I’m officially a regular blogger again, starting today.
I really have a small comment to make, but maybe one that has big implications. No matter, I guess, as only a couple of hundred will read this, though I feel compelled to say this because I care about things like reason. To start: I remember the original Sister Souljah moment. It confirmed what I thought then and have always thought: Bill Clinton was icky, cruel, and actually quite comfortable being anti-black. That’s why this primary season had me barely (if that) restraining “told ya” every time the news had Bill’s newest quip about Obama.
What I remember second most about that moment is how lame Sister Souljah’s music turned out to be. I went to iTunes to check my memory, and it took a second search – I left out the “h,” missing I guess the righteousness of her rhymes (is nothing sacred? Jah?! Alas.).
Obama’s recent “controversy” – you know the one about his Father’s Day speech, then speech to the NAACP – has bordered on the ridiculous. And thoroughly fallacious. The ridiculous, of course, is that the notion that it is controversial to say that fathers need to be present in the lives of children (seriously…that’s controversial?) or that the television needs to be turned off and books read.
On the matter of fathers: let’s be real. Absent parents do a lot of economic and emotional harm. In fact, amongst the bourgeoisie, this latter part is what keeps therapists in business. (Oh, and if you read the “Father’s Day speech” of such fame, Obama talks about “all fathers” and stuff like that. Obama can be annoyingly universal in stuff…ya noticed? But who’s troubled with reading such long documents, right?) My personal note: my father was pretty checked out of my childhood. Around, yeah, but distracted and indifferent. That hurt a lot. Still does. So, I can’t connect even just as a person with the sentiment that Obama was actually wrong about this. Instead, the real argument is about his motives, the “Sister Souljah Moment” thing – but that’s a fallacy. It’s called “appeal to the person,” and it is an entry-level fallacy. Just wrong-headed reasoning. We can’t have a conversation if that’s the response.
OK, so my first complaint: I’m sick of the schematic thing about “moments.” The “find your voice moment” or the “Sister Souljah moment” – this is really damaging language in the current electoral cycle. I fear it is here to stay. The damage is that we can’t hear what is said, and only examine whether or not the words can be bent into this or that “moment.”
I’ll pass over the fact that the NAACP is pretty old-school and hardly hostile turf for talking about “family values.” Please…
And the television…my first thought was, eh, that’s the most mundane observation you can make. Of course that is true. But you gotta think more about television. I mean, is looking at moving images the problem? Kinda. It’s not the best. After all, spectatorship ought to be a luxury, in an ideal world, but is more and more the norm. That makes you an easier marker for, well, marketing. That’s the word we need: marketing. The real problem is that pre-schoolers onward are marketed to in commercials. The problem is not when my boy watches television and comes back counting to ten in Spanish or saying hello and various colors in Chinese (that really happened). The problem is when he asks if we can buy Huggies brand diapers, despite the fact that he hasn’t worn a diaper in a year and a half (yes, that also really happened). So, think more about television, Obama and friends. Turning it off doesn’t address what it means for it to be on. And it will be on. Snark all you like about “electronic babysitter,” but the truth is that folks are ass-tired and need a break sometimes. Regularly, as a matter of fact. Let’s spare those “sometimes” old-fashioned marketing, alright? Now THAT is thinking critically as a politician!
That wasn’t the source of controversy, of course.
Most troubling, for me, is the bristling at the language of “responsibility.” Don’t misunderstand me. I get the bristle and the paranoia. That was a code word for anti-black racism under Reagan. I was ’round back then too. But the alternative is pretty gruesome. That is, the notion that responsibility doesn’t apply to poor people – most emphatically, does not apply to black people – is pretty gruesome. If we (by which I mean those on the left and ultra-left) concede the word responsibility to the Right, then we’re doomed. After all, part of recognizing the humanity of another (an inevitable appeal in justice-talk) is an assumption (not argument or convincing this or that) about the responsible character that comes with being human. Nuance it all you like with social forces, constructionism, interpellation, etc., but you gotta start with the idea that folks are capable of being responsible creatures. Otherwise, you’ve made the people you allegedly respect and care about into moral and political infants. For some context, this is the kind of thing Edward Said fretted about amongst Palestinean rights activist…don’t forget that the humanity to which you appeal is the humanity of a responsible, self-possessed creature. Once you assume responsibility as part of what it means to be human, then you can generate an interesting discussion about the pain and drama of losing a sense of how to act responsibly. Government and community-based work gets interesting when you start there, I think.
Lastly, and this is speculative, but I couldn’t help thinking that this whole drama about Obama’s remarks has to do with another very American anxiety: black people with children. Again, I was around in the real eighties. Not the pop music eighties or the whatever else we see on VH-1 specials, but the eighties in which culture changed so much, became so much more vicious for poor people generally, poor people of color in particular. Part of that change was a kind of rage against black people with children, starting with Reagan and on down through white people everywhere. That’s not gone away. Not by any stretch. So how does that inform these so very anxious moments, when the dominant media image is two black people with their children? I wonder if that anxiety so overwhelms – or at least overwhelms a hell of a lot of important, image-making people – that we can’t hear or think. Because, really, the words and ideas are oh so mundane. Can we hear that mundane insight? The one that “children matter” and that we should change our worlds so that they thrive? It is an old and boring insight, so repeated that it might seem trite. It’s also one that just might change a lot of worlds.