Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Racism Considered

Today, Rupert Murdoch, owner of The New York Post, issued a strong apology for the now-infamous chimp cartoon published in the paper last week, the one showing a cop shooting a large monkey while saying to his co-worker, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” This was, understandably, regarded by many readers and leaders as a racist insult to President Obama, because black Americans have long been victimized by ugly, mean-spirited, downright racist comparisons to primates.

I agree that this cartoon is ugly and mean-spirited, and since The Post is New York’s right-wing newspaper of record, I’m more than willing to believe that this insult to the President and his economic recovery plan may have had deliberate racist intent. But I have a problem with the outcry this cartoon has created, because (1) it’s a political cartoon and political cartoons, currently and historically, are frequently ugly and mean-spirited; (2) the image was a direct reference to the actual recent police shooting of a 200 lb. “pet” chimp who brutally mauled a friend of its owner; and (3) political cartoons, ugly or not, are part of American free speech, which is why so many Americans were appalled when Islamic extremists in Denmark (and around the world) wanted to kill a cartoonist whom they felt had drawn sacrilegious images of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. And of course, this current incident brings to mind the now-also-infamous New Yorker cartoon/cover last July that portrayed the Obamas as Islamic extremists. (Try to keep up.)

My father, who was born on the West Indian island of St. Vincent, had a lifelong pet peeve about news images of Africans and West Indians that routinely included pictures of barefoot black women carrying large baskets on their heads, “like there’s no other picture that describes black people except those women with the goddamn baskets on their heads!” He also had no affection for movies from the 30s and 40s, because they either excluded blacks entirely or portrayed them as stupid, frightened, eye-rolling, foot-shuffling servants or other insignificant characters. And of course, he was right; negative/stereotypical/racist images have been used to define blacks in the eyes of whites (and often themselves) since the first slave ship arrived at our shores.

Indeed, from the moment humans began drawing on the walls of their caves, images have been powerful communicators of ideas, feelings, culture and history. Physiologically, humans “think” in images, not words, which is increasingly true in our high-tech, image-driven, a-literate present day. So there’s no denying the impact and importance of images.

Yet it seems to me that we’re trying to deny the still-entrenched existence of racism; like it’s a surprise whenever it surfaces now. The term “post-racial America” that many people have become so fond of is both meaningless and grammatically incorrect: there are now, have always been, and always will be, a variety of races in America. By no means are we living in post-racist America just because we put an African American in the White House. On the contrary, Obama’s Presidency will open cans of racist worms on many fronts over the coming years, as well it should. We as a nation need to recognize, confront and overcome our racism – past, present and future.

President Obama has frequently said we must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. I think it can also be said that we must learn to recognize our prejudices without going ballistic; when we’re being hateful and ignorant, we should explain, to ourselves and one another, how and why this is so, and use communication and reasonable protest to make the case, rather than call for a buffet of heads on platters. Spike Lee, who helped lead one of the protests against the chimp cartoon, said (referring to what he believed to be a sore lack of racial diversity in the editorial enclaves of The Post), “I don’t think anyone in that room realized what they were doing.” Correct! Ironically, they thought they could call the President a stupid ape without meaning anything except that they disapproved of his [undeniably flawed] stimulus package. If we were truly living in a “post-racial” America, they could. However, we’re not, we’re living in a still-racist America, so they should have known better. But should we respond to their lack of sensitivity and common sense like the protestors in Denmark?

This incident has brought two things to mind. The first is George C. Wolfe’s brilliant comic satire on racism in his award-winning play from the 1980s, The Colored Museum. It caused much controversy and incurred considerable criticism at the time, even though it was written by a black man about the plight of black culture in mainstream America. The play is now a frequent part of college theater repertoire and continues to raise eyebrows, and still for the wrong reasons. As any oppressed people can tell you, survival would be impossible without a sense of humor (as well as a sense of perspective). The second thing that came to mind was Benjamin Franklin’s sage observation that “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I contend that those who would sacrifice free speech in the name of political correctness will come to rue the loss of the former and the dominance of the latter.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Out of It

I think I may be dead – or just recently emerged from a deep coma of many years, I’m not sure which. I’ve been aware for some time that Views From the Tower is more than a cutesy, not-too-original title for my blog, but a fair description of my life in the 00’s. I’ve been a recluse for much of this decade, and while I’ve been getting out more over the last couple of years, I’ve hardly gone from hermit to gadfly. The point is, I’m only keeping up with politics and social issues I care about. I have no idea what’s going on “culturally.” I say this with quotes, because my sightline from up here tells me nothing much is happening culturally, except for the ever-increasing glorification of youth, mediocrity and technology.

But perhaps I’m just revealing my ignorance. Maybe there’s a world of riches going on out there in the arts and fashion. I’m a reader, but not what you’d call a timely reader; if there’s a whole new school of hot writers out there, I don’t know who they are. I feel a little bad about this, but not so bad that I’m rushing over to the archives of the New York Times Book Review. I’ve never been into classical music, or dance, or theater, so I don’t know anything about what’s going on in those arenas, but I have to admit I don’t feel too bad about this; you can’t change the tastes of a lifetime (at least I can’t). I’ve disliked the vast majority of modern art I’ve seen ever since the 70s (I don’t know much about art, but I know what I dislike), and I don’t feel bad about that at all, because everything from Jackson Pollock on has given me the Emperor’s New Clothes heebie-jeebies.

But for decades I knew something about film (well, American movies, anyway) and popular music and television, especially television; I’ve been a TV junkie since I was a toddler. Pretty much through the 80s, I could watch Entertainment Tonight and I knew the people they were talking about throughout the show biz world, and I knew which shows were traditional network hits and even watched some of them. But the 90s were a turning point. With the advent of cable and ever-increasing numbers of channels, I succumbed to the dangers of niche programming, which is to say, I watch what I like and blank out the rest.

As a result of all this, I didn’t watch the Grammys last week, because I don’t know who those people are and what little of their music seeps into my consciousness turns me off. I probably won’t watch the Oscars on Sunday, because I don’t know who most of those people are and I don’t go out to movies, I wait for them to come to cable and Netflix, so I’m always a year behind – and much of what seeps into my consciousness turns me off.

Should I know that Chris Brown beat up his wife? Perhaps, if I knew who he and his wife are, which I don’t. Should I care that A-Rod is taking steroids? Perhaps, if I gave a damn about sports and sports figures, which I don’t. Should I be aware of the names and faces of hundreds of young “personalities”? Perhaps, if any of them struck me as interesting, which they rarely do.

I’m going to be 57 in a couple of weeks and I think the simple truth of the matter is, I’m getting old and I’m out of it, and there’s really no place for me in this new cultural world. I’m a post-menopausal woman, also known as a demographic that nobody cares about, except Oprah and AARP. I do feel bad about being so completely out of the loop, but not as bad as I could. Years ago, I had a boyfriend who was a lifelong musician (jazz/sax), fulltime audio engineer and occasional record producer. After 40 years in the business, he used to say: “I don’t listen to music anymore, I wait for music to jump up and bite me on the ass.”

Unless something in today’s popular culture jumps up and bites me, I don’t listen. And although I’m sometimes embarrassed and don’t particularly enjoy being so completely out of it, the truth is, I really don’t care. It’s lunchtime in the Tower. I hope there’s something good on TCM.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fat Chance and Slim to None

While I was on blogging hiatus, I gave a lot of thought to whether or not I should continue my Tower rants as I had been writing them, or reduce – or for that matter expand – the range of issues I comment on here. Hard news, in the U.S. and around the world, has been especially serious since national economies started doing excellent imitations of the Titanic last September. Everything from tribal animosities to all-out wars across the planet have become increasingly fierce and unspeakably ugly. Human rights and civil rights are under attack, hunger and illness are global crises, poverty (or close to it) is replacing middle class security. Most people everywhere are scared and struggling in some way or another.

Against this backdrop, I asked myself during the holiday season in December, is it still important to be concerned with Fat Acceptance? Isn’t this a “niche issue,” one (you should excuse the expression) that carries little weight in the face of more massive problems? I hadn’t made a decision yet when, suddenly, January dawned and, with it, Winter Diet Season: the annual blizzard of TV commercials, magazine articles and junk-mail entreaties to take a good look at your fat ass now that the holidays are over and get ahold of yourself and stop letting yourself go. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig et al are ready, once again, to help us hate ourselves as we are and, international crises aside, focus on every inch we can pinch on our inexcusably flabby bodies.

Since this is an annual event, one that generally runs through March, subsides for awhile, then reappears in early May to terrorize us with the prospect of Bathing Suit Season, I was leaning towards saying: screw it, Fat Acceptance is a losing argument, a ridiculous cause in the eyes of most people; obesity is more feared and hated than leprosy and cancer combined. Why am I trying to fight this battle?

But two things happened that made me re-think the subject: Oprah Winfrey once again made a national issue of her weight, publicly confessing to feelings of great embarrassment and deep shame about having “packed on” 40 lbs. over the past few years. Then, the front pages of tabloids worldwide were displaying photos of Jessica Simpson during a recent concert (seen above) that proved beyond doubt that she is fat!

I am confident that more people, women especially, are more aware of the details of Oprah’s and Jessica’s “weight problems” than the impact of Bernard Madoff’s $50 billion ponzi scam. For the record, Oprah, who has been fat to some degree or another all her life, is 5’6” tall and starved herself down to a size 10 after an extended liquid diet some years back. She was shooting for an 8 but never made it. At her top weight – which is more than she weighs now – she was 237 lbs. and around a size 20-to-22. Jessica Simpson, a non-entity who became a celebrity in large part because she was blonde and size 2, “ballooned” to size 8. (How could that kind of offense not be Page-One news?)

I hasten to remind the vigilantly fatophobic that the average woman in America is still a size 14. Marilyn Monroe, who today in many quarters (particularly those occupied by tweens, teens, and 20-somethings) is viewed as fat, was, at the height of her popularity, size 12; she occasionally went up or down a size, but 12 was her norm. Fat clothing catalogs, which used to start at size 14, now begin at size 12, and “large size” models are generally a size 10 (they need a little wiggle room for the pounds inevitably added by the dreaded camera).

I would love to stop writing about Fat Acceptance, because to me it should be a non-issue. It should be no more appropriate to discriminate against, or detest, people for their size than for their skin color or the shape of their heads. But we are a vociferously fat-hating culture, not just in America but even more so in the U.K. In Brazil, it’s almost illegal to be fat. Nearly every medical ailment known to humankind is attributed to obesity, which used to mean really, really fat, but now means any size that makes you feel you shouldn’t be seen in public in a sleeveless blouse. Essentially, any size that is a two-digit number is now considered fat.

I’m very fond of Oprah Winfrey and have enormous respect for how much she’s done for women around the world to help them value themselves, resist discrimination and abuse, and aspire to vocations that just a generation ago were seen as radical if not absurd. But every time she makes an issue out of fat (hers or ours) – which she does routinely – she undermines her best work and reinforces the idea that women are only as worthy as the size of our bodies. I don’t know anything about Jessica Simpson except that she’s not related to O.J., allegedly is a singer, and is a teen role model. I hear she’s trying to tell her fans that she’s not fat and she is very happy. They don’t seem to believe her.

As our society strives to become greener and leaner (in the sense of consumer spending and energy usage), fat – including not really fat at all – is increasingly being viewed as a symbol of excess, lack of restraint, and greed. The rich? It’s becoming more popular to disapprove of the rich, but we still envy them, still long to be one of them (even though our desire is more covert). But fat? Fat is fair game, always, everywhere, for any reason. Which is why, as a fat person, I cannot abandon the cause of Fat Acceptance, even though it’s viewed with the same credibility and respectability as witchcraft. To do otherwise would make me a loser in my own eyes – and how I see myself is more important to me than how others see me.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Idiocy Redux

Remember Ken Starr, the right-wing nut job “special persecutor” who sought to destroy Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the Oval Office? The same man who made a pro bono petition to the US Supreme Court on behalf of the Juneau [Alaska] School District, which wanted to punish a high school student who waved a banner promoting “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” that the school didn’t like, even though the kid wasn’t on school property? (FYI, the Court ruled in favor of the school district 6-to-3.)

Well, America’s greatest Puritanical Defender is again fighting his one-moron battle against any pleasure he can’t get his clammy, repressed hands on. This time, his targets are 18,000 same-sex couples who were married in California before Proposition 8 made gay marriage illegal once more. Starr is working with the Prop 8 Legal Defense Fund and is again bringing his case to The Supremes, who will hear his arguments on March 5th and render their decision within three months. And surely, there is nothing more important for the Court to do than forcibly divorce 18,000 couples and destroy their families, because it disapproves of their lifestyle.

A group called the Courage Campaign has produced a very touching music video that I hope you’ll watch, and circulating a protest letter that I hope you’ll sign. But equally important, whether you’re straight or gay, married or single, I hope this ghoulish situation will make you mad as hell and inspire you to contribute some effort and whatever resources you can spare to support the country’s LGBT population in a manner best suited to your time and talents.

It’s not that gay rights or the legality of gay marriage are more important than fixing the economy or creating comprehensive, universal health care. It’s that gay rights are human rights, and if they’re denied, then all our national talk about freedom, democracy, privacy, and the pursuit of happiness amounts to complete bullshit. How can we allow an entire population to be persecuted because of how they express the sexual orientation they were born with? More to the point, why would we want to?

What I find so particularly galling is that history has revealed, time and again, that the very fundamentalist preachers and conservative politicians who most vehemently object to gay rights turn out to be the ones screwing same-sex strangers in public toilets. I think screwing strangers in public toilets is distasteful – but so long as nobody’s trying to screw me in a public toilet, or preventing my access to a public potty when I need one, I don’t care. It’s none of my business and I don’t care!

I say this: if you object to homosexuality, then don’t engage in homosexual behavior. But I’ve long believed that these people who express moral outrage about gay marriage are lying to themselves and to us. What they really object to, what they really fear, is that a social environment which condones homosexuality will say to their own gay children that it’s okay to be gay and they need not condemn themselves to lives of secrets and shame! That’s sick, and sad, and wrong.

And what I’d like to know is: what sick, sad secrets is Ken Starr hiding that motivates him to consistently and literally make a public federal case out of private behavior? Personally, I think he’s screwing squirrels slathered in chocolate with Connie Francis records playing in the background. But hey – if it’s okay with the squirrels, it ain’t no never-mind to me.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Dear Mr. President

Over the weekend, taking in all the inform-ation about the proposed economic stimulus package, both praised and panned by the pundits (forgive me, I sometimes suffer from Tourette’s Alliteration Syndrome) has been absorbing and unsettling – and the Senate battle has just begun.

The unsettling part is that I find myself in some agreement with the Red Team regarding elements of the package that reflect spending measures which are undeniably important, but don’t specifically help generate jobs or increase/support consumer spending. If you can bear to wade through it, the full package is online. And in my rarely-humble opinion, I think we’ve got some apples and oranges here that belong in separate crates, and I’m wondering if we all wouldn’t be better off with this stuff broken out into two separate bills: one a True Stimulus package, the other a Vital Spending package.

As I understand it, the Democrats now “control” both houses of Congress. If this is so, why is President Obama pussyfooting around the Republicans? I appreciate/ admire that he wants to craft bipartisan measures and not make them feel as if the Dems are riding roughshod over their views and concerns – but after eight years of the Republicans flattening the nation like a conservative tank, couldn’t we ride just a little rougher and more liberal(ly) for the benefit of all?

For example, it appears that there’s a lot of consensus about the Bush-style $500/single $1,000/family “tax rebate” having already proven itself to be majestically ineffective, because folks fritter it away on food, savings and paying down personal debt, instead of buying a new 95” TV. Some propose an “incentive” tax relief plan instead: buy a major high-ticket item (from a washing machine to a jeep) and the feds will give you an X% rebate. Why isn’t that a good idea? How about eliminating state/city sales taxes and have the feds reimburse the states and cities for their tax losses? Why isn’t that a good idea?

Why can’t important spending measures – like those related to health care (including the family planning funding that was aborted), education, housing, veterans’ affairs, and “citizen solvency” (help for those facing unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, and inadequate unemployment insurance and food stamps), as well as monies allotted to science, the arts, TV converter boxes et al– become a separate, even enhanced, spending bill, while the stimulus package focuses exclusively on creating short- and long-term jobs, particularly those based on upgrading infrastructure and developing green technology? Why isn’t that a good idea?

It would be very hard for the Republicans to dismiss important spending as “pork” and “pandering to special interests” if non-stimulus spending was broken out into a separate category called by its rightful name: citizen survival and social well-being.

I also wish someone would have the political balls to recognize a great opportunity to create a new industry and solve some old problems by legalizing marijuana. Controlled sale and taxing of good quality pot would stimulate the economy for sure (you betcha!), generate income for government at all levels, unburden the justice system, and finally give the 800-year War on Drugs some teeth and focus by concentrating on the hard, dangerous drugs like crack and heroin and crystal meth that sap society’s strength in steep and sundry ways? Legalizing prostitution with reasonable social protections would be an equally great boon. We would get better faster if we would just grow up!

Dear Mr. President: I know that we as a nation have huge problems and finding workable, equally-huge solutions that everyone can live with is no easy task. But I do think it would be helpful to separate our efforts into their rightful categories, as well as, at long last, abandon our 18th century Puritanism and catch up with actual 21st century morĂ©s. I hope you truly are taking everything into consideration and thinking outside the box. Because, no matter what you do, there will always be zealots on the other side who would rather see the nation crumble than see you succeed. Therefore, I remind you of the words of another brave trailblazer, author and queer pioneer, Quentin Crisp: “Who would you be and how would you behave if there were no praise and no blame?”