Wednesday, April 23, 2014

You are not a hero for being hit by a plane...* And other meditations on the cheapening of a meaningful term.

I will admit to some rancor here. Maybe even an irrational amount of it.* I began writing this post a week or so ago in anger, and the source of my ire was Adrianne Haslet-Davis. The dancer, who lost part of her left leg in last year's Boston Marathon bombing, tromped out of a Meet the Press segment in protest because she felt "disrespected" by host David Gregory. See, she had insisted that no one utter the names of the bombers who caused her injuries, and when Gregorywho is, after all, a newsman, with, like, news to coversaid he could offer no such assurances, she ditched the show. 

At which I was motivated to muse of Ms. Haslet-Davis... Excuse me...and who the hell are YOU again?

I'm sure she would have an answer for me, and an unflinching, assertive one at that. These people, victims of America's mass public tragedies, see themselves as possessors (and custodians) of a certain cultural gravitas. It is as if their wounds have earned them the right to present themselves as the authorized conscience of a nation, recognized spokespeople for the aggrieved, utterly above reproach, unassailable in thought and deed. They claim moral authority. They expect to be heard, to be listened to, and, like Ms. Haslet-Davis, they will dictate terms for their participation.

Whatever specific words one might use in characterizing their status, the attitude that comes through loud and clear is YOU OWE US.

Although this phenomenon has always been part of the American ethos, it kicked in with a vengeance following 9/11, of course, and has been on display with each tragedy since: VTech, Sandy Hook, the Marathon, and so forth.

One is hard pressed to diminish any of what happened on 9/11. But, you know, human suffering was not invented on that somber day...and it was not invented in this country, either. (The terrorists might argue that 9/11 was partly inspired by the degree of human suffering we inflicted. I'm not agreeing, just making the point.) Besides which, the 9/11 survivors benefit from a huge and ongoing support structure. They are given a hero's welcome everywhere they go. They are formally remembered, honored, each year on the anniversary. Plus there's the little matter of the millions they received from the government (which is to say, from us, as taxpayers) in recompense: averaging a cool $2.08 million per 9/11 family.

No such remedies were forthcoming to the 645 Americans who were murdered in Chicago in 2001, officially the murder capital of America that year (not counting 9/11 itself). Included among those 645 were three people who died without fanfare, with nary a mention, on 9/11 itself. They got lost in the embers of a nationwide cataclysm. Still, they had families, loved ones. They counted.

I started blogging on such themes back in 2007, when it was still considered tacky, if not vaguely unpatriotic, to even question the victims of 9/11 in any fashion. In the intervening years I have consistently criticized the hubris of the 9/11 families who apparently felt entitled to control the collective public memory of the event, as if they owned the tragedy and it was theirs to exploit, if any exploiting were to be done. One is mindful of Lisa Beamer's attempts to trademark the phrase "Let's Roll," famously uttered by her late husband, Todd, as the passengers on Flight 93 prepared to storm the cockpit. It is reported that she has since remarried, "moved on."

A lot of these folks also do inspirational speaking about "finding the courage to move on"which is a tad easier to do, perhaps, when you've go $2 million to work with. Or when you've got people crowd-funding so they can throw money at you for a new boat or a prosthetic that enables you to keep on dancing and bloviating. And why not...you're a hero, aren't you?

We can argue about whether Sully Sullenberger was a hero for what happened that day out on the Hudson. You may say yes, I may be more skeptical. But at least Sully did something. He controlled the moment. What did Haslet-Davis do in Boston except get blown up? Please excuse me for sounding callous or hard-hearted; it's just that this needs to be said, and thought about. (For an even better example, go to the Sullenberger post and read about the guy who almost got killed on Everest. What a peach.)

You are not a hero for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, per se. (I'm sure I'll catch hell for saying this, but you are not a hero for having a child shot to pieces in a school. You deserve our compassion, our profound empathy; I cried along with the rest of America after Sandy Hook. That said, our tears did not confer hero status on the bereaved.) You are not a hero for being hit by a hijacked plane or injured by a bomb while doing what you love: running a marathon. Now, surely there are things people might do after the plane or the bomb that qualify as heroic. Surely there were legitimate stories of heroism to come out of the Marathon. But...but...in our rush to canonize...let's not lose sight of something important.

Heroism is active and purposeful. Heroism is aware. The hero understands that he or she is facing the abyss, and proceeds anyway. For my money, and I could only wish society's, you are far more of a hero for boarding a plane to some god-forsaken place like Afghanistan to avenge the people who were hit by a plane on 9/11. Read, for example, about this man, who now lives in a group home that helps veterans transition to civilian life. (Go to the page, scroll down a bit and click on the name Seth Howard.) I do some publicity for the cause. He has almost surely earned the right to wear the "hero" label...as have the men who run the outreach that helps him, Vets For Vets. Where is their $2.08 million? Each day's paper contains tragic stories of other young men and women who went off to war and came back changed, if they came back at all. The stories come and go, they meld into one another, generating barely a ripple despite their heroic elements.

As for Adrianne "how dare you say Tsarnaev in my presence!" Haslet-Davis? A hero? Not so much.
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* Also, this won't be my best work. I'm writing it in a very narrow window between other activities, and I simply didn't have time to include every example or make my words as persuasive as I'd like them to be. Just think about all this, is all I ask.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I guess Italian debaters should be able to just keep saying fuggetaboutit!...and whack their opponents at the end.

Today's assignment, boys and girls, is to read this piece, which I assure you is from the Atlantic (you may wonder as you read if it's from The Onion), and tell me if you come to the same conclusions I did about what blacks think of themselves, their culture, etc.

"The next debate in the series will be held..."
1. Blacks are profane loud-mouths.
2. Blacks don't want to have to observe any rules or conventions that are not of their own origination.
3. Blacks lack the research skills and "intellectual acuity" to keep up with the ebb-and-flow of traditional argumentation rooted in (a) facts and (b) the logical manipulation of same. (The term intellectual acuity is a direct quote from the piece.)
4. Blacks can't stay on-theme, but rather prefer to twist every argument into an exploration of the oppression they have suffered at the hands of whites. That's really all they want to talk about.
5. It is inherently discriminatory to expect blacks to think on their feet and express those thoughts in complete sentences, i.e. without resorting to hip-hop or performance art. 

Can you say "soft bigotry of low expectations"?

Would love to hear from black readers on this. Are you not offended by this piece and the patronizing, almost humiliating assumptions it appears to champion? If not, I want to know why.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Does the military own the franchise on horror? (graphic photo)

I found this post tucked away in draft mode, all but forgotten, and I think it deserves to see the light of day. At first blush it may puzzle some regular readers, who deem it (at least) tonally incompatible with my recent rants on race, thugs and the like. I believe that readers who draw that inference are also drawing unwarranted inferences about my outlook in general, and probably need to give my posts a closer read. Sorry.

With that said, some weeks back there was a story in the paper about a veteran who returned from Afghanistan haunted by horrific memories and blighted by PTSD; after an escalating series of mishaps, he ended up killing his fiance's mother and himself. The tone of the story is understanding, warm, sympathetic: "look what this poor guy went through." And I don't dispute that. Nothing said here is intended to minimize what our fine young men and women faced (and continue to) in Iraq and Afghanistan; if you want to get a bit better idea of the horror, as well as the sheer pointlessness of it all, I suggest you pick up a copy of Jake Tapper's brilliant and mesmerizing book, The Outpost.

Brains get blown out here at home too...as in this drive-by gang hit.
But, it's just... Why are we so understanding of some people who do terrible things and not of others? When a boy is raised in an awful neighborhood by neglectful or abusive parents, grows up confused and full of rage, then commits some heinous act, we are seldom filled with sympathy. The tone of the media coverage certainly isn't. The sympathy, the only sympathy, is for the victim, while the perp is usually made out to be a monster. (Is not a gangland ghetto much like a war zone?) In today's paper, for example, there is this story, which is one of the mildest I've heard, but basically serves our purposes. There's a story like it almost daily. As noted, in most cases the central character endured far worse than this young man.

Some might sayas judges will at sentencingthat there are countless kids who grow up in terrible circumstances yet don't go on to commit atrocities, thereby implying that this kid, too, should've been able to "suck it up" and turn his life around. By the same token, there are many vets who come back from war having seen the same ugliness as the guy who committed the murder-suicide above, and they don't become killers. They become teachers, bankers, engineers, writers. They marry, have families and live happily ever after, or at least no less happily than any of the rest of us. So why the special compassion shown in our coverage of the minority of GIs who collapse into tragedy?

Can we not agree that many of us are subjected to horrible things, and that we are affected in many different ways, to many different degrees? We are also very different people going in, such that some of us are better equipped than other to handle adversity (and even outright horror). Some of us are stronger, have more of a moral core or internal clock, to begin with.

How about sympathy for all? Or sympathy for none. The selective application of sympathy makes no sense to me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Where there's smoke...there can't be fire.

Driving home after a late day at work one evening, you turn into your housing development, ease around the next corner into your cul-de-sac...and you slam on the brakes... For down at the end of the block, where your house is, you see an explosion; immediately your beautiful home is engulfed in flames. What's your first thought? Is it "Oh, wait, I know what this is about... It must be that guy I met at that party last year, the CGI* expert. He's pranking me..." Or is it likely to be more along the lines of Oh my God, my family's in there, what the hell is going on...??

It has not escaped your attention of late, nor mine, that SHAMblog is mutating into RACEblog. Apologies. It's just that hardly a day goes by that we don't have more one-sided, politically correct reporting and/or analysis served up in the guise of an "open dialog on race." For my part, I grow weary of seeing/hearing nary a rebuttal. To be clear, I grow weary not on white-person racial grounds, but on logical/scientific grounds. Those should apply to all people, regardless of color.

Last last week, for example, we had this story. We were informed that black pre-schoolers are suspended at three time the rates of their white classmates—and naturally, of course, this ipso facto demonstrates that the system is rigged against black kids from the very first.

After all, what other interpretation could there possibly be?

I quote from a key passage in MSNBC's coverage of the study:

A staggering new report released by the Department of Education and the Justice Department on Friday highlights a troubling pattern of zero-tolerance school discipline policies that disproportionately impact minority students in general, but also trickle down to the nation’s youngest students...
So the disciplinary policies "disproportionately impact minority students"? Does it disproportionately impact minority students who are models of impeccable behavior? Or could it be that the impacted minority students are, just perhaps, a wee bit more unruly than their white peers? If the latter, then isn't MSNBC's argument a little bit like saying that laws against drunk driving disproportionately impact people who drive drunk? I agree that zero-tolerance policies on just about anything are problematic and should be rethought, but if we're saying that zero-tolerance policies disproportionately affect black students, are we not also saying that black students are more apt than white students to exhibit the intolerable behaviors?

In other words, if you have tough standards in the area of behavior, a good percentage of the kids who are unable to meet those standards will be black. OK, so maybe that is indeed saying something about the unworkability of the standards. But it's also saying something about the black kids...and yet we don't hear what it says aloud. It simply isn't permissible.

The same report notes that teachers in minority neighborhoods tend to be less experienced than those in other neighborhoods—thus, supposedly more evidence of society's educational bias against blacks. But this point about the quality of education is a wholly separate argument that, to my mind, militates against the larger point about suspensions and discipline. While it may be true that inexperienced teachers aren't as good at teaching, the inexperienced teachers also happen to be the idealists, the ones who went into education in order to shape young minds, inspire children and "give back." (Until such idealism gets beaten out of them by the system.) I believe that in most cases young teachers sincerely want to help kids they regard as disadvantaged or at-risk. If anything, such teachers are more understanding and lenient than the hard-bitten veterans, the Joe Clark types. Even in a zero-tolerance setting, I suspect that young teachers tolerate more.

I won't kill you, but I can't blame you for worrying.
Now let's move on to the most controversial possibility here, which is to say, the one you'll never hear broached in mainstream television (or just about anywhere else): If poor impulse control and general disciplinary problems are present in children that young, why isn't that an even stronger case for the innateness of those characteristics? In short, is there something inherently different about black kids? Something that makes them more disruptive, unruly and/or combative? Something that, years later, is also responsible for the abysmal incarceration rate among black America?

In dealing with almost any other topic we'd be permitted to ask that question: no, not as a rhetorical, not as if to imply that we already know the answer, but as an honest expression of interest in scientific inquiry. If a particular brand of toaster is always incinerating consumers who attempt to make toast, if the ignition switch on a particular brand of car is resulting in deadly malfunctions (the very crisis new GM CEO Mary Barra has on her hands), if a breed of dog seems correlated with deadly attacks (i.e. pit bulls, like my son's beloved Benny, shown), our first inclination is to assume the problem is the toaster, the car, the breed. We may later reject those hypotheses in favor of less obvious factors, but we're at least allowed to consider the prima facie possibility first.

Not in our open dialog on race, however. This is the one case where the smoke can never be a result of fire.
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* computer-generated imagery 

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Angela Davis, finger-pointing, and college-level propaganda.

UPDATE, Monday, March 17.

Why "update"? Well, although length-wise this qualifies as a post in its own right, to me it feels more like an update of my original post of February 15, which I invite you to read first.  

Lehigh, where I'm teaching these days, recently hosted a forum on race featuring one-time black militant Angela Davis* and the so-called "ghetto intellectual" rapper Nas. (I've heard Nas himself use the phrase, and I never quite understood why the word ghetto was necessary. If you're an intellectual, you're an intellectual. He's a smart dude, so the label seems apt.) Also present and participating was Prof. James B. Peterson, who directs Lehigh's Department of Africana Studies.

Click here to read Lehigh's official coverage of the event. I commend your attention to a key line from the second paragraph, to wit:

"Davis, a well-known political activist since the 1960s, and Nas, a successful rap musician, spoke about the increasing problem of mass incarceration..."
Do you see it? Do you see the spin? The problem is "mass incarceration." In this context, the phrase conjures images of gangs of rowdy cops patrolling minority neighborhoods, rounding up whomever they find there**, then sending these poor souls on to their Klan-ish collaborators in the justice system for prison processing.

Why isn't the problem, just possibly (and, on the surface, more demonstrably) "mass criminality"? Here again, as noted in the original post to which I link, we strain to find an excuse for the behavior, a politically correct way of absolving the perp, shifting the blame to society. Indeed, the phrase mass incarceration seems not merely to imply that there's injustice in the handling of some black suspects (which is indisputably the case), but that all black crime, the great mass of it, is a function of white racism/oppression (see related comment quoted below). That, and that alone, explains why blacks are disproportionately represented in America's prisons. It's not their behavior toward society; it's society's behavior toward them.

Davis has somewhat softened her tone of late (mellowing in her later years?), and is less apt to voice the radical, eyebrow-raising sentiments that once defined her rhetoric. But it's pretty clear that she still means the same things she meant back in her Black Panther days. (Davis also belonged to the Che-Lumumba Club, an all-black branch of the Communist Party.)

In discussing Davis herself, the Lehigh piece notes that she "was incarcerated for roughly 18 months in the early 1970s," without bothering to get bogged down in trifling matters like what she was incarcerated for. Davis went underground in August 1970 after guns she owned were used in a sensational courtroom escape and kidnapping that resulted in the deaths of four people, including the judge. She was captured after some months as a fugitive, and held for a time without bail. Eventually an all-white jury would acquit her of all charges in the killings.

So was Davis technically guilty of a crime? I suppose not. But did she count among her intimates people who could be regarded as thugs at best, criminals for sure, and terrorists at worst? Did her sympathies lay with them? Almost surely so, especially since she herself had lain with them: Davis had taken as a lover George Jackson, one of the imprisoned men the courtroom killers sought to free via their brazen, lethal act. In her letters to Jackson, as in other public statements, Davis was an unflinching advocate of violence in service of minority aims.

Here is another revealing article about Davis, written on the occasion of her 2012 selection as "One of the eight black women paving the way for greatness in politics," an exhibit shown in Washington, D.C.'s Superior Court, of all places. I quote from the Washington Times piece:
"Ms. Davis holds that any black serving a prison sentence in the United States is in reality a 'political prisoner,” whatever offense they may have committed. In her lexicon, those convicted are only victims of 'masked racism.' "
The school of thought represented in those lines is what is often taught in America's colleges. Not discussed or debated...taught. I don't mean to imply that colleges use Davis' exact terminology...but there is no question that in many college settings, and certainly in every Black Studies program to which I've ever been exposed***, the philosophy is the only acceptable lens through which the black experience in America may be viewed: Blacks are never to blame; the legacy of slavery is profound and perpetual, and we (the oppressors) need to understand and make allowances.

You cannot safely challenge the mindset represented in Lehigh's press release....not without risking repercussions. You will be ostracized if not accused of creating a "hostile environment" for the college's diverse population. (All major colleges nowadays seek to boost the diversity of their enrollment and faculty, and dislike perspectives and/or controversies that may make diverse populations feel less welcome.) In extreme cases, if your "offenses" are ongoing, you may be removed from your post.

As suggested in the post linked at the top, you cannot propose that there may, just may, be something slightly amiss within too many blacks themselves. You cannot even propose that this area is worthy of further study. If you are going to study something, you must study the manifold ways in which America continues to mistreat its blacks and therefore remains fully culpable for their failure to thrive.

Happy St. Patty's Day.
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* Now Prof. Emeritus Angela Davis.
** presumably for the crime of EWB: Existing While Black
*** I have not sat in on Dr. Peterson's course work at Lehigh