Sunday, December 2, 2012

Must-See History: James Baldwin in San Francisco, 1963

Last week a silly "debate' over Olympic champion gymnast Gabby Douglas' hair dominated social media. Fortunately, by the weekend, the same social media network that so often exasperates me coughed up an unexpected jewel:

A 1963 documentary, "Take This Hammer,' featuring James Baldwin in San Francisco.

A Facebook friend, Darryl Cox, put the link on my Wall after I'd posted a story on gang violence in SF that I'd read in The San Francisco Chronicle. Cox, who had worked in city government in San Francisco decades ago, is an excellent source of contemporary black history on "the Paris of the West."

Cox told me that "Take This Hammer" had only aired once in San Francisco, in 1963, and that it had upset the powers that be in my hometown.

I watched it for the first time last week, on August 3 -- coincidentally, one day after what would have been Baldwin's 88th birthday.

It was produced by KQED on behalf of National Education Television, predecessor of WNET in New York.

In it, Baldwin is an expert interrogator of his subjects, black residents of San Francisco. He is physically small but armed with an alarmingly direct gaze, a fearsome intellect, and a sharp way of drawing out his subjects. The producer or director also made the wise decision to cut in excerpts of Baldwin talking directly to the camera, seated in what appears to be a tidy apartment, smoking, wearing a natty white shirt and neck-kerchief, and succinctly, somewhat dispassionately deconstructing his findings.

Among several pungent comments and observations by Baldwin, during the 44 minute long documentary:

-- "There will be a Negro president of this country, but he won't be president of the same nation we are sitting in now."

-- "The Liberal can't be safe and heroic too."

-- You cannot pretend you're not despised if you are."

I am greatly moved by this documentary. For starters, Baldwin is a literary and journalistic hero of mine. Second, as anyone who has read my opinion-writing during the past decade probably knows, I was born in San Francisco in 1963.

Growing up there, I felt a thrill of endless possibilities -- much as the techie-hipsters and financiers who currently throng its streets likely experience -- a pervasive sense of optimism aided in no small part by the city's spectacular vistas, cozy layout, sophisticated understatement. (Though a journalist friend, Tim Golden, once told me that he found the city and some of its denizens a mite 'precious' for his liking.)

My family was middle-class, we lived for a time in subsidized housing on Potrero Hill, then Bernal Heights, then in a tidy house on the West or 'ocean' side of the city, which my Mom bought. I attended well-funded public schools in the Sunset District and went to church camp in Sonoma County every summer. Only when I reached my mid-20s and entered the workforce in earnest did it occur to me that my race or gender might be features that could slow my professional development and possibly dampen my chances for a successful career. As a 1963 resident tells Baldwin in "Take this Hammer," no blacks had to fear a Bull Connor or a Klansman chasing them down the city's hilly inclines. But one might just be 'killed with a pencil," instead, in the city's corporate or retail workforce. My adult family-members all worked in government agencies, which offered job security and enforced meritocracy. There were few immediate role models for me as I made my entree to private industry -- the news business -- during and after college.

I outline that dynamic in greater detail in my current book, and acknowledge that the media business in the Bay Area -- such as it was in the 1980s when I came of age -- was and is a unique animal within the overall workforce in San Francisco. And now, of course, the media industry has been all but subsumed by the tech industry, and the population of black residents has been diminishing steadily since the early 1980s. Are native blacks who remain being employed at these shiny new enterprises? What do you think?

The sentiments expressed by the city's black residents who were interviewed by Baldwin in '63 -- particularly the young adult males who are frustrated over being shut out of the workforce -- are devastating....and familiar. I have watched this documentary three times since Darryl Cox shared it with me.

I am still processing "Take this Hammer" and will probably write about it again.

For now, I hope you find the time to watch it in full: I love my hometown but I hope you can forgive me if I am also a bit cynical about its legendary reputation as a citadel of social and economic egalitarianism.

"Take This Hammer" lives, by the way, at the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, which is housed at my alma mater, San Francisco State University. I believe it deserves a home, too, at the Paley Center in New York. Then again, as a black SF native and a Baldwin adherent, I am not exactly impartial about its historic significance.

Oh, and a viewing tip: Disable the captioning feature before watching.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Skyfalling off the Fiscal Cliff? Let's Blame Mommy!

Among many riveting elements to Javier Bardem's performance as "Mister Silva," the newest Bond villain, one stands out:  His resemblance to Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

The actor presents a powerful and coldly seductive figure in his role as 007's enemy. He is tanned, well-coiffed, handsomely turned out in tailored suits. His demeanor is silkily cruel, bemused, proudly debauched -- a decidedly Boehner-esque air.

"Mister Silva" is furious at a woman he refers to as "Mommy,' the head of the British Secret Service portrayed by Dame Judy Dench. There is little exposition in the film as to the exact source of his animosity toward Dench's character. Yet we begin to get the picture during a creepy, remarkable scene with Daniel Craig's Bond in which "Mister Silva" says that "M' has been a 'bad Mommy."  (The subtext during their exchange is chilling and perverse. In that sequence Bond is, in Mister Silva's twisted mind, a surrogate for 'M' aka "Mommy.")

This scene provides a glimpse at the full scope of Mister Silva's emotional turmoil.  As the plot unfolds, it is clear that Mister Silva believes that his future prospects have been crimped and that he blames Mommy.  The high-level cyber skills that he gained over the years in the line of duty are now focused laser-like on making Mommy pay.

I won't spoil it for those who haven't yet seen "Skyfall,' the spectacular fresh installment in the classic action-movie franchise.  But by the time the final credits rolled, the parallel was evident to me:
Mister Silva, a wickedly well-connected 'solopreneur,' is engaged in all-out sabotaging of Mommy,  hellbent on destroying  'M',  and her institutional counterpart, the British government.  We don't learn if Mister Silva's hatred of Mommy is misplaced or if it is a kind of psychological transference but it is clear that it has driven him to acting-out on an epic scale.

As is the case with Mister Silva, I suspect strongly that Boehner and his co-horts in the House have Mommy Issues.  Time and time again they have attempted to take us over the cliff in their overwhelming push to destroy the President, the Mommy figure in their Washington drama.

Early this year, some political reporters finally caught on to the sabotaging behavior of Boehner and his caucus; in August, the floodgates opened after Michael Grunwald's terrific book The New New Deal published.  Grunwald's research revealed the depraved depths of the Republican members' fury toward the president and the lengths at which they were prepared to go to destroy Barack Obama's agenda:

In early January [2009], the House Republican leadership team held a retreat an an Annapolis inn. Pete Sessions, the new campaign chair, opened his presentation with the political equivalent of an existential question: 'If the Purpose of the Majority is to Govern....What is Our Purpose?' Not to govern, that was for sure. His next slide provided the answer:  'The Purpose of the Minority is to Become the Majority.'  ....[snip]

Grunwald continues:

House Republicans were now an insurgency -- an 'entrepreneurial insurgency,' House Leader John Boehner declared -- and Sessions thought they could learn from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban. The key to success in this asymmetrical warfare, he argued, was to 'change the mindset of the [Republican] Conference to one of 'offense,' to take the fight to the enemy.

Well then. The blood-lust to destroy President Obama extended to undertaking 'Taliban tactics.' You have to be emotionally tone deaf not to think that there is much more beneath the surface of such a strategy.

As we also know, Boehner often betrays hints of Mommy Issues in settings not immediately tied to the President. He is famously weepy, choking up at the drop of a gavel. I am not saying that 'real men shouldn't cry.' I am pointing out that Boehner's blubberings during mentions of his youth as a working-class kid always have seemed to me weird and unhealthy -- a sign of unresolved personal issues of a kind that you'd hope a top elected official would have worked through by the time he reaches the apex of government leadership.  It makes it impossible to not conclude that President Obama --  the cool, fair-minded and somewhat effete leading authority figure of our American republic --  was during his first term sabotaged and under-mined by Boehner and a bunch of grown-up babies.

Now the re-election of President Obama has likely cast Boehner and his crew into paroxysms of fear, denial, anger and all the related stages of grief.  We await more messy fallout, even while we understand that the math is no longer in their favor:  Between America's fast-changing ethnic demographics that will likely result in many conservative House members being shown the door in the coming years, to the current party makeup of Congress, all the tears in the world aren't likely to get the GOP members any closer to their destructive end game.

Matthew Yglesias of Slate recently invoked another cinematic figure to encapsulate this new reality:

Remember the famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones faces off against a guy who unsheathes a scimitar and wows the audience with his fancy swordsmanship--only to get shot in the chest by Indy? The swordsman—that’s House Speaker John Boehner right now on the Bush tax cuts. Whether it’s out of deference to the office, eagerness to have an interesting story to write about, or plain gullibility, every congressional reporter in town is now dutifully reporting on his negotiating strategy. But this fight is over. Boehner has brought a knife to a gunfight, only nobody seems to have told anyone in the conservative movement.

I can only imagine how Boehner and his crew reacted to the now-famous video clip of the president's tearful address to his campaign workers in Chicago in the hours after winning re-election:  Despite all the manipulations, tantrums, episodes of holding their breath until they turned beet red or Democrats passed out, Boehner and his crew had not toppled the President. And not only did President Obama prevail on Nov. 6, he had the nerve to turn up in Chicago,  that den of socialist iniquity, to laud the over-entitled Next Gen minions who had, with their digital sleights of hand and shady statistical hoodwink-ery, helped re-elect him. And in a final insult, the President actually shed tears as he addressed his troops. The outrage:  Tears and emotional button-pushing have been the handiest arrows in Boehner's quiver and now here was the President using them!

It is worth pointing out (and not only because I support POTUS and the policies he is attempting to save and/or implement) that the President's emotional moment in front of that campaign staff seemed to me a healthy emotional expression: He was likely exhausted, relieved and genuinely touched by knowing that the young workers who had devoted nearly two years to the effort had succeeded.  It stands in marked contrast to Boehner's weepy outbursts; I am not being cruel to say again that they strongly hint at the presence of something that is unresolved and eating at Boehner's insides.

Before now, the stubborn obstruction from Boehner & Company struck me as purely political and rooted in a craven devotion to the corporations who fund their campaigns.  Racism, too,  is probably baked into their obstruction.  Yet now, thanks to Mister Silver, I see that the Blame Mommy factor appeared to be the strongest impetus in their insane quest.

Now that President Obama is ensconced for another term, it will be fascinating to see if Boehner continues a scorched earth campaign or if he and his caucus at last seek appropriate help for whatever really ails them. We sincerely hope against hope that they don't suffer the same fate as Mister Silva: Ultimately self-destructing but leaving Bond and Mother England ready to fight another day. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Only Presidential Debate Schott I Want to Hear

That Frank Bruni got the drop on me with a New York Times Sunday column outlining his Wish List for the presidential debate: President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee for the presidency, should emphasize during tonight's televised debate the idea that more Americans must be willing to sacrifice.

At The Nation and other partisan news outlets, similar requests/demands have since been posted, too.

Here is my fervent wish for what the incumbent Democratic candidate and Governor Mitt Romney spend time on in tonight's debate:

How about a robust back and forth over the achievement and graduation rate gap that exists between black and Latino boys in public schools and their white counterparts?

The Schott Foundation recently released a big report on black and Latino boys and graduation rates at public secondary schools in the United States.  Quite dramatically it is titled "The Urgency of Now," and it looks at graduation rates for these populations in all fifty states.  Its findings were reported by NPR and other major news outlets, which means that it should not have escaped the education policy folks in the Obama and Romney camps.

So will this topic emerge in tonight's debate?  Or will both candidates stick to spewing boilerplate language about student loan debts in higher education? About the need for our education systems to remain 'competitive' in the global landscape?

If the conversation excludes early child development, primary and secondary schools in America, it will be next to worthless.  On this I am nonpartisan.

Last week the American Federation of Children - a Michelle Rhee-friendly, charter school oriented advocacy group --  sent a note to debate organizers and to Jim Lehrer of PBS, who is scheduled to moderate.  It reads in part:

After the economy, education ranks as a top priority for voters, and in particular, Latino voters. As president, how would you ensure that all children – regardless of their parent’s income or ZIP code – are afforded the opportunity to attend a quality school?

The jacked up status of America's public primary and secondary educational system is the one area where I can usually find common ground with conservatives. More honesty?  I am exhausted on too many levels by the Administration's stasis on this topic.  I was touched when President Obama said he felt as if Trayvon Martin could have been his own son.  But what if anything does he feel about the millions of young black men -- POTUS lookalikes or no -- who are being consigned to the prison-pipeline thanks to failing public schools in America?

I live in the real world. It is a place where my son (born of college-educated, middle-class African-American parents) struggles daily, even within a public school system that is one of the best in the nation.  For a few reasons, I can't at this time outline the many contradictions, nuances, benefits and drawbacks of this. But even with my resources and know-how, the challenges are many; these challenges also are rooted in systems, values and economic realities that often prove to be beyond my capacity to ameliorate.

 Until our political 'leaders' make a sincere effort to find solutions to long-standing economic, cultural and political factors that enable this growing graduation rate disparity, it won't change.  A good way to start, at least, would be to acknowledge during these debates that we have a problem, and that the future of our republic is tied inextricably to resolving them -- or not.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Radicalization of Sunday Morning Talk -- And Not a Moment Too Soon

Lately I have experienced feelings of amusement, optimism, and aggravation when observing the parallel worlds that exist in the universe of cable and network television political talk shows.

I am writing this on Sunday morning, June 10.  

On CBS’s “Face the Nation,” and ABC News’s “This Week, with George Stephanopolous;” on CNN’s “State of the Union,” there are panels of guests that I think of as the Usual Suspects. (NBC’s workhorse Sunday political talk program, “Meet the Press” was pre-empted on June 10 but it’s long track-record of offering up homogeneous guest lists is well-documented. )  Of those ‘establishment’ political talk programs, only “This Week,” at ABC featured one guest who can safely be described as ‘non-traditional’  -- Van Jones (though denizens of certain media and political circles in DC understand that Jones is quite established, if not exactly a member of the Establishment.)  David Axelrod, Senior Strategist for President Obama’s re-election campaign, even managed to appear on two programs in this same morning, CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ and ABC’s “This Week.”

Meanwhile, on the cable television network MSNBC, the line up of guests on two relatively new weekend political talk programs – “Up, with Chris Hayes,” and "The Melissa Harris Perry Show" -- on June 10 were refreshingly non-traditional.  More than just this past weekend’s guest line-ups, though, there is another important feature of "Up," and "The MHPS:"  Both programs' consistent delivery of high level conversations about current affairs that are meaty, expansive and (sometimes) counter-intuitive.  

The discussions taking place at “Up” and “The Melissa Harris Perry Show’ effectively highlight the increasing irrelevance of the counterpart political talk programs on NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN.  Leaving aside the political partisanship aspect – for surely no one will argue that Hayes and Perry are not presiding over liberal-oriented discussions – the nagging absence of meaningful explorations of important topics on the ‘traditional’ political talk programs is now starkly evident.  Further, while Hayes and Perry may indeed hold liberal ideas and values, their discussions are scrupulously fair-minded and their guest-lists occasionally bipartisan.

In full disclosure, I have to say here that Hayes is a former colleague at the Nation, and he served as my informal envoy to covering national electoral politics in DC back in 2008 when I was a Fellow at The Nation Institute. Perry, while not a personal acquaintance, also writes for my alma mater, The Nation, and maintains a professional network that overlaps my own. However I am also a media critic, and it is under the media critic’s hat that I am sharing my opinions on these two programs at this time.

Until now, I refrained from commenting on these new political talk shows -- and about the disparate, parallel worlds that are now starkly visible -- for two reasons: A)  I am inherently ambivalent about national political talk programs that are partisan, and B), I wanted to observe both programs for several editions, since I am aware of the challenges of mounting a start up, and of the steep learning curve to finding one’s editorial and operational footing in the merciless fishbowl of a national broadcast medium. 

But after watching both programs for many weeks now, I am happy to report that both are bringing much-needed fresh air and warming sunlight to a genre that had been stuck in the 20th Century.  I cannot say that “Up’ or “The Melissa Harris Perry Show” will be the saviors of the national political television talk show but they have updated -- and I daresay vastly improved --  the field.

“Up” in particular, is fascinating. Hayes, for all his newness in big time television (or maybe because of his newness)  has successfully grasped a cultural development that producers and hosts at the other leading political talk programs overlook:  Viewers are residing in the US at a time of epic demographic and economic change, and they are hungrier than ever for individuals and discussions in media that reflect their concerns and their experiences.

More pointedly, growing numbers of viewers understand intrinsically that national ‘experts’ on the pressing domestic and international topics of the day – the economy, education, war, and poverty – are not exclusively the Usual Suspects, i.e., middle aged white male politicians, policy wonks, educators or corporate leaders. On “Up,” and at “The Melissa Harris Perry Show,’  the hosts and producers (aka ‘bookers’) have successfully displayed, weekend after weekend since these shows debuted, line-ups of guest ‘experts’ that are probably revelatory for millions of Americans -- viewers who had become accustomed to only hearing from the David Frums and Anne Colters and David Gergens of the New York-DC pundit ranks.  

Yes, this distinction to some degree is superficial, and I am aware that saying such a thing might give rise to accusations that I am advocating for a brand of on-air affirmative action quotas in political talk show guest lists. So fire away on that, if you wish.  What I am describing is an important shift within a leading (if imperfect) mass media space.  Cable and network television news organizations are struggling to hang on to and/or grow audiences; a cynic might also argue that bringing ethnic and class inclusion to the content and guest-lists of two national political talk programs is a gimmick designed to appeal to the growing populations of black and brown residents of the USA.

But come now.  Economic considerations drive any network’s programming decisions. And in a fundamentally pragmatic sense, whatever the political motivations for baking race and class inclusion into the content and guest-lists of “Up” and “The Melissa Harris Perry Show,”  the truth of the matter is that it makes smart business strategy to build programs that have a shot at appealing to the looming New Majority in America – Latinos, Asians, and tech-savvy young people of all ethnic stripes.

There is also this: News and information on national broadcast systems has, for at least three decades now, been inching inexorably into the entertainment section of mass media, as Marty Kaplan of the University of California’s Norman Lear Center succinctly laid out during a recent edition of  PBS' “Moyers & Company.”  As a veteran journalist, I am well aware of this creep, and find it worrying indeed, particularly during this era when global social and economic developments whipsaw around and land in our front yards faster than the speed of light, rendering the need for accurate, well-reported news and yes,  opinion, more important than ever.

But we've got to work with what we have;  most of us have little choice but to live where we are.  The ascension of social media has amplified this shift of news into the 'entertainment box,' as Kaplan put it, and it is wise to develop strong media literacy chops and a grounded set of values when considering the current landscape of what passes currently as 'news,' whether in opinion or 'just the facts' formats. 

Thus, here is what I personally find ‘entertaining’ about “Up” and “The Melissa Harris Perry Show’ (in contrast to the conventional fare at other cable and network political programs):  The spectacle of panel after panel of ‘experts’ who know their stuff….and who also happen to look, talk, and ‘present’ like people that I move among every day. More pointedly, guest panels that represent the best and brightest of what America can offer, from across the spectrum of key disciplines.
How radical is that?  

Monday, March 19, 2012

On Building a Better Journalist:: A Guest Post by Michelle Johnson

Every so often when someone asks what I do for a living and I reply: “I teach journalism,” I see their eyebrows slightly rise.
The rest of the conversation (from my side) usually goes something like this:
“Yes, students are still majoring in journalism.”
“Yes, it’s sad what’s happening with newspapers.”
“Yes, many of my students do get jobs after they graduate. They work for newspapers, TV, radio and for online media, which is what I teach.”
It’s not exactly news that journalism is undergoing change. Journalism schools are, too. Some of my colleagues worry that we’re not changing fast enough. I’m among them, but that’s not the issue that’s causing me the most concern at the moment. It’s something closer to who I am, professionally and personally that’s keeping me awake at night.
I’m part of a relatively small community of African Americans who teach multimedia/online journalism at colleges and universities across the country. When we talk (and we do talk, in various online forums and when we meet up at conferences), some of us express disappointment that some students of color avoid the kinds of courses we teach when they’re not required, and sometimes perform poorly in them.
It’s baffling and frustrating, and we’re all trying to figure out how to address this, because it’s clear that the future of journalism is digital.
As a “professor of the practice,” I’m not an academic researcher, but one of my colleagues at another school who is, suggests that perhaps there’s some research to be done to determine whether there’s an achievement gap in our field, and if there is, what we can do about it.
I don’t raise this issue lightly, or without trepidation. It’s a minefield littered with all kinds of historic and unfortunate misunderstanding and nasty racial overtones.
And let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that all of my students of color don’t get the importance of learning cross-platform journalism, or that they’re all under-performing. There are plenty of bright lights to point to. I’m exceedingly proud of those who have gone on to newsroom jobs and excelled. They’re sharp. They can, and do, compete with the best. They’ve become leaders and will no doubt have a major role in shaping the future of the industry.
Many of them have been nurtured by the professional journalism associations of color. I’ve been privileged to be a part of that effort since the ’90s, when I first became involved with student training programs run and supported by the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and UNITY.
For the past two decades, I’ve given up several weeks of my “time off” practically every summer to run the student online projects at NABJ, NAHJ, and UNITY. I’ve also worked with student programs at ASNE and the Online News Association and with our local Dow Jones high school journalism workshop. And I’ve been teaching journalism since 2006, first at Emerson College, and now at Boston University.
I long ago lost track of how many scholarship selection committees I’ve served on.
That means that for the past 20 years, I’ve read literally hundreds of applications for journalism training programs and scholarships, as well as for admission to journalism school. And sadly, I’m seeing some troubling signs.
This isn’t just hand-wringing about a decline in writing skills among young people with short attention spans who communicate via texting abbreviations — I’ve noticed that among all the students.
Simply put, I’m seeing that many of the students of color lack experience with the tools and technologies that will be fundamental to journalism innovation going forward. And this comes at a time when funding for training programs for students of color has shrunk, along with the bottom lines of the news industry and professional associations.
I’m not clear if the students themselves realize the stiff competition they’re facing. Here’s an example of what I’m seeing when I’m weeding through 100-plus applications to fill 20 or fewer spots for a program or scholarship: Applicant One not only launched an online publication, but did the coding to build it, launched it with funds that they won through pitching at an entrepreneurial journalism contest, and they’ve included a detailed analysis of what they’d do with the training/funds if they’re selected. Applicant Two offers up a short, unfocused paragraph with few details or accomplishments listed.
Faced with that scenario, I’ve had to reject Applicant Two more than once. Sometimes if they show a spark of promise, but haven’t had the exposure or opportunities afforded to other applicants, they’ll make the cut, with the understanding that they’ll receive some additional mentoring. Applicant Two isn’t always a student of color, but painfully, many times they are.
So, as I continue my work with the student projects at the ethnic journalism association conferences, I know what I’ll be doing this summer: Some serious schooling.
Michelle Johnson, Associate Professor of the Practice, Multimedia Journalism, at Boston University is a former editor for the Boston Globe and

Monday, February 13, 2012

What Do Roland Martin and Trent Lott Have in Common? A Don Armstrong Guest Post

I was invited into this Forum because of comments I made about Roland Martin last week on Amy Alexander’s Facebook Wall.

It was suggested that a reference I’d made to a lesbian friend who came out to me a few years ago was particularly relevant to the Roland Martin situation. It’s a pungent story, though I’m wary of telling it again, out of the moment, for fear it may be interpreted as one of those “Some-of-my-best-friends-are...” stories, a cliché bordering on insult. However, I am always up for nuanced, detailed explorations of ‘difficult topics,” and tend to assume that folks are smart enough to get it. I will forge on and share that anecdote here, since it is appropriate within the context of the Roland Martin versus GLAAD dust-up.

Martin’s suspension by CNN – where he is a paid Commentator -- for an anti-gay tweet he posted during the Super Bowl, is pungent, too: a famous person behaving badly during the biggest broadcast of the year, with new-media overtones to up the ante. Of course, not everybody thinks that Martin behaved badly. The discussion I was involved in, like many others, touched on a variety of threads in the story.

Several strands within the discussion in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s suspension have the power to titillate: How CNN and Martin handled the aftermath (Poorly, according to a PR expert who was interviewed by media critic Richard Prince about the issue); whether one can tweet whatever one wants, when one wants, from any venue one chooses (No, according to every unoriginal thinker in North America); whether Martin is a homophobe (Doubtful, according to one line of thinking—my Facebook group, which is suspiciously littered with journalists and even an acquaintance or two of Martin’s); whether Martin’s fellow CNN commentator Dana Loesch (who is white) should have similarly been suspended three weeks earlier for advocating urination on the corpses of alleged Taliban fighters (Yes, from FB Commenters who are black); whether this was all much ado about nothing (Yes, said two women in the group, one of them a particularly vociferous writer/veterinarian from Mississippi); whether this was another example blacks being mistreated and subjected to a double standard in America (HELL YES, said a youngish African-American man of caustic debating habits, an individual I had tangled with before in Social Land, who, thankfully, ducked out early after informing me who Bayard Rustin was.)

As you can see, that is a wide range of opinions, all expressed in the first news cycle following Martin’s suspension, all published on a leading social media platform.

I certainly applaud the opportunities for free and open discourse that the Internet now allows us. It’s just a shame it all comes down to a lot of the old bigotry. Doesn’t matter if the bigotry is expressed by a white person, a brown woman, or a gay man, or on a Facebook Wall or a Twitter feed. Bigotry is the problem, and the media’s discussion to date of the Roland Martin tweets are losing sight of that fundamental point.

Streetfighter 2.0

I first weighed in on the Roland Martin anti-gay tweeting discussion with mild intentions. A few days earlier, in fact, I had argued very coolly, if ineffectively, with a maniacal, left-leaning Facebook “friend” about whether Republican presidential contender Rick Santorum was an “asshole” for his very clear anti-gay views (Unnecessary Roughing, was my verdict; of course, this was before Santorum regained viability in the race). A year and a half earlier, I found myself trying to pull a guy out of his car in the parking lot of a Home Depot after he chased me and threatened me for going around him at a red light. I decided then that I had to get a grip—on something other than his ankle, that is.

Since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to do so. A day before the Martin dustup I earned robust praise for surgically exacting comments I made in another FB discussion about the election, which I had joined solely to back up an old friend who was on the verge of being trounced, rhetorically.

This time, though, the suggestion that Martin’s comment (“If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad, smack the ish out of him!”) was a matter of personal preference got my goat.

Boom!—out the window went cool rationality and I went straight for the tender underbelly, so to speak: asking the Mississippian who had popped up on Amy’s FB wall whether she would have been similarly cavalier if Martin’s joke had concerned fat women. You can imagine how effective that argument was.

Then I resorted to my favorite weapon: verbosity. When that, too, failed, I took a different tack and tried to appeal to her better nature: I decided to tell the story of my woman friend (OK, now it’s organic) who is a lesbian.

I’ve known her more than 30 years, and though our paths have diverged, we’ve remained close but were only in loose contact for a number of years, till this moment when, on a work trip, she visited the city where I was then living. We went for a long drive to a museum one day and had a grand time, talking, laughing, re-connecting. On the way back, she broached a topic that had gone untouched for a long time: her romantic relationship.

She and the woman with whom she lived had shared an e-mail address for years, so I knew they weren’t roommates. Nonetheless, she chose her words carefully as she spoke. After she was through, she said she had seen me staring at the ring on her finger; the two were married, she said. “I wasn’t staring at your finger,” I told her. She insisted I had, which I think it was a sign of her self-consciousness. She’s a prominent figure with many friends. She must have gone through similar scenarios many times. I can’t imagine it would ever be easy.

I told FB Mississippi that my friend is a sports fan, that she and her wife have a daughter and that they were more than likely watching the game when Martin’s made his tweet. “Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to say this to you,” I wrote, “but I'm going to ask you, on behalf of my dear friend, her wife, their daughter and me, the next time you hear someone suggest that someone else loves the wrong type of person, wrong type of fellow adult, say to yourself, if not the speaker, ‘That’s wrong,’ because it is, and it doesn’t matter how casual the expression may have been, or how a TV network handles the aftermath of the statement, whether there have been other equally egregious acts that went unaddressed; we live our lives in small moments, in our living rooms with our friends and families. We don’t live on network broadcasts, so I’m asking you please, for us, for that young woman hearing that her loving family is morally wrong and that her mothers should get the ‘ish’ smacked out of them for loving each other, think about how painful that must have felt and how often she must have felt it…. That young girl has undoubtedly lived her entire life that way.”

A Blackened Eye

Well, I thought it was moving. FB Mississippi, however, was unmoved. “I’ll say it again,” she wrote. “I think [Martin] was jesting as is often common in these settings and your fury will get more mileage in the prosecution of someone who actually has committed a hate crime against someone. Because at the end of the day, what is the worse to happen? Roland loses his position AND? Right. nothing more, just another [African-American] man removed from a hypocritical network that [the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation] has had problems with before. Hey, why not get CNN shut down completely?”

She’s right in certain regards. Martin was not—unlike Santorum—attempting to foment a jihad against homosexuals. He was just goofing, no question about it. Now, I hate to rummage up a cliché—I’m a journalist myself, an editor, and try to avoid clichés—but what if we were to substitute “black” earmarks for “gay” in this scenario? Often such comparisons trample logic, but not in this case. Holy Hell would have broken out if a white person—say, Rush Limbaugh or Chris Matthews—had made a similarly mindless comment about beating up an African-American. I’m not sure what the equivalent threshold test would have been—playing basketball? Listening to James Brown? Eating chitterlings?—but bear with me a moment.

What defines "blackness?" I would contend that, in this country it is in part a legacy of moral high ground. It’s not genes, at least not the extent one might think. I’m not convinced, for instance, that the things Michael Jordan did on the basketball court—and perhaps the prevalence of African-Americans in the NBA—reflects a genetic advantage. When I was a copy editor at the now-defunct, but once well-regarded, Sport magazine, there was an editorial meeting at which the latter issue—why blacks dominate pro basketball— was discussed. I was about 28 years old and fully expected to set my white colleagues straight. What exactly that meant—what I believed and what I thought that they believed—I don’t recall, but I came away from the meeting disabused of my certainty. (I’ve since concluded that Jordan’s big advantage was his relationship with his father, but don’t look for supporting footnotes.)

One thing that’s inarguable is that culture—the habits we collectively develop, the things we typically do as members of a group—becomes part of who we are, and the civil rights movement would later emulate. Because it was a mass movement, credit for the risks taken and rights won was owed to whole communities, if not all of black America (and many white Americans).

How sad to me, then, that so many African-Americans now seem to view the purpose of those earlier African-Americans’ sacrifice to have been the improvement of our particular situation and little else—not the vital role played in honing the most stable democracy on earth.

That word, “democracy,” has lost a lot of its power through overuse. How many young people—or even older ones—can adequately define it? Not a reasonable paraphrase of what it says in Webster’s; I’m talking about its ultimate implications.

“Democracy” means people running their own lives, not being owned or controlled by others. Black people, more than other Americans, should embrace that idea and so much else that our country stands for. This, it is often said, is a nation of laws, not men, meaning that we have rules we’ve written down and, to an impressive degree, live by; the ultimate authority, in short, is not the capricious views of a monarch or other individual. It is US. Though this country and its leaders have violated our principles many times, those principles, I am convinced, have been upheld about as often as one could hope for in a world populated by humans. Principles are important. How sad that so many African-Americans see the Roland Martin incident as black versus white…excuse me, as black versus the broader culture.

Been There, Suffered That

One lesson to be derived from generations of struggle for equality is the linchpin role that elites such as the White Citizens Council played in spurring less-powerful men to regrettable action. And how often have I witnessed African-Americans alert to the slightest inference of racism from the most inconsequential white figure—the grandmother on the train, the clerk at the train station? How can any African-American pooh-pooh jokes made by an influential black person about violence against a person because of who he is, not what he’s done? The dynamic is so familiar.

FB Mississippi’s characterization of the Martin incident as simply a matter of personal preference has a powerful and bitter precedent in my recent past.

Just weeks earlier I cut the cord—for good, I’m certain—on another close friendship, this time with a conservative white woman I met while living in the Midwest. We met through a dating site but never dated. From the beginning race was an issue and ultimately a bitter one, but our friendship was built on mutual loneliness. We found we could, and did, tell each other absolutely anything about our love lives at a time when we both needed someone to talk to. We traded in excess of 20 e-mails a day, many of them lengthy.

Then Trent Lott happened and we never fully recovered.

Lott, you may recall, was the Republican Senate majority leader from Mississippi, a powerhouse in the federal government until, at Strom Thurmond’s 100-birthday party, he praised the older man’s 1948 run for president on the Dixiecrat ticket. The Dixiecrats’ raison d’être was segregation. They deserted the Democratic Party because of Harry Truman’s integration of the armed forces. And Thurmond was their presidential pick. That was all well and good in 1948, I suppose. Baseball was only integrated a year earlier, but by 2002 the case for integration was, shall we say, pretty much settled—except at Strom’s big shindig—and, it seemed to me, in my friend’s loyalties.

She clung to Lott like a mother to her child. It took eight years for me to extract any acknowledgement of any sort of error on Lott’s part, no matter how small —poor timing, insensitivity, leaving the toilet seat up! She remained a loyal friend, more so than I, but she would not desert Lott, and I just could not excuse him, especially after it came out that while Lott had been a student at Ole Miss, he had led an effort to exclude blacks from his fraternity.

Personal preference was the defense that this friend offered again and again. Even to my (seemingly) modest assertion that one could not expect an African-American to go along with exclusion purely on the basis of color, she was closed to compromise. It remained a sore point until a few weeks ago, when I had to decide between our divergent politics and friendship, I decided the friendship was no longer worth it.

“Preferences,” for me, will probably never again be an innocuous word in a pull-down menu.

How odd that in one week I should argue for tolerance of Rick Santorum’s homophobia (he looked so pitiful in the YouTube clip) and for the repugnance of Roland Martin’s clumsy Tweet.

But you know, I think Grant Hill said it best in the NBA’s current anti-gay bashing commercial: We as a people are “better than that.” We were once, anyway. We should be again.

Don Armstrong is an Editor and Writer in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Communicator's Quandry: Silence is Golden....or Silence = Death

I've been making the acquaintance of silence lately.

This is not an unpleasant development, as Pico Iyer recently outlined. The growing array of electronic devices holding ever-louder levels of chatter can be an Issue. For example, I'm on the record as experiencing mixed feelings about my use of Facebook and other social media channels. As a Content Producer, also known as a Professional Communicator, I kind of dig the opportunity to spend hour after hour in complete silence.

Same time, I'm also a divorced Mom of two school-aged children. This means two things, where silence is concerned:

-- No matter what happens during my "normal" weekday, whether I operate by day in solitude or mingle in a bustling metropolis, I will indeed be required to talk by the time Lights Out arrives in my home. Electronic devices -- TV, iPods, or computers -- are likely to be deployed at some point during most evenings, though I do impose moratoriums now and again. Also, I am compelled to advocate for my children in settings and contexts, sometimes, that are not ideal or comfortable, even for a relative extrovert like me.

-- Secondly, work (which I must engage in) usually involves talking. As a Professional Communicator I have for many years earned income by, well... Communicating: ideas, messages, narratives expressed to various audiences, across a variety of delivery vehicles.

Thus the concept of hours' worth of consistent "silence" is new and intriguingly, now somewhat sexy to me. The prospect of utter Thoreau-level quietude is appealing to a point. I can't say that I recall appreciating silence very much before in my adult life, not profoundly or meditatively. As Iyer recently observed in his essay in the Times, it has become an expensive luxury for people to be able to "afford" silence. Which is to say that if you have to get out in the world and work, you probably will suffer a range of distractions. Being able to "drop out," or more refreshingly, check in to an off the beaten path retreat takes money.

I came of age during the 1980s, when ACT-UP and swaths of other Americans regularly marched the streets chanting, "Silence equals Death!," an understandable response to the Government's inaction on the growing AIDS crisis. I come from a culture and time when Speaking Out was expected, encouraged, praised. The Personal is the Political, is how I was brought up. Obviously ideally, there is a separation between between one's personal life and one's work-life, particularly in the context of when and where it is appropriate to speak up or choose silence.

Increasingly, though, I'm questioning the pragmatism of the viability of being outspoken in any context. Speaking up these days may not be the best course, even in the face of crazy-bad domestic and international problems and with the advent of cheap and available "communications" devices. We are drowning in data and information yet far too short on goodwill, understanding and compassion. Folks are especially tetchy these days, no matter where you find them. Economic insecurity is not new for America but it does feel to me at this time as if our body politic is experiencing an epic level of paranoia and fearfulness. A collective kind of spiritual corrosion that is blurring the line -- in all kinds of spaces and contexts -- between integrity and unscrupulousness. We've been forced to get "lean and mean" in a growing number of places, not inherently a bad thing. Except that in too many instances, the emphasis is on the "mean" end of that equation.

There is precedent for such technology-driven cultural paradox, to be sure. As a student of American history, I take comfort (however cold) in understanding that such tension is not new. And while I do not live in the past, I am willing to consider all manner of historic scenarios, even in fiction form, to find tropes, metaphors, themes, that may help guide me.

During the recent holiday break, I brought my 12 year-old daughter to see The Artist at the American Film Institute Silver Theater and Cultural Center near where we live in suburban Washington, DC.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in the enduring dilemma of old technologies replacing new, and the forced obsolescence of workers that can result. I won't review the film here but will say that it's protagonist, a silent movie actor name of "George Valentin" -- wonderfully portrayed by Jean Dujardin -- is an updated version of Gene Kelly's silent film heart-throb "Don Lockwood," from the 1952 Hollywood classic musical Singin' in the Rain.

Valentin, like Lockwood, is a big film star in the silent movie era....until he is thrown for a loop by the onset of "talkies," state-of-the-art films that required actors to not just look great and be hyper-physical but to actually master the refined art of speaking a part; to actually give voice to a character.

Unlike Lockwood, though, Valentin stubbornly resists the changing winds, and spirals to despair: He can't get work, he won't accept the help of an actress who sincerely wants to draw him safely into the new sphere, he becomes paralyzed and then despondent.
The Artist's director cleverly employs some of the most cliched conventions of silent films and parodies them all at once. Valentin's chosen solution to his misery will not surprise you but the plot's resolution is crisp, believable, and sweet.

We talked about how fun the movie was, my daughter and I, as we darted out of the Silver Theater on a chilly, gray post-Christmas day. She is a fan of American films from the '30s--'60s, and is developing a refined eye and ear for nuances. Storytelling, of course, is at the core of effective Communicating, so I lean toward indulging her in this burgeoning interest.

Yet what I didn't share with her as we huddled beneath an umbrella along Colesville Road following our viewing is this: I identified with "George Valentin" profoundly. His character, it turns out -- and yes, here is a "spoiler alert" -- experiences paralysis at the prospect of diving in to talking films because he is.......insecure. Acutely insecure. And it paralyzes him.

Despite his luminous physical talent and solid intellect, he freezes up at the thought of having to verbalize a character. The director of
The Artist, to his credit, gives viewers hints of Valentin's insecurity-cum-malady in a handful of subtle visual cues and with two astonishing sound-oriented pieces. I didn't quite connect the puzzle piece until the curtain had drawn at The Silver, which is in its restored Art Deco splendor, the perfect place to see such a movie.

But when I asked my daughter why she felt Valentin had so stubbornly held out from diving in to talkies, she said, "Oh, he had a THING about talking. He may have had a speech impediment, or some kind of similar issue. For whatever reason, he didn't think he could do it," she continued. "So at first he tried to be cavalier and pretend it didn't matter. But then he got stuck, and he couldn't move forward even when it was obvious that he had to."

And so,....well. There it was, from the mouths of not-quite babes.

sub rosa agenda in taking my daughter to see The Artist was --at least this is what I thought it was before the film got underway -- primal foremost and intellectual second. I had wanted to sit among a crowd of people and experience art in relative silence; I wanted to see a story about someone who was struggling with a new medium. I wanted an artistic take on the potential costs and benefits, in the political context, of keeping silent.

I received that and much more: A finely drawn story of a skilled practitioner who freezes up in the face of looming change. It isn't that George Valentin could not easily adapt it is that he could not easily compartmentalize. Like many 'creative types," he felt his emotions perhaps too strongly, failed at shutting down his receptors. Valentin was sentimental about his trade, and yes, there was a purity and integrity to silent films....but who was to say that talkies could not also achieve those virtues? Wasn't George Valentin such a sap and loser for failing to Get with It?

Faced with the prospect of having to stretch and grow beyond merely physically emoting, Valentin preferred silence in those crucial moments when external forces imposed a need for transition, for action. It was a fear-driven preference that nearly killed him.

Of course, any viewer who comes away from this film and blames Valentin for becoming "stuck," has got to be one fucked up cold hearted asshole indeed. And yet, in the space where artistic and historic metaphor meets contemporary realities? The cold-hearted, fucked-up assholes today have pretty much rigged things in such a way that it can be impossible to know. You can be stuck, or unstuck, sailing along with the new program, faking it, or stopping momentarily to smell the flowers and it won't matter: You quite easily could be steamrolled based on dumb luck or due to a fleeting unwillingness (not the same as being "stuck") to Give it Up quickly.

Well then. I am learning to accept silence, to seek it and embrace it. Hopefully I can continue Communicating in the pro context but also find the space to go Silent and to speak up when and where I need to -- on my own terms, and not to the detriment of my livelihood.