Saturday, October 30, 2004
That Goddamn Election
I’ve been trying real hard to just avoid the whole thing, but it’s coming anyway. I am fully expecting another fiasco like 2000, only worse. I hope I’m wrong, but I think this is one presidential election that will test our entire system: big political machinery versus individual voters’ rights; empire versus democracy; states versus nation; corporate interests versus the Constitution. Oh wait, that was 2000. OK, on a bigger scale, with more people awake this time.
Don’t hold your breath for the results, I’d advise, because you’ll be dead. I think there will be a number of state results still being contested late into the night, then dwindling to a handful of states by the next day, then gradually down to one or two that will be long drawn-out. Ohio might be the very last one this time instead of Florida. And I think either the House or the Senate will go Democratic because people are beginning to realize what a throat-strangle the Republicans have had this country in. (The Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches; how come they can get away with not being accountable for anything that’s gone wrong?)
Can history happen in real time? I think we’re about to find out, that this one will show in the books as a real turning point if Bush gets back in under questionable circumstances again. (If Kerry’s elected, this won’t be such a dramatically illustrated shift in policies for the country; we’ll go down more slowly.) All I can say at this point is that if circumstances like 2000 happen again and people don’t get out in the streets in droves, we can all kiss good-bye the last semblances of democracy. Even bin Laden was right about one thing: our future, and our security, is in our own hands as a nation right now.
Know your rights. If you're an eligible voter, you have the following rights:
If your name is not on the official voter list but you believe you are eligible to vote in that precinct, even if an election official challenges your vote, you have the right to cast a "provisional ballot."
If you're in line when the polls close, you should stay in line because you're entitled to vote.
In many states, your employer must allow you time to vote at some point during the day. You can't be fired for being late due to long polling lines.
You have the right to vote without being intimidated by anyone.
For your rights in your own state, check out this website: http://www.ourvote.com
If you have any problems in casting your vote:
Call 1-866-MYVOTE1. Common Cause has set up a hotline that you can call to report any problems you have voting. They'll document where problems are occurring, watch for wide-spread voter suppression, and provide real-time legal help to the hot spots.
1-866-OUR-VOTE. This hotline has been set up by a coalition of nonpartisan groups to deal with the most serious problems on election day. They have hundreds of lawyers standing by to immediately respond to the most egregious problems. 1-866-OUR-VOTE is the "911" of voter suppression hotlines. Please don't call unless your problem is serious enough that you have to talk to a lawyer immediately.
Friday, October 22, 2004
Fool at the Edge of the Abyss
Back in the Middle Ages, the Thought Police in Europe used to burn people with unorthodox ideas, so certain teachings were kept symbolically through things like Tarot cards. One Tarot card depicts a jester type standing at the edge of a cliff and about to unknowingly walk off. Or at least most people assume the Fool is simply unaware of what he’s about to do. Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t care. Maybe what we see as a cliff isn’t even really a cliff. Maybe in the world the Fool walks in, the air is the same as the ground. That’s the beauty of symbols… so many large concepts conveyed so quickly, and so many possibilities.
I think the Artist is a lot like the Fool: walking in other worlds, taking risks, looking ridiculous to others, their eyes on some ephemeral inner vision. And whether the artist’s form is visual art or music or creative writing, whatever needs to be translated from those other realms defies conventional language-thought, which is comparatively slow and clunky. There are plenty of people who say there is no thought except within language and sometimes I wonder if that’s really how some people experience things. For myself and others I’ve talked to, all the beauty, all the break-throughs, all the clarity comes before language-thought. Then we move these things into the art forms like funneling something large through something really small, and a lot is lost in that process. It feels like translating from one language into another, and there is no such thing as a strict translation. I usually use word-art to anchor these things into my conscious mind and into the world, and word-art is a different language than language-thought/conventional language. It’s larger. For me, it begins with imagery or a feeling and a rhythm.
For instance, when I decided that I better write something for this space, I just sat back a minute and let all kinds of images pop into my head, searching or asking in a sense. A colorful, complex Time mandala that I saw many years ago at a temple in Madurai suddenly popped up. A crumbling stone stairway, a clump of seaweed I saw years ago on a Pacific beach. (And lots of other more mundane things without alliteration.) Another thing that popped up was someone talking to me not long ago, light coming from behind him and cleanly through him, light originating from a different time and place and maybe even a different idea than what was being spoken at the time. Does that sound strange? Of course: I’m translating from a language you may not know into one that you might. I’m visual and I’m trying to move dreamlike imagery into language. I consider it an artistic process.
I don’t really know what an artist is. But many years ago, when I went to a therapist, she told me that she wanted to diagnose me as “an artist who was dying.” (She was one of those rare good ones, and yes, of course I’m the sort of person who would go through therapy!) And I think she was right on the mark. I was dying because I was trying to live only in the world of language-thought and it was an alien land to me. It was a land too small for me to stand on solidly, even though most people think of that realm as the real one, the stable one, the one no reasonable person would ever step off of. (And actually, the Fool has had one foot on the ground and one in the air for centuries now.)
I didn’t know what this piece would be about when I began it. But now I know that to even engage in this artistic process honestly, I have to be a Fool with one foot on the abyss.
Wednesday, October 06, 2004
WHITE WHINE: Reflections on the Brain-Rotting Properties of Privilege
Thanks to Tim Wise for the great essay below. Tim is an antiracist activist, essayist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim sez: "Death threats, while neither appreciated nor desired, will be graded for form, content and originality."
To truly understand a nation, a culture, or its people, it helps to know what they take for granted.
After all, sometimes the things that go unspoken are more powerful than the spoken word, if for no other reason than the tendency of unspoken assumptions to reinforce core ways of thinking, feeling and acting, without ever having to be verbalized (and thus subjected to challenge) at all.
What's more, when people take certain things for granted, anything that goes against the grain of what they perceive as "normal" will tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and invite a hostility that seems reasonable, at least to those dispensing it, precisely because their unspoken assumptions have gone uninterrogated for so long.
Thus, every February I encounter people who are apoplectic at the thought of Black History Month, and who insist with no sense of irony or misgiving that there should be no such thing, since, after all, there is no White History Month--a position to which they can only adhere because they have taken for granted that "American history" as told to them previously was comprehensive and accurate, as opposed to being largely the particular history of the dominant group.
In other words, the normalcy of the white narrative, which has rendered every month since they popped out of their momma's wombs White History Month, escapes them, and makes the efforts of multiculturalists seem to be the unique break with an otherwise neutral color-blindness.
Sorta' like those who e-mail me on a semi-regular basis to insist, as if they have just stumbled upon a truth of unparalleled profundity, that there should be an Ivory Magazine to balance out Ebony, or that we need a White Entertainment Television network to balance out BET, or a NAAWP to balance out the NAACP.
Again, these dear souls ignore what is obvious to virtually all persons of color but which remains unseen by those whose reality gets to be viewed as the norm: namely, that there are already two Ivory Magazines--Vogue and Cosmopolitan; that there are several WETs, which just so happen to go by the names of CBS, NBC and ABC; and that the Fortune 500, U.S. Congress and Fraternal Orders of Police are all doing a pretty good job holding it down for us white folks on the organizational front. Just because the norm is not racially-named, doesn't mean it isn't racialized.
Likewise the ongoing backlash against affirmative action, by those who seem to believe that opportunity would truly be equal in the absence of these presumably unjust efforts to ensure access to jobs and higher education for persons of color.
We are to believe that before affirmative action things were fine, and that were such efforts abolished now, things would return to this utopic state of affairs: to hell with the persistent evidence that people of color continue to face discrimination in employment, housing, education and all other institutional settings in the U.S.
So if the University of Michigan gives applicants of color twenty points on a 150-point admission scale, so as to promote racial diversity and balance out the disadvantages to which such students are often subjected in their K-12 schooling experience, that is seen as unfair racial preference.
But when the same school gives out 16 points to kids from the lily-white Upper Peninsula, or four points for children of overwhelmingly white alumni, or ten points for students who went to the state's "top" schools (who will be disproportionately white), or 8 points for those who took a full slate of Advanced Placement classes in high schools (which classes are far less available in schools serving students of color), this is seen as perfectly fair, and not at all racially preferential.
What's more, the whites who received all those bonus points due to their racial and class position will not be thought of by anyone as having received unearned advantages, in spite of the almost entirely ascriptive nature of the categories into which they fell that qualified them for such bonuses. No matter their "qualifications," it will be taken for granted that any white student at a college or University belongs there.
This is why Jennifer Gratz, the lead plaintiff in the successful "reverse discrimination" suit against Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action policy, found it a supreme injustice that a few dozen black, Latino and American Indian students were admitted ahead of her, despite having lower SATs and grades; but she thought nothing of the fact that more than 1400 other white students also were admitted ahead of her and her co-plaintiffs, despite having lower scores and grades.
"Lesser qualified" whites are acceptable, you see, while "lesser qualified" people of color must be eliminated from their unearned perches of opportunity. This is the kind of racist logic that people like Gratz, who now heads up the state's anti-affirmative action initiative with the financial backing of Ward Connerly, find acceptable.
This kind of logic also explains the effort of whites at Roger Williams University to start a "white scholarship fund," on the pretense that scholarships for students of color are unfair and place whites at a disadvantage.
This, despite the unmentioned fact that about 93 percent of all college scholarship money goes to whites; despite the fact that students of color at elite and expensive colleges come from families with about half the average income of whites; despite the fact that there are scholarships for pretty much every kind of student under the sun, including children of Tupperware dealers, kids whose parents raise horses, kids who are left-handed, kids whose families descend from the founding fathers: you name it, and there's money available for it.
While there are plenty of whites unable to afford college, the fault for this unhappy reality lies not with minority scholarships, but rather with the decisions of almost exclusively white University elites to raise the price of higher education into the stratosphere, to the detriment of most everyone.
But to place blame where it really belongs, on rich white people, would be illogical. After all, we take it for granted that one day we too might be wealthy, and we wouldn't want others to question our decisions and prerogatives come that day either.
Better to blame the dark-skinned for our hardship, since we can take it for granted that they're powerless to do anything about it.
Whites, as it turns out, take most everything for granted in this country; which makes perfect sense, because dominant groups usually have that privilege.
We take for granted that we won't be racially profiled even when members of our group engage in criminality at a disproportionate rate, whether the crime is corporate fraud, serial killing, child molestation, abortion clinic bombings or drunk driving. And indeed we won't be.
We take it for granted that our terrorism won't result in whites as a group being viewed with generalized suspicion. So Tim McVeigh represents only Tim McVeigh, while Mohammed Atta gets to serve as a proxy for every other person who either has his name or follows a prophet of that name.
We take it for granted that our dishonesty will be viewed in purely individualistic terms, while the dishonesty of others will result in aspersions being cast upon the entire group from which they come.
Thus, Jayson Blair's deceptions at the New York Times provoke howls of indignation at any effort to provide opportunity to journalists of color--because after all, diversity and quality are proven by this one man's exploits to be incompatible--but Jack Kelley's equally egregious fabrications and fraud at USA Today fails to prompt calls for an end to hiring white guys as reporters, or for scrutinizing them more carefully, or for closing down whatever avenues of opportunity have helped keep the profession so white for so long.
We take it for granted that we will never be viewed as one of those dreaded "special interest" groups, precisely because whatever serves our interests is presumed universal.
So, for example, while politicians who pursue the support of black, Latino, gay or other "minority" voters are said to be pandering to special interests, those who bend over backwards to secure the backing of NASCAR dads and soccer moms, whose racial composition is as self-evident as it is unmentioned, are said to be politically savvy and merely trying to connect with "normal folks."
We take it for granted that "classical music" is a perfectly legitimate term for what really amounts to one particular classical form (mostly European orchestral and piano concerto music), ignoring that there are, indeed, classical forms of all musical styles, as well as their more contemporary versions.
We take it for granted that the only controversy regarding Jesus is whether or not he was killed by Jews or Romans; or whether the depiction of his execution by Mel Gibson is too violent for children, all the while ignoring a much larger issue, which is why does Gibson (and for that matter every other white filmmaker or artist in the history of the faith) feel the need to make Jesus white: something he surely could not have been and was not, with all due apology to Michelangelo, Constantine, Pat Robertson, and the producers of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
That the only physical descriptions of Jesus in the Bible indicate that he had feet the color of burnt brass, and hair like wool, poses a slight problem for Gibson and other followers of the white Jesus hanging in their churches, adorning their crucifixes (if Catholic), and gracing the Christmas cards they send each December.
It is the same problem posed by the anthropological evidence concerning the physical appearance of first century Jews from that part of Northern Africa we prefer to call the "Middle East" (and why is that I wonder). Namely, Jesus did not look like a long-haired version of my Ashkenazi Jewish, Eastern European great-grandfather in his prime.
But to even bring this up is to send most white Christians (and sadly, even many of color) into fits, replete with assurances that "it doesn't matter what Jesus looked like, it only matters what he did."
Which is all fine and good, until you realize that indeed it must matter to them what Jesus looked like; otherwise, they wouldn't be so averse to presenting him as the man of color he most assuredly was: a man dark enough to guarantee that were he to come back tomorrow, and find himself on the wrong side of New York City at the wrong time of night, reaching for his keys or his wallet in the presence of the Street Crimes Unit, he'd be dispatched far more expeditiously than was done at Golgotha 2000 years ago.
But never fear: we needn't grapple with that because we can merely take it for granted that Jesus had to look like us, as did Adam and Eve, and as does God himself. And indeed, most whites believe this to be true, as proven by every single picture Bible for kids made by a white person, all of which present these figures in such a way.
Consider the classic and widely distributed Robert Maxwell Bible Series for children, popularly known as the "blue books," which are found in virtually every pediatrician and OBGYN's office in the U.S. In Volume I, readers learn (at least visually speaking) that the Garden of Eden was in Oslo: a little-known fact that will stun Biblical scholars to be sure.
It would all be quite funny were it not so incontestably insane, so pathological in terms of the scope of our nuttiness. What else, after all, can explain the fact that when a New Jersey theatre company put on a passion play a few years ago with a black actor in the lead role, they received hundreds of hateful phone calls and even death threats for daring to portray Jesus as anyone darker than, say, Shaun Cassidy?
What else but a tenuous (at best) grip on reality can explain the quickness with which many white Americans ran around after 9/11 saying truly stupid shit like "now we know what it means to be attacked for who we are?"
Now we know? Hell, some folks always knew what that was like, though their pain and suffering never counted for much in the eyes of the majority.
What else but delusion on a scale necessitating medication could lead one to say--as two whites did on CNN in the wake of the first O.J. Simpson verdict--that they now realized everything they had been told about the American justice system being fair was a lie? Now they realized it! See the theme here?
That's what privilege is, for all those who constantly ask me what I mean when I speak of white privilege. It's the ability to presume that your reality is the reality; that your experiences, if white, are universal, and not particular to your racial identity.
It's the ability to assume that you belong and that others will presume that too; the ability to define reality for others, and expect that definition to stick (because you have the power to ensure that it becomes the dominant narrative).
And it's the ability to ignore all evidence to the contrary, claim that you yourself are the victim, and get everyone from the President to the Supreme Court to the average white guy on the street to believe it.
It is Times New Roman font, one inch margins, left hand justified. In other words, it is the default position on the computer of American life. And it has rendered vast numbers of its recipients utterly incapable of critical thought.
Only by rebelling against it, and insisting on our own freedom from the mental straightjacket into which we have been placed as whites by this system, can we hope to regain our full humanity, and be of any use as allies to people of color in their struggle against racism.
Friday, October 01, 2004
Voodoo, Sociopaths, and Punch Lines
There are a million and one political topics at the tips of my fingers right now, but precisely because of that, I’m not going there. I’m just going to ramble.
The first thing that comes to mind is something I recently talked about: going into a voodoo shop in New Orleans. It wasn’t one of the touristy ones. It was a real one. I don’t care what you believe about realities other than physical ones, I promise you that if you would’ve walked into that place, you would’ve felt something coming down on you like a ton of bricks. Yup, it was that thick and heavy. Some of you immediately know the kind of thing I’m talking about. As for you others . . . well, you know, honestly, I have never understood you people.
Anyway, so this friend and I walked in and felt this incredibly powerful and undeniable presence that seemed totally removed from human existence; unknown and primitive, though obviously there was something in both of us that recognized it as . . . something. We looked at each other and didn’t need to speak; we both knew it. We both looked over at the silent woman behind the counter watching us. Was this presence coming from the woman or from the shop itself? Or from something inside the shop? My friend was an unusually strong, curious and courageous woman, but because of the magnitude of that oppressive presence, I wasn’t surprised to hear her whisper, “Let’s get out of here. This place is evil.”
Her words conveyed my initial reaction, too, but when I made myself push through that first response, made myself explore it, look at it, some shift took place in my perceptions. “No,” I said, “It’s just very, very old.” I spent a little more time wandering around the shop, ostensibly to look at the curiosities, but more so to explore this presence. I could feel it physically resonating at the base of my brain. I had flashes of ancient places, places before humanity even existed on the earth, of a very heavy and crude but powerful consciousness that still seemed to reside residually somewhere inside of us. This was my experience and I won’t even try to interpret it here.
Having ventured to say all this, despite the fact that I know some of you who don’t experience such things will now place me in the crazy zone, I want to intersect it with another conversation. Not long ago I was talking with someone who was trying to romanticize this primal place conceptually and use it to justify going down a path that would, I believe, ultimately lead to a reality of that word I almost never use: evil. Please understand that I used to not even believe such a thing existed, and I use the word fairly judiciously. I’ve been a lot of places in my life and I’ve met many, many people, but there are only a handful I would apply that word to seriously, and two of those people were clinically diagnosed as sociopaths. And obviously, I can’t go into any details about that conversation, but I want to say something, something . . .
What is it? Where am I going? We are responsible for ourselves and our decisions. We are responsible not only for ourselves, but for life as a whole in our relationship to it, to everything and to everyone. Who am I talking to here? I think I’m talking to this person about to make a willfully blind, stubbornly rationalizing and self-serving life choice at a level that would shock and disturb most of us . . . and I want to say, I want to say . . . I can see, I have seen those places and even at those most primal levels, there is a dignity, there is a beauty. And if you take such things and pervert them from their innate designs and intelligence, the power you wield against others—rationalizing some superior grasp of reality as a version of might makes right—will return as life itself to surround you like an abhorrent virus and destroy you. (Think of all those old sci-fi movies and imagine you've become the mutant monster.)
To the rest of you: I have no idea if this person will ever read this essay, but it’s what came out. What can I say? I’ve known a number of other people who hide such aspects of their inner “psychic” lives. I’m just sticking one “psychic” toe out the closet door, and let’s see what happens . . . But actually. . .
Actually, this whole thing was really an analogy, a parable if you will, and I hope you’re ready for the punch line: for god’s sakes, do not vote for Bush!