Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Are We Entitled to ALL Our 'Opinions'?

Pastor James Manning is a Harlem-based preacher (born and raised in North Carolina) who has become something of a youtube phenomonen this election season. Clips from his controversial sermons describing Barack Obama as “evil” and calling him “a long-legged Mack Daddy” who simply “pimps white women and black women” have gone viral this year, turning him into something of a media sensation. He even got a chance to do the national talk-show circuit, including an extended segment on Fox News that actually found right-winger Sean Hannity genuinely mortified by Manning’s demonizations of Obama (and his dismissals of Obama’s mother and father as “whoring trash”).

As someone who has conducted ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, I can say that Manning is quite recognizable to me as part of a vibrantly counter-cultural “Black Public Sphere” that often uses spiritual and religious narratives to make socio-political arguments about contemporary American life.

I’ve already written about some of his interlocutors on those New York City streets. They constitute an eclectic culture of street-corner debate that includes members of the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, various versions of Black Hebrewism (Manning’s church also worships on Saturdays), and more Gnostic/obscure forms of socio-spiritual collectivity such as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the Egyptian Church of Karast/Christ. A lot of those groups have curbside vending operations, tabletops where they sell books about their beliefs, CD's, DVD's, artwork, and various health-related items.

I only bring Manning up because I had listened to his homiletic rants during the months leading up to the election, but I only recently got a chance to hear him respond to Obama’s victory. Manning gave an interview on Howard Stern’s radio show this week where he defended his claim that Obama is profoundly “evil” and only pretending to be a Christian. He argued that Obama and Oprah represent the “two beasts” prophesied in the Bible, dismissing Oprah as a “Babylonian Whore.”

When challenged on these contentions, Manning maintained that he really believes what he’s saying in his heart of hearts (which I’m sure he does), and that all people are entitled to their beliefs -- except, evidently, Obama, Oprah, and Jeremiah Wright, the latter also being dismissed as little more than a liar and faux-Christian.

What an interview -- and on so many levels. I am trying to move beyond the desire to simply chalk up all of Manning’s rants to sour grapes and “playa hating.” This isn’t just about someone with a civil-rights era sensibility trying to beat back a young turk, at least one that the Civil Rights veterans didn’t have the power to vet themselves. Ask Newark Mayor Cory Booker about what that looks and feels like.

Ironically, Manning and Jeremiah Wright also share some of the very same religious mentors, including one of the fathers of black liberation theology, James Cone. This could be a “familiarity breeds contempt” issue. Indeed, the aforementioned spiritual groups on Harlem’s sidewalk spaces share some foundational presuppositions, but they usually seem most adamant about loudly highlighting the aspects of their cosmologies and world views that separate them from everyone else out there.

But what was most troubling about Manning’s post-election position was that he wanted to offer up his Obama “beliefs” as similar to any other opinions people might disagree on. The problem is that his evidence is so non-falsifiable. Manning is most concerned with the fact that African-Americans seem to think about Obama as a kind of messianic figure, and he likens Obama to Hitler. But the Harlem preacher seems to ignore the fact that Hitler’s ideology was explicit and clear. Listen to his Nazi speeches and you hear the hate that Hitler turned into social policy. Manning has to read between the lines to find Obama’s evil. He has to claim that the President-Elect is lying—that you can’t actually trust what he’s saying as an indication of what he really believes and represents.

But what do we do with political beliefs that are so unwaveringly anti-empirical. Manning’s evidence is Biblical, and he reads Obama as an instantiation of prophesy. Of course, he isn’t the first person to make that move. But just because you can characterize the defamation of someone else’s character as your “opinion” doesn’t mean that it is as reasonable as other positions we’d label personal opinions. Some things are actually “opinions” (and can be open to dispute). A non-falsifiable theory about another person’s intrinsic (even genetic and pre-ordained) evil and demonic nature is something else entirely, no? Doesn’t it stretch the definition of opinion beyond all usefulness.

An Election Irony

Obama was supposed to be the racial candidate. He has the Kenyan father. He spent all of those years in an "Afrocentric" Chicago church. He was the student celebrated for being the first "Black" editor of Harvard's Law Review, a first that served to push him onto the national stage even before he finished law school. (The contract for his memoir came as a function of this singular accomplishment at Harvard.)

But McCain lost this election because he was able to turn himself into the racial candidate.

Many analysts have written about the so-called "browning of the America," the relative shrinking of this country's white population as a function of demographic shifts linked to immigration and differential birth rates among racial/ethnic groups.

Obama ran his "post-racial" campaign with full appreciation of how such demographic shifts have also changed the makeup of the electorate. He registered more people of color, and he made sure that they got to the polls. He told them that this was their America, too. Obama was careful not to overemphasize race in his public speeches and media interviews, but his campaign mobilized America's multi-racial realities (in terms of its highly praised "ground game") to catapult the Chicago senator into office.

In contrast, every decision McCain seemed to make this campaign season reflected a profound under-appreciation of America's diverse body politic, a denial of it, or even something bordering on nostalgia for myths about American racial homogeneity.

For instance, he chose a charismatic vice presidential running mate who did nothing to demonstrate any explicit recognition of America's changing ethno-racial composition. She did a fantastic job energizing "the base." But for those who didn't already unequivocally consider themselves to be part of that Republican base, she also gave the (false?) impression that the base was constituted by the intransigent sameness of race, by a euphemized whiteness.

Even the campaign's late-game deployment of "Joe the Plumber" seemed to traffic in the same denials about America's changing demographic makeup. Joe the Plumber was supposed to stand in for average Americans, but he probably just ended up further alienating many of the new black and brown voters who saw his support of McCain (and his discussion of Obama's "socialism") as another attempt to play a white version of "the race card" without explicitly invoking race at all.

This isn't to say that McCain should have pandered to black and brown voters by finding a Mexican version of Joe. But he was silently making a statement (whether he wanted to or not) about his definition of America by trucking Joe out as his quintessential example of the everyday American. It was a definition that came off as decidedly less inclusive and eclectic than Obama's. And that was the beginning of the end for McCain. He relegated himself to being "the white candidate" even as Obama tried to transcend his designation as simply the black one.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Waiting for Chappelle

D. L. Hughley has gotten a lot of heat for his new CNN comedy show, D. L. Hughley Breaks the News. The show is a combination of zany, over-the-top comedy sketches and humor-filled one-on-one interviews with pundits. The interviews are fine, even funny and provocative at times. But the sketches have really pushed some people’s buttons.

The YouTube excerpt above is from one of the show’s sketches, the one that has received some of the most vehement criticism. Hughley has Donnell Rawlings, a former Chappelle’s Show regular, playing a colorful pimp, Freddie Mac, trying to respond to public scorn about the government’s bailout of his operation. Rawlings can be a funny comedic actor, and I loved him on Dave Chappelle’s now-defunct Comedy Central show. But that’s part of the problem. Scenes like the one above come off as less-funny derivatives of Chappelle’s classic antics. That might not be totally fair, but that’s how the above gets read. Chappelle would have asked Rawlings to don a cap and a cane for a skit just like this one, detractors argue, but it would have been much funnier.

The other problem people have with the show stems from the fact that it is on CNN. (And that might also be part of the reason why the skits can sometimes feel a bit watered down or straightjacketed.) The interviews work well for a venue like CNN, but the skits seemed to “jump the shark” from the show’s premiere broadcast.

I was listening to an irate caller on a local radio talk show as she vented about the CNN program this morning. She flagged the venue -- “a serious news channel” -- quite explicitly as inappropriate, even offensive. If the show was on Comedy Central, where it belongs, there would be little controversy. Comedian David Alan Grier (of In Living Color fame) has a new sketch comedy show on Comedy Central right now, Chocolate News, and it started at about the same time that Hughley’s program began. Grier’s new offering can sometimes feel like a simple rebroadcasting of that earlier cult hit from the 1990s, but some of his show's skits are definitely funny -- and its racy comedy hasn’t caused nearly the backlash that Hughley has stirred.

Social critic Salamishah Tillet has a wonderful new essay on comedy and the 2008 election season (at theroot.com). She longs for the comedic voice of Dave Chappelle to help us find productive ways to laugh about our contemporary political moment. “I can't help but wonder what kind of cathartic laughter Dave Chappelle would have been able to provide for us this year,” she writes. “Imagine what he would have done with Jeremiah Wright or Barack's unannounced visits to the home of white undecided voters in Ohio. It's not that Barack and Michelle aren't funny; it's just that those who have been able to thrive in a predominantly white comedic universe will now have to hire more writers and actors (and hopefully producers and directors) who know how to work with the material that Barack and Michelle will serve up.”

Of course, Hughley is trying to step into that televisual void opened up by Chappelle’s hasty departure from his hit cable show in 2005. Chappelle walked away from the show (and tons of money) because he started to fear that some of his provocative racial humor was possibly reinforcing American racism, not challenging it through parodic excess. Hughley’s new CNN show is operating on that same racial terrain, and he hasn’t quite found the right balance between biting satirical commentary and the threat of a more vapid reinforcement of our worst racial stereotypes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

HBCUs and the White World

Does graduating from Howard University, one of America's historically black universities, put someone at a racial disadvantage? It is an old question, but some of my students are still asking it. To find an answer, I'd probably have to go back even farther than my college days -- at least back to high school.

I graduated from Brooklyn Tech in the late 1980s. At the time, it was one of New York City's three "specialized" public high schools, and students took a test to get in. Tech was (and still is) one of the largest public schools in the city. During my stint, we had about 5,000 students combined in all four grades -- and a little under 1,000 in my graduating class.

Tech was an engineering/technical school, so most students were supposed to be preparing for jobs in some version of the hard sciences or their more practical occupational offshoots. We even had to choose majors; mine was electrical engineering. I don't know how many students went on to work in fields associated with their chosen majors, but I left Tech hoping never to see another ohm or ampere ever again.

More than any other school I had previously attended, Tech was ethnically and racially diverse. I had friends from all five boroughs and from many different cultural backgrounds: West Indian, Chinese-American, Jewish, Italian-American, Dominican, African-American, you name it. Most of them fit snugly into one of two camps: (i) underachievers like me who were smart but inconsistently invested in their school work and (ii) AP-course-takers poised to translate their straight-A high school record into a spot at any of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

I was also something of an underachiever in high school. I did pretty well, I guess, and even found myself in a couple of "honors" classes during my junior and senior years, but I was also an FM radio disc jockey at the time (91.5's The Jackson Attraction Radio Show), so I was devoting much more energy to that part of my daily life -- my burgeoning (and short-lived) stint as a would-be media celebrity. As a function of that prioritizing, my grades were decent, but they were far from stellar.

When I graduated, Tech boasted something like a 95-percent college placement rate. Some of those folks were going to community colleges. Others were going to Ivy League schools. The two groups were discretely tracked, so there wasn't much substantive contact between them during class time (even if the under- and over-achievers crossed paths a bit more at lunch and after school).

As one of the Tech's many straddlers (middling students poised between those two scholastic tracks), I realized that I received two drastically different responses to my college choice. Some of my friends were excited by the fact that I'd gotten into Howard University, an important historically black university in Washington, D.C. The higher achievers, however, wondered whether I had simply missed the deadlines for better places. They also warned me that attending a black college wouldn't prepare me for life in "the white world." It wasn't a realistic environment for learning, they said. "Plus, D.C. is so dangerous," I can still remember one classmate warning, "you'll get killed down there, man. You must have a death-wish."

It is an old argument, but I know that HBCU undergrads must get some retooled versions of it these days.

I ended up loving Howard, and I learned a ton. When I was there, some of the students joked that Howard purposefully made our everyday lives so incredibly difficult (in big and small ways) only and altruistically to prepare us for the slings and arrows of real-world hardships. We were being funny, but we also imagined that making it through Howard meant that we could take anything the world might throw our way.

Every once in a while, I do think about what kind of weird adjustment it was to go from Howard to Columbia's graduate program in anthropology, from classrooms full of black students (usually taught by black faculty members) to classes where I was sometimes the only black person in the room. Truth be told, I have always been very shy, and I didn't talk much in my classes at Howard. But I definitely felt the added pressure of that proverbial (and implicit) racial ambassadorship.

But when my Penn undergrads ask me if Howard put me at a disadvantage in the real world, I say, definitely not.

I still sometimes marvel at the atypicality of my collegiate experience. I was able to increase my self-confidence as a thinker and writer -- all in a supportive environment that lacked any hint of the kinds of racist rhetorics of assumed intellectual inferiority that sometimes predetermine people's expectations about the lone black student in their midst, expectations those targeted students can sometimes feel the need to actively (and over-actively) counter. Of course, that impulse can boomerang around to become just another factor making it even more difficult to speak freely in mixed racial company. But my years at Brooklyn Tech and Howard gave me powerful counterpoints to some of the experiences I'd have later on (as both a graduate student and a faculty member) in the sometimes scandalously non-diverse world of the academy.

[The video above shows Hazel O'Leary, President of Fisk University, discussing her own school (and the current state of HBCU's) at a recent Congressional hearing.]