Sunday, November 30, 2008

Color blindness

I've had a series of interesting (to me anyway) experiences in the past few weeks. It started when, as a result of a class exercise, one of my students came up with a figure of Barack Obama hanging in effigy. It was not, I thought, a tasteful example of what we were dealing with, but beyond that I didn't think much of it. I did suggest that we needed, for fairness sake, all the other figures in the presidential contest to be hanging there too. We needed a McCain effigy, a Palin effigy, a Bush effigy, a Biden effigy, and so on.
It wasn't long before I got my chain yanked. Someone complained about images of lynchings of African-Americans, and as soon as I heard that, I know that I was in the soup (DEPARTMENT OF MIXED METAPHORS).
See, I didn't even think of Obama as an African American. I thought of him as a presidential candidate. Silly, naive me. And it is right that someone should have reminded me of the fact that he is African American and that the US has a woeful history of hanging such people out of hand and turning the whole thing into a picnic. If you don't believe me, google the words "Negro lynching" and see what you come up with. It's grim.
But, that's not my point today. It's that I was really, truly, colorblind. That's what Martin Luther King wanted, and I'm actually proud that I didn't see the African American part of it.
The problem is that people don't want me to be colorblind. Not really. They want me to always keep the memory of the lynchings in the back of my mind, so that "such things won't happen again." They seem to want to keep the sore open.
I'm not sure why this is. For one thing, there is no danger that we'll go back to lynching people. For another, it really gets in the way of the things that King and others were working for. It's a puzzler, and reminds me again how complicated people are, and how little you can trust what they say up front.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rumors and such truck

Don'cha just love rumors? I heard one yesterday that is so scurrilous I just had to share it. It seems that Barack Obama won't sing the national anthem because of those words in it about rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air -- all that violence. If, the rumor goes, our national anthem was about sharing and flowers and bluebirds, he'd sing it.

Further, the rumor goes, Obama wants us to show the Arab world that we are really meek and mild, and if we do, they won't hate us.

There are at least three possibilities here: 1) the rumors are totally false; 2) the rumors are totally true; and 3) the rumors are partly true (or partly false, depending on whether you are a half-empty or half-full person).

In almost all cases, the correct answer is number 3. It is certainly possible that Barck Obama doesn't like to sing the national anthem (I don't either. That land of the freeeeee is a killer.) and, if so, that's a right he has.

And, I'm sure he'd like to have us back off killing mid-easterners.

On the other hand, if he's not a complete idiot, he will know that in the middle east, to appear mild is to announce, "I am a victim. Do with me what you will," and it is not coincidence that Arabs have been killing each other and any one else in the neighborhood for thousands of years. My mom, who lived in Afghanistan for five years, said there is a story there that Genghis Khan killed a million people in one day. She said the people told the story with some pride.

And as for the bombs bursting in air, surely President-elect Obama realizes that there was, after all, a war of independence going on, and they aren't fought with toothpicks.

Let's say, though, that both rumors are completely true. In which case, Mr. Obama will get a healthy dose of reality therapy in January. Or, he may be getting one now, since he's the Arab world's house n*****. In any case, he'd do well to remember the words of Mr. Roosevelt about soft voices and big sticks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Focus groups

I need to explore a kind of a tricky subject today. It's this: Can I criticize a special interest group without being accused of anti [fill in the blank here]? That is, can I criticize a Spike Lee movie without being a racist? Can I criticize CAPSA (Citizens against physical and sexual abuse) without being against helping battered women?
That's the first general question. The second is like unto it: Can I criticize any group of which I am not a member? Can I criticize a Gay-rights group if I am not gay?
I remember reading once a book on blues music which strongly suggested that if a person was not African American he/she had no business talking about the blues, or even listening to it. Many of these groups (Not CAPSA, by the way; they are quietly working to help out) have a proprietary feeling toward being downtrodden that basically bothers me. Naturally, I don't mind a group being downtrodden. I don't even mind that they are trying to become uptrodden. Bravo. My dad started life on the wrong end of a shovel and ended up the director of O&M for a small city.
It's the sullen, overt signs of frustrated privelege that bother me. Groups hold endless, well-publicized, scantily-attended meetings and talk about being discriminated against (which is true), as if holding a meeting and talking about things will make people love them and see the intrinsic worth in each and every one.
Meanwhile, there are two men in Logan, Utah, who are quietly building wooden toys for children who don't even know what a toy is. No fanfare (I found out just by chance), but thousands of simple, well-made toy cars and trucks go to children who have no idea what it is to have to worry about being discriminated against. They worry about scurvy, diarrhea, starvation, and living to be six.
I don't see a quick way out. If one is part of a group that's being discriminated against, progress will come slowly, but it will come. That is, unless the group discriminated against is the stupid group, but they might well be in the majority.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Race and the race

Some years back, I remember reading a book by A. Drury, I believe, called Advise and Consent. Memory being the shaky thing that it is, I may have gotten both the author and the title wrong, but it's the thought that counts. Anyway -- one scene in this book was set at a reception for an African diplomat, who showed up in full traditional tribal regalia (This was the 60's, when things like that were cool). Anyway, one of the socialites at the reception remarked to a friend that the African was dignified and clearly intelligent, "Not," she opined, "Like ours."
Shazaam! What an insight. In the imagination of the intelligentsia, the exotic is always preferred to the homegrown. It's somehow, well, somehow, well.....better, don'cha know.
I have remarked before that Barack Obama is an African-American in the truest sense of the word. His father was African, his mother American. His genealogy does not include sons and daughters of slaves. He is outside the herd. He is exotic for this reason.
I'm convinced that this is one of the things that makes him so acceptable to the elites of this country, who are as racist (in a convoluted way) as any Klansman.
I think that this is unfortunate for two reasons:
First, we have many home-grown African-Americans who would make wonderful presidents (my vote goes to Morgan Freeman). Think of the panoply of leaders that the African-American community has generated in the last century, almost any of which would represent the country well (I'll make an exception for Adam Clayton Powell).
Second, it turns out that Barack Obama is really nothing more than a run-of-the-mill politician after all. His record is undistinguished, and he seems to have been a party lap dog for most of his tenure.
Still, he's the president, and more than one party-liner (Truman) has come on strong as president. Here's hoping that Obama does it too.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Return of the noble savage

I was in a meeting the other day, and happened to sit next to an anthropologist. We got to talking about the wonderful rock art in Nine Mile Canyon, and I expressed my viewpoint that it was probably bored teenagers tagging the neighborhood.

He replied archly that his group was trying to overcome such ethnocentric thinking.
I never got a chance to answer that, because the meeting began. So, I'd like to do it now. "Ethnocentric thinking" is the buzzword for a concept that each culture sees the world through a special set of lenses, and that what we see in another culture's artifacts is probably inaccurate. So, I look at rock art and see graffiti, while the truly cosmopolitan person knows that they aren't. They're .... well, they aren't graffiti.

I see two problems with this approach. First, it's a resurgence of the old "blank slate" hypothesis, which says that we are only compilations of our experiences and that we bring nothing with us into the world. I wonder that it still pops up, though here it's in disguise with a false beard and groucho glasses. There is a growing body of evidence that says we are pretty much alike, after all, that while each culture sees things differently, the differences are limited and actually minimal. I like this approach. It says that people are people, regardless of their culture, and though culture does influence the way we see things, it does so in a limited fashion.

The second problem is another hoary old notion -- the idea of the noble savage. Our graffitists are uncouth, uneducated louts while the Fremont taggers were expressing noble and profound thoughts as they chipped away at the rocks. The fact that we can't decipher the noble and profound thoughts is beside the point. These were pre-industrial peoples and therefore wise beyond our ability to understand. It's a kind of reverse-spin racism that's very hard to combat.

Both the blank slate and the noble savage need to travel in disguise these days, since some attention to the accumulation of new data makes them seem slightly ridiculous, but they are alive and well amongst those for whom data is not a valid basis of argument.