Friday, March 21, 2008

Foul Ball!

Nope, for all you nice folks out there who dig our (long-reputed but in-practice questionable) national pastime, opening day for most ball clubs isn’t until the end of March. Armchair umpire that I am, I’m actually talking about what’s going on in that other pennant race, which starts off which maybe a dozen or so over-35 types jockeying for position to be frontrunners, then for any number of various reasons gets winnowed down to at least two. Sometimes there’s a third, but for whatever reason nobody tends to take him or her seriously; heck, sometimes there’s even a fourth or fifth final candidate, but no one ever gets to know their names until they actually go into the polling booth. Huh..

As of mid-March, 2008, the presumed GOP nominee for the Presidency is John McCain. A career Navy man and Vietnam War veteran, he was a prisoner of war for several years before finally being freed of those tortuous conditions. Despite having publicly disagreed with President George W. Bush on several occasions, including (at least for a few minutes) questioning if the USA should continue torture-tactics on prisoners in relation to the War on Terror, McCain has in recent weeks publicly embraced Bush, implicitly or explicitly vowing to continue his domestic policy plans for the American economy—what’s more, he says he also plans on continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ostensibly leaving an open window for American military presence in these regions and beyond. Despite various polls that seem to indicate that general American sentiment has become weary of the war (I’m lazy; check Zogby or somewhere relatively reputable; please not Fox.com).

On those occasions where I have read interviews with McCain or seen him give a brief speech, he’s struck me as a fellow who is, at the surface level at least, intelligent, but fairly vague on any specifics on just what he would do to try to Steer America Back on Track ™ or however the standard ‘vote-for-me-because’ song and dance goes. So far, I haven’t noticed that he’s said anything in particular about addressing urban issues—recommitting federal moneys for infrastructure, attracting private investment dollars, addressing education (including early childhood education, improving public schools, and making post-high school more affordable); shortcomings in law enforcement and prison reform (especially as it relates to non-violent offenders). Detroit, in particular, has a nasty problem of an atrociously nonexistent trans-regional mass transportation system (i.e, light rail, short-and-long distance commuter shuttles/buses, etc.) Federal cooperation would go a long way in giving the region mass transit options that it has desperately needed, which stalemated squabbling among the region’s civic and business leaders (not to mention the presumed indifference from the auto industry: “That’s right, who needs a monorail, when you can buy a Hummer-Deluxe! Next year’s model will be 5 miles to the gallon! Act now!”). Also, even though any number of people will point out to me that this doesn’t matter, I have never seen John McCain speak to a mostly-minority audience, at all. Even if he were to give them the same speech as he gives to Joe and Jane NASCAR, it would certainly show that he’s not afraid to reach out where others have not: Unfortunately, on this score, McCain seems positively un-maverick-like despite his now-reputation as the Republican who Dared to be Different. Back in late 2007, there was a forum for GOP candidates organized at Howard University. Only the lower-tier (and lower-funded) candidates showed up like Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback. Giuliani? Romney? McCain? Nope. Oh, my Catholic guilt won’t let me ignore the fact that perennial also-ran Alan Keyes (who probably spent his campaign funds on cab fare to the debate) did show up to the forum—and one of his first remarks was to passionately defend the other guys who didn’t bother to show up. Moving on

To recap, McCain so far hasn’t presented himself, to my vantage point, as anything but another aging career politician (albeit one with a much younger, hot wife) who wants to be President, because, you know, it’s cool. Former Law & Order actor Fred Thompson (who also has a much younger, hot wife) tried courageously to present himself as the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan, and maybe he figured the TV reruns showing himself as a tough-on-crime District Attorney would balance out any lack of fundraising (or, uh, personality, platform, etc.) on his part. As we know by now, Fred is presumably back home in Tennessee enjoying his wife and quite possibly contemplating TV offers again. Considering the drubbing that McCain endured for the past year or so, being pilloried by even right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, conventional wisdom had McCain pegged as inevitably finishing a distant second to Romney, or possibly even behind Mike Huckabee, whose background as an Evangelical pastor had him quasi-anointed as preferable to the light-on-religious-talk McCain.

But as someone on the web pointed out to me (thanks, Priest), out of all the candidates—on either side—McCain looked and talked the most like A President ™. He’s got the Right Build, the Right Cheekbones, the Right Hair, the Right Look in a Suit. As Jon Stewart pointed out at the Oscars this year, when have we ever experienced a woman or a black man as president, unless it’s blatantly a science fiction movie?

He’s Not Black. He’s Not a Lady.

As unmercifully depressing as this may sound, there are a great many people who only respond to The Look and The Sound. Right now, John McCain is the John Wayne archetype that was first channeled by Reagan, then Bush I, then Bush II. Compared to George W., McCain doesn’t even have to fabricate anything about his military service record during the Vietnam War. For the cult who still insist that there are probably some of “our boys” over in Vietnam, McCain is going to be their Good Guy ™ (action figure coming soon). The Grownup who will defend America aggressively from all Bad Guys ™ and not be bothered with the wimpy qualities of temperance or even regret in the aftermath of any drastic consequences to follow.

I see McCain absolutely burning Hillary Clinton if she ends up being the Jackasses’—er, the Democrats’ nominee, come November. I’m talking, Mongolian Barbecue here. Missus Clinton just rubs far too many people the wrong way—in some respects for dumb reasons (like, you know, she’s a lady, and they get too emotional to push the button; real leaders don’t wear teal; she wants to *shudder* make health care universal!), in other respects, she rubs people the wrong way for reasons which I will have the uncalled-for gall to point out below.

Okay, so she married a guy who likes soul food, and one who doesn’t look uncomfortable in a black church setting (unlike the vast majority of even well-meaning white folks). Right On. Still, it’s clear that she and her advisors (and, yes, even Darling Billy) underestimated the grassroots momentum of Illinois Senator Barack Obama. With only a few years under his belt as a senator (but several years as a state legislator and community activist), Obama managed to build a multicultural coalition in record time, winning the Democratic contest at the Iowa Caucus—a state where finding the African-American population is like trying to get that one colored gumball out of a sea of white ones in the candy machine. When it became apparent that Mr. Obama’s candidacy was shaping up to be the real thing and not a here-he-comes-there-he-goes quickie, the Clinton campaign started showing some none-too-pleasing new colors (*cough* green, *cough*, red…)

Bill Clinton left office in 2001 being credited with balancing the federal budget with a surplus of funds (certainly nothing to sneeze at, though I wondered where was the trickle-down effects to be seen in urban America), as well as having to endure a taxpayer expensive, Republican-led, draconian impeachment hearing, ultimately more or less for hooking up with the help. I felt for him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal (though, unlike Toni Morrison, I never once thought he became black in the aftermath). Still, there were recurring incidents during his tenure that left an uncomfortable impression on me that my personal memory banks never let me forget. Hopefully my mother isn’t reading this, she would never let me live it down (hey Mom! Do we have some Spanish-rice mix left?) While she’s busy, I’ll continue:

Though pretty much anyone who commonly regards the Clintons as Black Folks Friends Forever (BFFF for you instant-text heads) will naturally want to boink me in the head for saying this, I still remember some incidents that lost Bill some cool points with me (or at least, left me scratching my head) back in the days. First, in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots there was the war of words with rap singer/activist Sister Souljah early on—which indirectly embarrassed Jesse Jackson at a black political convention. There was the abandonment of federal court nominee Lani Guinere. There was the see-sawing on welfare reform, which today is still largely a mess that’s creating generational poverty. There was the quasi-firing of black female Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders (she resigned, under much public pressure and zippo defense from Clinton) when she brought up the notion that teen self-masturbation was preferable, say, to teen pregnancy or STDs. Perhaps most disturbing to me was the mysterious plane-crash death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (and several others), amidst controversy concerning alleged campaign finance impropriety (the subtext of all of this being, Bill was showing conservatives, even white Democrats, his willingness to, ahem, put ‘them’ in their place if he had to). To his credit, Clinton did start a Commission on Race Relations toward the end of his term, but it vanished rather quickly after a much-ballyhooed beginning.

One might legitimately ask, “Okay, buddy, all of this talk about Bill Clinton, what’s it got to do with Hillary?” Well, for starters, Hillary has thus far not had a problem with claiming quasi-credit for being involved with policy planning on various fronts during her husband’s tenure. Since she’s willing to share the credit, I’m willing to share some blame. There was really no cause for Bill Clinton to go overboard and negatively compare Barack Obama’s South Carolina primary win (getting a clear majority of African-American votes) to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 primary win—effectively implying that it didn’t, and won’t, amount to much overall. In the controversy that followed, Bill apparently felt like he had to call Jimmy Carter to assess the damage that may have been done. Democratic debates have been touted like boxing matches, if you follow most of the mainstream news outlets: It’s Hurricane Hillary vs. the Obama Bomber (ooh, almost sounds like a terrorist, right, Ms. Coulter?)

Hillary has come across as not just two- but three-faced at various points in this campaign. I couldn’t follow what the hell she was saying when confronted on the issue of whether or not to give illegal residents drivers’ licenses in New York State. For any ignorant allegations that have been made against Obama and are legitimately traced to her camp, she seems to shrug it off but not fully take ownership of it; instead, a campaign worker will resign, thus, presumably, leaving her unscathed. Most glaringly was one-time Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro’s maddeningly negative dismissal of Obama’s candidacy. When the fallout came, then she suggested reverse racism, proving to many that even self-avowed liberal feminists can go to that well if they need to (honorable mention must be made of Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem’s similar screed a month or so ago). Then, there was the vague racial undertone to the “3:00 A.M.” campaign ad, focusing on cherubic white children who are, presumably, at risk of Something Bad happening to them. Who is it? Maybe some brown terrorists from Latin America or the Middle East. Or heck, maybe Willie Horton just got out of jail again. I will stop short of calling Senator Clinton and her husband racists (hi again, Mom.) However, I don’t have a problem with calling them calculating politicians who are willing to exploit cynicism, and yes, the racism of others for their own political benefit.

Most recently, maybe the biggest debacle to come out so far in the (ahem) race is the conflagration that began with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and comments from him at certain church sermons that were released to the public. The video clips, in part, find the Rev. Wright commenting on everything from George Bush to 9/11, and even, yes, Bill and Hillary. And, yes, much of it is indeed negative, and laced with the type of black-charismatic preacher cadence and fervor that even if he were just reciting the ABCs tends to make many white spectators ill-at-ease.

The Rev. Wright and Barack Obama have had a relationship for some 20-odd years, with the former having performed the latter’s marriage ceremony and baptism of his daughters. But what’s got most of white America in a hissy-fit is the fact that Rev. Wright apparently wasn’t willing to just say nice things about America, like Any Normal Pastor should be doing in their worldview. For anyone, especially a person of color, to look at the history of America as anything less than blameless nobility is tantamount to high treason.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can make you laugh, cry, experience all types of emotions. Unfortunately, in my estimation, nostalgia can also prove addictive. All types of old TV shows are available now on DVD as well as being all over cable television. Naturally, any type of television program or movie from a certain time period will have some dated aspects in the years to come. But for many people—especially white conservatives, the Greatest America was somewhere between Truman’s short tenure and before the Civil Rights Movement started gaining major momentum in the early 1960s. No coincidence, that any number of early, and iconic family sitcoms were produced in this time period—you know, Beaver, the Nelsons, Dobie Gillis, and the rest. Whoops, silly me, can’t forget about Beulah and Amos & Andy. Hey, who says TV wasn’t kind to colored folk? But as the Kingfish might say, “Trickeration!”

These old shows have perfectly knowledgeable husbands, perfectly coiffed (and home-bound) wives, perfectly cut lawns & shrubbery, and not an ethnic of color in sight (and whatever troubles that probably come along with that). This is the self-sustaining Matrix-style program that most (again, mostly white) people who consider themselves mainstream Americans have themselves tuned into, seeking to connect only with those who watch the same channel. The look of most amusement parks fall into this paradigm if you think about it. Archie Comics’ Riverdale brought to life. Any number of period-set modern movies and TV shows find comfort in suggesting If Things Were Just Like the Old Days…

When someone points out that the Good Old Days weren’t necessarily the Good Old Days for everybody, white folks, in the aggregate, act like the drug addict whose addled state of euphoria is interrupted- “You’re messing with my high! Get outta here!” The heaviest thing the kids of George Lucas' coming-of-age film American Graffiti had to deal with was maybe getting caught drag-racing and a police escort home. Some of their black counterparts were getting attacked for attending a once all-white school. As much as the music and personality of Elvis Presley became a target of the conservatives of his era (while giving his audience plenty of future nostalgia to hold onto), he could still walk through the front door of any restaurant or hotel without, you know, getting attacked on principle. Little Richard? Chuck Berry? Forget about it.

Sustained carping that Davy Crockett and the Alamo crew just don’t mean a hill of beans in black culture might start a fight if you’re in a bar with a big American flag (or a Confederate flag) planted on the premises. For significant majority of black folks, Old Glory is just the flip side of the Stars n’ Bars. At sporting events or concerts, yeah, black people sure can sing the hell out of the Star Spangled Banner (Aretha, Whitney, Marvin)—but let your eyes wander to the black folks in the audience, especially at an urban venue. Count how many people are singing along just as passionately. Surprised?

The grim realities of running for public office in America virtually dictated that Sen. Obama quickly and decisively distance himself from Rev. Wright’s comments, if not disowning him entirely. However, the whole process of disowning and disinheriting has largely existed within the realm of so-called blue-blood, old-money types, a nearly exclusively-white demographic which has eluded all but perhaps a microscopic sliver of America’s black population (nope, Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, Will Smith, and even Oprah Winfrey don’t count).

Whether or not one agrees with any conspiracy theories about 9/11, most rational people would argue that there are still outstanding questions that have yet to be seriously addressed concerning the before, during, and after. To black Americans, “terror” as a domestic concept didn’t start with 9/11, or even the Oklahoma federal building bombing of 1995. For black Americans, “terror” was the entire era of American slavery, and the Jim Crow that followed. Black individuals and families knowing that at any time, some white person (or a group of them), armed or unarmed, hooded or not, could invade their living space, to take men, women, and children away:
A) to sell as slave labor
B) to physically and/or sexually abuse
C) to arrest and send to jail without the pretense of due process (not that any white judge or jury of times past would really think of doing otherwise)
D) to murder outright
E) Any and All of the Above

The further America has gotten, chronologically, from the height of the Civil Rights Era, it seems like the awareness of it and the ideals it brought to light, are swiftly eroding. The long-stewing backlash to Affirmative Action is one aspect of it. Another aspect is the fact that corporate-controlled media outlets—newspapers, magazines, and television, for sure—now effectively offer news as their “product”, and so an adherence to profit-driven motives becomes the unofficial driving force behind them—not necessarily to illuminate people, or to dispense truth. Sensationalism sells. So when the Rev. Wright makes his comments—however logical they could be argued from a standpoint of the black experience in America—he is almost immediately labeled as a crackpot, the Black Racist ™, the guy who is “really” making it worse for race relations in America, because he isn’t singing ‘Kumbaya’, or offering some extremely watered-down cliché’ interpretation of the Inoffensive Negro Preacher Apologist, who seemingly goes out of his way to explain that a racist act or reaction is not, really.

The people who might be quick to say that Martin Luther King would never go there ala Rev. Wright are forgetting just how hated the man was during the time he was alive. And not just in the Deep South. King’s Chicago stay was just as illuminating at showing how deep the racial bigotry in Chicago was (and by extension of this, America in general). Self-proclaimed Christian conservatives of the time had no use for him. Many organized and protested against him. Yet some of these same folks—and their heirs—would now offer Dr. King’s vision of a “colorblind” society as their rationale for ignoring or repealing laws that have attempted to address the racial disparities in education and the workforce.

Author Tim Wise, who regularly opines on race in American society, has a near-tear-inducing essay in response to the furor, which you can find here (http://www.counterpunch.org/wise03182008.html). I doubt if I can trump Mr. Wise’s assessment of the hysteria; but for the fact that there is so much hysteria over this, I feel compelled to offer some counterpoints to all of the far-right reactionary rhetoric out there (and, if I may be so bold, counterpoints to even some self-described liberals outrage) over these current events.

As the saying goes, denial is a river, and most Americans are swimming in it. Denial that racism is more endemic than even Senator Obama may be willing to admit. Denial that racism even really exists at all in modern American society. Thus, when a black candidate for high office gets bashed with not facts but innuendo and the cherry-picking of soundbites for sensational effect, it is not seen as overt slander or libel, but just par for the course that “anybody” would have to put up with if he or she is seeking That Job. And who knows? Maybe the Wright-bashers and Obama-bashers are right. After all, cultural hegemony, in large part, shapes reality to its own whims:

It’s like this. Say I’m minding my own business in my house. Looking out the corner of my eye, I see the neighbor’s kid in their yard, he’s trying to hit a baseball by himself. Suddenly, crash! A window breaks, and I see there’s a baseball. Looking directly out the broken window, I see the neighbor’s kid with the bat, still in his yard, staring right at me. So I walk over, knock on the neighbor’s door, and the kid’s dad answers. I explain to him nicely that apparently his son hit the ball that broke my window. But Dad isn’t trying to hear any of this. “Not my son! He’s too classy!” Incredulous, I still try to nicely explain what I saw with my own eyes and the evidence at hand. Dad responds, “What ball, and what bat?” I’m more than a little flustered, now, but I’m keeping my cool.

Then the son shows up, and I ask him to tell his Dad what happened. The son starts parroting Dad, claiming he was trying to fry ants with a magnifying glass. Then Dad takes it to another level: “How do I know you didn’t break your own window?” Only when I finally blow up and start cursing him out, then I can probably find myself getting labeled as A Troublemaker, and maybe the next day I find myself with a citation for not having my front yard bushes trimmed to some arbitrary figure. Insult upon injury. Your intelligence, your ways of reasoning, your method of interpretation, is always called into question when it contradicts something within white cultural defaults. Your grievances, your concerns, are not addressed, ultimately, because they are not even “real”. This is the burden that black America bears that white America has never truly had to deal with in the aggregate.

So as the foul balls continue to head Obama’s way, come January 21, 2009 (and beyond), it may be America that strikes out in the end.
Comic Picks this Week:

Justice League of America #19
Script- Alan Burnett; Pencils- Ed Benes

“Sanctuary”, part 3, involves the Justice League team’s impending visit to Cygnus 4019, a planet in a distant galaxy. It seems that Cygnus, aka the ‘Prison Planet’, was designated by the US Government as an option for exiling the most incorrigible of super-criminals. Said to have an Earth-like environment, the idea is that groups of criminals would be sent there to fend for themselves instead of keeping them on Earth to be potential threats on either a local or global scale.
The Justice League finds out that a group of criminals was recently sent there—and they have J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter as a mole in their midst. Only problem is, J’onn hasn’t checked in for quite a while. Meanwhile, Amanda Waller of the National Security Council (and shadow-ops government agencies) is confronting the team about the necessities of having extreme options in place for the criminal element—or potentially, any meta-threats out there.
The team takes a galaxy-hopping ship to the planet—only they don’t find the criminals they’ve been looking for—but maybe a greater threat.
The mystery deepens here, and some subplot threads become prominent here—the tacit romance between Hawkgirl and Red Arrow—and the complications that arise from exiled criminal Cheshire being Arrow’s ex-lover and mother of his child. Vixen is still copying metahuman powers instead of animals—a mystery yet to be solved.

Ghost Rider #21
Writer- Jason Aaron; Art- Roland Boschi

The series protagonist Johnny Blaze is still reeling from the knowledge that he was not cursed with a demon bonded to his soul. Instead, the Ghost Rider has an angelic origin—albeit a decidedly Old Testament angel, the kind that battled against Lucifer’s hordes during the Heavenly Rebellion, and did God’s dirty work when Sodom and Gomorrah stepped out of line. Essentially, he’s the Wrath of God on a motorcycle. And he’s pissed.
Currently searching for answers in a remote Montana town, Johnny has just recently rescued a teen named Lucas who claims that he saw the angel Zadkiel—a lieutenant general of sorts in Heaven’s angelic hierarchy—during a near-death-experience. Allegedly, Zadkiel plans to follow in Lucifer’s footsteps and lead his own rebellion in Heaven—and supposedly, Ghost Rider plays a part in ensuring that Zad won’t lose out like Luc did back in the days.
Johnny and Lucas are being chased by the freaky nurses who run the nearby hospital; they are angels of un-mercy, who actually do the bidding of Zadkiel on Earth, harming anyone innocent who gets in their way.
Complicating matters is an apparently haunted stretch of highway near the town. A rookie deputy investigating a recent death uncovers a grisly crime that preceded the founding of the town, and the history of fatal accidents and other disappearances that have happened with alarming frequency since then. The deputy’s search for answers leads him to the town’s funeral home, where he finds answers he probably wasn’t looking for. The issue ends with Ghost Rider (with Lucas riding piggyback) confronted by a cadre of ghostly zombies who intend for the pair to be their latest victims.
This issue contains what may be one of the most unintentionally humorous—though arguably misogynist—utterances by a super-hero ever. Exactly what, this writer will leave to intrepid readers to find out.

Thor #7
Script- J. M. Straczynski; Pencils- M. Djurdjevic

Thor has just recently revived the entire population of Asgard City (which ostentatiously hovers above a western Oklahoma prairie). As hinted in previous issues, there are other inadvertent revivals—most notably the evil Loki, who is now a beauteous, raven-haired woman. His strength exhausted, Thor requests a special sarcophagus so he can undergo the Odinsleep—a self-induced coma that replenishes his energy, though the length of recuperation is entirely random: it may take anywhere from a day to a year.
As soon as the sarcophagus is sealed, Thor’s alter-ego of Dr. Donald Blake suddenly manifests—after some brief exposition, Blake leaves in a hurry—the narrative reveals that he is searching for his one-time love interest, Dr. Jane Foster. But exactly who is Blake consulting with to find Jane?
Meanwhile, Thor apparently enters the Norse-culture equivalent of Purgatory; it isn’t long before he encounters his long-dead father, Odin—embroiled in battle with the demon Surtur. Odin slays his foe to win the battle, though he hints that he will be expected to repeat his conflict in time. Odin then tells Thor a story of his own childhood, when Bor was a warrior-king of Asgard, and Bor’s demise under murky circumstances compelled Odin to assume leadership, wary that a similar fate might befall him someday.
So far, Marko Djurdjevic has only been doing covers for the series, but his pencils are wonderful and detailed, perfect for the Lord of the Rings-style fantasy that this particular story is rooted in.