Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Some backpedaling

My beige buddy TBO directed me to an interview with the two victims of the Michael Richards tirade. Gotta say, if what they say is true, and I don't have any reason to believe it isn't, then I'm through giving Richards the benefit of the doubt.

Let me be clear - I never in any way condoned what he said, but I wanted to know more about the context before I entirely judged hi. The more that comes out, the clearer it is that he didn't just get flustered but has some serious damn issues. No space for hate comics anymore, and that seems like what he was pretty much going for.

But, I remain opposed to a monetary settlement. I don't think a performer should be held legally, financially responsible for offense taken at his or her words. That's just a slippery slope I'm not willing to start down.

Now, if Richards is any kind of man, he'll offer a personal, face-to-face apology (screw this retired judge bullshit), and he'll try to make some amends, which could include money, gifts, what-have-you. But, it would only mean something if he does it by choice. It shouldn't go to court, it shouldn't be mandated, because it is bad precedent and robs the act of meaning, would make it crass (but, of course, what do lawyers know for crass?).

Seriously, Allred should fuck right off. And you know what? Richards should, too.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


My lowest point as an activist, well, I should have seen it coming.

Sophomore year of college, I was still the dumbass yokel I was when I entered college. Then, my best friend called me from her school to tell me she had been raped the year prior as a virgin. It struck me deeply, and the next day I found the office for SCAREd (Students Concerned About Rape Education) and joined up.

It was the first time I had ever been welcomed with exuberance in my life. This was an organization that, due to some very unfortunate events on the Syracuse campus, had gained a national reputation, appearing on Geraldo and the front page of The Village Voice the year before I joined (I had no idea, of course), but which was still struggling to gain real traction on campus. And, here I was a clean-cut white boy that didn’t even look gay asking to join up. Ya gotta just step back and understand the significance.

I threw myself entirely in. Within weeks, I was presenting sexual assault education programs in dorms and at frats. And, it made sense to me. I believed in what I was saying. I advocated the same message amongst my friends and acquaintances, became known within my circles for what I was doing.

The following year, I was elected SCAREd’s Media Spokesperson, meaning all media interviews were either conducted by me or our president. And they were often contentious. Early 90’s, media was not very willing to hear our message, but were very willing to put us in front of cameras and microphones.

So, mid-year, I agree to a phone interview with a woman that writes for a national insurance company newsletter, and mid-interview she says “Well, don’t you think we can chalk some of this up to ‘boys will be boys’?” I said, no, hell no, we have an obligation to teach boys to act like men, and real men don’t rape. I was happy with the answer, but stewing at the question.

Shortly after the interview was over, a group of SCAREd women walked into the office, and when one of them asked about the interview I shared that question. She followed up by asking me if I thought the interviewer was serious or just trying to play devil’s advocate. I responded, “No, I think she was just a dumb bitch.”

Reading that last sentence, if you know what a group of college-age feminists are like, you understand how colossally stupid that response was. I spent the next 15 minutes having my ass group-chewed.

But, here’s the thing. Though I took it, and understood my mistake, I never thought it was fair. Here I was, a barely-adequate male on a testosterone campus spending the majority of my time working on what most people thought a feminist cause, constantly questioned in my intentions by both men and women, slammed for a moment of anger that still seems, 15+ years later, perfectly valid. Ass-chewed because I dared call a bitch a "bitch."

It wouldn’t hold much significance, being that I went on to lead that same organization the following year, stood in front of numerous official committees, brought the university chancellor, personally, practically holding his hand, over to our side, not to mention being the first person to break into the athletic department and be allowed to present programming to SU’s beloved athletes, except that I find I still piss people off the same way I did that day.

But, here’s the thing. Rarely have the people I piss off with an offhand statement stood on the front lines. Rarely have they risked anything for their opinions as I have. Stand on the front lines and you have the right to say what you want (though sometimes what you say understandably demands an explanation you have every right to be given the chance to offer up). And, I know I stood there, and I’m going to keep talking the same way.

And, this being the whole reason I started writing in the first place, if you come at me, after saying some of the shit I do, and don’t offer me that chance, don’t get that I’ve risked more than you do with your locally-defined RIGHT way to think, I’m NEVER going to listen to you. Wrong as that is, I just won’t.

The message being – fight, and you can say what you want, you have proven your responsibility to your words. Otherwise, shut the fuck up, until you are willing to lay it on the line. And NEVER, EVER try to take a moral high ground you haven’t earned (and remember that the way you are born isn’t earned, it just is).

Oh yeah, and this – engage first, judge later. I’ve got a real knee-jerk reaction to knee-jerk reactions.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Week(s) in Race

It’s been a couple of weeks of race in high profile, thanks mostly to Michael Richards’s inability to either handle hecklers or distinguish boundaries. I’d love to believe that a positive dialogue can actually arise from discussions of the incident. I’m encouraged in that slender hope by the fact Richards is planning to appear on Rev. Jesse Jackson’s radio show. I’m far less encouraged to learn that the gentlemen that Richards berated have a lawyer and made public their request for a personal apology and “maybe some money.”*

But it was the end of a story, or more accurately the story of the spiking of a story, that has most engaged me, and that is OJ Simpson and the “If I Did It” interview and book deal.

To the issue itself, I fell both ways at different times. I believe freedom of the press begins with the person that owns the press, so even in my initial disgust never entertained even for a moment the thought they should be censored. It just struck me as ridiculously poor taste. The more I thought about it, however, the more interested I was in seeing it go ahead.

Why would somebody do something like “If I Did It”? It cracks me up that somebody, apparently, actually asked OJ this question. I mean, why the hell do you think? He has a civil judgment against him that was set as large as it is to insure he could never make enough money to pay it off. He sold his Heisman trophies and every other damn thing he owned, and has only an NFL pension and his home. Of course he did it because someone was willing to pay. Regan? I’ve decided to take at face value her explanation of needing to find closure, even if only vicarious, after a history of spousal abuse. (And, just because there is another why out there in this case, let us harbor no notion that Murdoch made a moral decision to cut the project, as a man with no morals can do no such thing – it was just business.)

But, my reason for wanting to see it done was different. I wanted to see old wounds torn open.

I’m not sure if the OJ Verdict is quite one of the slam-duck “where were you” moments of my generation, but for me it ranks with the Rodney King verdict (standing in front of my tiny b/w TV in my dorm room saying “all hell is gonna break loose now”), the first bombing of Baghdad (playing Ultima III on a friends NES), and the first shuttle explosion (wandering the halls while cutting class in eighth grade). The OJ verdict arrived a few months after I moved to Seattle. I was working for my uncle at the time, installing framed artwork for commercial clients, and was hanging marine-themed prints in the common building of a large condo complex. The complex’s cleaning and maintenance staff were all on break together, watching the judgment read on TV, and it wasn’t until my “you gotta be fucking kidding me” was drowned out by applause and cheers that I realized I was the only white person in the room.

I remember being stunned, and keeping my trap shut. I couldn’t understand how anybody could cheer this verdict. I knew, obviously, that folks were pissed off by the Rodney King verdict, and rightfully so, (though I didn’t understand yet the complex issues that a prominent black man married to a white woman raised in the black community, especially among sisters), but I couldn’t see how letting this asshole walk proved anything. Still, I had no intention of starting a public debate on the issue.

And that, to me, seems the wound that needs tearing open, because I believe we left things unsaid that are festering just below the surface. Beginning with the slow Bronco freeway roll, the OJ case drove a wedge between women’s advocates and minority advocates, creating a rift that took years to heal. But, it did, because progressive activists have to work together, have to talk to each other. The rest of us didn’t really do that. The civil case came along later and brought a measure of justice, but I think the whole case left a feeling of “them colored folks is crazy” rolling about in white folks’ heads.

Now, before anyone gets all riled up, don’t think I’m asking for black folks to explain themselves to white folks, as though white folk approval is somehow necessary or ever desirable, because that isn’t it. I wanted to revisit the OJ story because we were afraid to talk about it in the aftermath before, or maybe we were just tired of it, and I feel like there was something to be gained, another slender hope that black folks could admit they were a bit ghoulish in cheering the freedom of a double-murderer, and white folks could admit that they were taking a little too much glee in waiting for a famous and accomplished black man to be strung up, and we could all admit we still don’t understand each other.

I feel like, watching Richards, that what welled up from him was, in Jackson’s words, deep-seated. And, I believe that it is things like this, a lingering frustration over not being able to understand the other side, and being afraid or unable to talk about it, that create that pressure of hate and pus building up. And I don’t believe we are necessarily aware that they are there. Richards sure seems shocked as hell.

These are all slim hopes, I know. That a pseudo-confession or a comic’s latent racial hostility spewing forth could become productive focal points of discussion, that we can overcome our own fears and intellectual laziness, emotional sensitivities. But, I’m gonna keep hoping.

Just like OJ will keep looking for the real killer.

* - In three separate accounts that I read today, this type of wording was used – maybe some money, the possibility of money – and I think it’s a little sick in the head. The “maybe” makes it clear they are fishing, clearly have no legal basis to demand money. It makes them sound like punks, to be perfectly honest. Richards damn well better apologize to them face-to-face, but he damn well better not give them any money. Think of the precedent – an artist, a performer offends you, and you are awarded damages. Yes, in this case Richards just went off, but it casts a chill over any kind of controversial art. Give them their money back for the price of the show tickets, ok, maybe, but I’d draw a firm line beyond that.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Kramer vs Kramer

For the love of Pete, have you seen the Michael Richards video?

Now, I was never a huge Seinfeld fan - liked it, and still like it, just fine, its ok for when I ain't movin' from the couch. And, I have no idea what Richards is like as a person or as a stand-up comic. But, damn, dude, what were you thinking?

Maybe I'm naive, but seems like if Richards was a flat-out racist, we woulda heard about it by now. I mean, Mel you could kinda see coming, but this?

Clearly, he lost it, lost control of the situation, but I'm trying to figure out what he might have been going for. The mumbling at the end, just before he gets off stage, about "these words, these words" sounded, sorta, just for that minute, like he was evoking Lenny Bruce. Earlier he made another move, something about us being outraged or shocked, that sounded like, especially in light of his "the horror"esque, it could be heading toward a Lenny-riff. But, he was clearly worked up and pissed off at these guys, and handling nothing like nuance.

There are times and places and ways to use such language to make a point, and clearly this wasn't a time or place or way, but was there any intent? If we are too quick to assume he's a racist cracker-ass motherfucker, is that the same as being quick to assume John Kerry thinks our military is full of dumbasses?

I'm not trying to make excuses for him, because I care so little about him, but I'm wonderin'.

Something like I'm wondering what Bill Cosby and Aaron McGruder might have to say to each other if they sat down and watched some BET together.

Anyway, this will likely slide him from the B list solidly down to C or D, and good riddance if you can't show a little more sense than that. I'm sure he'll be drying his tears with Seinfeld residuals checks.


Richards' apology makes me think he is 1) shithouse crazy, 2)hopelessly behind the times and 3)probably not an "active" racist and yet possessing of some ugly hidden anger.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Liv n' God

I started trying to post about this weeks ago, but haven’t really had the traction with the issue to move very far forward. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and haven’t yet come to much resolution.

A few weeks ago, Liv spent a Saturday night with her grandparents. Tricia and I were attending a wedding that Liv was invited to, but which would carry on well beyond her meltdown zone, so the grandparents, bless their generous souls, drove out to the wedding site to pick her up mid-reception.

On the Friday evening before the wedding, my mother-in-law sprung a little surprise on us. She wanted us to pack Liv some nice clothes as she would be attending Sunday school before we picked her up.

Now, I’ve known for a long time, even well before Livvie was on the way, that religion would be an issue with my extended family. They are very traditional Christians, led by my mother-in-law and her sister’s family. I am not, by a long shot.

My religious views are difficult to articulate exactly – I was raised a sort of general Protestant Christian, attending Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodists churches. I was baptized in a Baptist church and confirmed in a Methodist church, the latter of which I was active in to the point of once delivering a sermonette to the congregation. I stopped attending church in my late teens, however, and embarked on my on religious education, spurred mainly by the illogic of condemning Jews, queers, Muslims and others to hell. I’ve read a ton of Hindu texts, much of the Koran, work by Jewish scholars, Buddhist texts, and have come to believe in the Truth they all hold in common and vehemently resist the efforts of any to say they are the only way to access that Truth.

Which, y’know, is a damnably difficult position to present to a three-year-old, but one I know I will have to present as an option to balance against the other viewpoints Liv will encounter.

I just hadn’t expected her to encounter those other viewpoints quite so closely, quite so soon.

So, anyway, the surprise was popped and Daddy capitulated. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t come back from one day of Sunday school calling Jews the “Christ-killers.”

Now, my daughter, she asks a lot of questions. I mean, duh, she’s three, but there is just a constant patter of inquiry pouring out of this kid. I try to be as respectful as possible of her questions because I want to encourage her inquisitive nature, but the strings of “why” questions become a bit hard to handle. Like, why a word means what it does. She just isn’t satisfied with an “I don’t know.”

Post-Sunday-School, the questions have become significantly more daunting.

More than anything, she just seems to want to understand who this God character is that she has heard so much about from grandma. My belief in a non-personified God is a little abstract for a three-year-old, but I’ve just plunged in headfirst. Mainly headfirst, anyway. I haven’t tried to directly address her limited understanding of the personal “He” God, but I take pains not to validate it, eschewing pronouns entirely when we talk about God. But, I have tried to present the idea of “God as everything” as best I can. As a result, our conversations often devolve into:

“Are you God, Daddy?”

“Yes, I am part of God.”

“Is Spikey God?”

“Yes, Spikey is part of God.” I declined to point out that our cat, Spike, also is a sizeable portion of the devil.

“Are the trees God?”

“Yes, baby, the trees are God.”

“Is God nice?”

“God is love, babygirl. God is all the love there is combined.”

This might all be deflecting the questions that Sunday school and her grandma’s general God talk brought up, but, with the possible exception of the very last bit, I can’t help but feel it isn’t very helpful in terms of general spiritual education. I feel like I am very much failing at that, and maybe even that it was inevitable given my tendency to deconstruct existing religious messages instead creating or pursuing any nourishing spiritual narrative.

And, I’m not sure what to do about it.

This past weekend, Tricia was visiting friends in the Boonies and Liv and I took a walk to the playground a dozen blocks north of us. Ballard is known for its concentration of churches, and we passed now fewer than four starting up, letting out, or in full swing of worship services. And Livvie asked me when we were going to church, and why we didn’t go to church.

My first, internal reaction was along the lines of “why in the hell would we?” I’m on the far side of what the churches we passed want to offer, or at least believe I am. I silently cursed my in-laws for bringing this kind of question down on me, as I’m prett sure it wouldn’t have occurred to Liv otherwise.

Then I remembered some of the positive experiences I have had in church. The sense of community I felt in the Methodist church, where I cleaned up after vandals and served pancake breakfasts and helped with the toddlers, or the power of a weekly reminder of the size of the universe and the existence of love. I remember the utter rejuvenation I felt walking out of Glide Baptist in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, led by an inclusive preacher and a choir like I never knew existed.

I have gotten where I am in my spiritual understanding not by being told a truth, but through the living of my experiences, which included church.

I don’t think I am suggesting that Tricia and I are going to sign up for Mars Hill Church and start teaching Livvie to hate the gays like the Bible says (though a couple passages after the one fundamentalists claim demonizes homosexuality points out that the smell of a burning bull is perfume to the nose of God, and burning a bull carcass sounds kinda fun), but I’m wondering about my deficiencies in spiritual education and the value of participation in a regular spiritual exercise like church (is supposed to be).

While I’m wondering, I think perhaps the best I can do is not deflect difficult questions but rather point to Liv the aspects of God that appear to us every day.

“Livvie, the Republicans lost control of the House and maybe the Senate today, and Donald Rumsfeld resigned, and that makes me happy.”

“Is God happy, Daddy?”

“God is happiness, babygirl, all the happiness that exists combined.”