Through the Past, Darkly, With Muse Machine

Something about July 26 just brings out those ruminations on race. . .

GatesGate: Are We Still the Prisoners of Race?

Posted on July 26, 2009

With the Performing Daughter in a big show downtown this weekend, and relatives in town for the occasion,  I’ve been too busy playing tour guide and bottle washer to  blog about GatesGate. I’m definitely late to the party, but a few post-mortem thoughts:

1. Obama’s premature lurch into GatesGate  during his press conference last week was a classic case of what old friend and fellow blogger TheFabSage dubbed ETSOTTGO(eht-SAHT-go), one of my favorite acronyms. It stands for “Easier to Stay Out Than to Get Out,” and man, was that true with Obama.

How easy it would have been for him to stay out by  saying  something like, “I’m troubled by what I’ve heard, and I have great  respect for Professor Gates, but I want to hold off commenting for a while until I can get more details about this incident.”  Period.

2. Alas, Obama’s insistence on going to bat ASAP for his fellow member of the Talented Tenth led him into a real swamp in which he seemed to be doing two objectionable things: A) Presuming that a member of his own class cohort could not share any blame  in the matter, which shows us that Good Ol’ Boys’ Clubs exist among all kinds of people, and B) playing into the creaky but still nastily alive party line about White Oppressors fighting to  keep Black Victims down forever.

It seems I’m always pointing this out, but one of the most curious phenomena of our time is the Paradox of the Powerful Victim. Why do minorities who wield enormous power via wealth, celebrity, or position  reflexively, dishonestly behave as if they are illiterate Alabama  sharecroppers in 1949, cowering before ol’ white Massah?

We see it with Sonia Sotamayor,  when she was on  the power path at  Yale Law School, embracing “the Third World Community” on campus. We saw it in the recent death of Michael Jackson, with Al Sharpton and others trying to portray “Nothing Strange” Jackson, a hugely powerful man in his own right,  as the victim of a vampiric white tabloid press. And now we see it with Gates, who, the day after the incident, uttered these tragically misguided words:

“What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are, and all poor people, to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman.”

For a man of Gates’ accomplishments, privilege and power to say this is just heartbreakingly cynical.   I don’t do much gazing into people’s souls, but I’d be astonished if he actually believes that. (Though, alas, many impressionable young blacks may believe it.)  I think Gates knows that he lost his cool and  provoked an ugly national incident, and instead of accepting a chunk of the blame, he  decided to go all in with the scorched-earth race rhetoric, knowing that at least he’d please “the base” among professional rights activists and the black talk-radio cadre.

3.  Can we get a happy ending? Yes. Obama’s suggestion  that the three men have a beer at the White House is a nimble recovery and a  super idea–a fine gesture of reconciliation that can be done without investigating committees, marches, and lawsuits.  The three of them can get together and  acknowledge that, like everyone else, they’ve made some mistakes. Maybe Gates can at least hint that life in America is a wee bit better now than it was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

And how about a handshake on the White House lawn? Hey, if Rabin and Arafat can shake, I bet these guys can work it out.

Ain’t That Black Enough?

Posted on July 26, 2007

A lingering question about a question from Monday’s YouTube/CNN debate, when Sen. Barack Obama was asked why some voters don’t seem to think he’s “black enough.”

What in the world do people mean when they ask this? Is there some Platonic ideal of perfect Blackness by which we can measure and evaluate someone according to how closely they approach the ideal?

If so, what/who  is the ideal? Who is a sufficiently authentic black, and how does he/she differ from Obama? I’d love to see a thoughtful African-American writer dissect this matter, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

To this pale Caucasoid, the whole business seems weirdly old-fashioned, refracted through a long-outdated view of blacks.

Perhaps during the heyday of Jim Crow, before the Civil Rights movement, there might have existed, in the minds of most white people at least, some monolithic idea of the “black” person. Any such simplistic image, of course, would have been possible only because so many white people had such limited experience with black people, and many of the blacks they were likely to meet were poorly educated and in  subservient positions.

Today, with so many avenues of advancement open to African-Americans,  the reality is much more variegated.  There are dozens,  hundreds of black images.   Is Puffy Combs black? Colin Powell? Randall Robinson? Leonard Pitts Jr.? Barry Bonds? Oprah Winfrey? Spike Lee? Ron Kirk? Chris Tucker? Shelby Steele? Seal? Henry Louis Gates? Michael Vick?  Louis Farrakhan? Joe Morgan?

Are they saying Obama is way more educated than most black folks? He is, yes. (He’s also way more educated than most white folks.) Are they saying he’s got much more money than most black folks? (ditto whites).

I’m guessing here, but I wonder if some of the “black enough?” questioners have a limited and pretty negative idea of the black experience they believe Obama has not shared.  Are they saying he hasn’t suffered enough of what they take to be, even in 2007, the oppressive racial reality of blacks? Obama seemed to pick up on that aspect of the question when he half-jokingly said he’d had trouble hailing cabs in Manhattan–thus establishing solidarity with poor and middle-class blacks who’ve been similarly dissed.

Is he being forced, unfairly, to define his essential  life experiences downward (I’ve been racially profiled by cabbies, like you) rather than upward (Uh, yes, I was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review)?

The next time this question comes up, and it will, I wish Obama would just say, “What are you talking about? Explain. Define this Ideal Black.” Then we could all get in on the discussion.

Not Dead, Just Melting

Not the author’s back yard, but close

I pry my head away from the air conditioner long enough to ensure my loyal dozens of readers that I have not succumbed to the deadly heat wave gripping the seared North Texas prairie. No, I’ve just hit another one of those lacunae, as we used to say at Garland High, one of those Sargasso Sea moments when all forces seem to conspire to silence the plucky li’l blogger. Among them:

1. Took four days to visit friends in Albuquerque, which is what Dallas will look like after a couple more summers like this one. It was great fun but of course I returned from the desert waist-deep in backed-up work and just in time to……..

2. Begin another two-week run in the musical 1776, reprising my role as the seething, snarling, volcanic John Dickinson, one of the “cool, conservative men” who can’t believe the masses are beguiled by that “Boston radical, agitator, demagogue and madman” John Adams. Love the role, which provides for plenty of strutting, denouncing and smirking before I am eventually defeated in the final vote.

3. In addition, the heat has just been enervating the past few days, making even indoor work a real slog after about 2PM. The electric bill will take all the money I didn’t make while doing 1776, and now. . .

4. We’re about to head out on a combo vacation/college visit swing to the Northeast, seeing Boston University, Northeastern and Rutgers on this trip. The ambitious daughter has been told since 7th grade that despite her good grades and competitive test scores,  we cannot pay the full freight on these fine schools, so she’ll need to come up with financial aid to close the gaps–assuming she’s admitted. But whatever happens, Boston and New York are always great to visit.

5. But, that means all the pre-trip anxieties about hotels, train tickets from Boston to New York, squinting at subway maps, plotting routes, etc.. The cumulative weight of all these distractions has meant little or no blogging the past couple weeks, but I promise, as always, to do better when I return.

The Fourth of July and the Fig-Eating Arab

Readers here know that I prefer concrete cases and actual experience to grand theories. More than big rhetoric, I like the microcosm that gives us a much-needed window on reality.  So, wanting to say something today about America, I reprint this piece from a few years ago:

It’s fig season again, and despite my early fears that the utter absence of rain in May might diminish this year’s crop, our huge fig tree is putting out massive quantities of fruit. We have probably given away 700 or so already to various fig-loving friends and neighbors. It’s a nice time of year.

And whenever I’m out there picking figs, I think of The Curious Case of the Fig-Eating Arab, first explored in these pages a couple summers ago and reprinted here for those who would like to examine a microcosm of contemporary America.

I went out one July morning and found a Middle Eastern woman in full burka or whatever it is, entire body covered, only her face showing,  placidly munching figs. (At least you could see her face. At a Target store the other day, I stood in line with a woman–I think it was a woman–who had just a tiny mesh viewing-slit to keep her from walking out in front of a truck.)  I had seen the Fig-Eater around the neighborhood, always walking a few steps behind a white-haired old man.

I looked at her, she at me. Nobody spoke. She munched. I walked around to the other side of the house and did a couple of things, feeling oddly bothered. Neighbors pick from that tree all the time, we’re not huge fig fans, and the birds eat half of them anyway, so who cares?  I was galled but I decided to say nothing. She ate for a while and left.

This incident led to a number of thoughts about the true religion of American today, Diversity, which is always and in all its manifestations Good, and is only questioned by those who are Evil.

I thought about doing a newspaper op-ed or a  radio commentary on this encounter at the time  but 1) I feared being seen as some kind of Typical American War-Loving Bush-Supporting  Imperialistic Christian Crusader Provincial …what’s the word????…. and 2) I really couldn’t fully explain my irritation to myself.

I believe that we can’t think clearly if we don’t admit our own imperfections, blind spots and biases, so yes, I’m prepared to admit that some of my reaction was just …what IS the damned word…YES! xenophobia.  But that didn’t seem to be the whole thing.  so… the thoughts have been marinating and I’ve only recently gotten  clear on it.

Here’s how I decipher the mix of emotions and thoughts I experienced during this encounter and afterwards:

A. One part simple, non-xenophobic irritation at presumptous fig-leeches who take without asking or thanking. After all, I got pretty hacked one time when I came out and found a white guy–on a ladder, no less–filling a basket with figs. And no fig-leech has  ever come back to help scrape the sticky, wasp-attracting  husks off the sidewalk, either. And when a massive limb broke after a rainstorm and spilled out blocking the sidewalk and part of the street, I sweated and sawed for two hours by myself to clear the mess, with nary a fig-lover in sight. End of petulant complaint.)

B. One part dislike of Her Kind. Without believing for a moment that the Fig Eater is somehow inferior to me (for all I know, she’s a former physics prof at a university in Dubai), the whole burka-wearing syndrome bothers me. I don’t like the weirdness of hiding your body that way. I don’t like her shuffling along behind the Dominant Man. This is not our way, Citizen, I want to say.

And as I’ve often thought, I don’t like the way These People pick and choose from the cultural smorgasbord.

They come here to enjoy freedoms beyond anything offered in the Middle East,  but they stay in their little insular bubbles of  dress and  language. I see them all over Richardson and Plano, driving brand new minivans, chatting on cell phones, partaking of modernity but still wearing these absurd Allah-pleasing burkas that are supposed to ward off lecherous eyes. (As if.)

They want the absolute best of the 21st and the  14th Centuries. What does Donald Trump say? What does the mullah say? Let’s take what we like from both!  They strike me as major-league Takers. She’s probably here to watch over her grandkids while her son or daughter gets a degree at nearby UTD, which he/she will then use to open a software company in Cairo.

C. Some of this sounds pretty sour, I know. If there’s a more positive takeaway, maybe it’s this:  This woman, personifying foreignness, feels perfectly comfortable walking through the neighborhood and onto my property and eating my figs. Nobody bothers her and she knows nobody will bother her, and if someone did bother her you’d have big coverage in the media and a local Committee of Concern formed to dig out the roots of hatred in our community.

In Richardson,  a City of Shame Asks What Went Wrong

“I was merely enjoying a fig, which is a delicacy in my native land,” explained Bhutora El-Wahadi. Then, tragedy struck. . . .

Now let’ s flip this scene over. Let’s imagine an American woman,  perhaps doing relief work or teaching English at a school in Saudi Arabia or another Middle Eastern country. One morning she gets up and puts on a typical American outfit– Nikes,  tight shorts, optional sports bra,  and a skimpy blouse showing several inches of flesh including her pierced belly button–you know, something she might wear to the mall back home.

And off she goes walking or jogging through this Middle Eastern suburban neighborhood to munch some free apples from a tree she spotted.

Right. How far do you think this brazen American harlot would make it before some very unpleasant things happened? Two blocks max, I say, before various defenders of the faith decided to play Attack the Infidel.

D. So I believe the incident of the fig-munching Arab reveals a typical 21st Century American scene:

An immigrant comes from far away. She proceeds to chow down at the banquet table of freedom, which is of course her right as we define rights today.

Some “real” American is a bit offended  by her presence and her presumption, but the Real American feels conflicted about it, says nothing, and even feels a bit guilty about being conflicted. (How You Know That PC  Rules: You not only don’t write or broadcast such thoughts, you feel the slightest taint of racism in even thinking them. The perfect PC Man, if he exists, would have an Auto-Alert Brain Filter that shunted such rebel thoughts into a synaptic gulag before they caused trouble.)

In some weird way, though, the Robed One’s actions and my non-reactions may say hopeful things about our system. We have a terrible history of racism and slavery which we can never fully erase, but today tolerance is one of our ruling values, as witness the Curious Case of the Fig-Munching Arab.

My heart was not  pure on this, and I bit my lip in irritation, but on balance I’m glad I said nothing unfriendly to her that day.  When it comes right  down to it I just can’t see stalking over there, grabbing the pulpy figs from her hands, splattering them on the sidewalk and, neck veins bulging, ordering her to get back on her camel and get  the hell out of my country.

And that’s how the vast majority of Americans feel about this stuff–a little baffled, a little angry, a little cowed, a little guilty, and even, weirdly, a little proud, as in “You won’t find me moving to your country, sweetheart.”  By the way, this connects with the whole immigration crisis. We think the lifeboat’s getting awfully crowded, and we don’t really “get” some of the newcomers’ customs, but in the end we shove over and make room in the boat.

That’s not perfect love in the Peaceable Kingdom,  but it’s not nothing, either, and it sure beats the alternatives practiced in so many other places.

Reading the Declaration

Here’s a great Fourth of July tradition. Each year, NPR hosts and commentators read the Declaration of Independence on the air. It’s been going on for more than 20 years, so some of the people speaking are no longer with us. If you want to hear just what the Founding Fathers were for and against, listen here.

Doom-Saying Quote of the Week

“It may be that gobs of stimulus can’t rescue the global economy but that gobs of austerity might sink it. We’ve arrived at a historical reckoning of the post-World War II welfare state, burdened with aging populations and huge debts.” 

                                              –Robert Samuelson, The Washington Post