Thursday, February 15, 2018

One Nation, Under Guns

As of Valentine's Day 2018, at least 17 people are dead and approximately 14 people wounded in Parkland, Florida.  They were allegedly attacked by a former student of Marjory Stone Douglas High School, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz.  The majority of the victims were apparently either students or employees of the school.  The weapon used by the suspect was an AR-15 hunting rifle.  Reportedly this is now the second-deadliest school-based shooting incident in the United States, after the Sandy Hook School tragedy in Connecticut where 26 people (mostly children) were murdered.  Cruz was reportedly arrested not far from the school and as of February 15th faced 17 counts of premeditated murder.

According to Florida Senator Bill Nelson, "(Cruz) wore a gas mask and... he set off the fire alarm so that the kids would come pouring out of the classroom[s] into the hall." 

The gun used by Cruz was purchased legally, according to ATF investigators.  Cruz was allegedly expelled from school relating to behavioral issues.  The social media accounts and postings of Cruz have come under scrutiny.  Reportedly some of it included "images of knives, guns, and anti-Islamic content."  Cruz's parents are reportedly deceased, with his mother having died late in 2017 and his father having passed away several years ago.
As fresh as this event is, some predictable reactions and observations are taking place.  This includes news reporters and public officials alike.
  • "Our thoughts and prayers are with you."
  • Criticism of the National Rifle Association.
  • Defense of the National Rifle Association.
  • Suggestions that arming school personnel is a common-sense option.
  • Mention of "mental health" support shortcomings
  • "I believe in the Second Amendment".
In the meanwhile, people are dying.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the United States had over 33,000 gun-related deaths in 2016.  This is yet another school-based shooting less than 45 days into the new year.
So many people are afraid.
Afraid of public officials.
Afraid of the gun lobby.
Afraid of being labeled as "soft on crime/terror".
Afraid of Second Amendment absolutists.
Most of all, people are afraid of being responsible adults.  Children are paying the price for our cultural cowardice regarding firearms.
If the recent past is any indicator, for all of the pundits who clamor for change, there will likely be no substantive public policy measures taken in the aftermath of this tragedy.  Just patronizing talk about "bipartisanship", "getting beyond politics", or "finding common ground".
That this latest tragedy happened in a demonstrably middle-class setting of suburban Miami is not likely to move the needle on any public policy reforms.  Certainly, during the 45 administration, nothing happened in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017.  It is also observed that the Republican Party controls the Senate and the House of Representatives.  In the days to come, there needs to be a reckoning among the American public.  People have to make it known what they are willing to culturally tolerate and what is not tolerable.  People have to be willing to challenge and embarrass public officials.  They also need to be willing to replace public officials.
Americans have no excuses.  People are going to have to take political action or stop being surprised at these events as they occur-- as abhorrent as the notion may be.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Orlando's Tragedy: Many Questions, Few Answers

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”
            Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian (1892–1971)

In Orlando, Fla., 53 people are confirmed dead and over 50 confirmed injured.  A gunman now identified as 29-year old Omar Mateen-- an American-born citizen of Afghani heritage-- apparently entered a gay-culture nightclub in the wee hours of June 12, 2016, and began a shooting rampage.  Hostages were held, and police eventually arrived on the scene.  Before the chaotic assault was over, dozens were left dead, including Mateen.

Based on ongoing information released by police authorities, Mateen allegedly called 911 prior to beginning his assault, pledging an affiliation with global terror outfit ISIS.

Among the far-ranging questions raised by this incident is an enduring narrative of how and why an American citizen manages to commit himself to the cause of a foreign terror outfit, manages to facilitate the purchase of high-powered weaponry, and then proceeds to carry out acts of cold-blooded premeditated murder on an unsuspecting group of people.

The reasons why, sickening and infuriating as they may be, aren’t necessarily that difficult to parse out.

Thanks in part to the connectedness enabled via the Internet, gang recruitment has gone global.

To elaborate: What does a gang offer its recruits?  Love.  Protection.  Pride.  Family.  Strength.
What does a gang demand of its recruits?  Loyalty.  Obedience.  “Courage”.  “Boldness”.

Thus there is a deeply ironic commonality between street gangs, the historical Ku Klux Klan, quasi-military militias and the religious-jihad ideology of ISIL (among others), that demands blind fealty to an often-times amorphously-defined cause, with a rotating list of enemies and offenders, that is more erratic than informed; internal ethics and rules are more contrived than consistent.  The prospect of the annihilation of the “other” is at once an afterthought and a righteous goal to be upraised.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a country ponders how to move forward after yet the latest in a seemingly semi-regular series of mass shootings that leave high numbers of the dead in their wake.
Hopefully, one doesn’t have to “agree” with homosexuality to acknowledge that it’s ghastly to feel justified in committing acts of wanton murder like those that were committed by  Mateen.

Unfortunately, it’s quite likely that there are many people (dozens? Thousands? Millions?) who are disconnected enough to not care, since it wasn’t their loved ones who were injured or killed.  In the era of interactive devices attached to hips, hyper-tribal disconnectedness is far from unknown.

There are many caring and charitable people (dozens? Thousands? Millions?) who will balk at the remotest notion of addressing the myriad forms of firearms manufacturing, avenues of distribution, and means of purchase, ostensibly within the context of preventing self-protection rights from being vacated and shielding the 2nd Amendment from being sweepingly voided by government overreach.

There are many otherwise well-meaning people (dozens? Thousands? Millions?) who will at least tacitly, quietly (and even semi-openly) agree with Mateen’s acts, given that the assumption is many (though, quite possibly, not all) of the attack’s victims and the venue where it took place represent “the Great Babylon” of Biblical-derived lore and literature.  For some, this is not an act to flatly condemn, but a prescient, if obliquely delivered, warning to the greater society to turn away from a laundry list of sinful indulgences.

There are many otherwise pious and morally-centered folks (dozens? Thousands? Millions?) who will likely blame the killer’s religious identification, and thus go about their lives looking askance at anyone with a certain ethnic look or who have a certain wardrobe.  There may yet be others who quietly or openly endorse retaliatory violence or political marginalization of those assumed to inhabit these qualities.

Hopefully there are many—preferably in the hundreds of millions—who believe that love is stronger than any one’s—or any group’s—hatred and animus.  The cacophony of statements,  counter-statements and counter-counter-statements that take place after events like this have clearly availed little or nothing in the way of public policy or cultural shift that can arrest this form of anti-human aggression that leads to this unique form of malaise.

Time will tell.  In light of the palpable tragedy and the immediate loss as these events occur-- wherever they occur (e.g., Colorado, Connecticut, Texas, South Carolina, California, etc.) however often they occur-- and to whomever they occur (college students, children, racial minorities, members of a particular religion, LGBT folks)-- an arguably grimmer and foreboding tragedy is seeded, birthed, nurtured, and mainstreamed.

The worrisome realization that deliberately executed mass losses of life, ultimately-- are now just plain normal.

“With great power, must also come great responsibility."
               Stan Lee, author (1922 - )

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Donald Sterling, owner of the National Basketball League team the Los Angeles Clippers, has been officially banned from any public association or site-based interaction with his team as of this week.  Sterling was also fined $2.5 million dollars.  The announcement by NBA league commissioner Adam Silver of the aforementioned sanctions happened earlier this week in a press conference.
The hotly-anticipated press conference followed in the wake of the leak of an audio conversation between a man presumed to be Sterling (which has since been officially confirmed in an NBA investigation) and a female companion, presumed to be a Ms. V. Stiviano.  On the audio, Sterling and Viviano could be heard in a heated exchange, initially concerning Stiviano's posting of an Instagram photo on the Internet of herself and NBA great Earvin "Magic" Johnson together.  The fan-photo apparently rubbed Sterling the wrong way, as he engaged in a rambling tirade concerning his preference for Stiviano to avoid publicly associating with blacks.  In particular, Sterling admonished Viviano to not bring Johnson or any other African Americans to basketball games.  Other comments in the exchange diverged into ostensibly uglier territory between Sterling, 80, and Stiviano, who is reportedly 50 years his junior.
The controversy over the leaked conversation went just as viral as the audio posting itself (initially published by TMZ Sports and  Sterling received a public thumbs down from various personalities connected to the NBA, including Johnson himself (who vented during his current stint as a commentator on the NBA playoffs), team owners Michael Jordan (Charlotte Bobcats) and Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons).  Even before the Silver press conference, Johnson expressed that Sterling should be compelled to lose his status as an owner by being forced to sell the Clippers.  An assortment of other observers concurred, and Silver has promised that he will do everything legally possible to convince Sterling to sell the Clippers.
News stories published since the controversy broke have highlighted Sterling's less-than-stellar reputation as a businessman during his decades-long tenure of ownership of the Clippers.  Sterling, who also owns various real estate throughout California (in particular, apartment buildings) was compelled to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2009 and 2005 totaling millions.  NBA Hall of Fame inductee Elgin Baylor sued Sterling after a lengthy stint working for the Clippers-- Baylor eventually lost the suit, but among his various allegations were that Sterling openly spoke of his players in crude terms, and allegedly froze Baylor's General Manager salary at $350K for years on end while a white head coach was able to enjoy a four-year, $22 million contract.
As of this writing, Sterling has allegedly balked at the idea of selling the team.  In the meanwhile, the Clippers are still alive in the playoffs, and as a group they staged a "silent protest" of turning their practice uniforms inside-out before squaring off against the Golden State Warriors in a recent game.  Some observers may feel that the worst is over in this saga, and that the problem-- Sterling's racism-- has been solved.  But has it?
The notion that comes to mind for this writer-- which admittedly is pure fantasy (like the Pistons winning the title again in the immediate future)-- one wonders whether Sterling be compelled to simply abdicate the team, or perhaps only sell at his original purchase price, to the city of Los Angeles or Los Angeles County, making it a publicly owned team along the lines of the Green Bay Packers. Legally, this writer is unclear how something like that could be finessed.  But anyway, if Sterling is compelled to sell for "full price", then there should be a mechanism that diverts all profits into fair-housing-advocacy nonprofits and up-to-snuff apartments, with third-party oversight. Again, a lofty if unlikely notion.
Kudos, one supposes, to Mr. Silver, for his decisive response (though he seemingly had little choice, given the public awareness and internal vitriol within NBA ranks). However, the history of the "culture of enabling" concerning Sterling remains. Bosses like Sterling don't exist in a vacuum. Former NBA Commissioner (and Silver mentor) David Stern should be put under the microscope as well, since he ought to have been well familiar with Sterling's philosophies over the years.
It is also both hilarious and infuriating that apparently the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP was poised to give a "Lifetime Achievement" award (technically, the second such acknowledgement) to Mr. Sterling via his charity operations. Apparently their vetting process could use some improvement. Try Google, maybe?
Civil libertarians have crowed about the ethics of how the original audio was obtained.  Did Sterling know he was being taped?  Did Stiviano leak the audio herself?  Did she pass it along to a friend?  A representative for Deadspin has as of this writing confirmed that they did pay for access to the audio, but the second party was not identified.  These are certainly legitimate concerns, broadly speaking.  For now, this writer is less hung up on Miss Stiviano and her ethical breaches.  She's not innocent in this saga, but she doesn't own the team either.  Mr. Sterling may well join his wife in suing her vigorously (after Mr. Sterling was apparently doing other vigorous things with her for a while) if they feel strongly enough about the "violation". Also, whenever Ms. Viviano (inevitably) goes on the talk-show circuit (possibly with lawyer in tow), she should come completely clean about what went wrong with her sugar-baby stint.
If Magic Johnson and his current Los Angeles Dodgers partners get the nod to pick up the Clippers pink slip, it may well be a solid publicity move for the NBA corporation-- though one of the sobering asterisks in such a scenario would be that Magic would technically not be "majority" owner-- not to cast aspersions on the Guggenheims, who also are partnered with Johnson in ownership of the WNBA's L.A. Sparks. But "scandals" like this only offer surface glimpses at how the multicultural-social-equity-via-sports "messaging" of the NBA as a global brand clashes with the vast structural inequity that exists within its own hierarchies of owners and employees.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Did Hip-Hop Fail Urban America?

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, bandleader for the Roots,  is in the midst of a weekly editorial series about hip-hop music and culture and its relationship with the current state of African American economic and cultural interests.

Thompson's second essay can be found here:

Hip-Hop's been praying at the altar of celebrity billionaire Warren Buffett for years, even if the vast majority of artists have no idea who that is..  ;)  Rappers can go on a rant against recently-embattled Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling (bravo) but in various other aspects of their lives and songs, it's not unusual to find them openly fantasizing about having his same lifestyle as Sterling and his contemporaries, with virtually the same disdain for the have-nots: ostentatious wealth continues to be implicitly equated with moral righteousness.  Artists claim perpetual outlaw-status while several flaunt their endorsement deals/co-ventures with assorted high-end corporate brands.

It's another excellent commentary by Questlove on the current state of hip-hop music/culture. The Roots’ “What they do” has come home to roost. (Feel free to YouTube it; it's quite good). Ironically, I think Jay Z put together his own ‘backpacker’ satire video shortly after. Of course, they all did Unplugged together, so it’s not like there’s beef.

It seems like so many artists of today—in terms of lyrics-- have topics that revolve around a zone of billionaire envy and egregious mobster fantasy that I scarcely even find anything engaging with what’s on the radio now. To me, a lot of stuff that’s out now is damn near self-parody, or heck, it just is. Who’s the guy who keeps going “Versaci versaci versaci versaci” in his rap? As far the music/rhythm tracks go, whenever ‘keyboard-beats’ became the standard, I guess Reagan-era-rap-spoiled me started to find a lot of "hot" instrumentals barely tolerable.

Going to and from work, I'm usually tuned into (non-opinion) news radio or NPR. Besides that, I'll flip around to jazz/soul, country, classic rock... I’ve come (slowly back) into listening to top 40 “churban” stations (ostensibly pop/rock crossover driven with an expanded emphasis on hip-hop/R&B) in recent years. Somehow, I’m finding that quite a bit of ‘hip-hop’ has been coming from pop artists- various pop performers either share producers with rappers, (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kesha) or even if they don’t, hip-hop informs a lot of contemporary pop production (I'll hear a breakbeat cut/scratch on Taylor Swift and Leann Rimes songs.)

The critique that "rappers" aren't expected to be "uplifting" while their pop-rock contemporaries are allowed to be "vapid and meaningless" is valid, to a degree-- however: based on many of the interviews that rappers conduct, the self-absorption is rather grating. Audiences have been subjected for years to revolving doors of "street reporters" who nonetheless seem to have more in common with the performers from World Wrestling Entertainment. To confront any of them that what these "artists" are all about is just schtick to make their bucks is met with glowering resentment that implies a certain form of cultural treason. For many of them, apparently, the vices of the ghetto are signifiers, freely used to support their self-directed commercial enterprises.

The notion that a strip-club anthem all of a sudden makes somebody an activist/ revolutionary along the lines of Stokely Carmichel is ludicrous on its face. But this is kind of where the standard is. Performing de rigueur community service activities like donating holiday turkeys & gift baskets is nice-- but heck, when every other rap is "I've got a fleet of Maybachs and you don't", the philosophical cleavage is rather stark. Being a flamboyant self-aggrandizing entertainer doesn't make somebody Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, even if social conservatives offer plenty of "hate me now" fodder.

Unfortunately even when there’s a thoughtful reaction (and not just a reactionary reaction) to the dumber stuff in the culture, the observer(s) often get put into a zone of blanket-hater and bourgeois-flag waver. Sometimes this comes from hip-hop journos and editors themselves, when they could be aiming for the middle ground. For the urban-music mags that are still staying afloat, only the handful of megastars from 10 years ago and beyond get feature articles even if they’re still active, and you can almost forget about the cover. Hip hop's media infrastructure (terrestrial, non-internet, non-satellite broadcast radio, magazines, online) has yet to create a cultural "classic rock" zone for most veteran acts of the 80s and 90s.  That would go a long way to help nurture a niche through which veteran hip-hop acts could maintain a presence in the consciousness of the music's initial (and successive) audiences.