Solidarity in the Face of the Unthinkable

​I can say with some degree of confidence that Hillary Rodham Clinton will carry DC on Tuesday. I wish I could say with the same degree of confidence that the same will happen on the national level. But I can’t. Instead I feel helpless and paralyzed with anxiety, terrified that my worst fears about America’s destructive potential – all-out fascism if I have to give it a name – might come to pass. Come to pass in spite of all my education, my studies, my desperate – and ultimately futile? – attempts to understand political systems and human behavior . . . as though that knowledge could somehow inoculate me from the inevitable. The inevitable fear not that the United States will become fascist but that the United States will revert to fascism. This is how it feels to be a minority in a country that has exercised unimaginable brutality against not one but two populations – one native, the other not – in the name of enriching a few families. This is how it feels to be a minority knowing that the circumstances of my life – like the lives of millions of other people of color – depends less on my own personal efforts and most on the mood of the majority. In this time of anxiety I am comforted by the fact that millions of White people – members of the numerical, political, and economic majority – are up in arms and out in force campaigning, advocating, canvassing to get out the vote and keep Donald Trump, the fascist candidate, out of the now-more-than-every-tragically-named White House. I have read about White women braving the anger and hatred of conservative male relatives, publicly denouncing and severing ties in full view of social media. People I know personally are driving up to Pennsylvania, a battleground state, for get-out-the-vote drives, and others are phone or text banking from their homes. Such solidarity might be the greatest and most lasting contribution of Donald Trump’s fascist campaign to American politicsys. His campaign has brought people of goodwill together in recognition that what Trump says about Mexicans, Muslims, women – to say nothing of his nomination of a rabidly anti-LGBT running mate – bodes ill for America. Bad not just for the groups he has vilified but for all Americans. My hope is that this close encounter with fascism – regardless of Tuesday’s results – will jolt us out of our politics-of-identity stupor into a greater awareness of our shared humanity, our shared destiny, and greater recognition that what is bad for some of us is bad for all of us.

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When is a Racial Slur not Offensive? Never.

Not long ago, Prince Harry, son of the late Princess Diana and third in line for the British throne, unleashed a storm of controversy after a three-year-old home video was released in which the prince used the terms paki and raghead. The video was shot while Prince Harry was still a cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy.

In the first scene the prince pans his camera over fellow soldiers waiting in an airport departure lounge, pausing on fellow cadet Ahmed Raza Khan and referring to him as “our little paki friend.” In another scene, he tells another soldier that he “look[ed] like a raghead.” Prince Harry rightfully caught flak and did the right thing by promptly apologizing, but he’s had more than his fair share of apologists who want us to believe that calling someone a paki or raghead is not really that offensive. But they’re wrong: directing a racial slur at someone is always offensive.

Rod Richards, a former Royal Marine and Foreign Office minister in the Conservative government of John Major had this to say in defense of Prince Harry’s use of the slurs:

I am a Welshman and it was quite common for people like me to be called Taffy. Similar nicknames are also used for people from other parts of the world. The use of the word ‘Paki’ doesn’t surprise me but in a military context, it is not derogatory. People are making an issue out of something that is not an issue.” 

And this was the response of Michael Evans, Defense Editor of the Times Online:

Prince Harry was clearly not attempting to be deliberately offensive towards his Pakistani colleague but appeared to be using the pejorative term in a light-hearted way. Similarly, the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Richards and Evans, and the many others who defended the prince, are missing the point. Paki and raghead are not mere pet names that can be tossed around willy-nilly. They are racial slurs and that makes them offensive. For starters, paki and raghead are used solely in reference to South Asians and Arabs/Muslims respectively, and never as terms of endearment or respect. Furthermore, calling people names based on their skin color, ethnicity, language, or region of origin is plain wrong. Even kindergarteners know that. After all, nobody chooses their skin color or where they were born, and nobody should be called names because of things over which they have no control.

But the bigger issue here is that unlike nicknames, which may stem from an individual’s height, weight, or hair color, racial slurs are used against entire populations. And, unlike nicknames, racial slurs are created and used in specific  historical and political contexts. In other words, they are created in a context of inequality in which one group (let’s call them the namecallers) creates and uses a slur while simultaneously doing violence to, marginalizing, exploiting, or otherwise denigrating another group (let’s call them the namecallees). For this reason, it is impossible to separate a racial slur from the context in which it was created.

Take, for example, two common American slurs—nigger and gook. These words were created, and came into popular use, at a time when the namecallers were doing some kind of violence to the namecallees. Nigger came into use at a time when Africans were being captured and sold into plantation slavery in the New World, and continues to be used as a derogatory term to this day. Gook came into being as long ago as 1899 and has been used sequentially against Filipinos, Japanese people, Koreans, and Vietnamese people. Is it any coincidence that these uses followed the sequence of America’s wars in Asia?

Similarly, paki came about at a time when newly arriving South Asians were experiencing hostility, to say nothing of violence, at the hands of native-born Brits. Is it any wonder, then, that attacks against South Asian immigrants came to be known as paki bashing? Michael Evans, the Times editor, lent (perhaps inadvertently) support to this point when he reminded his readers that “the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Put another way, this means that British and American soldiers are doing violence to Arabs and Muslims, all the while referring to them as ragheads.

Wars might end and time—to say nothing of equal rights legislation—might pass, but racial slurs do not cease to be offensive, nor do they lose their power to denigrate. Because they are conceived and used in violence, they can never go back to being mere words. To call someone a nigger, a paki, a gook, or a raghead is not just to remind them of the violence done to people who shared their skin color, religion, or birthplace. It is also to point out that they are different, that they do not belong, and that they will always be outsiders in the dominant culture. After all, can nigger be separated from the brutality of the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, and Jim-Crow segregation? Can anyone honestly claim to have successfully divorced paki from paki bashing? When will gook lose its connotation of napalm and free-fire zones? And, long after the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan come to an end, what meaning will raghead retain? Will it really be possible to draw a neat, sharp line between the word and the violence done by British and American soldiers to the people they called “ragheads“?

To be clear, this is not to argue that anyone who uses a racial slur is a racist. The question, ultimately, is not whether it is possible for someone to use these words and simultaneously not be a racist, but whether it is decent to do so in the first place! After all, racial slurs on their own do not constitute racism but their use is an essential component of it. Using racial slurs is an exercise of power by the namecaller, used to establish his dominance over the namecallee and everyone else who shares his skin color, religion, language, or birthplace. In addition to being reminders of past violence, racial slurs let the namecallee know that he does not belong, that he is inferior to the namecaller. The intended use of a racial slur is immaterial: the context in which it was created—in other words, how it acquired meaning and thus the power to offend and demean—is what really matters.

So while Prince Harry may not be a racist (although showing up to a party wearing a swastika armband does little to rule out the possibility), his casual use of racial slurs proves that a top-notch education does not necessarily endow its recipient with common sensitivity, let alone common sense. As for Ahmed Khan, Prince Harry’s “little paki friend” (now a captain in the Pakistani army), there is no way to know how he feels about having been called a little paki: the army has barred him from discussing the matter.

At the end of the day, Prince Harry’s affinity for swastikas and racially insensitive language says a lot about his level of cultural sensitivity, but at least he has enough sense to apologize when he has caused offense. That’s much more than can be said of the people who rallied to his defense and tried to argue that paki and raghead aren’t so offensive after all.

McCain’s Anti-Obama Ad was More Than Just Cynical.

Last week, the McCain campaign released a TV ad calling Barack Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world” and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I have to say I didn’t really expect John McCain et al. to play clean but this is pretty low, even by their standards. For starters, the ad reaches for the heights of hypocrisy. After all, as Carrie Budoff Brown points out, McCain has been hogging the media spotlight for much of his own career. He’s a regular on the late night talk shows and he even had a cameo in Wedding Crashers. In other words, he has embraced the celebrity moniker. Barack Obama’s response—saying the ad was cynical but not racist—is far too charitable a reaction. Paris Hilton’s mom, Kathy, was actually closer to the mark in her response!

Certainly, we would be naive to think this attack ad is a fluke, or a one-off. No doubt this is just the beginning because, mixed in with the stink of hypocrisy, is the unmistakable stench of Rovian political machinations. Using a candidate’s strengths against him was, after all, a technique perfected by Karl Rove in the 2004 “swiftboating” of John Kerry, and the Obama “celebrity” ad smacks of a similar touch. In 2004, the swiftboat ads used Kerry’s military record against him, and now, Obama’s popularity is similarly being used to diminish his appeal.

So why would celebrity necessarily be bad for Obama? Well, being a celebrity is generally a positive thing in the entertainment industry but it’s not such a great asset in politics. Celebrities are valued for one set of qualities, politicians for another. Britney’s fans may appreciate her looks or her ability to sing and dance. It’s harder to identify which of Paris’ qualities makes her famous, but we can all agree that even the most adoring fan would think twice about voting either of her or Britney women into the White House. What, then, does any of this have to do with Barack Obama? Why compare the presumptive Democratic nominee to a pair of celebutantes? It’s really quite simple. First off, we can be sure that education or educatedness—or whatever other qualities might prepare someone to lead a country—do not rank very high on the list of qualities people love in Paris or Britney. This is not to imply that Britney and Paris are unintelligent or uneducated. The point is only that  these women are beloved not for their being qualified to lead the country. The Obama comparison thus implies that Obama, like Britney and Paris, is popular—because of his looks or some other quality—but not for his ability to lead. Ergo: Barack Obama is very popular but he’s not ready to lead.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. Entertainment—music, film, sports—has been the one area of public life in which Black people have gained the greatest visibility in American society. Black athletes, actors, and musicians have attained tremendous fame and secured professions for themselves by entertaining the American public. In my view, these accomplishments should be seen as a testament to the resilience of Black people in this country. Alas! No good deed goes unpunished so the Black community is repaid with binary stereotypes that place intelligence and athleticism/artistry/musical talent at opposite ends of a spectrum. “Sure,” the argument goes, “Black people are good entertainers but they’re not so smart. This is why there are so few Black directors, quarterbacks, or music executives.” In other words, talent and intelligence become mutually exclusive categories.

There is, however a deeper level to the athletic/musical/artistic talent-versus-intelligence binary. There is often an implicit assumption that Black people are good at what they do because of some inherent, magical talent that enables them to effortlessly excel at something. This view maintains, for example, that a top Black athlete isn’t at the top of her game because she trains hard and is disciplined. Rather, it’s talent that propels her to the top. Likewise, Barack Obama’s rise to the top of the Democratic presidential race is not due to his intelligence, hard work, grassroots organizing experience, and campaign strategizing. No. Like the magical negro, Barack’s success is due entirely to circumstances beyond his own control. In fact, his success is nothing less than magical because it is so contrary to his own abilities. In other words, Barack Obama is succeeding despite himself (Lets not forget that Rush Limbaugh used to play a song entitled “Barack the Magic Negro” on his radio show).

John McCain’s ad is therefore nothing less than an attempt to remind the American people that there is actually less to Obama than meets the eye. Yes he’s popular, just like Britney and Paris. And, just like Britney and Paris, he’s good-looking. But, just like Britney and Paris, he’s nothing more than an attractive package, pretty on the surface but lacking the depth, the experience, the intelligence that would make him capable of leadership. After all, the ad seems to ask us, who would want Paris and Britney—or Barack Obama, for that matter—to lead this country? By overlooking Barack Obama’s other qualities and presenting him as a superficial, one-dimensional caricature (I say caricature because there is certainly more to Paris and Britney than what’s shown in the media), the ads also aim to devalue him by negating his personal accomplishments. After all, Barack Obama is an impressive person and a formidable candidate in his own right. From his organizing days in Chicago, he has experience bringing people together and transforming ideas into action. He’s also a constitutional lawyer and a professor and, lest we forget, a United States Senator. But by ignoring all of Obama’s other traits and focusing only on the external and superficial, the McCain ads seek to convince us that there’s nothing more to Obama than his fame.

They might as well have just come out and reminded us that he’s nothing more than a talented Black entertainer.

Long Before Chuck Norris Put the “Laughter” into Manslaughter, He Was Putting the “Pro” into Propaganda.

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Chuck Norris has been around for ever, it seems. In addition to discovering the fountain of youth and famously brawling with Kung-Fu legend Bruce Lee, he’s also been in a bunch of movies. For much of the last twenty years, however, he’s been flying under the radar, having spent much of this time as the star of “Walker: Texas Ranger” which, I’m ashamed—or, depending on how you look at it, proud—to say I’ve never watched. But now he’s enjoying a bit of a resurgence in celebrity, thanks to the ubiquitous “Chuck Norris Facts,” and his appearance on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s campaign ads.

Huckabee opens one of these ads with

My plan for securing the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.”

I cannot think of a better person than Chuck Norris to secure the US border, and I’m happy Mike Huckabee agrees. Because long before Chuck Norris became anybody’s “plan to secure the border,” he was fighting—and killing—America’s most-feared people. On the screen, of course.

Although Chuck Norris had been making movies since 1968, I discovered his work roughly two decades later, due to a series of coincidences, chief among which was the fact that I had yet to be born when he got his first movie role. As it turned out, it was already the mid-1980s when I saw my first Chuck Norris film and by then, it seemed like he was starring in a new movie every year. Three of these—Missing in Action (1984), Invasion U.S.A. (1985), and The Delta Force (1986)—really stayed with me and, thanks to the power of nostalgia and the internet, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover Chuck Norris. It all started with Chuck Norris Facts and, next thing I knew—thanks to Netflix—Missing in Action was in my DVD player.

I remember watching Missing in Action in the ’80s and at the time thinking it was pretty cool. I mean, here’s badass Chuck Norris in Viet Nam killing people and blowing sh*t up like it was going out of style! What could be more awesome? Or racist, as I realized in watching the movie again. In case you’ve never seen Missing in Action, it stars Chuck Norris as Corporal Braddock, a Viet Nam veteran and former POW who managed to survive excteme cruelty at the hands of his captors and eventually escape from the camp where he and other GIs were being held. He returns soon after as part of a US-government delegation hoping to ascertain whether the Vietnamese government was—despite its official denials—holding POWs and MIAs. Of course, Braddock very quickly gets down to business, i.e., the  business of killing people and blowing stuff up. He also rescues some POWs, but not before breaking into the home of a top general and killing him in his bed.

When I first watched the movie, my prepubescent moral framework only registered satisfaction at seeing Chuck Norris dispatch the “villains” without so much as a flinch. After all, despite my politically unformed mind, it was quite easy to pick out the villains—they were the brown-skinned ones. Watching the movie again as an adult, however, I found myself deeply troubled by the wanton violence committed against the Vietnamese characters. I mean, Braddock kills almost every Vietnamese soldier he encounters, even stopping in one scene to kill four whose greatest crime was being out on patrol nowhere near the POW camp Chuck Norris was heading for.

Even worse than the grotesque violence was the completely warped political and moral message of the film. At no point do we get to see why or in what context US soldiers were in Viet Nam. There’s no way to know that these GIs were embroiled in a civil war thousands of miles away from their own country. The Vietnamese, for their part, are simply bad guys. Nowhere is the US role in Viet Nam even remotely examined. In one scene, the Vietnamese generals organized a press conference during which they accused Braddock of committing war crimes, arguing that he was imprisoned on war crimes charges and not as a POW. A group of bedraggled Vietnamese peasants are then brought in and asked to publicly accuse Braddock of war crimes. Instead, the shamefaced peasants all avoid eye contact with him and the last one, a frail old man, apologizes to him in Vietnamese. Braddock accepts his apology and forgives the peasants’ betrayal.

Of course, anyone who knows even a little about the war in Viet Nam knows that war crimes were par for the course for US soldiers. From “free-fire zones” to napalm to Agent Orange, it seems there were few war crimes that were not committed in Viet Nam. But you wouldn’t know any of this from watching Missing in Action. On the contrary, the movie takes a legitimate Vietnamese claim and makes it look ridiculous. What you see instead is a heroic American soldier who was so good to the Vietnamese that the peasants brought in to incriminate him are too guilt-ridden to even look him in the eye. And we know that Braddock cares about Southeast Asians because he’s deeply hurt when a Vietnamese assassin botches an attempt on his life in Bangkok, instead killing several Thai bystanders. Braddock cares so much that, as he uses his bare hands to shove an axe head into the would-be-assassin’s chest, he lets him know how much he was affected by the death of those innocent Thais.

I realize now that the point of Missing in Action was neither to inform nor to educate. But I’m also sure it was not meant solely to entertain. It was meant to assuage Americans’ guilt over the outcome of the Viet Nam War, not to mention revise history to portray GIs as kind and compassionate towards the Vietnamese people. But the ’80s was also the coldest decade of the Cold War, and no chance was missed to propagandize against Communism. So naturally, Chuck Norris’ adversaries were the Communist Vietnamese, whom he casually kills whenever the opportunity presents itself, which was often, considering he was in a country full of Vietnamese people.

Missing in Action, however, was not the first and only time Chuck Norris did onscreen battle with America’s phantasms. In 1981, he starred in An Eye for an Eye, in which he battles an Asian drug ring. Invasion U.S.A. stars him as a retired CIA agent who single-handedly thwarts a Soviet invasion of Miami. And in The Delta Force, he goes up against Arab/Muslim hijackers. This film actually gets honorable mention in Jack Shaheen’s book/documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People for its role in propagating very negative stereotypes of Arabs. I have to confess that my youthful antipathy towards Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, was in no small part due to The Delta Force and other movies of that ilk. But that’s neither here nor there.

What’s noteworthy is that American politicians have a long history of using bêtes noires as political footballs, and the film industry is often a willing accomplice. After all, the manipulation of fear is an age-old political strategy, and candidates have long used people’s fears and insecurities to win votes. Wherever there is fear, there is political gain to be made. Once upon a time, Native Americans, slaves, and the Irish were feared. Then it was Communists and Anarchists. Then it was homosexuals and Arabs. Now it’s Latinos. And Arabs. And Muslims.

Because Chuck Norris has such a long history of battling America’s bogeymen—from Asian drug gangs to Communists—it’s only natural that he would be called on to secure America’s borders against our latest national nightmares. Today’s bogeymen, however, are not Communists. They are terrorists and illegal immigrants. It’s fitting then that Chuck Norris—who has so much experience in fighting America’s cinematic enemies—would be recruited on TV to fight against the illegal immigrants/terrorists who, we are told every night on TV, are trying to sneak across the US border to take away our jobs and blow up our shopping malls.

Dog’s Not Only Racist, He’s Also Kinda Stupid.

Dog the Bounty Hunter

Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman just got outed to the National Enquirer for being a racist jackhole. A&E, the network that carries his reality show has pulled his show off the air indefinitely. And how did Dog get outed? Well, he was letting his son, Tucker, know that he didn’t like Tucker bringing his Black girlfriend over to their house. What Dog didn’t know is that Tucker, obviously sick and tired of his dad’s racism, was taping the conversation. It went something like this:

Dog: Look son, I don’t like you bringing your Black girlfriend over. It’s not that I’m racist or anything. I really don’t have anything against your girlfriend. I just don’t trust her. But that has nothing to with the fact that she’s Black because, as I’ve already told you, I’m not a racist. It’s just that . . . well . . . you know . . . we use the word “nigger” a lot around here and I’m worried that your “nigger” girlfriend might get drunk one day and decide to tell the National Enquirer that I use the word “nigger” a lot, which would give people the false impression that I’m a racist which, of course, I’m not. And if people start thinking I’m a racist, that would spell the end of my career, not to mention tarnish the sophisticated and polished image I’ve worked so hard to cultivate over the past 30 years.

The Superficial has an excerpt of the actual conversation. I only gave you a gist of it here. I don’t do Dog justice, though, so you should read the excerpt yourselves to get an authentic Dog experience.

But you know, I kinda feel where Dog is coming from. I know he’s not a racist. It’s just so much harder for Dog to stop using the word “nigger” than it is to ban his son’s girlfriend from their house. And it’s definitely a lot harder than convincing his son to break up with his girlfriend.

Hey Dog, I bet you’re pretty disappointed that your son Tucker turned out so rotten, eh? Here he is mixing with colored folks and doing God knows what with that Black girl when the lights go out. Oooh! That must have really been burning you up! So you did what any reasonable, rational, non-racist parent would do in your situation. You tried to give him some fatherly advice about the perils of dating Black girls. And how does the ungrateful wretch repay you? He tapes a private and personal conversation between a concerned, non-racist father and his son, and gives it to the National Enquirer! Why on earth would he not see your point and break up with his girlfriend immediately? What is the world coming to?

But cheer up, Dog. Now that A&E’s indefinitely suspended your show, I’m sure you’ve got a lot more time on your hands. And I’ve got just the thing for you. I’ve been toying with an idea for a great new reality show. It’s called “Dog the Imbecile Racist Who Doesn’t Know When to Keep His F*cking Mouth Shut.” You’d be perfect for the starring role. Better yet, somebody ought to give Tucker a show of his own in which he can talk about how much he hates his father’s f*cking guts for being such a racist pr*ck. Come to think of it, that’ll be much more entertaining than watching anything Dog the Racist is in.

Man! I bet Thanksgiving dinner over at Casa de Chapman is going to be very interesting this year.

First Dr. Watson, Now Dog the Bounty Hunter.

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Did I miss the memo? When did blatant racism become fashionable again? I mean, what the eff is going on with people throwing around racially insensitive remarks like they’re going out of style?

Recently, Dog the bounty hunter, born Duane Chapman, was caught on tape dropping n-bombs left and right (for those of you not hip enough, “n-bomb” is a euphemism for a very offensive slur against Black people) during a telephone conversation. The tape was originally leaked to the National Enquirer, and E! Online published an excerpt:

I’m not taking a chance…not because she’s black but because we use the word n—er sometimes here. I’m not going to take any chance ever in life of losing everything I’ve worked for 30 years because some drunken n—er heard us say n—er and turned us into the Enquirer magazine…I’m not taking that chance at all never in life. Never…”

The best part is that Dog, who has his own TV show on A&E, was having that nice telephone chat with his son, Tucker, about Tucker’s girlfriend! You see, Tucker’s girlfriend is Black and Dog was afraid she might expose his casual use of the n-bomb to the media, thereby ending his career. It turns out Tucker was not too thrilled with his dad’s racism either, so he sold the tape to the Enquirer for a hefty sum. A&E is pulling Dog’s show indefinitely off the air.

It’s fitting that Dog’s worst fear—that his racism would be exposed by no finer a publication than the National Enquirer—came true. And, in an Oedipal twist worthy of the greatest of the Greek tragedies, this fear came true because of his own son! Not bad for a day’s work on Tucker’s part, exposing his dad for the ignorant racist that he is and raking in a ton of dough in the process! That’s the sort of entrepreneurial thinking that’s made America great.

Tucker, thanks for outing this racist. I owe you one.

Now that Tucker’s shown that there’s money to be made in that game, I wonder if this will start a new trend of celebrity racists being outed by their family members.

Dr. James Watson Resigns.

James D. Watson, the eminent geneticist who ignited an uproar last week with remarks about the intelligence of people of African descent, retired yesterday as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, and from its board.

Read the rest of the article here.