Monday, July 29, 2013

Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder, and the Odds

I don’t care if Stevie Wonder’s best music is decades behind him: he’s obviously still one of the most badass Americans alive.  Behold his recent announcement he will, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, be boycotting Florida.

It’s about time people who actually live in the 21st century—Americans and others who come here for work, school, or vacation—start kicking certain parts of the U.S. where it counts:

The wallet. 

Because it’s eminently clear said certain parts require more inducement to sanity than public castigation is providing—a fact demonstrated by a proliferation of “Stand Your Ground”-style laws in too many U.S. states.

One of the many, many problems with these laws is they make it too easy for goons under the influence of racial animus to antagonize, shoot, and walk.  All it takes is a wink (“I sure was being threatened!”) and a nudge (“I didn’t even notice he was black!”).    

Here’s the thing about racism in America today: just because it dares not speak its own name from behind the political podium, in front of the TV-news camera, or across the boardroom table doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

Racism’s existence was a no-duh proposition at a time when mobs in bedsheets proudly murdered young black men for, like, looking at white women.  But today, when a black teenager walking in his own neighborhood is shot and killed in an encounter with the Batman, and the Batman swears the teen’s blackness had nothing to do with why he was selected for harassment, and a sizable chunk of the white population actually takes up the Batman’s tune and sings a million-part harmony behind it, it’s easy for us to enter a weird metaphysical fog.  One in which we might find ourselves asking, “Well…was racism a factor in Trayvon Martin’s death, then?”

Of course it was.  

And the fact that Trayvon might, in the time-honored tradition of 17 year-olds, have thrown the first shove doesn’t change it. 

Lord knows I’m no statistician.  But it seems to me racism’s continued presence in American life comes clear enough if we just (as the President recently invited us to do) consider some odds.   

What are the odds Trayvon is accosted by the Batman in his own neighborhood that night if he’s clearly, plainly, obviously white instead of black?

What are the odds the Batman beats the second-degree-murder and manslaughter charges if the race roles are reversed—if the Batman is a 29 year-old black man and it’s a 17 year-old white child he’s amateur-policed to death?

What are the odds a white person who utters the word “bullshit” to a state trooper during a traffic stop winds up in handcuffs in the back of the squad car?  And what are the odds for a black person?

What are the odds a white American in possession of a few lines' worth of cocaine gets arrested for it, and what are the odds for a black person in possession of same?

What are the odds a black person who speaks a black American dialect is hired over a white person who speaks a white American dialect if it’s a white person (and it usually is) conducting the job interview?

Friends: we could do this all day.

Yes, it's true a black neighborhood watchman could get off after killing a white suburban teenager.  It's true a black person who speaks like she's from South Philly could get hired over a white person who speaks like she's from Yale.  It's true a forty year-old white dude in a Polo shirt and khakis could get followed around a department store by a security guard who just has a kinda funny feeling about this guy.

All these things are in the realm of the possible. 

But if there's anyone who grew up in the U.S. who thinks those scenarios are just as likely as others in which a black American experiences the business end of the stick, he or she just might—to invoke the great moral philosopher Ted Nugent—be brain dead.

What will it take to wake Floridians up to the fact that wild-west times are gone?

A good, thumping kick to Disney World's bottom line in 2014 might be an excellent place to start.


Monday, July 1, 2013

"Mad Men" and the Myth of Counterculture

How did hip morph, in U.S. culture, from a secret code of the dispossessed to something good for selling semi-disposable furniture and hamburgers?

It seems a pressing question now that hip is so omnipresent in our lives, lurking in every Starbucks coffee cup, every Urban Outfitters store, every Volkswagen ad.  It's even found distressingly fertile ground on the Web, winking out at us from a billion images of light saber-wielding cats.

The suspicion for years now has been that the 1960s were the turning point—the moment when hip quit flirting with the mainstream (à la Dizzy and Kerouac in the '50s), abandoning its bungalows and rat-hole apartments to shack up with capitalism.  Because advertising was the medium by which so many square Americans made first acquaintance with hip's delights, Madison Avenue has often been cast as the horse whisperer that lassoed hip, made it behave, and sold it to Peoria and Levittown.

For this reason, it's inevitable we look to the celebrated AMC series Mad Men, set on Madison Avenue in the '60s, for theories about what really went on in advertising in those crucial years.  And the good news is the show doesn't disappoint, offering a sophisticated, nuanced vision of a love-hate relationship between the advertising industry and the ultra-hip counterculture headquartered just a few Manhattan blocks away.


As Mad Men sees it, '60s advertising didn't just co-opt and defang hip; it also found a soul-mate in it, was infiltrated by it, and even learned to do its bidding—just as hip learned to do Madison Avenue's.  In positing a complex symbiotic relationship between hip and consumer capitalism, not a simple parasitic one, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner throws in with such recent cultural theorists as Thomas Frank, Joseph Heath & Andrew Potter, and—especially—John Leland.