Friday, June 27, 2008

Howard Stern on Race

(from my chronicle brainstorm blog)

I can honestly say that I’ve just about given up on Broadcast radio. Well, not quite. I still (admittedly) feel as though my morning hasn’t quite started off on the right note until I happen to catch one of Tavis Smiley’s Southern-fried segments on Tom Joyner’s syndicated morning show. (I never quite remember when he’s supposed to be on). And I continue to listen to NPR at least a few times a week. I’m a big fan of several NPR shows, including the one offered up by our own Philly-based station, “Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.” And I make sure to check AM Radio from time to time, for the same reason that I regularly catch O-Reilly’s nightly spin on the day’s events — with all of its ideological histrionics and overdeterminism. But I am completely addicted to satellite radio.

For one thing, nothing beats commercial free music, which one of the two major satellite companies still provides. But there is something else I appreciate about satellite radio, something more compelling to me as a person interested in how people talk about race/racism today. And that compelling thing cuts both ways, positively and negatively: Subscription/pay/satellite radio may be the only space left in America where the fearless and the feckless can hear honest and ongoing discussions about race and racism — without much of the funhouse mirror racial excessiveness that the anonymity of the Internet helps to cultivate (though such over-the-top cyber-racialism is also a pretty good indication of just how much racial animus still animates people’s hearts).

If we want a productive conversation about race/racism in America, which only some of us do, it won’t be enough to cling to the safety net of intellectual arguments about race’s social constructedness. It will take more than a disgruntled pundit’s disingenuous parsing of other people’s grammar and word choice. And we certainly can’t imagine that it won’t get heated. Any dialogue on race worth having will consist of anger and tears, raised voices and the gnashing of teeth. It will probably entail some lightheadedness and hyperventilating, too. Such emotion-laden responses have to be part of the debate (in fact, already are), even, and especially, if we’d rather hide behind the protective cover of reasoned analysis, the pretending of political disinterest and colorblind postracialism.

Satellite radio is one of the few places where the discussions of race have some of that requisite affect, bluntness, and bite. Sure, HBO has the candor of Bill Maher (that is, unless his anti-religion commentary during the Pope’s recent U.S. visit gets him canned — again). But that is only one hour a week of gloves-off debating about race, religion, politics, and everything else under the sun. You might not agree with Maher on everything, but you’ll get a quick fix of real, heart-felt conversation — not just public niceties and bourgeois platitudes tailor-made for repressing the most complicated and troubling aspects of hot-button issues, sanitizing them good and clean for public consumption. But if you want more sustained and ongoing frankness (over 30 hours worth most weeks), nothing beats Sirius Satellite Radio and its biggest employee, Howard Stern.

There is at least one candid and ongoing public discussion about race in America today, and Howard Stern is moderating it. The characters in his broadcast stable break every single taboo in the book, trafficking in the most politically incorrect language you’ll find anywhere. He’s crafted an eclectic space where his motley staff feels safe divulging even their most perverse and narrow-minded predilections. But there is also enough space left over for other members of the crew to call people out on those same rhetorical gestures.

As a listener, you get the daily racist or sexist or homophobic screed followed by the flatfootedly genuine (or sometimes quite thoughtful) attempt at challenging it — even as the original perpetrators either dig in theirs heels or concede their own unreconstructed insensitivities. Again, this isn’t just for one or two hours a week — or even a day. Stern has set up a kind of 24-hour window into how seemingly sympathetic and ordinary folks can harbor some of the most insensitive and offensive beliefs, but he does this without demonizing them and ejecting them from the conversation altogether. There is still a bit of self-consciousness about race on the show, but without nearly the preciousness we get in most of our pop-cultural fare.

And part of the beauty of it actually stems from the fact that Stern hardly obsesses about race in some single-minded way. This isn’t a radio program “about” race. The issue just emerges, seemingly in a flash and almost out of nowhere. Listeners of color get a small glimpse into how you imagine white people talk about race and racism when non-whites aren’t in the proverbial room. What you hear isn’t pretty, even if it is still sometimes quite hilarious — and at the expense of those perpetuating the stereotypes as well as their intended victims.

If nothing else, the FCC absolutely must sign off on this Sirius and XM merger, which really shouldn’t be taking so long, anyway. America can’t afford to lose this small demonstration of honest race-based discourse — warts, idiocy, curse words and all. Honesty isn’t all we need to organize any conversations we have about race, but it is definitely an important prerequisite.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I'll be talking about my new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, for an hour on C-Span 2’s BookTV this weekend. The segment is supposed to air on Saturday at 9pm and Sunday at 3:30pm. If you have time, check it out--and spread the word. Thanks.