Friday, June 19, 2009

Taking the Twitter Plunge

I'm stilling planning to get to my "Friday's Flick" post later on today (probably a review of Kristy Anderson's Zora Neal Hurston: Jump at the Sun, but I just wanted to send out a quick note this morning about Twitter.

I had lunch with Marc Lamont Hill yesterday. Hill, an anthropologist based at Columbia University's Teachers College, did a very convincing job explaining the appeal of Twitter and its form of social community, a form predicated on pithy, punctuated (pseudo-intimate) interactions.

Hill is the kind of public intellectual who is always in demand. When he's not lecturing at a college or high school somewhere, he's giving as good as he gets on Cable TV, debating the likes of Fox's Bill O'Reilly on the issue of the day. I put him in a category with John Hartigan, Mark Anthony Neal, Imani Perry, Eric Klinenberg, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. These are some of the academics who masterfully juggle rigorous investments in public intellectualism with everyday commitments to academic teaching and scholarly research. They all do it differently, but they all do it well.

And given how busy these folks are, I am shocked that any of them have time for Twitter. But they do. At least four of the five of them have Twitter accounts that can be followed. How is that possible?

I have already blogged about being dumbfounded by the entire Twitter phenomenon, especially given how much I can't even keep up with the new communicative technologies I already use. But Marc Hill swears by Twitter, so I checked out the Web site yesterday and started to consider taking the plunge. However, I just wanted to do a pre-Twitter test run first. So, after lunch yesterday, I tried to take note of the kinds of things I might conceivably Twitter. What I came up with is listed below.

As I feared, most of it seems completely banal and unimportant, which is part of Twitter's point (see the video link above for a kind of anthropological argument in support of these seemingly insignificant communiqués). But I am still tempted to join up, even if just to inundate myself with other people's Twitters, starting with the scholars I mentioned above.

If any Brainstorm readers are already tweeting, can you let me know what kind of stuff you send out? Who do you follow and why? Or let me know if joining Twitter is more like making a pact with the cyber-devil?

Thursday, 6/18
2:30 p.m.
At the bookstore, thumbing through a new ethnography of a summer basketball league in Philadelphia, _Black Men Can't Shoot._ To buy or not to buy?

3:50 p.m.
Just read MHL's critical review of Tavis Smiley's documentary, _The Stand._ How did I not even know the movie existed? I'm not that far out of the loop, am I?

8:10 p.m.
Finally watched the comedian Artie Lange's controversial guest spot on HBO's Joe Buck Live. I can see why EVERYBODY is talking about the Monday night performance. Surreally hilarious.

11:22 p.m.
Had to watch the Lange's profanity-strewn segment again. Just found out that The Howard Stern Show's Lange has supposedly been blacklisted from HBO sports.

Friday, 6/19
1:06 a.m.
I'm really enjoying the opening segment of Kristy Andersen's documentary about Zora Neale Hurston.

7:13 a.m.
Going through other people's Brainstorm blogs. I really enjoy reading these things. Particulary appreciate Gina's post Teaching and Tenure and Sara's discussion of pre-tenure motherhood. As usual, readers' comments run the gamut.

9 a.m.
About to blog on my current Twitter preoccupation. Marc Hill has me rethinking my aversion.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Seeing Harlem

The New York Historical Society is highlighting the powerful Harlem photographs of Camilo José Vergara in an exhibit, Harlem: 1970-2009, scheduled to be up through mid-July.

As someone who has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Harlem since the mid-1990s, I have had one of the many front row seats to the massive changes that just recently transformed this section of northern Manhattan.

In the 1980s, many experts were still labeling Harlem "gentrification-proof," so symbolically linked to African-American cultural difference that wealthier whites would never feel comfortable moving into the area, at least not in any significant numbers. The 1990s and 2000s have already proved that prediction absolutely wrong.

Vergara, a MacArthur "genius" and native Chilean who has been documenting urban life for decades, moved to NYC in 1970's and started shooting the city as soon as he arrived. This ongoing work has periodically congealed into several award-winning books of his photos. The themes of those books include many different aspects of urban life, focusing, in turn, on urban cemeteries, the re-ethnicization of American inner cities, the everydayness of religious experience, and the iconography of New York City's subway system.

He spoke at MIT last month, and MIT has a link to it online as part of that school's OpenCourseWare program, making it accessible via YouTube. I've provided the video above. It is a relatively long program (about an hour and a half), but it really provides a detailed (even inspiring) look at Vegara's approach to urban photography.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shelby Steele on Obama and Sotomayor

I read two very short books while I was in Kingston, Jamaica, earlier this month. One, a tattered copy of St. Clare Drake's The Redemption of Africa and Black Religion (1977), I bought at a vending table set up for the Caribbean Studies Association Conference in New Kingston. I am trying to finalize a syllabus for a grad seminar in the Fall, and I was planning to check a copy out of the library later on this summer.

The second book, Shelby Steele's A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win (2007), I brought with me from home. I'm trying to write an afterward for the paperback 2010 edition of my recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness (2008), and it seems pretty clear that I have to address Obama's election as a watershed moment in American history, one with clear implications for that book's basic claims. So, I have been galloping through recent book-length commentaries on Obama (including Gwen Ifill's The Breakthrough, Richard Wolffe's The Renegade, and Chuck Todd's How Obama Won) just to make sure that I'm not simply repeating what everyone else is saying about his victory and its implications for the future or racial and electoral politics in the United States.

Soon after I got back to Philadelphia last week, Steele penned an op-ed on the Sotomayor nomination that is a summary of his book's basic argument. Steele thinks that Obama is "bound" by the myopic and misplaced mathematics of race, a math of one-drop-rules and too-easy invocations of would-be racial impurity-by-addition ("black" plus "white" equals inauthentically "bi-racial").

According to Steele, Obama is bound in two ways. First, he is forced to play the conciliatory role of "bargainer" in contradistinction to the more hard-lined racial "challengers" (the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons) who use "white guilt" as their political weaponry. This means that he has to come off as post-racial, as not hostile or bitter toward whites, an optimistic racial politics that doesn't necessarily stand him in good stead with the more cynical/skeptical strands of African-Americans thinking on race. In other words, the very traits that make him palatable to many liberal white voters potentially estranges him from black ones. His electoral coalition is split right down the middle.

Steele also argues that Obama is bound by his own misplaced attempt to actually embrace a gentler (more open-minded) form of racial politics (as opposed to eschewing it altogether and declaring its complete bankruptcy), which Steele would prefer, even as Obama gives lip-service to the idea of his own post-raciality. And Steele blasted Obama's nomination of Sotomayor this past week for just that very reason.

"The Sotomayor nomination commits the cardinal sin of identity politics," Steele writes. "It seeks to elevate people more for the political currency of their gender and ethnicity than for their individual merit. (Here, too, is the ugly faithlessness in minority merit that always underlies such maneuverings.) Mr. Obama is promising one thing and practicing another, using his interracial background to suggest an America delivered from racial corruption even as he practices a crude form of racial patronage. From America's first black president, and a man promising the 'new,' we get a Supreme Court nomination that is both unoriginal and hackneyed."

University of Maryland Law Professor Sherrilyn A. Ifill just wrote a response to the Steele op-ed that dismisses his critique as so much-more "stale, tired and now proven-wrong theories" of black neo-conservatism.

Obama won the election, and Ifill thinks it weird that Steele would have the audacity to say anything other than that he was flat-wrong on that prediction. Of course, Steele was not just implying an electoral defeat for Obama. The other point was that Obama couldn't win (even if he actually won the election) because of America's racial logic and his unwillingness to denounce it.

I'm off to a morning meeting, but I just wanted to make sure that folks were up to speed on this before I had a second (hopefully) to write a more substantive response to this dispute.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jon Voight on President Obama

I just finished watching Jon Voight's recent speech at a fundraising dinner thrown by the National Republican Congressional and Senatorial Committees. Voight, an accomplished movie actor and father of megastar Angelina Jolie, reminds us all that Hollywood isn't exclusively peopled by liberals and card-carrying Democrats.

Voight has been causing quite a stir with his harsh criticisms of Obama.

In the speech (YouTubed above), Voight berates his Hollywood colleagues (and mainstream media outlets) for buying the hype about Obama, and he denounces Obama for pretending to be a "moderate" on the campaign trail and turning out to be "wildly radical."

He also implies that Obama's campaigning techniques were illegal and that his backers inaccurately depicted Bush as a war-monger.

Voight states, quite emphatically and without qualification, that "everything Obama has recommended has turned out to be disastrous." But he doesn't just blame Obama. America's problem is the Democratic Party.

"We can blame Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Chris Dodd, George Soros, David Axelrod and their ilk," he maintains, "for the downfall of this country."

But Voight's big concern is that the modern state of Israel continue to be a "safe haven forever" for Jews. And he has been genuinely invested in Israel for quite a long time.

According to Voight, Obama doesn't understand the Middle East. Our new president is foolish enough to think that Palestinians are sincere about peace, but Voight knows better. And he dismisses Obama for mere utopianism and self-aggrandizement.

"He thinks he can conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet-talk," Voight says, "and really thinks he's going to bring all the enemies of the world into a little playground where they'll swing each other back and forth."

I recognize that he is giving a kind of motivational speech at a party fund raiser, so it stands to reason that he'd deploy such a confrontational tone. But is our only mode of politics, on the left and right, this register of self-assured certainty and dismissiveness?

Jamaica for Sale

I am attempting to institute a new feature on my blog this summer, a film review segment on Fridays. And anything is fair game: contemporary Hollywood fare, new independent features, on-line shorts, documentaries. Everything. For the most part, I'll try to highlight films that I think Brainstorm readers may not already know, but I might also put my own spin on the much-hyped movie of the moment. Wherever the spirit moves me.

This week, I want to mention a documentary, Jamaica for Sale, produced by Esther Figueroa and Diana McCaula, two activists and media-makers based in Jamaica. The film screened last week as part of the 2009 Caribbean Studies Association conference in Kingston, Jamaica. (I was down there both for the conference and as part of an ethnographic film shoot of my own.)

A low-budget feature-length documentary shot in mini-DV, Jamaica for Sale takes a critical look at the impact of tourism, Jamaica's most lucrative industry, on that island's social, economic and environmental well-being. In the spirit of another relatively recent filmic critique of tourism in Jamaica, Stephanie Black's Life and Debt, the movie depicts the country's all-eggs-in-one-basket dependence on tourism as a kind of Faustian pact, a self-defeating commitment to the inevitabilities of globalization, and on terms that are hardly beneficial to the island and its inhabitants.

The film juxtaposes the luxuries of high-end tourism with the everyday exploitation of Jamaican workers, some of whom are asked to spend more than eight-hours a day constructing hotels for about $1 an hour in US currency. (The depreciation of Jamaican currency over the decades is another vital part of this tragic storyline.)

This documentary about the oft-hidden downsides of globalization and "unsustainable development" attempts to deconstruct the tourism-based imagery of Jamaica as sandy beaches and smiling natives (see the Youtubed commercial above), replacing it with a bifurcated landscape of elite, privatized and cosmopolitan leisure propped up by the grinding details of local poverty, a poverty exploited by employment policies of big businesses with transnational interests and by large and small governmental complicities that exacerbate such material deprivation.

The film allows some of the workers to speak for themselves (in a few of its most riveting scenes), and it asks experts to help audience members to make sense of the historical context that laid the foundation for the Caribbean's current predicament.

Some of this stuff you've probably heard or seen before, but a good deal of this narrative (and the specific cases chosen by these filmmakers) will be completely new to a lot of viewers.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Jonah Goldberg on Liberals and their Racial Hypocrisy

National Review editor and syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg has thrown down the gauntlet in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed published yesterday. Motivated by recent debates over President Obama's nomination of Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, Goldberg has called liberals hypocrites on issues of race.

Liberals are always asking for honest discussions about race and racism, he says, but they don't really mean it.

"They invite everyone to a big, open-minded conversation," he writes, "but the moment anyone disagrees with them, they shout "racist" and force the dissenters to figuratively don dunce caps and renounce their reactionary views. Then, when the furor dies down, they again offer up grave lamentations about the lack of 'honest dialogue'. It's a mixture of Kabuki dance and whack-a-mole."

I really don't disagree with Goldberg on that point.

If we are going to be serious about calls for honest race-based conversations, we have to be prepared for everyone's two-cents, including the Limbaughs and the Gingrinches (the two public figures most clamoring for a discussion about Sotomayor's putative racism). In many ways, that is one of the reasons why I have grown to appreciate the blog as a public platform. The anonymity readers can embrace allows them a kind of cyber-courage to lash out in all the politically incorrect (and sometimes downright hateful) ways that few people would be willing to proffer if their actual names were attached. We have scrubbed the public sphere so clean, it is sometimes useful to get a dose of un-euphemistic reality. We can see exactly where we collectively stand.

The conversations we need to have about race, the truly honest ones, won't just be genteel performances of decorum and mutual respect. There will be some of that, thankfully, but talking across racial tracks will also be about anger, rage, resentment, and much gnashing of teeth. The conversation won't just be a battle of reason and objective argumentation, no matter what pundits on the left or right might imagine. Indeed, our "public sphere" was never simply saturated by Habermasian hyper-rationalities. It is equally constituted by longstanding commitments to irrationality and unreasonableness. Our contemporary commitments to race and racism are affect-laden, self-interested and decidedly reason-proof. But we probably need to talk them through anyway, and publicly, even if the cynics would call it all a waste of time.