, who still find it jarring that the US Senate is run by a guy who uses the word “Negro” in conversation with journalists. Beyond that, I don’t think Matt believes that Harry Reid is just physically incapable of not saying Negro. I’m sure he’s done much harder things in thirty-some years in public life.

There’s a range of readings of what someone could mean by using the word “Negro” to describe the “dialect” Obama doesn’t use, from “the way Black people talk in my racist stereotype,” to “the way Black people talk in the minds of ignorant racists,” and I don’t know any way to discern exactly where Harry Reid’s intended meaning falls on the spectrum. But he was right to apologize.

That said, any comparison between Harry Reid’s comments about his support for a Black man for President and Trent Lott’s support for a White supremacist for President can only make Harry Reid look very, very good. And Republicans’ attempts to conflate the two just leave the impression that they never really understood what was wrong with what Trent Lott said in the first place. On this, I agree with Matt entirely.

LEAPING TO JUDGMENT?

Something else on Henry Louis Gates: It’s not surprising to see the congealing conventional wisdom that Barack Obama screwed up by saying anything about what the Cambridge Police did to him, but it’s disappointing that a number of pundits seem to think not just that it diluted Obama’s focus on healthcare, but that it’s categorically wrong for the President of the United States to take any position in such a situation. I think that position is easy to maintain if you start from the premise that it’s not clear who’s at fault – the premise for much of the media, and the premise Obama implicitly granted credence with the much-hyped Beer Summit. But it is clear that James Crowley was at fault in arresting a man in his own home for being rude to the police. It would still be wrong if it were a young Black man without a cane. It’s wrong regardless of what particular proportions of race, pride, and police authority motivated him to do it.

Was it wrong for our Head of State to come out so quickly in praise of Captain Sully for landing his crew safely in the Hudson river? If not, why shouldn’t he have said that what Crowley did to Gates was wrong?

30 ROCK, RACE, AND CURRENT EVENTS

Alyssa didn’t just respond to my criticism of 30 Rock’s racial humor, she responded with a level of detail and erudition about the show I will not attempt to match. Alyssa is right to say that the show can’t be judged fully on one episode, and I agree that some of the others do better on the topic. But I chose that one – “The Given Order” – because it was the moment in watching 30 Rock when I said to myself, “This is what’s so frustrating about this otherwise great show!” Her response didn’t fully salve my misgivings, either about that episode or about the show in general. Consider this a partial response.

Defending the episode in question, Alyssa says (emphasis added, Yglesias-style):

Seriously, dude? There is a serious and substantial debate over business functions held at strip clubs (tax-deductable according to the IRS, at least as of 2006. Woo!), whether women should feel obligated to attend, whether it’s sexual harrassment, and whether it’s a sign of empowerment (or of a pragmatic sucking it up) to be able to go on a guy’s-night-out events in order to ingratiate yourself in the workplace. I think mocking the self-deception of that latter motivation is pretty funny. There’s a huge difference between equal standards for work performance and rigid equal treatment-and-experience feminism that refuses to acknowledge sexism and different styles, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch that carried to slightly absurdist ends. But most importantly, the episode isn’t really about race! It’s about a famous person doing a non-famous person’s work, about someone who’s pretty quiet taking on the hard-partying identity that another person works to maintain. And ultimately, it’s about the fact that everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.

Alyssa seems to be making a few points here: first that the use of strip clubs for business functions is a real-life issue, second that feeling like you’re not a strong woman unless you go along to a strip club is problematic, and third that this episode “isn’t really about race!” I agree with those first two points, but I don’t see how they exonerate the episode. And I don’t see how this episode is not about race.

This is the episode where Tracy hands Liz a literal race card. Which could be funny in another context. But the context here is Tracy wanting to get away with being late to work and unreliable because he’s Black. The whole plot is borne out of Liz’s attempt to get Tracy to be more disciplined about his job. She tells him to show up to work on time and prepared, and he hands her the race card. Then he calls her a racist. Then – in a scheme to prove her wrong – he says since we’re in a post-racial Obama era, he doesn’t want any more special treatment. And the moral of the story is that Liz has to go back to letting him be unreliable because he’s Black if she wants to be excused from strip club outings because she’s a woman. So he gets his special treatment back.

Alyssa points out that Tracy is also a celebrity, and certainly I doubt that even in the 30 Rock universe we’re supposed to think that a working class Black guy could get away with Tracy’s shenanigans. But what Tracy the celebrity leverages over Liz for why she should fear holding him to the same standard as everyone else is his race (relatedly, I don’t think Tracy’s self-description in the pilot as “straight-up mentally ill” softens the racial angle of his plotlines). And he gets her to back down by ostensibly proving that staying out of strip clubs is also special treatment. That’s the message Alyssa describes as “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege, no matter how vociferously we cast ourselves as disadvantaged.” But being Black doesn’t make you come into work late, while being a woman does change your experience of a strip club – and of your co-workers in that environment. What if the episode were about a gay character whose Mexican co-worker equates making a Mexican work hard to making a gay man have sex with a woman? Would that be clever?

The “everyone relies on certain kinds of privilege” argument in and of itself is logically undeniable. But in the world of 30 Rock, and on most TV sitcoms with mostly white casts, it tends to manifest as a series of scenarios of extortion of the majority by the minority. It bothers me that a show with writers as clever as 30 Rock so often choose to mine the vein of Black people (et al) getting away with stuff, and White people (et al) being burdened with the fear of seeming prejudiced. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember anything “utterly brilliant” about the episode with “Tracy’s business manager exploiting Liz’s fear of being perceived as racist to keep him dating her.” Didn’t that already happen on Seinfeld and Frasier? Ditto for the one where “Liz’s then-boyfriend Floyd loses a promotion to an African-American guy in a wheelchair.”

That’s why I was surprised to see Alyssa close by saying

But what I think 30 Rock does that is subversive and extremely effective is to puncture the idea that when it comes to race, good intentions will save us, that we can really understand what other people experience, and that race and sex can only be disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female. Is the show universally applicable? Of course not. This is a series about relatively wealthy, privileged people who work in an extraordinarily strange, distorting industry. But in 2009, are those truths that people have a hard time accepting? If the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, I think they’ve demonstrated that the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

I think there are ups and downs to emphasizing the limits of racial empathy. But what strikes me most is the last truth Alyssa lists. If a major thrust of 30 Rock’s humor on identity is demonstrating the advantages Blacks and women can get over Whites and men, that helps explain why I often find that humor annoying.

What confuses me most is why Alyssa would say that this truth – that “race and sex” are not just “disadvantaging factors for people who are black or female” – is one that “the last few weeks” have shown us “people have a hard time accepting.” What’s happened in the last few weeks?

The mainstream of the Republican party took the position that our first Latina Supreme Court nominee would favor women and people of color over White men and for that reason should not be confirmed. She was pilloried for supposedly having depended on affirmative action each step of her career and mainstream journalists stated as fact that she was chosen based on race and gender. Mark Halperin declared “White Men Need Not Apply” (to say nothing of Pat Buchannan). Her confirmation hearing and its coverage centered on whether or not this Latina woman could be fair to White men. Some left-of-center journalists joined conservatives in denouncing the injustice that White firefighters didn’t get a promotion because none of them were Black.

Meanwhile, a Black professor was arrested in his own home after showing ID for being “disorderly” in loudly questioning the police officer’s motives. The first Black President opined that making such an arrest was stupid. Much of the media questioned why the President was siding with the Black guy, forcing him to retrench. And the President and the Professor both were accused of using their power as Black guys to ruin the reputation of the White police officer.

(Meanwhile, on a lighter note, charges were traded regarding cinematic sexism by the star of a comedy where a woman is involuntarily brought to orgasm by electronic underwear in a business meeting, and the star of a comedy where a woman is raped while drunk enough to pass out.)

What about the events of these past weeks has shown Americans to be not willing enough to chalk things up to the advantages people get from being a woman or a person of color?