Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Manzanar, Arizona

The Grand Canyon State is apparently about to become a very interesting place to visit as well as to live. Thanks to a toweringly insensitive and xenophobic piece of legislation signed into law on Friday by the governor of the state of Arizona, law enforcement will, starting in August or September, have the authority to detain anyone believed to be an illegal resident of the United States, upon a spot visual assessment.

If no successful legal challenges arise, all persons of outwardly Hispanic appearance will be subject to request for proof of their citizenship status, interrogation and possible arrest by Arizona law enforcement.

Going forward, all Cactus League play will be conducted under the supervision of the state police and immigration authorities; members of the ad hoc Minutemen border-patrol organization will be deputized; and major-league greats from Manny Ramirez to Mariano Rivera will be advised to remain at their team’s hotels when playing away games against the Arizona Diamondbacks later in this baseball season.

OK, that last part’s fiction, an over-the-top extrapolation of the possible application of an over-the-top law. But what ought to be frightening is just how close the reality of life in Arizona may come to that nightmare for the state’s 1.8 million residents of Latino descent. With the new law in Arizona, and the pretext for such heavy-handed legislation emotionally established in other states with high Latino populations … we’re not that far from a Manzanar situation.

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Students of the shadow history of the United States will remember Manzanar, the name of the infamous California internment camp, one of the ten where about 110,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and coincident with the virulent anti-Asian racism that followed in its wake. The official rationale for Manzanar and the other camps scattered throughout the western United States between 1942 and 1945 was distilled in the statement of one U.S. military leader, who described Japanese Americans in the aggregate as “a dangerous element.”

The difference between Manzanar as historical fact and a possible similar scenario in Arizona’s future isn’t that vast. In each case, legal machinery is brought to bear on a wide range of human beings based on their ethnic origin. In each case, the defense of the homeland is trotted out by various apologists as the justification for the action.

In each case, a draconian, overbroad solution was employed to remedy a problem: for Arizona, a problem in need of a better, less reactionary and divisive solution; for Manzanar, a problem that never existed in the first place.

In each case, ethnic heritage constitutes probable cause.

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Subtleties like that were lost on Jan Brewer, the state’s Republican governor, who on Friday signed into law Senate Bill 1070, a measure that makes it "a state crime for illegal immigrants to not have an alien registration document", and requiring police "to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants." Note the potentially dangerous latitude of discretion built into the phrase “reason to suspect.”

Some in the conservative ranks have already defended that imprecision and conjured their own: California Rep. Brian Bilbray said it was possible to spot an illegal immigrant on the basis of the shoes they wear.

“I firmly believe it represents what’s best for Arizona,” the governor said at the signing ceremony. “Border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration are critically important issues to the people of our state, to my Administration and to me, as your Governor and as a citizen.

“There is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of Arizona. We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels. We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.

“We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north.”

(Listen for the sub rosa whispers of Brewer being touted as a GOP prospect for 2012 … any minute now.)

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The new law has its champions. Monday on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Republican state Sen. John Huppenthal took the law-enforcement perspective, returning again and again to what he said was a 50 percent reduction in violent crime directly attributable to stepped-up efforts by Arizona law enforcement — but without fully articulating the cause and effect relationship.

“We’re getting [crime] under control, making sure that our local police officers have the power, if they so desire, to enforce all laws, not just the laws [that opponents of the new measure] are talking about, about crime, but also the federal law that makes it a crime to be in this country illegally,” he said.

But the pushback was building from before the beginning. The United Farm Workers and the National Council of La Raza circulated petitions against the measure. Raul Grijalva, the Democratic state representative who fought the measure when it was a bill, took point on Thursday, calling for an economic boycott of his own state. “It’s about economic consequences to the extremists that put this law together,” he told CNN on Saturday. “It’s about political voting and it’s about [developing] a legal strategy to challenge this.”

Brewer, Huppenthal and others who backed the law have said that racial profiling remains against the law in Arizona. “I will not tolerate racial discrimination or racial profiling in Arizona,” Brewer said Friday. “Because I feel so strongly on this subject, I worked for weeks with legislators to amend SB 1070, to strengthen its civil rights protections.”

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But despite her protestations, the law Brewer signed into law is in fact the height of the legitimization of racial profiling. It’s at the very heart of the legislation: the stigmatization of a group of human beings on the basis of a suspicion.

Brewer’s seemingly pragmatic reliance on training of police officers as what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” is necessarily dependent on community perception of the threat provoking that suspicion. When so many in that community are non-Latinos, when 58 percent of the state’s population is white and of the same social class as the government leaders who advanced this legislation, the potential for abuse of the law is there, despite its good intentions.

To one degree or another, effective in August in the state of Arizona, ethnic heritage constitutes probable cause.

Alfredo Gutierrez, the state’s former Senate majority leader, grasped the malign potential at work. “There’s 30 million of us in this country,” said Gutierrez, rebutting Huppenthal on “Hardball.” “Most of us are U.S. citizens; most of us are residents. This bill puts all of us in jeopardy, and that’s the issue. It’s a deceptive piece of legislation.”

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What’s just as dismaying is how the state’s leaders could be so blind, or indifferent, to the blowback this action can be expected to have on tourism. On MSNBC’s “Counrtdown” on Friday, Keith Olbermann mentioned the possible impact on the farm clubs and training camps of professional sports franchises, and the millions of dollars those enterprises add to the state’s tax base.

You can probably expect to see and hear of boycotts by the entertainment industry, and convention planners for a wide range of professional associations, in the days and weeks to come. Does Arizona’s leadership really think something like this would go down without an impact on the bottom line?

President Obama made his feelings clear on Friday in addressing the need for immigration reform. “Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others,” he said. “That includes the recent efforts in Arizona.”

Others should be expected to weigh in. Let’s say it now, early, before the lines of ethnicity are drawn any further between Latinos and everyone else this matters to: The NAACP, the National Action Network and the broad alliance of civil rights organizations historically focused on the lives and welfare of African Americans must step up to the plate on this issue — now, loudly, early and often and aggressively — for as long as it is an issue.

This is not a racial water’s-edge matter. In the year 2010, we’re not so very far from the turbulent, tragic period in the national history when African Americans were forced to contend with the same indictment by complexion — certainly throughout the Deep South, and probably in Arizona as well.

“This bill puts us all in jeopardy,” Alfredo Gutierrez said with an ominous touch of Orwell — but it was Orwellian in the good sense, in the way George Orwell’s “1984” warned us of the dangers of the ability of governments to twist perception and subvert morality with ends-justify-the-means arguments if left unchecked by their citizens. We don’t walk away from this one — the better to stop what's fast becoming the Arizona Territory from permanently descending into a not-so-grand canyon of an expedient abdication of values, turning into the test case for any other state governments considering a slide into the same abyss.

Image credits: Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar: © Ansel Adams (now public domain). Grijalva: © 2008 Tucson Citizen.

Michael Steele gets real, again

Richard Nixon and Pat Buchanan perfected it. Bush #41 and Lee Atwater perfected it. Bush #43 and Karl Rove exploited it. And on April 20, at DePaul University, Michael Steele admitted it.

Up to now the “Southern strategy” was the Republicans’ love that dare not speak its name, a corrosive method of political divide and conquer that played up the historical and racial animosities of the Civil War in order to curry favor with white voters in the South.

Steele was very much in straight-talk mode that day, answering questions for a group of about 200 students. When at one point he was asked point-blank why black Americans should vote for Republicans, Steele said, “You really don’t have a reason to, to be honest. We haven’t done a very good job of really giving you one. True? True.

“For the last 40-plus years we had a Southern strategy that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.”

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For Republicans, the Southern strategy has mostly been something acknowledged on the downlow — like the drooling, irrational relative who won’t keep quiet when company comes over. Its role in shaping the modern GOP was never really acknowledged as a formal strategy.

What Steele said last week is important for two reasons: Perhaps never before has an official in the upper echelon of party leadership been this forthright about how the Republican Party went about its business. Steele’s history lesson laid bare the heart of the GOP philosophy as it relates to race in an unprecedented way.

And to one degree or another, Steele's comments are likely to hobble efforts at GOP outreach to black and minority voters, and no doubt some independent voters, at a time the Republican Party can't afford any more self-marginalization. That’s a major problem of optics and perception to address six months and change before the November election.

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Steele historicizes this part of GOP identity back to 1968, but the matter of the Republicans configuring themselves along color lines — the real genesis of the Southern strategy — goes back further than that, to a Southern Democrat, Strom Thurmond, and the Dixiecrats who bolted from the Democratic platform in 1948, spurred by President Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces.

What Steele said as the head of the RNC brings an issue long off the Republican radar into new and unflattering light. Conservatives have attempted to characterize Republican shortcomings on racial outreach as matters of omission, rather than commission — things they just managed to overlook over the years.

In the fall of 2004, Marc Racicot, Steele’s predecessor as RNC chairman, told me that “[t]here’s been a long period of history where we were not as careful and sensitive as we could have been as a party. As a consequence, the relationship between black Americans and the Republican Party did not grow and expand.”

But the GOP leadership has known for generations of the lingering resentment and unease on the part of southern white men over the advances of black Americans. Not for nothing do so many of those white men continue to identify with the Confederacy 145 years after the end of the Civil War. The GOP’s willingness to tap into that animosity has long been a part of the Republican political playbook — a matter of choice, not coincidence.

If that weren’t true, why did Lee Atwater — Bush #41 campaign manager and instrumental in the 1988 Willie Horton ad campaign — apologize to Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis for the Bush campaign’s “naked cruelty,” when Atwater was at death’s door in 1991?

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Any Republican attempts to solely characterize Steele’s comments as a refreshing burst of candor (which of course it was) run up against the reality of the Republican identity a la 2010. Steele described the strategy in the past tense last week, but that identity is as exclusionary and divisive now vis-à-vis racial matters as it’s been at any point since 1968.

Consider Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's recent proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month without so much as a word about slavery, the “peculiar institution” that gave the Confederacy its reason for being. Consider Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s rush to McDonnell’s defense, calling the omission of slavery something that “doesn’t amount to diddly.”

Or look at the number of once-and-future Republicans crowding the ranks of the Tea Party, whose ugly, race-tinged invective has defined it politically from the beginning.

At the very time when so much of contemporary Republicanism is obsessed with identifying the true believers, and kicking apostates to the curb in a return to core values, Steele’s bid for clarity and outreach complicates the process of determining GOP identity — of figuring out exactly who they are and what they stand for.

Steele’s historical overview of Republican strategy is likely to accelerate calls for him to step down — calls for his resignation now reinforced by a show of disloyalty to a party that prizes fidelity to party principles above just about everything else.

The prevailing calculus is that RNC delegates would rather not vote him out of his job, that they’d rather wait him out until his term ends, in January. Their assumption that they’d do more damage by firing Steele is now, and dramatically, forced to confront the suspicion of the damage Steele might do between now and November if they let him stay. Deep-pocketed donors are already defecting, pouring money into individual campaigns rather than the RNC in the wake of the recent Voyeur nightclub scandal. Would those donors donate any less to the RNC if Steele were out of the picture? Probably not.

But job security wasn’t top of mind for the RNC chairman last week. With uncommon candor, he’s thrown down a challenge to the party he leads. It won’t do them any good in this election cycle, but if the party leadership is listening, Steele’s mea culpa could help the Republicans begin the process of repositioning themselves with black and minority voters in time for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Michael Steele is daring the Republican Party to matter again. And he clearly understands the stakes. In one sentence, he both explained the black desertion from the GOP in the past, and threw down a warning for the future, one the Republicans ignore at its peril:

“People don't walk away from parties. Their parties walk away from them."

Image credit: Steele top: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press. McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Tea Party protest sign: Via The Huffington Post. 

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Will there be a new James Bond?

Came the news from BBC last week of speculation that Daniel Craig may not repeat as James Bond, the suave British superagent and walking movie franchise. Financial troubles at the constantly beleaguered MGM studio have forced the Bond 007 production team to shelve work on the 23rd James Bond film indefinitely while the suits at the studio do what Oddjob, Auric Goldfinger and Ernst Stavro Blofeld couldn’t: keep James Bond in a state of suspended animation.

While Craig himself said he expects work to resume, this kind of thing has happened before. “A six-year gap between 1989 and 1995 saw the departure of one Bond — Welsh actor Timothy Dalton — and the installation of another, Irish-born Pierce Brosnan,” BBC reports. “A four-year break between 2002 and 2006, meanwhile, saw Brosnan leave the series and Craig take over.”

Not missing an opportunity to place a seductive wager, Brit bookmaker William Hill says “Avatar” star Sam Worthington could be next. William Hill makes the Australian Worthington (who reportedly tested for the 007 role before Craig was secured) a 5/2 favorite to take over if Craig moves on.

But even more interesting is one who got honorable mention. William Hill thinks Christian Bale is 7/1 for the role — the same odds the bookmaker gives for … Will Smith.

Nope, not a typo. Not a wager from the bizzarro world. Even if it’s destined to never be more than idle speculation and fodder for conversation in the break room, it’s interesting nonetheless. Of all the actors on the planet William Hill could speculate on as a 007 successor, they picked Will Smith to be, uh, a dark horse candidate.

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This kind of thing has happened before. In December 2008, Sean (Diddy) Combs, hip-hop artist, producer, fashion and fragrances mogul and Broadway-seasoned actor, went public on YouTube with a video intended to push his I Am King men’s fragrance, and an “audition tape” to promote himself as … the next James Bond.

“I am best suited to be the next James Bond, OK?” Diddy says in the Dec. 7, 2008 video. “We got a black president, you know, it’s time for a black Bond.”

The Bond brain trust — longtime producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson — would likely be shaken and stirred by that genre-rattling prospect. Setting aside Diddy’s flimsy reasoning for making such a profound change in a storied film franchise, a black Bond would no doubt upset the legions of fans frankly accustomed to seeing Bond kick ass as a white guy. And there’s also the little matter of satisfying the minders of the Ian Fleming estate, who could be expected to have some … reaction.

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But look at it another way. There are two constants in Hollywood. (1) Things Change. (2) That Which Puts Asses in Theater Seats, Rules. On that basis, Will Smith’s odds might not be so long after all. As a reflection of changes in society for which the election of President Obama was an indicator and not a catalyst, Will Smith as 007 would be a striking departure from the past. He has the acting chops, and the range: from comedy to sci-fi, action films to straight historical roles.

If William Hill wants to place a handsome bet, they could wager on how well a Bond film with Smith at the helm would do in its first weekend. The Bond team could count on a killer opening; the curiosity factor alone would make for huge box-office.

On that score, Smith’s reputation for fulfilling Constant (2) precedes him handsomely. In April 2007, Newsweek coronated him as the most powerful actor on the planet, with more than $4.4 billion in box office. And that was before “Hancock” and “Seven Pounds,” both released in 2008, padded his total to more than $5.1 billion.

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He’s the only actor in history to have eight straight films each gross more than $100 million in U.S. box office, and he’s the only actor to have eight consecutive films he starred in open as No. 1 in U.S. box-office receipts.

"Will Smith is the only thing in this business — the only thing — that represents a guaranteed opening weekend," one “industry insider” told the magazine.

Ironically, the one thing that will probably keep this from ever happening is Smith’s stunning success. The IMDb Web site has reported that Smith has a variety of projects already lined up through 2014, including sequels of “Men in Black,” “Hancock,” “I, Robot” and “Independence Day.”

But you never know. Don’t forget Constant (1). With the global punch of the similarly powerful 007 brand and his own phenomenal track record, such a merger of equals could mean another triumph of the Will.

Image credits: Craig: Via nilacharal.com. Worthington: Warner Bros. Sean (Diddy) Combs: Lisa O'Connor/Zuma Press. Will Smith: Paul Stanley; republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Taking down the Führer

The legal eagles at Constantin Film AG have been working to put the brakes on the use of video clips from one of its films, a movie in which the likeness of Adolf Hitler was put to higher and better use than anything its real-life counterpart ever accomplished.

In the process the lawyers at the Munich-based film company frustrated (at least for a while) the blogosphere’s use of the architect of Nazi Germany as a meme for our universal talent for outrage and impatience, and reopened the issue of “fair use” of content for purposes of legitimate free expression in the 21st century.

The word went out some days ago: if you went to YouTube and downloaded any one of several parodies that included the use of excerpts from the 2004 Oscar-nominated Constantin film “The Downfall,” a takedown was coming.

The film was an examination of the last days of the Third Reich, from the perspective of those in the bunker with Adolf Hitler and his inner circle as the Russian Army slowly encircled Berlin in April 1945. The Swiss actor Bruno Ganz convincingly portrayed the Führer, in all his fulminating glory, but the film did middling business in the United States, earning $5.5 million despite its nomination for a best foreign language Oscar in 2004.

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Since then, scenes of Hitler in paroxysms of fury in the bunker have been used by rogues in the blogosphere, substituting the film’s original subtitles with titles documenting Hitler’s displeasure with everything from the iPad’s shortcomings to the dismal performance of the New York Mets, from NFL quarterback Brett Favre’s meltdown last season to the delay of the release of the latest Harry Potter movie.

On Tuesday — April 20, Hitler’s birthday, curiously enough — YouTube began taking down the parodies en masse, following Constantin’s request. Martin Moszkowicz, Constaintin’s head of film and television, told CBS News that the company had been waging its own war over copyright infringement for a long time.

“When does parody stop? It is a very complicated issue," Moszkowicz said. "So we are taking a simple approach: Take them all down. We've been doing it for years now. The important thing is to protect our copyright. We are very proud of the film.”

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Much of the Hitler takedown issue centers on application of “fair use,” the deliberately ambiguous doctrine (as expressed in Title 107 of the United States Code) that permits limited use of copyrighted material without the rights holders’ permission. In the case of parodies, American appellate courts have been historically, but not absolutely, favorable to parodies like the Hitler meme as protected instances of fair use.

At least one Jewish organization, long opposed to trivializing the 20th century’s personification of evil, hailed Constantin’s move. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told CBS his group was “delighted” with the mass takedown.

“We find them offensive,” Foxman said. “We feel that they trivialize not only the Holocaust but World War II. Hitler is not a cartoon character.”

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True enough. But many disagree — starting with “The Downfall’s” own director. In an interview with New York magazine in January, Oliver Hirschbiegel said he frequently received the videos and actually enjoyed them. “Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I’m laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn't get a better compliment as a director," he said.

“The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality,” Hirschbiegel said. “I think it's only fair if now it's taken as part of our history and used for whatever purposes people like.”

And in perhaps the ultimate tribute to the Hitler meme, various mavericks with digital cameras and a wicked sense of humor have already begun repopulating YouTube with videos parodying the YouTube takedown, some of them borrowing again from “The Downfall” — this time with Hitler ranting and foaming about ... the YouTube takedown itself. Effectively creating a meme of a meme.

While it’s true that downplaying the brutal handiwork of the ne plus ultra of evil in the service of everyday parody is tricky emotional terrain to cross, never mind the legal terrain, Constantin, and YouTube in particular, are now hostage to the wide-open creative frontier of the Internet — the same frontier that made YouTube possible in the first place, and phenomenally successful ever since. While this war over intellectual property can be expected to rage for some time to come, Hirschbiegel and the blogosphere understand all too well: You can’t keep a good meme down.

Image credits: Takedown notice: YouTube. Still from 'Downfall': © 2004 Constantin Film AG. Still from 'Downfall' parody: Andy Rowell via YouTube.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dorothy Height: The major seventh

Dorothy Height died early on Tuesday, at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., at the age of 98. The fact that most Americans won’t recognize the name of one of the more unsung but more influential figures of American social activism and the civil rights movement speaks volumes about the cult of personality, and the ways American culture and black history play favorites by gender.

When she passed Tuesday, Height was the last link between the social change of the New Deal era and that of the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1960’s. An eloquent and illuminating speaker, the personification of elegance and a milliner’s dream — sister wore hats like nobody’s business — Height brought breadth to the strategies of the civil rights movement, and helped set the table for the social changes that culminated in the presidency of Barack Obama.

As active in women’s and workers rights as she was in the civil rights arena, Height was believed to be the first to unify the drive for social justice in a way that sought to dissolve the artificial distinctions between the separate but not quite equal pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.

Born in Virginia in 1912, Height was an impressive student and speaker from the beginning, excelling in high school and ultimately receiving a scholarship to Barnard College. That’s when her intelligence and adaptability came to the fore. Rejected at Barnard despite her scholarship because of the college’s ridiculous two-blacks-at-a-time rule, Height took the subway downtown to New York University in 1929. Carrying her acceptance letter to Barnard, Height petitioned for admission — what you wouldn’t give for a transcript of that oration! — and was accepted almost immediately.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in education at NYU in 1933, and a master’s degree in psychology two years later.

In a variety of roles — as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department; assistant executive director of the Harlem Y.W.C.A.; founder of, and for 12 years director of, the Y’s Center for Racial Justice; co-founder of the National Political Women’s Caucus; and for 40 years the president of the National Council of Negro Women — Height spoke to truth to power, agitating on behalf of civil rights as a fact of life for Americans, regardless of race, color, creed, or gender.

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It’s one of the lesser known but unavoidable facts of the civil rights movement: that despite the rhetorically egalitarian boilerplate of its leaders and its mission, the civil rights movement was shot through with a sexism — by turns genteel and passive-aggressive — that was a consequence of gender roles and conventions defined within the black community for generations.

You can’t help but notice that in the thunderous closing moments of Rev, Martin Luther King’s signature oration at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, King called for hastening “that day when all of God's children, black men and white men” would join hands in freedom.

In her Tuesday obituary, Margalit Fox of The New York Times grasped the deeper historical distinctions:
Over the years, historians have made much of the so-called “Big Six” who led the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney M. Young Jr. Ms. Height, the only woman to work regularly alongside them on projects of national significance, was very much the unheralded seventh, the leader who was cropped out, figuratively and often literally, of images of the era.

In 1963, for instance, Ms. Height sat on the platform an arm’s length from Dr. King as he delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. She was one of the march’s chief organizers and a prize-winning orator herself. Yet she was not asked to speak, although many other black leaders — all men — addressed the crowd that day.
Height helped accelerate the erosion of that gender-based barrier in American society — a process that goes on today but one that’d be much longer without her presence on the scene.

At the end of his groundbreaking family history “Roots,” the scholar and author Alex Haley observed that “preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”

History written by the winners? We can debate that all day. But in a life of service to those who couldn’t recognize her name on a bet, Dorothy Height showed the ways history is often made by the people you never hear about.

Image credits: Height top: New York University. Height 1974: Associated Press. Height bottom: Associated Press.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Three takes on 4/20

What the hell is it about the twentieth of April anyway. For generations now the 110th day of the year has been a source of fascination bordering on … well, not bordering on anything so much as tipped over into obsession.

For numerologists, the number 420 has meant deception, fraud and subterfuge. Fans of nursery rhymes point to the line in “Sing a Song of Sixpence” (four and twenty black birds baked in a pie”). Fans of rock point to Stephen Stills plaintive “4+20,” what you get when you multiply the numbers in the title of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35.”

For the rest of us, the calendrical variation of the number 420 — the date April 20th — usually, or at least often, comes to three things:

There’s Adolf’s birthday. Yes, even demons have birthdays. The enduring symbol of how the cult of personality can be twisted into monumental evil was born this day in 1889, in what was then Austria-Hungary. The rest is history more ably recounted elsewhere, and lived, to one degree or another, everywhere. It’s a comforting idea, the idea that by common consent any associations between Adolf Hitler and April 20 could be expunged from the record of our collective memory, the better to reinforce his expulsion from the garden of humanity.

But thanks to white supremacists a lot like those who descended on Los Angeles over the weekend for a thwarted demonstration at City Hall, or those who offer the Fuhrer hosannas on his natal day via Stormfront and other deep-extremist Web sites, the link between Hitler and April 20 is pretty much indelible and immovable, ready to possibly inspire people to madness where you least expect it.

Like at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., 11 years ago today, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two seniors in black trenchcoated disguise, walked into the school cafeteria and shot and killed 13 people — 12 students and a teacher — with a stockpile of shotguns and pipe bombs, before turning the weapons on themselves.

It’s not clear if the Columbine killers had any specific affinity for Adolf Hitler. They clearly admired his work, and the fashion sense of the SS. But Harris and Klebold had their own stylistically original, grimly powerful read of how one brutal action can ring into the future for years, whether it’s one decade ago or 60 years in the past. Whether they deliberately invoked the Nazis almost doesn't matter; they took that date and made it their twisted own.

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Happily, we can thank stoner culture for another reason to remember 4/20. In 1971, a group of high school students in San Rafael, Calif., decided to gather one day after school at 4:20 in the afternoon to smoke marijuana while searching for … a missing crop of marijuana thought to be growing near Point Reyes. Ryan Grim recounts their exploits in today’s Huffington Post.

Since then, herbal aficionados have gathered on 4/20 to celebrate cannabis culture and the increasingly confident movement toward decriminalization of marijuana. (My alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder, celebrates the day in high style; more than 10,000 students showed up at last year’s celebration. This year’s turnout? Depends on who you talk to.

From the Colorado Daily:
The university estimates that 8,000 people showed up for Tuesday's unofficial smoke-out, about the same number as last year, said Bronson Hilliard, spokesman for the Boulder campus. Police officers took the rough crowd measurement while standing on a top floor in Norlin Library so they could get a bird's-eye view of the quad, he said.
But Alex Douglas, executive director of the CU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, estimates there were at least 15,000 people assembled on [Norlin Quad].
Whatever their actual number, we can thank this group of necessary yahoos for rescuing April 20 from being the downer that history says it should be.

“April is the cruelest month,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Waste Land.”

But not necessarily.

Image credits: Hitler: Deutsches Bundesarchiv. Klebold and Harris at Columbine: In-school closed circuit image from 1999. Marijuana: Chemistry World blog. Boulder 4/20 celebration smoker: Daily Camera/Mark Leffingwell.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alicia Keys, Monster Super Woman

Until the deadline closes for the position, the unemployed online have a new friend in our corner, and one of us maybe even has a job waiting. Thank Alicia Keys for that.

Recently, subscribers to the monster.com job search service got a pleasant wake-up call in the early morning monster posting: an ad by an employer seeking an employee. What an ad. What an employer:

Some things work better than coffee for putting steam in the morning stride. This has been one of them.

Ms. Keys seeks a “head blogger” for her new IAAS.com Web site, which will focus on news and empowerment advice for women. If you’ve got mad soash skills, Ms. Keys would like to hear from you and maybe put you to work helping her in reinventing her persona for the Web, and in expanding access to news pertinent to women online.

The vetting window closes on May 3.

Besides knowing Web culture and having an active blog or social site to prove that with, here’s some of what’s required:

A background in Public Relations, Marketing / Web Marketing, Media Relations, Communications, Journalism, Writing, Digital Media, Internet Canvassing, and/or Social Media.
• Experience using web development tools and software such as Microsoft Office, Microsoft on Demand, Dreamweaver, Illustrator, WordPress, LiveJournal, and Digital Media Platforms.

Here’s what else is required:

2-3 years of related work experience.
• A Bachelors Degree or equivalent experience.
• Must be authorized to work in the United States. Unable to sponsor or transfer H1 visas at this time.
• Must be available for frequent domestic and international travel. Must have valid passport, and must complete any additional paperwork necessary for government travel clearances.
• Final candidates will be interviewed in New York City as part of a news segment on a national TV network morning show on or about May 17-20, 2010, and in London, UK at the Black Ball on or about May 27, 2010. Candidates must be able to travel to and participate in the interviews.
• Submit to a thorough background and reference check.
• Must be willing and able to report to work in New York City, NY.

And you pick up the tab for relocation. To New York City. Take it from one who knows: that can be a full-time job in itself.

But still, for the right person, this could be (as Ms. Keys advertises it) “an Opportunity of a Lifetime!”

For the rest of us in the hunt … it’s at least the best-looking jobs ad we’ve seen all year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Black journalists’ good bad days

On Monday we discovered just how much of two minds, of at least two distinct American realities the American media can be on matters of who advances in the nation’s newsrooms and who doesn’t, and the curious calculus by which that’s decided.

Richard Prince’s excellent Journal-Isms column (a longtime fixture of the Maynard Institute Web site and most recently syndicated in The Root) broke it down in one place for readers on Monday — Pulitzer Day.

Among the winners of the most prestigious and recognized prize in American journalism were The Denver Post, which won for feature photography; and for the Philadelphia Daily News, which won for investigative reporting.

Greg Moore is the editor of The Denver Post; Michael Days is executive editor of the Daily News.

For the first time, mainstream American dailies helmed by not one but two African American editors won two of the more coveted Pulitzer Prizes, the recognition for the two elements of modern print journalism — powerful photography and the compelling shoe-leather public-interest news story — that still resonate with the American public (or the percentage of the public that still read newspapers).

It was a good day right after a bad one.

◊ ◊ ◊

See, on Sunday, we got the results of the 2010 newsroom census from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, its findings a perfect distilling reason why black Americans, and especially black journalists, often characterize progress as one step forward, one step back (or is it two steps back? We forget sometimes).

The ASNE newsroom report found that, overall, the percentage of minorities in newsrooms was 13.26 percent, a drop of .15 of a percentage point from a year ago.

But black journalists got hit the hardest of everyone. The ASNE survey found there were 929 fewer African American journalists than were recorded in 2001, a falloff of 31.5 percent. The ranks of Native American journalists fell by 52, or 20.9 percent in the same time. Hispanic representation declined by 145, or 7 percent. The number of white journalists fell by 10,400, or 20.9 percent.

Newsroom jobs held by black journalists were cut by 19.2 percent in 2009, nearly six percentage points higher than the previous year.

◊ ◊ ◊

In a statement released Tuesday, Kathy Y. Times, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), called it “a travesty that minority journalists would be targeted disproportionately in staff cuts. Despite the economy we must keep our newsrooms and voices at least on parity with the communities we serve.”

Communities are not of one color and neither should newsroom decision makers,” she said.

“It’s about accuracy,” NABJ Diversity Director Bobbi Bowman said of the census objective, in the same NABJ statement. “Can you accurately cover your community if you have a newsroom that doesn’t look like your community?”

“Readers are very smart and readers know whether or not their newspaper is covering news that is important and relevant to them,” she said Tuesday.

And we might have known this would follow. The NABJ said on Tuesday that its board "is scheduled to meet in the Washington, D.C.-area this weekend to discuss the recent ASNE findings and develop an action plan for improving newsroom hiring and retention of black journalists."

This latest broadside on the media’s institutional lethargy could well be the moment of the gauntlet throwdown. As media orgs rebound from the economy and begin rehiring, as many of the bigger players start to conceptualize how to cover the 2010 race (and begin to decide who gets to do it); as the country grapples again with race as the volatile, powderkeg subtext for everything political in the country ... watch for fireworks, or maybe just some overdue surprises.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The elephant’s nervous breakdown

It was another bright, warm day in April, the clocks were again sounding thirteen, and the workers dragged the chairs out of cubicles and grouped them in the middle of the hall in the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, in preparation for the start of the Republican Southern Leadership Conference, the Three Days Hate.

◊ ◊ ◊

Like a similar event attended by Winston Smith, the protagonist of Orwell’s “1984” (shamelessly mangled in the previous graph), the Republicans convened a kind of Hate Week over the weekend as their kickoff to the 2012 election season. There was a refreshingly high-minded purpose to some of the proceedings.

“Over and over, Republican speakers said their party had gone astray when it held in power; it was time, they argued, to get the party back on track with a focus on fiscal restraint and a break with the party's recent past,” reported Brian Montopoli today at CBS News. But elsewhere there was evidence of the bashing and condemnation that’s been a ritual enacted by party leadership in Congress, and (with a lot less eloquence) by party partisans in the streets.

Liz Cheney, surrogate for the former vice president, set the table for the event on Thursday. “The Obama administration is putting us on the path to decline,” she said, explaining the three-pronged Obama doctrine: "apologize for America, abandon our allies and appease our enemies."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the Obama White House “a secular socialist machine” on Thursday. “This is the most radical administration in American history. … If you think about the group that meets together in the White House, their experience is the machine politics of Chicago, the corruption of Springfield and the radicalism of [Saul] Alinsky.” Gingrich then proposed that “when” the Republicans retake the Congress in January, the Obama administration should be handcuffed by a congressional refusal to fund any of its policies and agencies — a threat to shut down the United States government.

Nominal former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin took aim on Friday at “the makings of the Obama doctrine, which is coddling enemies and alienating allies … Don’t retreat, reload — and that is not a call for violence. … Yes we can kowtow to enemies, criticize allies, vacillate, bow, dither ... but somebody needs to tell the president just because we can doesn’t mean that we should.”

And not to be outdone by those in New Orleans, the head of the Republican Governors Association, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, set a spell with CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday and continued the repeal of rational thinking announced (and amended) last week by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’d previously decided that slavery in Virginia was no B.F. Deal, before he decided that it was after all.

Barbour (who’s actually been considered a possible presidential contender, bless his heart), told Crowley on “State of the Union” that McDonnell was right about slavery.
CROWLEY: The [Virginia] Governor didn’t even mention slavery in his proclamation. Was that a mistake?

BARBOUR: Well, I don’t think so ... I don’t know what you would say about slavery, but anyone who thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing — I think it goes without saying. ...

CROWLEY: You know what I’m trying to get at. There’s a sort of feeling that it’s insensitive, that you clearly don’t agree ...

BARBOUR: To me it’s a sort of feeling that it’s just a nit. That it is not significant. It’s trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.
All props to Barbour, staying the course of his constituents, all praise for fidelity to the past on the part of the governor of the state of Mississippi, a holdout on ratification of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution (the one prohibiting slavery) until 1995.

◊ ◊ ◊

The desperation with which the elements of the moderate-to-extremist right have hurled themselves against any hint of deliberative compromise with the Obama White House has been sadly astonishing — like that of a sleeper thrashing in his slumber against an unseen enemy, fighting with all his might against a phantom of the mind.

It’s a case of mental illness as political metaphor. There’s mounting evidence that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are jointly and rapidly approaching the low point of an identity crisis, that some kind of psychic snap is coming shortly. The GOP is having a nervous breakdown.

A predisposition toward instability was first suspected during the 2008 presidential campaign, in which the party standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain, displayed the ethical duality and tendency to ruthlessness common to the political diagnosis.

Some would say the condition first fully presented in the Joint Session of Congress in September 2009, when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson cemented himself in the history books for at least one memorable achievement during his time in the House (“You lie!”). In the fourteen months since then, and especially as the health-care debate wound its way torturously through Congress into law, the Republicans and their more emotional proxies in the Tea Party movement, engaged in cheap shots and a breathtaking range of character assassinations.

This disorder may be contagious. The conservative ranks might actually be spreading this condition around the country. It’s already got people confused. Americans don’t know who to vote for if they want an alternative to the Democrats. With conservatives staking out their territory separate from the Republicans staking out their territory as a thing apart from the Tea Party crew … right now the American people are faced with three flavors of conservative identity: Traditional, Deep-Fried Partisan and Extra Hysterical.

How do you choose between the three in November? Do you even bother to try? How can you be expected to make up your mind when the big-C and small-c conservatives can’t seem to make up their own minds about who and what they are?

◊ ◊ ◊

Last week Bob McDonnell forgot to mention slavery in a state proclamation honoring the Confederacy. Then the Republican Southern Leadership Conference convened in New Orleans and forgot to mention the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

That amnesia of convenience, the philosophical schizophrenia, the strategies of opposition ranging from Palin’s passive-aggressive snark to the Tea Party crowd’s more graphically corrosive racism … it’s all proof of the Republican Party experiencing an episode of unprecedented high anxiety.

As President Obama gets ready to nominate his second Supreme Court Justice, watch for the condition to get that much worse. Watch for Hate Week to be convened somewhere else in America.

Image credits: Palin: Gerald Herbert/AP. Wilson: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP. Republican tea: CBS.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Revisionist history in Virginia

Six hundred twenty thousand Americans dead. Another 412,000 wounded. Cities and towns destroyed, an economic infrastructure agonizingly transformed. A president assassinated. That’s the grim snapshot hallmark of the Civil War, never so much the War Between the States as it was the War Between the Confederacy and the United States. Among that conflict’s legacies is its lingering presence in this nation; among the most painful ironies we recognize about the Civil War is the one we’d most like to forget: it’s a war that’s still being waged today.

Bob McDonnell, the newly-minted Republican governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, reminded us of that.

Reviving a tradition discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, McDonnell issued a proclamation on Friday declaring April to be Confederate History Month in Virginia, doing so at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization of descendants of rebel soldiers with members from Trent Lott to MSNBC’s Pat Buchanan, from Charlie Daniels to Clint Eastwood.

McDonnell was the first Virginia governor to so recognize the Confederacy since Republican Jim Gilmore did it in 2001. But McDonnell made his Friday proclamation with no mention of slavery, the peculiar institution that gave the Confederacy its very oxygen. Slavery in the state of Virginia, erased by decree.

That’s when everything went, well, deep south. Condemnation exploded in various corners, including high-ranking political figures, and progressive lawmakers and organizations.

Tim Kaine, who preceded McDonnell as governor and is now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said McDonnell’s tribute to the Confederacy "without condemning, or even acknowledging, the pernicious stain of slavery or its role in the war disregards history, is insensitive to the extraordinary efforts of Americans to eliminate slavery and bind the nation's wounds."

The outrage from the cable TV department of the punditburo, and an equal amount of discontent from the online commentariat was just as loud. It all prompted McDonnell (or someone on his staff with a better grasp of historical cause and effect than the governor) to amend the proclamation.

On Wednesday the governor finally came more or less correct — not politically correct but humanistically correct — with an edited version of the proclamation, and a mea culpa:

“The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize to any fellow Virginian who has been offended or disappointed.”

“It is important for all Virginians to understand that the institution of slavery led to this war, and was an evil and inhuman practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights.”

McDonnell’s backing and filling was punctuated by a news conference on Wednesday that reportedly showed the governor well off his game, fumbling and stumbling to explain what he was thinking. He performed damage control the best he could, but less than three months into the job, McDonnell has shown he’s tone-deaf on stagecraft, and apparently even clueless about the breadth of his constituency, which includes not just the people who voted for him but everyone in the state of Virginia. Even 1.54 million people who don’t look a thing like him. People who know what slavery had to do with the state they live in.

◊ ◊ ◊

McDonnell’s epic fail was wrong on so many levels. It reflected a shallow reading of history as a collection of figures in a diorama, the stuff of a reenactment, tweakable and cherry-picked at will. This was the dumbest, most politically expedient kind of revisionist history. It was revisionist history that celebrated a tradition while overlooking the antecedents that made that tradition possible. Without slavery, there’d have been no anti-slavery position for Abraham Lincoln to run on and win an election with; without Lincoln’s election, the rationale for secession and the Confederacy vanishes.

In his freshman governor’s bid to shore up bona fides with his political base, McDonnell made a reflexive rush to the Stars & Bars without thinking things through. Just months into his brilliant career, he may have just had his macaca moment.

Even before he won the governorship last year, McDonnell was being quietly bruited as the next telegenic, tousle-haired Bright Young Thing in Republican politics. Now? Maybe not so much. We will see. Whatever his political future holds, he’s just demonstrated one trait the GOP leadership will find familiar, if not exactly comforting: Clearly, Bob McDonnell can already gaffe with the best of them. And the worst.

Image credits: Bob McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

In search of the old new Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods officially begins his quest for a fifth green Masters jacket on Thursday afternoon, when he tees off, with K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar, in his first round of golf of the year. The gallery — the one at Augusta National and the other, bigger one watching the proceedings on television — will be packed.

And as of today, three more people figure in the sexual farrago of the former life of the world’s greatest golfer and richest athlete, the public consequences of that not-quite-private life, and the potential for redemption, a way out of the deep rough.

◊ ◊ ◊

As the saga of infidelities has unfolded since November, it looked for awhile that those within the friendly confines of Augusta National had largely looked the other way, forgiving Tiger for his ethical meltdown, welcoming him back into the fold no questions asked. Then, today, Billy Payne busted a cap.

As part of his annual state of the Masters news conference, Payne, the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club said what’s been said elsewhere during the last four months, but formally putting the Masters organization on the record.

"As he now says himself, he forgot in the process to remember that with fame and fortune comes responsibility, not invisibility," Payne said. "It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here. It is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grandkids."

"Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children," Payne said. "I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile."

"We at Augusta hope and pray that our great champion will begin his new life here tomorrow in a positive, hopeful and constructive manner, but this time, with a significant difference from the past. This year, it will not be just for him, but for all of us who believe in second chances.

"Is there a way forward? I hope yes. I think yes. But certainly his future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change."

◊ ◊ ◊

You could be of two minds in reacting to Payne’s news conference drive-by. Payne did end a relative silence from the Masters leadership, coming with a sermon from golf's mount that we might have expected, sooner or later. Tiger Woods is returning to competitive golf for the first time since the sturdy gated, exclusive insulation around the hot copper wire of his personal life cracked open in a driveway in Florida. And he’s returning at the Masters. As the head of a golfing franchise as much a national institution as it is a sporting organization — what other golf event has a “state-of-the” news conference before it begins? — Payne was obligated to make some kind of Official Statement consistent with the 74-year-old history of the event. It's only right.

But still. Tiger Woods has become a part of modern Masters lore, and by extension helped grace Augusta National and the Masters with millions in revenue and burnishing the Masters’ already solid reputation with the added luster of being the site of some of the greatest contests in the game. Payne’s statement — something from a perspective part preacher, part moralist, part disappointed dad — could have been made about any random phenom coming to the Masters for the first time after a potentially crippling scandal. You wonder if Payne might have told this to Tiger privately, if for no other reason than to spare Tiger the embarrassment, and to spare himself any appearance of punitively piling on ("As he now says himself”). Where was the love?

◊ ◊ ◊

If Payne might have been in a privately forgiving mood, Tiger wasn’t helped with today’s news that Raychel Coudriet, Tiger Woods' neighbor, claimed through a friend that she slept with him last year, according to the National Enquirer.

From the Enquirer:
”Raychel Coudriet, now a 22-year-old grad student at a state university in the south, had a torrid one-night stand with the cheating champion that left her ‘shaken and humiliated,’ says one of her close friends.

“Shockingly, Tiger's sexual advances started in his car, only yards from where the golfer's devoted wife Elin was home, ending with a two-hour sex session on the couch in Tiger's private office.
The perverse timing of this, frankly, seems inescapable: an obvious attempt, almost psychologically malicious, to interfere with Tiger’s mental faculties — to get inside his head the way Tiger gets inside the heads of his competition on the course.

◊ ◊ ◊

But nothing gets in your head and stays there like what your parents tell you. Whether you take their advice or not, the lessons of the family are the first we ever learn, in voices we hear long after they’re gone. Nike understands this.

In the latest of its series of sometimes baffling, often intriguing television ads — spots that sell mindset as much as merchandise, striving to make connections between sports and life with either the starkness of a documentary or the splash of a musical — Tiger is summoned by the ghost of Earl Woods, his father, who passed in 2006.

Tiger, in living black & white, stands stock-still before the camera as his father speaks:

“Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion. I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything.”

Cut to the swoosh. And the chase: In its own enigmatic, visually striking way, Nike formally announces that, while a parade of other sponsors bailed out since November, Nike still has Tiger’s back. And in an undeniably personal way, Tiger's father reaches out from beyond the grave and speaks as only a father can to a son. The words were spoken in reference to one of Tiger's early tournaments, but in the context of the current crisis, they're another way of saying, I've got your back too.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s a good sign. While Payne was of a mind to weigh in and Coudriet may be of a mind to cash in, Nike’s willingness to stand in the fire with Tiger Woods may be some indicator of all this turning a corner. Finally. On Thursday a little before 2 o’clock Eastern time, it gets back to where it matters, on the golf course.

That’s where we’ll be looking for the old new Tiger Woods: the one who now not only inspires children and adults in the abstract but pays attention to them in the gallery … one and the same with the Tiger Woods who, with his father watching, through talent and relentless application and the sheer force of an indomitable will, awed and dazzled the world as the greatest golfer it has ever seen.

Image credit: Tiger Woods: © 2010 NikeGolf. Billy Payne: ESPN. Raychel Coudriet: National Enquirer via Twitter.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Michael Steele’s ‘honest answer’ and its consequences

It was the smartest, most astute, least ideologically-driven thing that Michael Steele’s said in a long time, and he caught hell for it almost immediately.

The “it” was his response to a question from a commentator on one of the morning TV gabfests — a response that laid his heart vis-à-vis the matter of racial equality in the United States, tolerance, patience and whether it’s possible for the storied playing field to ever be level.

Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been under fire from many analysts and observers (including this one) for his role in contributing to the fiscally licentious management culture that led to the RNC’s West Hollywood spending scandal, and the resulting fallout. He was interviewed Monday by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
STEPHANOPOULOS: We've got a lot of questions on my blog for you this morning.


STEPHANOPOULOS: One came in from Myron. And he asked, "Do you feel that, as an African-American, you have a slimmer margin for error than another chairman would?"

STEELE: The honest answer is yes.


STEELE: It just is. Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We — A lot of folks do. It's a different role for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that's just the reality of it.
The pushback was immediate, aggressive and (a departure for modern Washington) totally bipartisan. Ken Blackwell, the former Ohio secretary of state and the vice RNC chairman, jumped on Steele with all fours. “To interject race here is nonsense. There is a pattern of missteps, miscues and misstatements. And as a consequence, we now can’t fall back on the issue of race.”

And White House press secretary and Quipmaster General Robert Gibbs displayed an enviable rhetorical economy on the matter, dismissing Steele’s comments in a single sentence. “Michael Steele’s problem isn’t the race card. It’s the credit card.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Blackwell’s response probably obscured some of the deeper issues on race that the Republicans have. What no doubt truly raised the ire of the Republicans over Steele’s comments had much to do with equating himself with Obama on this issue. That’s what got the GOP in an uproar.

“Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. … A lot of folks do.” With two brief sentences, Steele brought down part of the GOP’s carefully constructed barrier of political distinctions. By existentially aligning himself with Obama, Steele undercut his party’s effort to maintain the philosophical firewall, the us vs. them, that’s central to contemporary Republican identity. Finding common cause with “the enemy” on the nation’s enduring third-rail issue blurs the battle lines, creates the rationale for carving out a commonality the Republicans want nothing to do with. That’s one of the reasons why Blackwell hit back so hard.

And for the Obama White House, and for Democrats generally, Steele’s reply to 'Myron' was problematic because it reawakened debate over a crucial aspect of the racial divide, reanimated an intrinsically corrosive but utterly necessary narrative that the Democrats have invested much time and political capital in trying to put to rest (witness the quixotic "postracial" meme that no one who's serious about this country takes seriously).

◊ ◊ ◊

Steele’s honest answer, of course, is the right one. There’s always been a different threshold, a different mathematics of performance that black Americans have been subject to. The saying about “working twice as hard to get about as much” has long standing in black and minority America. It distills many of the interracial and inter-ethnic disparities in the national life, from educational achievement scores to advancement in the workplace, from unemployment statistics to life expectancies.

In a perfect world, or a less partisan one, the fact that Steele understands this would be cause for celebration. As it is, it’s another indicator of the current reflexive ruthlessness of our politics. Steele’s comments reflect a grasp of that division; ironically, the reactions to what he said don’t conceal that division so much as they reveal it for what it is.

The fact that Steele drew fire from both sides of the aisle for his honest answer to an important question indicates the common ground the Democrats and Republicans already share:

Whether it occurs within a Republican Party allergic to broadening its appeal to black and minority voters, or from inside a Democratic administration determined to take the high road on race matters by avoiding the road altogether whenever possible ... denial is an equal opportunity experience.

Image credit: Steele top: Good Morning America/ABC News. President Obama: Still from White House video, August 2009. 

Nominating America: Obama's 10 Supreme prospects

The anglers’ saying for making a decision — “fish or cut bait” — has rarely attracted so much attention as it has since Sunday, when Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens used the phrase to set the terms for deciding on a time for retiring from the court. “There are still pros and cons to be considered,’ Justice John Paul Stevens told The New York Times. “[But] I do have to fish or cut bait, just for my own personal peace of mind and also in fairness to the process. The president and the Senate need plenty of time to fill a vacancy.”

Stevens’ judicial early warning means that President Obama will nominate the 112th Justice of the Supreme Court — a choice he’ll make amid a political atmosphere more charged and partisan now than it was last year, when Sonia Sotomayor was appointed after reactions from the Senate, the public and right-wing radio that went from the mildly controversial to the downright derogatory (remember Rush Limbaugh’s allusions to Sotomayor as a cleaning woman?). ...

It’s a fact that whoever President Obama nominates to the court will be required to pass a test as fraught with politics as with a command of the law. Olive branches from ranking Senate Republicans notwithstanding, GOP senators can be expected, as a matter of reflex, to oppose whoever he chooses.

And Obama’s progressive-left base isn’t a slam-dunk for support, either; liberals and progressives will call on Obama to make a selection that reflects attention to that constituency — important now, vital in 2012. The one and possibly two appointments Obama may make before long is his chance to make his philosophical imprint on the court whose laws impact Americans like no other.

Ten names that come to mind — most of them previously floated on any number of hypothetical short lists — would offer the president an embarrassment of riches: a range of intellectual and judicial heavyweights reflecting a range of personal perspectives very much like America itself. ...

Read the 10 ready for Supreme consideration at TheGrio.

Image credit: President Obama: Pool image, March 21.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Note to BlackWeb 2.0 re iPad: First isn’t always best

The iPad revolution is held to have officially begun on Saturday at 9 a.m., when Apple began sales of the multimedia tablets nationwide. According to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster's estimates for iPad's first day of sales, somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 iPads were sold on that frabjous opening day.

While the jury is very much out about who those 600K to 700K customers were, Ken Gibbs Jr. of BlackWeb 2.0 weighed in on March 30 with a lament (also published Saturday, in TheGrio) over who’s apparently opted out of the first wave of media organizations and publications to embrace redesigned Web presences built around the device.

“[W]hat about the African-American market?” Gibbs asks. “Has anyone seen or heard of an iPad demo of Ebony or Jet? Or how about Black Enterprise, Essence, Uptown or Vibe? African-American brands are the ones who could benefit most from the new revenue streams offered by the iPad.”

BW2.0 has a valid point. We’ve known the generalities of what Apple was planning for some time; The New York Times published a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office drawing of an Apple prototype months ago. We’ve known the specifics of what was coming since January, when Apple chieftain Steve Jobs showed it to the world in a dog-and-gigabyte show in San Francisco.

So it is curious that Johnson Publishing Company, publishers of Ebony and Jet, apparently didn’t come up with an early promotable working prototype of their Web sites in the iPad environment, in light of Johnson’s recent (and stunningly attractive) makeovers of both print magazines — and their Web counterparts.

Same would seem to be true for Essence — and for Black Enterprise! Given BE’s high-profile place in minority business journalism, some from-the-jump tie-in with a device likely to be a new and powerful form of personal technology would seem to be a no-brainer.

◊ ◊ ◊

It’s entirely possible, though, that all those print pubs BlackWeb mentioned may have such iPad-configured prototypes in the works right now. It’s not necessarily an advantage to be the first one out of the chute on tweaking a major technological advancement.

With the way technology changes in general, and the way Apple technology can be relied on to change in particular, there’s a lot to be said for laying in the cut for a minute and surveying the terrain before you jump in. Maybe they’re all taking a page or two from Sun Tzu.

We can assume (and sure as hell hope) that when the dust settles, the Webmasters at those black pubs will have iPad-ready versions of their sites, and soon. Like all the early adopters who waited in lines outside Apple Stores for days, the top-shelf, deep-pocketed publishers got in first, which means they’re hostage to any glitches or malfunctions that might arise in the first-generation devices themselves. First-to-market isn’t always the one that people remember.

As it was with the vote, major league baseball and the presidency of the United States, African Americans may not get to something early in the game, but the impact made when we finally arrive is inescapable.

Stay tuned. Better still, stay wired.

Image credit: Steve Jobs, January 2010: Apple tablet patent illustration: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, via The New York Times. Apple Inc. Brother iPad: Via The Huffington Post.

Bob Huggins, soul man

West Virginia's valiant, quixotic run for the NCAA men's basketball title ended on Saturday night in heartbreaking fashion. The team, at the hands of a relentless attack by the Duke Blue Devils, lost their semifinal bid by 20 points. But the pluck and heart of the Mountaineers was pretty well distilled at one point during the game — not by one of the players, but by coach Bob Huggins.

In the fourth quarter, West Virginia's DaSean Butler took a bad cut driving to the basket; after colliding with Duke center Brian Zoubek, his left knee buckles and Butler falls to the floor, writhing in agony. Trainers and players did their best to console Butler, even as the team's medical people prepared to carry him off the court (later to find out Butler had a torn anterior cruciate ligament, one of the more serious injuries).

But before that happened, Huggins went on to the court at Lucas Oil Stadium to minister personally to his fallen player. In so doing, the irascible, colorful Mountaineers head coach created one of the most quietly electrifying, human moments in sports history.

Crouching over Butler, Huggins held him, caressed him, his face inches from Butler's own, cradled the stricken man in his arms and talked him through the world of his pain. We may never know exactly what soothing, anodyne words passed from coach to player. Huggins will paraphrase it for us forever — and maybe it's best that we don't know. Somehow, the transcript is beside the point

What the world will long remember ten years or a hundred years from now is the image, and the moment that made the image possible, of two human beings in communion. A player fallen in battle; a coach with a deep and inestimable reservoir of soul.

This was beyond authority or age or race. This was even beyond sports. This was a celebration, purchased with pain, of our base metal, the best of what human beings can be.

Friday, April 2, 2010

'SNL' rewrites the rules

With its two recent hot choices for upcoming hosting duties, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” is proving you don’t have to be a spring chicken — or be built like one — to get a gig on the show that may be the best reason to stay in on Saturday night.

On Thursday the Marquee Blog at CNN.com confirmed, through a NBC spokeshuman, that Gabourey Sidibe, the Oscar-nominated sensation of Lee Daniels’ highly and justly acclaimed “Precious,” is set to host the comedy sketch show on April 24. It will be Gabby’s first-time hosting gig on SNL, now in its 35th year. (Look at its longevity another way: the show was eight years along when Sidibe was born.)

Howard Stern, where is thy sting?

That news drops a few weeks after it was announced that Betty White, the octagenarian hottie star of TV, movies (“The Proposal”) and Snickers Super Bowl ads, will host ‘SNL’ on May 8 (that’s the day before Mother’s Day. Don’t forget.).

“SNL” jefe Lorne Michaels told USA Today the Mom’s Day appearance by White, 88 years young, was just the right thing to do. "She's the mother of us all in comedy," he said. The massive outpouring of popular support — more than 135,000 people approved of the idea in a recent Facebook poll — might have had a little bit to do with it too.

The casting picks show “SNL” continuing to break new ground. When Gabby stars on the show, she’ll be one of the few African American celebrities to host a program that’s come in for criticism of its often all-white cast, and its monochromatic hosting history. But hold up: TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley did the hosting honors on Jan. 9 and former cast member Tracy Morgan (a mainstay of NBC’s “30 Rock”) did it on March 14. We got a trend thing working here.

And White will take the stage at Studio 8H as the oldest “Saturday Night Live” host ever — a refreshing departure from pop culture’s tendency to focus on the Bright Young Thing of the Moment.

All props, then, to “Saturday Night Live” for continuing to step outside the box —like it did in the past.

Next up: Mickey Rourke?

Image credits: Gabby: Via The Huffington Post. Betty: Lifeline Program/Mike Ruiz Photography, via The New York Times.
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