Friday, November 7, 2008

Ready Or Not: Obama Wins

I am registered as non-partisan. I belong to no political party. I think it is no secret that I tend to idealize left, but I hope to do so in a way tempered with more reason than I can rightfully afford myself as party to any particularly competing or politicking group. That said, I tried, and to a large degree succeeded in, making my views on the campaigns take shape bereft of racial implication. For a good deal of the last year, the notion never entered my mind. I never hoped Obama would win because of his skin color, nor did I truly fear that he would lose for the same. I never presumed McCain kept company with racists nor did I close my ears to his views whilst secretly rooting for some visual underdog. I heartily focused issue to issue, debate to debate, character to character as McCain and Obama squared off. It was nice. It was nice to finally have a Presidential race that remained positive for a good deal of the run. It was nice to see clear differences in our candidates and issues that were genuine concerns taking up most of our air time. It was nice not having a Bush or a Clinton on the ballot for the first time in 28 years. The choice felt free again.

Regardless, however, of how hard I may have tried, succeeded, or even perhaps failed in the end at ignoring race as a potential political shapeshifter, I could neither before the election nor now deny the historical significance of what has become an unprecedented achievement. Skin color is not a reason to vote for a president. Skin color is not a reason to vote against one. Once elected, though, it is a key element thereafter to the immensity of the historical feat. Race, after this election fact, but before the world leader litmus test, is at once a symbol, an achievement, a proof, an indicator, a wonder, a surprise, a passion, a leveling, a coming-together, a change, and a statement. While just any old member of any old race would not have done, Obama was the right candidate for his party. Race did not make him the right candidate, but being the right candidate allowed for a linchpin moment in America wherein his race must be part of that moment’s description.

So, basking in America’s ability to come together and to care about voting again, I would like to take this moment to talk about that which cannot be ignored today…race. Not racism. Race!

Whether you picked it up on the media or languished over the idea in conversation with your loved ones, there was always this question throughout the campaign season as to whether or not America was “ready” for a “black President.” Both candidates were smart in steering clear of the question. Forget the wisdom in avoiding the query because it is an inflammatory question with several inflammatory answers and explanations. They were smart to do so because the question has no heft. It cannot be answered. It is completely made-up. There is no factual or empirical criterion upon which to measure collective mental and emotional readiness for someone else to do his job. What means we are ready? What flawless indicator could a person possibly point to as an answer one way or the other? What could you have in your pocket today that you didn’t have yesterday that could identify you as prepared for a “black President?” Essentially, it’s just another way of saying, “Do you think America is still filled with a majority of racist swine?” By recognizing the question as immaterial and avoiding those inflammatory possibilities as a fringe benefit, look what happened. It opened the door to talk about the subject rationally.

When “reverse” racist allegations and evidences were piling up against the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama walked through that door, calmly, intellectually, and talked about race. Not racism, race. In fact, presumably running the risk of jeopardizing his entire campaign, he spoke on the topic so truly, openly and precisely, his words may well prove one of the greatest speeches on race our national history will ever know. At the very same time that regular Americans were unconsciously contemplating whether or not they were “ready” for a “black President,” as prompted by media and naysayers, literature and maybe even inner demons, Obama walked out and shared with them a whole bunch of details about race in America that they already knew. He reinforced their belief in their own goodness. He ingratiated himself to like minds without pandering. “Hey, I am actually thinking what you all are thinking.” He just had the bravery to say it and the clout to influence folks to listen. He didn’t have to answer the question of whether or not America was “ready” for a “black president,” because a hard-worked win would answer that question for us.

Inspired, I too wish tackle new ground. I would like to try to theoretically answer the unanswerable question. What did Americans have in their pockets on this Election Day, whether they voted Democrat or Republican, that they did not have a few years ago? What allegedly made them “ready?”

The obvious responses go without saying. America had the right candidates. McCain supporters never had to worry about that great man, their representative, showing up in a KKK photo or any serious gaff reel in black face. Obama supporters never had to worry about a Tawana Brawley-like association or a pubic hair on a Coke can popping out of the man’s closet. In primaries and campaigns past, one side or the other winding up with the “wrong” candidate, we always spent inordinate time pointing out the multiple flaws in that person’s character. It left little room to probe the minds, beliefs, and issues for which the loud-mouthed finger-pointers stood. As a result, we’re going to elect the occasional out-of-touch rep. or racist or bigot or racially motivated numb-skull, almost by accident. Choosing the right candidates is a vote to talk about what is actually going on, everything that is going on.

Also an obvious pocket pal indicating why we were “ready” was a lame duck administration effecting the campaign environment. Perhaps Chris Rock put it best in his HBO special, Kill The Messenger when he said, “Bush made it hard for a white man to run for President.” More accurately put, it might be that Bush was viewed as having bottomed out so far below even the minimum expectations of a Presidency, that by comparison, any issues the general populous might have had with race seemed small and petty. Like W. or hate him, the particular class of decisions he and his cronies have made over eight years in office is unlike any in our lifetime. The list is long, yes, but each item on that list has additionally a blockbuster ramification. You may not blame W. for all of them, but even when you cut the list down there always seems another two pages of bad. Unbelievable! All a person of any race should have had to do to get in the primaries door was to point at W. and say, “I disagree.” Obama, skin color and proud multiple heritages aside, maybe said it most eloquently when he phrased our disillusionment as, “Enough!”

Outside of plain sight, at least theoretically, I think we have fuller pockets than just what’s offered above. What else made us “ready?” Mindset. Mindset is key. If the fake question, “Is America ready for a ‘black President?’” really asks, “Is America filled with racist swine?” and if the election outcome is overwhelming proof that America is not; what changed, motivated, or brought the balanced mindset to the surface? What made these existing, shared ideas of equality an election reality? Well, let’s look at the last several years of pop culture. What’s been out there in the public mainstream? TV, movies, fictions many.

You’ve had a show called The West Wing, an hour-long weekly drama centered on a fictional, Democratic President and the behind-the-scenes running of The White House. Those who followed the program got very into the high-energy, challenged ethic, quick-to-quip go-go-go pace of the fictional administration. Perhaps Obama’s administration cannot achieve that precise and speedy White House repartee, but we all knew for certain when watching the show, Bush’s White House definitely did not, could not. The show was what we wanted in direct contrast to what we had. That is a seed of change.

We had a program called American Idol, a show that let the country vote and vote and vote as often as they liked, assured they were making a difference each week, each season in selecting a winner. Each season that they did so, new groups of competitors showed up on our screens and in our living rooms, real people, not sitcom characters. These people were African-American and European-American, Asian, Australian, you name it. The voting results not only showed great acceptance among all those groups, not only showed that the show was about singing talent above skin color, but it also gave us weekly results that reinforced the general absence of race motivators in those tabulations. Our opinions came to the surface and were shared with the nation, weekly. Who knew, until they were televised, that there were so many of us who could look beyond race and vote on talent?

Is there any other epoch you can think of that could see droves of Americans crying out to declare English our national language at the same time our toddlers are watching Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go, Ni Hao, Kai-lan, and other language-boosting, educational cartoons in good parental faith. This is a brilliant dichotomy that allows both notions to exist simultaneously. It is, in and of itself, a plurality and one that, like those above, is in our minds and at our dinner tables each day. We support our children learning languages early and we support the idea of nationalizing a language pick for commonality’s sake. ESL classes crop up everywhere for those who want to learn English at the same time every noisy Fisher-Price toy you buy speaks English and Spanish and German and French. Agree or disagree, there is enough mirth in the two practices to conclude that there is plenty of room in this country for both acceptance and function across heritage lines and language barriers.

The recent list of mainstream fiction that jumps over a few real life prejudices and complications to otherwise familiarize our mind’s eye with new possibilities seems endless. Chris Rock made an excellent comedy feature called Head of State in which he ran for President and won. Geena Davis starred on an ABC TV series called Commander-In-Chief in which she played the President. Glenn Close, as Vice-President in the film Air Force One, has to stand up to a War Room full of brilliant men to run the nation while her President, Harrison Ford, might be dead or incapacitated. Morgan Freeman’s career alone, in part, consisted of an escalating string of films wherein the characters he played grew more and more ranked. In Glory he was a Union Sergeant. In Outbreak, he was a Brigadier General. In Deep Impact he was President of the United States. In Bruce Almighty, he was God. Notice, all consummate characters that were highly believable in the settings given despite the actor's skin color. The 2005 Academy Award winner for best picture was a film called Crash, one that employed a very diverse cast and a Six Degrees of Separation feel to describe the state of conscious and unconscious prejudice in modern America. Russell Simmons’ fantastic recurring HBO series Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam significantly mainstreamed large chunks of hip-hop culture and art into hometown American culture while celebrating diversity themselves. Sex and the City popularized cosmopolitan women. Big Love examined polygamy. Oz captured America’s attention looking at violence and racism in the nation’s underbelly, its prisons. The Matrix trilogy gave all human races a common enemy, galvanizing them in faith of a savoir prophecy. The Sopranos showed what American society looked like through the eyes of organized crime, encompassing the same tribulations as mainstream America, but always walking that fine line between proud, Italian-American heritage and the unacceptable violence within “the family.” South Park, an adult, comedy cartoon series, includes a single black character named Token, as if to point out and ostracize our past practices of including “token” black characters by underscoring just how ridiculous that was compared to our modern sensibilities. The House of Sand and Fog is a wonderful cultural character study which won a great deal of Academy nominations and awards. A comic strip, The Boondocks, which centralizes around a young African-American of pseudo-militant mind is the first of its kind and subject matter to win widespread appeal and acclaim. Will & Grace allowed us to laugh in a gay lawyer’s living room. ER took us to a place where everybody has common concerns and the human interest never stops. By the way, they also took us to the deep, rural, American south, to Croatia, to Africa, and beyond. Frasier caricatured elitists and intelligentsia. On a given DVR night, we might have had to decide between watching Queer as Folk or Queer Eye For The Straight Guy. Real life American judges of every heritage started to land show after show on daytime TV. True Blood, the books from which it is taken and the cable TV series that carries the title, lets us examine real life prejudices through fictional vampires. We are suddenly no longer afraid to look back and pen a period piece with a real life bias component or even a present day piece with our own societal drawbacks. In what other generation could you get such a plethora of serious film pieces grown from bias and struggle like Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, The Last Samurai, Lackawanna Blues, Freedom Writers, Luminarias, Stand and Deliver, The Crucible, The Green Mile, Gangs of New York, Moulin Rouge, Spanglish, A Time To Kill, Medal of Honor, Ray, The Passion of The Christ, American History X, Dreamgirls, Amistad, Erin Brockovich, Men of Honor, and A Bronx Tale?

Sure previous generations had a play or two, a movie here or there, a mini-series that caught the public attention. Race, bias, injustice; they have always been concerns and therefore have always made great drama, even comedy. But never before was the backdrop of bias and the list of ways in which to understand it and deal with it so centralized in the mainstream public eye. People could most recently afford and did purchase thousands of TV channels instead of accepting one of three network choices on the public airwaves. People now had computer access at home, in school, at work, in transit, at the coffee house, or while camping. People could generate enough disposable cash to see every summer blockbuster and every Academy Award nominee at the multiplex before reviews even hit the papers. Just one generation ago you had a people, a fair-minded crop living amidst an activist youth culture, that sincerely went from watching propaganda films and silver screen classics to hailing Roots as the best miniseries ever. That generation made the transition from watching Jimmy Stewart in what seemed like every film to seeing their kids watch What’s Happening and Diff’rent Strokes in constant, back to back reruns. For them, that was an enormous change. For us, it’s the lesser artful beginnings to the theme of our entire pop culture lives. Inclusiveness and acceptance within our ranks and masses meant the arts would reach out and tell us more, replicate these driven ideas of equality and explore them with the audience in more interesting detail. We went from three choices of network, in short order, to multimedia choices numbering in the thousands. We went from thinking that sitcoms casting black actors were for a target audience only, to shows that everybody loved, like The Cosby Show, to a veritable effluvium of never-ending entertainment, education, and information far too vast to fill with only one norm. A strong majority of entertainment never deals directly with bias or even illustrates it as a backdrop. Most shows are simply about other things. Having such a monster volume of entertainment choices, however, naturally increases the “lesser” number of shows that will deal with that distinct notion in all kinds of ways. Does having all this fiction solve racial tensions? No. Does having them around even alleviate, in any direct way, the problems of the world? Absolutely not. What these entertainments do is allow us to talk about it. It might be hard for any two people to talk about a difference in perception of skin color, say, but they can both talk about what happened on Oprah yesterday. It might be uneasy or even heated to discuss racism around the water cooler, but everybody has an opinion on Danny Glover’s performance or Margaret Cho’s jokes or Ellen coming out. Fiction is an ice breaker to the future.

Yes, fiction helps, but it cannot win out alone. During much of the same time all these stories, laughs, and “what-if” cultural exchanges were taking place, the world of fact rolled on. DNA tests started to get precise enough to determine the ancestral heritage in a person’s biological build. It goes without saying this would mean something positive to groups who’d had origins robbed from them. Charles Barkley toured the nation talking about how he felt that not only African-Americans were undervalued by the U.S. government, but Latinos and poor whites as well. He was obviously not the first one to speak on this, nor to extend the implications across color lines, nor even the most succinct, but he was hero enough to sports fans to reach a great many new minds. Bill Maher got fired from his own show on ABC, one having been brought over from HBO called Politically Incorrect, for saying something considered politically incorrect post 9/11. The Dixie Chicks similarly lost a huge percentage of their fan base when country music stations boycotted their albums after one member of the group publicly expressed a feeling that didn’t jibe with the pro-Bush sentiment of the day. A black man, chained and dragged to death by a white man in Jasper, Texas gave rise to a court battle that saw the first white man ever to be put on death row for the murder of a black man in that state (with the exception of an 1854 crime where one slave owner killed another’s slave in what was essentially tried as a property crime). Shock jocks were getting fined and fired nation-wide as people once afraid to call them on remarks that were sure to incite division decided to speak up. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won Academy Awards in the same season in their lead actor categories, the first time both those slots had gone to African-Americans in the history of the awards. They accepted on the same night that Sidney Poitier received the Lifetime Achievement Award. The Olympic Games broke out from their regular four year pattern to alternate summer and winter games every two years. With NBC landing the rights to carry the broadcast, not only were we treated to views of peoples and talent around the world twice as often, but under the incomparable sports-casting umbrella that is Bob Costas’ genius, the proper time was taken to cover all major names and teams. Our country found itself no longer rooting only for the U.S.A., but for global underdogs and sometimes even the home team in many a nation. Condoleezza Rice became U.S. Secretary of State. SNL had two female co-anchors to its Weekend Update segment for the first time in the show’s history. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, following in the 1960’s footsteps of Star Trek the original series which had an episode that would showcase the very first interracial kiss on network television, in the 90’s offered up the very first, dramatic same-sex kiss on network television. George W. Bush promised supporters that if they elected him to a second term, he would seek a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman, thereby disallowing same-sex marriages on the federal level and failing to extend marital rights to the LGBT community under the law. Hurricane Katrina lead to the levies in New Orleans collapsing, waters flooding the entire city, literally uncountable deaths, and an embarrassing American spotlight on the great divide between middle class and poor. Kayne West went “off-book” on his testimonial during the live Katrina relief effort and alleged, among other claims, that the President of the United States hated black people. The West Wing TV series finished off with a whole season geared around two new campaigners for the U.S. Presidency (Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits), not only examining the angles of a Latino man’s run for that top seat, but also making television history by broadcasting a live, unscripted debate between the two characters as if they were real candidates. A change in Popes saw Pope Benedict XVI announce that secularism was the Roman Catholic Church’s true enemy. Reality TV took a foothold in the public eye, many incarnations of which created competitions with contestants purposely chosen for conflicting or even racist views. Janet Jackson’s one breast was a topic of conversation for over a year after it, pasty and all, was removed from her clothing during a Super Bowl half-time performance. In New York City, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a total of 14 UNARMED black men were shot by police officers, many of them killed, including an immigrant whose name became synonymous with this string of unpunished wrongful deaths, Amadou Diallo. Bruce Springsteen concerts were boycotted by police and he was protested at police rallies after writing a song about Diallo that included the victim’s name.

While fiction certainly asked us “what if;” facts, good or bad, structured the dinner table conversations in a way where folks would talk about, “How could we get there from here? Given the perils of today, how could we make that fantasy a reality?” The frequency of both kept this intercourse and these thoughts going. There was always something to discuss, a new hallmark from which to move on, to grow. While this has been true for all previous generations, what differs in ours is the infinitive number of conduits for factual and fictional information to pour into our wisdom. In 1963 you could just turn the TV off, put the paper down. Today entertainment and informational sources are constant reminders, almost in-your-face calls to expand thinking, to readjust on the fly, to speed the social evolution along. They are in your pocket, on your laptop, on a cell phone, bolted to the wall on a large screen TV with a billion satellite channels. They are on XM radio, cable, FIOS, air waves, DVD, Blu-ray, iPods, Sidekicks, RSS feeds, websites, blogs, vlogs, books, eBooks, periodicals, mass mailers, email, presentations, Podcasts, electronic billboards, spam, on screens in taxi cabs and elevators, and even phoned in with a robot. If you’d always felt there was so much more to know, superlative access to information was always the way to get there. The more one knows, the broader his or her thinking can become. That speaks to mindset. It prepares you. It makes you ready for anything.

President-Elect Barack Obama is not a phenomenon. There are plenty of people fluent in plenty of languages backed with plenty of ideas and with skin colors as varied as the 64-bit setting on a PC in our America. A staggering number of those people exhibit all the fine attributes Obama seems to exude. They are gentlemen and gentlewomen, proud parents, decent politicians, educated, great speakers, authors, hard-workers, exceptional fund raisers, deep thinkers, good joke tellers, and people all with hopes and dreams. Again, he is no anomaly. The anomaly is a civilization that just 8 to 16 years ago was collectively stupid enough to try to answer an unanswerable question with a very loud and determined “No, we are not ready for a black President!” That very civilization instead came to the conclusion, in less time than it takes for a bond to mature, that it is simply okay for these two guys to run. Suddenly, very suddenly, either of them was eligible to win and we didn’t really have a problem with that. Obama’s win may be astounding history, but that history is our prize.


TheLaw26 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for a thoughtful piece. Elitists like to disparage pop culture, but, as you pointed out, changes in pop cultural depictions of race, gender and sexuality have led to changes of thinking in many minds.

Has the USA conquered its racist demons? Absolutely not. But, we've declared our determination to start facing those demons and exorcising them, one by one. I hope that we're getting to the point where we'll be ready to do the same thing with issues of gender and sexuality.

Pockets said...

Thanks, Chap. Perhaps now we could use a few sitcoms and dramas positively depicting atheist characters to reboot the acceptance operating system in our nation. I know "The West Wing" did a fine job of examining the tribulations of the Alan Alda character, a Republican who had left his church after his wife died thereby severely impacting his base.

George "Loki" Williams said...

Absolutely lovely! A wonderful analysis, beautifully written.

And I'm with you all the way, lets have a few atheists depicted in a positive fashion, it would help wash the Palin style creationist taste from my mouth after this election.

Pockets said...

Thanks, Loki,

Some of MyPantsTheatre's atheist friends might see this differently, but I presume the difficulty with positive pop artistic depictions of atheism is that supposedly mainstream America misunderstands the philospohy as a non-stance, an anti-whatever. If you are making a story about a bunch of people who work in a bookstore together, well that's what you'll see them doing. Put a bunch of atheists in a room togther and the topic of god's non-existance might not even come up. Atheist characters, as in life, are whole people. They can't just stand around thinking about god not existing all day. The show is then just a room full of random people. It's a difficulty that touches upon the notion that while atheist philosophy is very vast and garner's an extremely deep buy-in, there still aren't that many recognizable facets of life that are identifiable as "atheist culture."
The arts would be hard-pressed not to pit an atheist against, say, a Catholic, just to get the dialogue going, just to create the conflict, as if there needs to be any in real life. The result is that both charactes in a drama look to be a bad guy and both characters in a sit-com look to be fools. There's nowhere to go from there.