culture, current events, race, star wars, Uncategorized

Harris-Perry, Star Wars and Racial Rorschachs

Melissa Harris-Perry’s response that is being discussed by everyone from Maddox to FOX is noteworthy in how it shows the racial Rorschach blots we look at.
This author (or the website click-baiting with a headline), of course, uses the term “traumatized” as a pejorative even though she said no such thing. It’s really great when they go on to excoriate MSNBC for journalistic integrity when they poisoned the well by misrepresenting their opposition.
What she said was more like this:
“I know why I have feelings — good, bad, and otherwise — about Star Wars. And I have a lot. I could spend the whole day talking about the whole Darth Vader situation. Like, the part where he was totally a black guy whose name basically was James Earl Jones, who, and we were all, but while he was black, he was terrible and bad and awful and used to cut off white men’s hands, and didn’t, you know, actually claim his son. But as soon as he claims his son and goes over to the good, he takes off his mask and he is white. Yes, I have many, many feelings about that, but I will try to put them over here.”
Please, anyone, cite me one false thing she said about Star Wars. (Lots of people are calling her a liar, even though she gets every detail right). Is anything she just said an inaccurate rendition of the film? No. It’s a literary analysis.
The point is, we as whites can watch Star Wars one way, and people of color can see a very different subtext, and Hispanics can see a very different subtext. Star Wars is very much a white cultural construct from the 70s: Hippie pseudo-Buddhist/Taoist spirituality (which is incredibly beautiful but is still very much a product of that time), recreating serial adventures that starred whites like Flash Gordon with very racist villains like Ming the Merciless, and with very little non-white presence (even by Empire we have Lando).
I don’t think Harris-Perry is saying Star Wars is objectively racist, and not one of the hysterical commentaries I’ve read actually quotes her as making that argument.
Rather, she is pointing to what she felt as a child and continues to feel as an adult. That is the message she is hearing, because she is more attuned to those kind of messages, because she has to be.
Fact is, people use “Jawa” as a racial epithet. People use Star Wars in racist ways. That doesn’t make Star Wars itself racist, any more than Huck Finn was racist because “nigger” appears in the book. But it does mean that there is a racial response that we all have.
Me, I view Vader as a badass villain with an authoritative voice. I didn’t see race there in specific, I saw an increasingly interesting character. But I have the luxury of viewing Star Wars as being a source of spiritual wisdom, as a story about knights. I could play Luke Skywalker on the playground and not have to qualify that I was playing someone outside of my racial group.
If you’re a girl playing Star Wars, you can be Leia (who is very cool) and that’s about it. If there’s two black kids and they both want to be good guys, they’re gonna have to fight over Lando. If you’re an Asian or Hispanic or Arab kid, you’re out of luck.
Does that mean Star Wars needs to have a Jedi of each human ethnicity? Absolutely not: That’s silly tokenism. But when will we have a host of awesome stories that are inherently mainstream about Asian heroes, played by Asian actors? About awesome Muslim or Arab heroes, played by those actors?
The issue is those who want to call Harris-Perry’s feelings, her response to watching a piece of art, objectively wrong. No, it’s not, it’s just a different reaction.
Just like an asthmatic may cough if the air is slightly bad but everyone else is fine, so too can a person of color react very differently to a piece of art due to a subtext in the air.
And no sane person says “Stop saying that you’re coughing because of your ‘asthma’, jerk! You’re just whining! You’re playing the ‘asthma’ card!”
But to be white, to be male, to be straight, means to be able to think that your experience, your perspective, your vantage point, is the only objective one. It’s to be able to say that others are just being specious or disingenuous when they bring a different viewpoint. But they’re not. You have a viewpoint too: You just get to pretend you don’t, when you’re privileged.

star wars racist. . in Star "SIS

And for every person criticizing Harris-Perry for making a mountain of a molehill, let me point to the fact that #blackliesmatter and racial accusations are going to be made because Harris-Perry said her opinion about Star Wars. Either Star Wars matters or it doesn’t, but white conservatives want to have it both ways. Either this is a mountain, and then Harris-Perry’s view actually has to be debated by its merits, or it’s a molehill, and y’all need to calm down.
When we can accept that different human beings have as a result of their social position different issues that they are sensitive to, and that we should discuss that with respect instead of derision, we’ll be able to make forward progress.
activism, culture

“Family Values”: All Families Matter Equally

And now for the less pleasant side of Christian culture in this country.

As I was again turning the dial to turn past the channels on the radio, I came across a Christian channel where the hosts sounded like they were on Quaaludes.

The website associated with this station?

The fact that these people don’t seem to realize the gall it takes to say that is, itself, galling.

Newsflash: “Family” is not the exclusive province of Christian hegemonic values.

There are plenty of families on this planet. Most (the vast majority, I’d say) are just as decent as Christian families, no matter their values or their religion.

The Christian right in this country has masterfully succeeded at using the politics of controlling words and rectifying phrases: “Pro-life”, demonizing the word “welfare”, etc. One of their successes has been associating “family values” exclusively with Christian hegemony. It takes a truly doctrinaire person to think that the world is full of heathen and savage animals aside from one’s own group. It’s parochialism, and it’s not only inherently irrational but it’s also deeply anti-Christian.

It’s like what happens with language. When people say that “Text speak is obliterating English”, a linguist would respond, “No, text speak is obliterating YOUR English”.

“Family values” aren’t under attack in this country. Christian values might be, though in fact there is just a move towards more diversity and more modes of expression. But “family values aren’t”.

If Christianity was obliterated from the world today, families would continue to exist. They would continue to have values.

Now, let me be clear: I personally believe that the obliteration of Christianity from the world would hurt our corpus of thought. It’d deprive us of a valuable perspective.

But things would continue to go on.

Now, one can make the argument (an argument I disagree with) that the values of families without Christianity would be worse. One can even say that people would be deprived of salvation. And that’s fine to think. That’s a matter of theology.

But we have to fight the idea that there’s only one kind of family and only one kind of values that exist, let alone matter.

activism, culture

Christian Radio and Shared Decency

So I just happened to be listening to Christian radio as I was adjusting the channels.

And as they came on, they said something to this effect:

“It’s the bottom of the ninth. Bases are loaded. And your son strikes out. Take time to tell him that he’s still a winner in your eyes.”

Fundamentalist Christianity has some problems. Some really, really serious problems. But that was actually a bit of a gospel of the truth of love.

Maybe we should start focusing on giving kind people better ways of expressing that kindness than protesting abortion clinics instead of wagging our finger at them about their faith.

activism, culture, politics

Bill Maher: Part of the Problem

So, Bill Maher can be a dick, and this is an example:

The amount of shit wrong in this five minutes is staggering.

He implies that fear of Islam doesn’t contribute to Muslims being bombed and killed. In Maher’s world, no one died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And he offers one of the most infantile arguments on the planet: Disagreeing with people vociferously is against free speech.

No, it isn’t. Calling some a bigot isn’t terrorism. Disagreeing with someone strongly enough that you don’t want them on the air, and using your dollars and speech to accomplish that goal, isn’t government censorship. It’s free speech.

Yes, of course we should be careful about boycotts, about our speech, about our criticisms, because people can be silenced and intimidated by private action, but it’s still not the same as the government stopping someone from speaking.

How cowardly he thinks people are, to say that people can’t talk because some left-wingers call them bigots. (Maybe he should read some more Stormfront literature and see how silenced they are).

It’s our obligation to be able to speak even when we’re afraid of other people disagreeing. Other people have
no obligation to protect us from hurt feelings.

The marketplace of ideas includes poisons. Saying that isn’t fascistic.

And Bill Maher’s atheism lets him dismiss the humanity of millions of people.

Bill Maher: You’re part of the problem.

activism, culture, history

Tamerlane’s Whipping and State Brutality

The recent, terrible side of Islam we’ve been seeing has made me want to show some of the aspects of it that are truly laudable.

The Sufi tradition in Islam, the mystical tradition, has historically had immensely impressive wisdom within it. The Sufis were to me rather like the Taoists: Funny, irreverent, deeply motivated and loving. The Sufis wrote erotic poems.

The Nasruddin Hodja tradition of stories is a shining example of religious wisdom. Like with many other great teachers, Nasruddin Hodja (whose exact identity we are still not entirely sure of) used humor to teach moral and spiritual ideas. Over time, the format of these stories was used to add new concepts and teach new philosophies.

The Hodja was a trickster. Himself often foolish or dull, he (much like Socrates) exposed the ignorance and hypocrisy of others. I imagine the real man was probably a true genius who struggled with his humility and so told stories that made fun of himself, the same way Abraham Lincoln disguised a cunning intellect under self-deprecation. The famous joke about the drunk under the streetlight searching for his keys is actually a Hodja story (though I suspect that that joke has a much older pedigree).

Islam today is associated with brutal punishment. In that vein, let me offer a story I modified slightly at the end to match another version I saw elsewhere:

One day, the wise fool Mullah Nasruddin happened to be present in the court of Tamerlane, the shah, when a drunken soldier was brought before the imperial presence. The soldiers who brought the drunkard asked what they should do with him.
The shah, who was occupied with thoughts of his treasury, waved them away and said carelessly, “Oh, just give him 300 lashes.”
Nasruddin started laughing uproariously.
The shah was incensed by Nasruddin’s hilarious outbreak, and yelled at him: “What are you laughing at? Are you laughing at me? You should be ashamed!”
Nasruddin managed to stifle himself and respond, “I am laughing because either you don’t know how to count, or you have never been whipped”.

This is a funny joke. But it’s also a brutal satire.

And its relevance goes beyond today’s Islam, which seems to have forgotten that even one lash is so horrifying that it should never be dispensed casually, let alone thousands.

Tamerlane was one of the most powerful people in the world at the time. He was estimated to have killed about five million of the world’s populations. But he wrapped it up in righteousness.

Yet here, whether in actual fact or in our tales, was a true man of God to tell him to his face with a laugh
that he was a small and foolish soul.

It’s not just Tamerlane who dispenses brutality ensconced in the cloak of justice.
How many of our Senators and legislators spend any time in the jails that they authorize funding for and create the laws to send people to?

How many of the people in both civilian and military command structures authorize the use of force against people they’ve never met and lands they’ve never visited?

What the Hodja was reminding us is that our leaders (assuming we should have them at all, which I as an anarchist do not agree with) should understand the magnitude of what they do. They should themselves have tasted the bite of the lash.

A cop friend of mine was required as part of his training to be hit with pepper spray. He talked about how it didn’t just burn for a few seconds, or even a few minutes, but that his skin was inflamed and in pain for days. He was also tased.

Soon, I’m going to comment on the way that Americans have justly lost the credibility to intervene against ISIS/ISOL because of our past failure to restrain our government and our usage of force. But for now, think about how many people, from politicians to pundits, are going to be counseling violence whose consequences they cannot possibly comprehend.

See, Tamerlane could have chosen to have himself whipped.

But we can’t meaningfully have our politicians have their houses bombed, their children killed, their veins filled with poison.

If we as human beings remembered that, maybe we’d think more before we shot up offices of satirists and killed police officers. Maybe we’d stop grabbing guns and bombs and start talking.

Because as much as it sucks to talk to the other guy who makes you angry, it’s preferable to being whipped.

activism, culture

Homogenized White: Racism and Fear

So, unfortunately I just saw some racist shit cross my Facebook page. It was standard propaganda: Jew Communists are undermining us, white men are sacrificing themselves to keep the country that is being undermined by liberal Muslims going, whatever. Of course, such hateful shit ignores that plenty of black, Asian and Hispanic folks also sacrifice themselves for this country, but hey, that must be some kind of conspiracy too.

But it reminds me of something that I considered yesterday. I was at a Round Table in Brunswick in my hometown of Grass Valley (an almost all-white town), and I saw a black family and an Asian family. I could scarcely contain my enthusiasm. I was like, “Yay! Not white people! Thank God!”

And then I recalled all of the wonderful times I’ve had eating Chinese food, my favorite cuisine. Not to mention experiences meeting people from different worlds, with different experiences of life, being enriched by them.

There’s a lot going on with racism. Racists are afraid of outside threats. They’re afraid of being hurt, their families being hurt. Racism often justifies existing inequalities. It doesn’t feel so bad to have a sub-human worm under your boot. If you had to recognize the humanity of the person you are robbing, you might do something about it.

But one thing I don’t think we talk about enough is this: Racists want their world to be homogeneous. Those who favor Christian supremacy, or racial supremacy, or bitch about multiculturalism… What they are saying is, “I want my world to be more predictable, more homogenized, more alike. I want the world to have experiences like the ones I already know and am comfortable with”. And, even worse, “I have the privilege and power to turn that desire into reality, and I’m going to use it. I’m going to force the world to be more like what I prefer”.

Every time I look at the evils that we do to each other, I see every single time that the worst victims are those who are doing the evil. Those who have fear and hate in their hearts are depriving themselves of a strange, wonderful world. They aren’t just people who notice the different, the Other. They’re people afraid of that Other. And there’s nothing worse than living in the one true hell: Our own prison of hate, of fear, of anger. Living in a small world.

One of my favorite parts about making my own knightly code, my own superhero ethics, is that an inherent part of those ethics is adventuring. The knight errant sallies forth to new lands. The superhero discovers new enemies and new allies. I want adventures. I want to meet new friends, and yes, even new enemies. I refuse to let this world cow me into submission. And I refuse to let the misdeeds of others cloud my mind with hatred.

We failed the White History Month people, the white supremacists on Facebook and elsewhere. Our educational system failed to give them a perspective of critical thinking that would let them know that every month is already white history month, and that maybe we should be asking for an Irish history month or a Swedish history month or an Italian history month instead, celebrating actual ethnic identity and not “whiteness” which is an ethnic cipher. We collectively failed to save them from ignorance (ignorance in the Socratic sense, ignorance of the soul) and wrath. We are allowing our brothers to wallow in a spiritual morass.

So let’s embrace a world of difference. Let’s embrace a world where we love and are excited about the new and strange things we encounter. And let’s do that openly, so that even those who are angry and lost can realize that there is nothing to fear but fear itself.

activism, culture, politics

Police Psychology and Popular Culture: The Real Hurdles

As the Ferguson protests die down, I return to a question that I have been preoccupied with. How can we explain the emergence of a police culture that seems responsible for violence? Moreover, given that we’ve known about the problems of police brutality for decades, what keeps making good men choose to go into the force? I think the interesting question isn’t so much why people in an organization go bad, but rather, why they would want to choose to go into an organization in the first place.

My background both in sociology and in left politics has caused me to try to look at society institutionally. When we see a pattern, even within a single organization let alone across a nation, we know that there has been to a problem that goes beyond any individual.

For example: Defenders of police officers will often suggest that there are only a few bad apples in most departments. In fact, it does seem likely that a lot of the brutality that we hear about is probably committed by a minority of cops. These officers likely keep on moving up the line from minor acts of abuse to major ones. Darren Wilson, the officer in the Ferguson case, is illustrative: He was on what the Washington Post called a “troubled police force” in Jennings. Studies of police in the field find that the norms that are instilled in them in the academy tend to go away fairly quickly. That’s because people in any professional arena tend to learn the norms about what define a good worker from their fellow workers. A cop, then, learns what defines a good cop and a bad cop from other cops: Their partners, members of police fraternities, and so forth.

I have known many police officers. A dear friend of mine became a police officer, and I would be absolutely confident of his compassion, his sensitivity, and his awareness of issues like race, gender and class. He was and is an informed, intelligent person. And of my interactions with police officers, the majority have been positive, even at leftist rallies. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a white, straight male of a middle-class background, so I’m definitely not in the sociological risk categories for police abuse.

I keep reminding people who I feel get vitriolic about police officers: These are our neighbors. They are friends and family. Cops are workers in blue suits. Any meaningful left politics should be building solidarity with police officers and soldiers along labor lines.

So how can our neighbors, our friends, our family, get so misled when they join the force that they graduate to what appears to be an unfortunately all-too-routine pattern of misconduct and violence?

We as leftists often fail to really consider the way that popular culture and the trends in our society impact the way that people think. It’s easy when we’re talking about officers to talk about individual bad apples or to talk about racism writ large. But real people aren’t defined totally by their individual characteristics, nor are they defined exclusively by huge forces like “racism”. They’re always defined by the interactions in their real environment, with their real social network and with their real lived experiences.

There’s two data points that I think are very important in this discussion. The first is one of the most interesting statistics Cop Block reports. In 2010, the majority of police misconduct claims that involved excessive force were about firearms, not about tasers, police dogs, or even any kind of excessive unarmed blows. The other is the idea of the “thin blue line” and the way many officers have stood in what they view as solidarity with Wilson.

In the United States, we’ve had generations of culture that has emphasized the danger of society, of both the city and the country. From Death Wish to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’ve seen the idea that there are dangerous people everywhere become a staple of films, books and television shows. Some of our most popular characters are vigilantes. Batman has eclipsed Superman in the eyes of many (especially whites) as the most iconic superhero. Superman’s idealism was born from a New Deal idea of solidarity: A true superman would devote himself to protecting his neighbors and advancing the dreams of mankind. Batman’s ambitions are markedly less optimistic. Especially in his incarnations as imagined by Frank Miller and those who followed in Miller’s footsteps, Batman is a nuclear option against criminals, an ultimate deterrent who tries to keep the filth of Gotham under control. Most Americans don’t psychologically live in Superman’s Metropolis anymore: They live in Batman’s Gotham.

So, let’s say you’re a child like me or Darren Wilson, children of the 1980s. (Me and Wilson were both born in the same year, 1986). We watch films like Death Wish or Dirty Harry. We tune into Law and Order and hear about how the “city” (yes, New York, but New York and Los Angeles become stand-ins for the entirety of America outside of our safe spaces) is becoming a cesspool. We read Batman, play with the Batman toys.

Nor is it just the idea of vigilantism against domestic foes that infiltrates popular culture. In shows like 24 and films where terrorists are the villain, we as a culture are taught to root for the American hero against the foreign threat. I love Commando. It’s a fantastic piece of cheesy popcorn cinema, and a film I share in common with the cop friend I mentioned earlier. Commando has an American (okay, Schwarzenegger, so an “East German” immigrant) dealing with the threat to his family of a Latin American dictator.

Then Cops comes on, and even as we laugh at both some of the officers and suspects, we are seeing a narrative being reinforced: Cops have to deal with dangerous, stupid, intoxicated people in the ghetto and in trailer parks.

I can go on with these examples. Boondock Saints, for example, features Irish vigilantes dealing with Russian and Italian mob scum. Even though the specter of race isn’t involved

The Commando, Death Wish, Batman and Dirty Harry style of masculinity combine with the cultural messages that we as Americans routinely get that there are dangers everywhere to form a toxic cultural combination.

Now, what if we are compassionate people being bombarded with this idea of being a masculine hero cleaning up the streets?

We can be cops , or we can be soldiers.

I have to admit that, if my background were slightly different, I might very well have become a police officer or a soldier. The idea of going out and solving problems appeals to my sense of knighthood and of heroism.

So a cop joins the force, filled with ideas in his head of cleaning up the streets, of stopping rapists and child molesters like those featured in Law and Order: SVU and True Detective, maybe getting a handle on the problems of society.

And that’s when the bad training by other officers takes over. That’s when the subconscious bias that we all deal with as people in a society with racial caste structures begins to come into play. That’s when toxic elements of police culture and the eroding effect of seeing inhumanity day in and day out cause officers to begin to compromise and lose their innocence.

What does that all mean for leftists?

It means we need to start with a different cultural narrative.

We need to keep reminding our fellow countrymen that some of our biggest threats are not from the inner city, or from trailer parks, or from creepy rednecks, but from men in corporate boardrooms who may never even conceive of committing violence directly and yet whose prosperity depends on that violence. We need to keep reminding our neighbors that, as Tim Wise has so often put it, the trillions that disappeared as a result of malfeasance and idiocy in 2008 weren’t vanished by black retail criminals but by overwhelmingly white executives and financial managers.

We need to give our officers perspective. It isn’t the 1970s and 1980s anymore. Violent crime declined in the 1990s. The crack epidemic has run its course. Of course there are problems with all sorts of crime in the United States. But, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, this is the only country where crime is a political issue. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the country that produces the world’s action movies.

We need to be helping our fellow voters to stop rushing to the ballot with ever more “tough on crime” solutions. As one of my Professors, Sasha Abramsky, put it regarding the Polly Klaas case that ultimately led to three strikes becoming the national albatross that it has become, very few people remember the tragic case of Polly Klaas anymore. The 24-hour news cycle leads people to want their kneejerk reaction of fear to be transmuted into a policy to make them feel safe temporarily, and all too often policymakers listen.

We need to be training officers and teaching those people interested in being officers and soldiers to be more compassionate, more aware of the humanity of people who they may interact with in a capacity as criminals, and more interested in the process of transforming society to be more positive and loving than just picking up messes.

We of course must be undermining the narrative of racism that still pervades our culture. Officers need to look at a young black kid in a nice car and not think, “Drug dealer”. We need to be training people to overcome stereotypes. That may include going beyond a narrative of “sensitivity” to include the fact that using stereotypes in any capacity, whether as police or as private citizens, is just a terrible security policy. We need to be reminding people that the vigilance that we expend on the racial Other has a direct cost in reducing the vigilance that we have for the threats in our immediate social network and geographic space, the threats we are actually likely to have to deal with.

We have to be helping young boys find a better model of masculinity. We should be teaching them to embrace role models like Dr. King. I love the idea of being a knight. But because of my particular history, my idea of knighthood as an aesthetic to live toward includes the usage of violence only as a last resort, the belief in redeeming others through word and deed, patience, forbearance, and love.

Of course, we do have to be making reforms to police departments: Better oversight, body cameras, empowering officers to be able to come forward when they see their fellow officers engaging in violence (as, unfortunately, the majority report according to a Department of Justice study), making sure that officers who commit violence take their share of the legal and financial burden so that the problem isn’t shifted to taxpayers, and so forth.

Finally, we need to be taking our politicians, our policy advocates, and leaders in the police department to task for constantly suggesting that a punitive legalistic approach is the best way of solving our problems. There’s certainly a lot to fix in the United States. There’s a lot we could do to make our society more free of rape, of sexual abuse, of theft and violence. I’ve spent ten years of my life trying to repair the damage in people who have endured the failure of our society to protect them from sexual predators.

But better policing is only part of the solution. We need to solve the root evils of poverty, militarism, patriarchal violence and values that lead us to believe that the best way to solve a threat is to beat it into submission, and psychological pain. We need to embrace better social welfare policies, mental health infrastructure, educational policies, policies that will provide for the professional development and employment of every person ready to work so that no one has to resort to an underground parallel economy. And, as leftists, we need to be encouraging others to hope that a better world with better institutions is possible.