Friday, April 13, 2007

I Don't Write Satire...I Just Write About People

Tackling the Imus Issue when the Horse has been Dead, Stewed and Swallowed; God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut, and Moving on.

A few years back, on a thanksgiving weekend trip from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Providence, Rhode Island, I sat shotgun while a friend of mine drove. We were still coming down of a 24-hour whirlwind of margaritas, Irish Coffee's, bloodymary's and Keystone Light (I hadn't seen this friend in quite some time, we'd a bit of catching up to do.) The whole trip we kept ourselves awake with the grating tunes of pop-radio stations (those beloved but endangered venues where a guy named Jimmy McCartney is "spinning the top 40 for ya, all night, and giving away tickets to next month's big Winter Ball with the Gin Blossoms and 50-cent!" At least 5 times during that 6 hour drive we came across what would later be referred to as our theme song for that trip, "Hoes in different Area-codes," a rap anthem of sorts that in 1999 was on the tongues of just about every white-person age 13-21 from Atlanta, Georgia to Augusta, Maine. Each time it came on, in a sort of ironic homage to the absurdity of the lyrics, my friend and I belted out the chorus line, verbatim, "I've got hoes in different area codes...area codes (x4)" followed by the two of us doing our best to imitate the rest of the lyrics--shouting out random three digit area codes, that sorta-kinda rhymed. It's not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that teeny-boppers and frat boys everywhere were doing this same exact thing all winter that year (to differing extents of irony, to be sure.)

The point is, it never seemed inappropriate or odd for two twenty-something white boys to be singing along to a song which is accompanied by a video of predominantly African-American women shaking their rumps and being ostensibly referred to as hoes (and ones that could easily be cast aside at any moment for hoes in a different locale, disposable if you will.) The reasons for this are many, but the most important factor, I think, is that we were fully aware of the absurdity inherent in what we were doing. We could not only laugh at the posturing of the songs author (my Jersey City neighbor, Ludacris) but also at the effect of two kids who clearly didn't have "hoes" in any area code gleefully mocking the lyrics of the song. It was more a comment on the lack of intelligence of those who would create such songs, and those who would vault it to the top of the charts, than it was a deprivation of the song's targets. Indeed, we were singing satire. That's a double-edged sword of course: when Dave Chapelle plays a blind KKK member, he runs the risk of people "not getting it" or else getting it all too well, sensitivity trumping humor; when whiteboys refer to one another as "my nigga" it sure gives a hell of alot more pause then when two black men do the same thing; when Don Imus mocks the (inexplicably widely accepted) vernacular of hip-hop culture, he runs the risk of people "not getting it" or else getting it all too well. I can't say why in certain circumstances sensitivity trumps humor, but it often and somewhat randomly does.

This doesn't excuse the deplorable nature of Imus' comments. The "botched joke" excuse can work as a defense, when the Bush administration tries to twist one of it's foes comments about the War in Iraq into a criticism of our troops' intelligence. It doesn't fly when an old white man refers to young black women as nappy-headed hoes, calling to recollection a history of old white men abusing black women, profiting off of black labor, and institutionalizing the social divide of white male supremacy. Botched joke or not, that history just isn't funny. But just as shameful as what Imus said, is the trend that's emerging in which one person's folly becomes an excuse for society to reflect its weaknesses out on individuals, and think we can merely sacrifice that individual and the issue will go away. Let's be clear: what Imus said was stupid. But let's also be clear about this: what nobody wants to discuss is that what Imus said was clearly (for those of us who have bothered to listen to the entire exchange) meant to be a tongue-in-cheek mockery of a culture that (to varying degrees of disgust or apathy) "the kids" are worshipping, these days. Don Imus didn't refer to the RU players as "nappy-headed hoes" to call to our minds the tradition of white males sexually exploiting black women. He made the remark to call to mind the equally disturbing (but far less ridiculed) tradition of multi-millionaire "thugs" in baggy jeans. Here's where Imus made two mistakes, and where expressing a sentiment that (like it or not) he has expressed for decades on his show, got him into inescapable hot water: first, he didn't say something foolish and ignorant, but blame-absolving like "these girls are, as Fitty Cent would say, 'Nappy-Headed hoes,'" this still would have made the joke, and also made his intent clear for the mouth-breathing public who typically hears the replay of things like this in spliced audio-cuts, with predetermined reactions; secondly, he made the remark about athletes, and nobody loves to make societal mountains out of molehills the way the sports media does.

This leads directly to my two biggest concerns about this situation: first, the double standard that nobody wants to address, whereby our ipods are happily filled with rap lyrics expressing the very sentiment that Imus was trying to satire. Listening to Stuart Scot trying to excuse this double-standard was a total riot. Secondly, and I really wish I didn't have to say this, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton's role in all of this has been really dispicable. I always used to think of these two guys as intriguing individuals and strong leaders at best; and mildly amusing side-needlers at worst. I can't help but be bothered by their hypocrisy in all of this, though. They have been the spokesmen for demanding Imus' head. They have taken to the streets in protest, and to the talkshow circuit in defiance of an obviously inexcusable folly. They have made the sacrifice of Imus' career the news item dujour. And they have done it so that the other news item du jour (their last cause celebre, the appalling false accusation of the Duke lax players) has fallen by the wayside. Why is it a fireable offense--according to Jackson and Sharpton--for Imus to disparage these women (something they will certainly get over in their lifetimes, and something which, I regret to say, will likely not be the worst they encounter) but nobody is calling for Shaprton and Jackson to at least publicly apologize for their role in villifying and arguably ruining the lives of three innocent young men. (By the way, not that it matters much, but I was dead wrong about the Duke Lax case. I admit that 100%) But this all relates to the real issue here: the way we jump on stories and draw conclusions and demand a sacrifice when none of us want to talk about the real larger issues. Firing Don Imus doesn't change the racial tension in this country, it doesn't undo the double standards, and it certainly doesn't lead to dialogue. But dialogue is less and less the point. It's about finding our pulpit and yelling from it. It's about demanding people pay for their mistakes, and their prejudices. It's about being "right" on the issues. It's less and less about looking at people, and wondering, how the hell does all of this work again?


Cause here's the thing: there was a time when the social critics of the day wanted to look at the big picture, examine why we, as a humanity behave and interact the way we do. Nobody did that better than writer, social critic, crumudgeon and keynote-speaker at my graduation Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut died Wednesday, and as some of my friends joked, we were shocked it didn't happen right on the stage at graduation. He fought through the twenty minute speech, though at times it seemed he might not make it. I wonder, if Vonnegut wasn't busy fighting for his life, if he would have been interested in the Imus scandal, or if he would have shrugged it off as another example of people making satire: that is putting on the farce of being socially progressive, all while treading in a wading pool, afraid to jump into the big, scary ocean. Vonnegut, like yours truly, was a liberal, the kind who was proud to wear that label, but wasn't blind to the faults manifest therein: Liberals do some dumb things. We often mean better for the world than conservatives, but we oftener have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. We want to rage against people who say dumb things, or who advocate pushing their agendas and beliefs upon us, but we really do value our freedom of speech, our right as citizens to believe in what we want to believe (and of course, to try to make you believe it too.) We also are a guilt-ridden people. We are sensitive to history, we are embarassed by the way this nation was founded, and continues to expand into the world at-large, and make its name in the books of history. But we aren't looking to take any of the blame for that, of course.

I like to think Vonnegut would have ignored the hoopla and seen it for what it has become: a manifestation of one of society's major weaknesses in a caricature of one man. Imus, like Mel Gibson, and Michael Richards before him, has come to symbolize a particularly nasty truth about American society: racial tension. It's something we are petrified of actually discussing, and so we project it onto characters everyonce in a while, and beat them to a pulp. We tell ourselves this is progress. Vonnegut once wrote: “If I’d wasted my time creating characters, I would never have gotten around to calling attention to things that really matter.” Indeed, the media, liberals, Americans have spent an awful lot of time lately focusing on a few "evil" characters. It's simpler than calling attention to things that really matter.

I didn't ever consider Vonnegut my favorite writer. I don't have one really, but he would certainly be in the mix, most likely falling short to Joyce, Faulkner and some others. He didn't write my all-time favorite book. Moby Dick is in a league of its own, but Slaughter-House Five is battling it out with Ulysses, Book of Daniel, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller... and some others for the high AAA's. But one thing will always keep Vonnegut in a special place in my memory: he was the first author who really made me want to write. After completing SH5 in 9th grade I sat down to begin a novel that was a complete rip-off of Vonnegut's work. I never finished it. Ever since then I have been not finishing novels which are complete rip-offs of other authors' work. We're predictable, us humans.

And so, three years after he told my graduating class that if we "really wanted to piss off (our) parents but didnt have the guts to tell them (we) were gay, (we) could always take up art," Vonnegut died. I bet thousands of kids began writing because of him. And now he's dead, and some of us are still writing but never finishing. So it goes.

The Golden Rule

I found out two weeks ago I have been accepted (again) into the NYC Teaching Fellows. I am going to go for it this time. There are some major implications to this that I will hash out at some point. It's not going to be easy, and I am certain that I will question everything from my decision to my motives to my desire to continue breathing on a pretty much daily basis for the next two years. Teaching in an inner-city school as I am learning via my brother is a total mind-blow, and trying to complete a MEd at the same time is only going to be more difficult. For now, it means two years of grad school, subsidized, two years of frustrating but hopefully occasionally fulfilling moments with my students, and an opportunity to do something on a daily basis that benefits someone other than myself. It will be a challenge. But I need a challenge. It's been a long time since I have faced one of any real consequence. Furthermore, I really think I was born to teach (seeing as basically everyone I am related to is an eduator) and you know, I just love everything about Literature and academics, with one caveat: I think sometimes the people who need literature and academics (young kids) don't get the advantage of seeing that those two things can actually be cool and fun. I'm not going to save the world. I am not going to be a part of some great movement whereby 5 years from now urban students will have the same opportunity as suburban kids. But I'll be damned if I have the opportunity to work with kids and possibly change the way one or two of them look at reading a book, and I pass it up because I would rather come to a job where I sit in a cube and babble on my blog all day long. Kinda hard to argue that people are having trouble seeing the forest for the trees, when I haven't gotten down of this branch in three years or so. Maybe I will still be teaching in the year 2081, when everyone is finally equal.

KV Nov. 11, 1922-Apr. 11, 2007
Don Imus, Al Sharpton, Stuart Scott still livin'. So it goes.


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