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.

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