Wednesday, July 16, 2008

It's Not TV, It's Not The New Yorker, it's HBO

It is interesting that given what has been on everyone's mind, Charlie Rose featured both David Remnick of the New Yorker and David Simon, of the Wire and now Generation Kill. Of course in this context when you say "David Simon" you mean as you should, David Simon and Ed Burns. Although I admit that Remnick made a great impression and a convincing case for his magazine's "tour de force" cover this week--an impression that went a long way towards relieving my personal fatigue with "satire 101", it still felt, I don't know, superfluous. As I felt that what Remnick was standing atop of the mountain defending was a bit flimsy, I felt bad: I mean the stuff is important you know? So why was I feeling like still saying shut the fuck up?

It became a bit clearer in the David Simon segment when Simon was talking about the purpose or general intent that he and Burns have when they work. He broke it down into parts, more or less. First they want to look at things and come up with an angle or a conclusion about them. Then they want to tell that story and then they want to do it well. Doing it well for him doesn't mean much beyond making sure it's correct. And he expressed that vociferously--that they want their characters to be real and recognizable to their human-real life counterparts. He wants Marines to feel like this series is real the way he wanted drug dealers, addicts and homicide detectives to feel Wire was real--the way The Corner was real (he mentioned how The Corner, like Generation, was able to use real names such was the absence of license taken with the facts). He based this standard in part on his coming from a newspaper/journalist background.

We all know what The Wire attempted to do and succeeded in doing. It renders a portrait of America informed by a deep, searching survey about American life. Simon spoke about it being a story about the end of the American empire's myth of competence. In other words, The Wire was about depicting that the system is broken and we do not care and no longer strive to fix it (on the contrary, we have adapted ways to manage and even prosper in the broken). Simon then discussed how he is taking that same thematic lens and setting it next on the musical culture of New Orleans, its significance, and the possibility of its disappearance. For Generation Kill he said the purpose was to make the general American public engage with the fact that they are at war. He rightly suggests that excepting the military and their families, the vast majority of Americans are psychically, emotionally and materially "buying out" of the war.

Simon talking about the real utility of the TV work that they are doing really brought home my frustration with the New Yorker cover. I'm not even sure I'm right to feel that way but I do. I have a real sense of a need (and this is likely a collective need) to be exposed to degrees of truth and levels of complicated thought and conversation in these (dire) global times. I have a real sense of a need to know more, be made to feel more and think more and be a better grade of participant in whatever conversation we're all having. Maybe that's my issue: by necessity my standard's really high for what provocation I find useful and critical. And also by necessity, my tolerance is currently very low for that which I find to be useless provocation. I think right or wrong the landscape shows me that the New Yorker satire is useless provocation when so much is going on.

At this point in the show Charlie Rose became fascinated with Simon's state of America refrain and got into a semi-argument involving Charlie demanding that Simon's next project be about "the state" of America. He said something like go and find a story and characters that can communicate this clear sense that you have about where America is at. It sounded like Charlie wanted the meta-Wire. True story: I've been wishing for a long time for a piece of TV or theatre or a play about these times. In my mind I keep waiting for Tony Kushner to write this the way he wrote Angels. The awesome character-driven narrative of the most intimate humanity against the backdrop of the most enormous socio-historical canvas, but for the 21st, post 9/11, near death of Planet moment we're in, when the geopolitical plates are shifting and there's a cultural tantrum occurring. I imagine how only Kushner's fearless language could square off with so vast a subject matter (and eventually win). Now I am thinking that in my dreamworld both Kushner and Simon apply themselves to this task... Then HBO can put it on. And I can die happy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nuts & Bolts

Jesse Jackson is funny. It turns out he saved his most vociferous criticism—partial castration!—for Barack Obama. Give and take the finer points in the whole “absentee father” speeches Obama’s given, they were nothing compared to the infamous Bill Cosby NAACP speech. It’s ironic that when Bill said truly demeaning and offensive and outright mean things like:

I can’t even talk the way these people talk. I don’t know who these people are. And I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father talk...
Who are these sick black people and where did they come from and why haven’t they been parented to shut up?
The White Man, he’s laughing -- got to be laughing. 50 percent drop out -- rest of them in prison.
You got to tell me that if there was parenting -- help me -- if there was parenting, he wouldn’t have picked up the Coca Cola bottle and walked out with it to get shot in the back of the head.
Therefore, you have the pile up of these sweet beautiful things born by nature -- raised by no one. Give them presents. You’re raising pimps. That’s what a pimp is. A pimp will act nasty to you so you have to go out and get them something. And then you bring it back and maybe he or she hugs you.

...Jesse didn’t reach for Bill Cosby’s nuts. He was sitting right next to him too, so he really could have.

This whole Absentee Father/Personal Responsibility thing is a territory built for mining and so here we go. None of the musings that follow are conclusive or meant in that way, they are more like an account of what the theme inspires me to think about.

Personal Responsibility
That’s really the smaller aspect of the problem. I think Obama, whose speeches always include a “we should meet fathers halfway” clause preceding the harsh criticism, realizes and admits that readily (another reason why Jesse the Nutcracker was out of line). Personally I would rather we look at the colossal structural impediments, historically-cumulative types of impediments to individual self-cultivation and self-sufficiency rather than talk responsibility.

Often those of a sound sense of personal responsibility—say, me and most people I know—didn’t just pull that out of a proverbial boot inside our asses. You have personal responsibility usually as part of a larger framework of socialization and (I’ll fucking say) training in institutions and in your environment. It would be hypocritical for me to pretend that my home is a favorable environment for my son’s emotional and intellectual growth because of my higher grade personal responsibility efforts. Bullshit; I’m not like “going out of my way” here. It is what is—I come from that framework, I embody that framework, that framework’s all around me, it is reflected everywhere I look in my life and everywhere I have been lucky to go. I have personal responsibilities that are unchanging; I know people as having them and I understand the world as being framed that way. I don’t think however that those personal responsibilities exist outside of personal agency, personal upward mobility, personal success and a personal sense of power in my own life. My own personal interpretation and experience of the world, so to speak. In other words, I would not have the one without all the others.

In the ten years I tried to have a relationship with my son’s father, this was a central issue we struggled to resolve. I would say, in my youth and naivete, that it took 2/3 of that time for me to comprehend that the two of us had profoundly different “frameworks” that we were working with. Some of what came easy in mine, appeared common sensical and unescapable, was barely in his. He came from and is from a world vastly different from mine in terms of what is personally possible and what is personally best for personal survival. I thought certain things were actually impossible—like not working for a living past a certain age. I thought other things were improbably--like routinely doing cost-benefit analysis about whether or not to risk incarceration in order to make some fast money. Guess what? Not impossible, not improbable. I lived in a neighborhood where block by block that is not only possible it is pervasive and the dominant reality. I am simply not sure a society can sustain an appeal to the personal responsibilities of those whose personal outcomes that same society has consistently and relentlessly sabotaged. Hence I would prefer we talk about correcting for the sabotage first, before we talk about anything else.

That said, I am not sure that part of correcting the sabotage does not involve a conversation like Obama’s Father’s Day speech. Maybe, no matter what the framework, no matter what the structural realities and impediments, maybe we need—in the sense of the fuel of our own humanity—to preserve our ability to address our personal stake and power and yes, responsibility. We may need to counter the ill effects of the sabotage precisely by talking about how we could do better in its circumstance. I further believe that leaders, insofar as the word means anything, have the obligation to remind us to engage all aspects of the issue. I think if a father who did not have a father wants to say something about that, he damn well can and should. If Obama can do it instructively, with proper context, and with empathy—as I think he has—then I think he can say what he is saying. I prefer a measured critique leveled at adults (Obama’s) than a vicious rant leveled at youth and youth “culture” (Cosby’s).

This would be an easy enough discussion to have if we could talk about class. But here if you talk about class they act like you’re being rude. Nevermind that all the subterfuges used to avoid frank discussion about poverty vs wealth turn out be far more rude and virulent and toxic at worse—read: the culture of poverty type argumentation. If we wanted to talk about class we would realize a couple things off the bat.
--it is counterproductive to look at what are clear results of economic deprivation (and it’s offsprings) as cultural or “ethnic” or race-specific problems; there is much more in common in the lives of poor people of every race in this country than there is between the lives of say poor black people and the Obamas. And no, having started poor and then graduating from an Ivy League is not the same as being poor today, even if you are of the same race.
--why can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time? Why can’t we talk race when it pertains, talk race-class-gender when it pertains but talk class what that pertains most? It’s really simple math: when you have a permanent deprivation of the basic means of subsistence, physical, intellectual and emotional, and when you are surrounded by these levels of deprivation, you will not do well.

These attacks on black culture “from the inside” are a legitimate symptom of our deep bonds. They reflect that we feel our pains as one community, that we feel as one community that we have to fix “our” community. Fact is, for all the good in those bonds, they are used against us to suggest, in fact to oversuggest the distinctiveness of said community and our responsibilities within. These are not “black” problems, these are problems of poverty and deprivation in one way or another.

Father Knows Best
I’m highly skeptical of the cultural argument about absentee fathers being the chic “Negro Problem” issue of our age, and I think that’s bogus on a couple counts. We’ve already addressed that some really strong forces are getting in the way of people’s best outcomes and those include good parenting. But forgetting all about that, I take personal offense to a blanket acceptance of the fact that children are at risk when in single parent homes. The fact is that many societies are matriarchical in nature, and mothers raise fine sons. I refuse, in 2008, to have a social critique that reifies heterosexist norms, especially when—duh—the fucking heterosexuals can’t even execute their own norms. What do I mean? I mean that if it takes two motherfucking straight people in a home to raise some kids and defend the free world, we're fucked. Straight people ain’t really ever get that shit right at the rates you would think they, for a 2,000 plus year paradigm domination, ought to. It seems ridiculous to me, when we know how well the heteronormative family strucure is failing or flawed, that we would sit here and lay at the foot of black people that they are the champions of the broken homes. Ok, half black kids are in that single parent predicament—that’s bad. I guess that’s worse than whatever the general number is, but only if you break it down by race, which I find no reason to do.

The equal parent father is such a flimsy statistic, I resent we’re that using it as a lithmus test for anything at all. Fact is, patriarchy dictates, the women raise the kids. So a bread winning father is not absent in that sense, but for the most part the bulk of the emotional, socio-educative aspect of child rearing is the woman’s responsibility, so he is absent. For the most part parenting IS a one person job--and usually the woman's. Recently the NY Times mag featured a fascinating article about the state of reproduction in some first world countries. It brilliantly correlated a cultural dysfunction with situations of near extinction for some European countries. Unlike its Scandinavia and the Netherlands where babies are steadily being born to career women, Spain, Italy and Greece are enjoying what is called lowest-low fertility rates. This is the rate of basically extincting yourself. The social scientists figured out that it is because though “evolved" in expectations that women work and have careers, those countries are carrying a cultural expection—I would call it a cultural reality—that the burden of the balance of work and child rearing be solely the woman’s. Those countries culturally remain very gender asymmetrical and working women, having to do the brunt of the child-rearing and home-making, aren’t up for it. The Scandinavia/Netherlands model is a model where the money is where the mouth is and women are extremely supported in their work-balance challenges by their government. Not being a social scientist of any kind I’m going to go nuts here and predict two things:
1) the Greece/Spain/Italy paradigm is true of most of the oh let’s call it vast patriarchical universe and yes that does include where these Absentee Black Fathers dwell;
2) if we had absentee Scandinavian fathers the kids would still be ok in Scandinavia.

I’m not trying to stretch the facts to make a polemical point. I really sincerely believe that in my mother’s Cape Verdean household where I was mostly raised, my grandfather, the great patriarch-provider that he was, the sitting authority at lunch table, the purveyor of high minded discussion and cultural capital, and my all time favorite person, could be considered to be absentee. Some have said he did not emotionally connect with his children and he was like all his friends were. He did not deal with cuts and bruises of the flesh or the soul, he did not watch for homework getting done, meet with teachers, organize birthdays and field trips, he did not manage the day to day existence of the children or balance that with his schedule. Of course the distribution of labor accepted that this was not his task, his task was bacon bringing and the preventing his wife from having a fulfilling professional career of her own. But it’s easy to imagine that if he were to encounter consistent challenges to his ability to bring home the bacon his contribution to child rearing and the home would dwindle to almost none. He’d lose his place in the framework, he would be absentee. If that happened, I venture that in that situation, if my grandmother had the ability to provide for her household, the kids would be okay. Oh wait, it did come to pass, he did do that, she did do that and we were okay.

We may need to look harder, more closely and especially way more broadly when we want to talk about absentee fathers and/or single parent homes—or further, non traditional non-heteronormative homes. We may want to shoot higher than the easiest targets for critique. If i takes a village and the village is there, a single parent can do it.

For all our sophistication, we are flimsy animals. I mean, we shed fur and stood upright and lost the ability to pick shit up with our feet like monkeys only to find that we freeze in cold, burn in the sun, and need clothes and shelter. Most of all, the weaklings that we are, we need community. We are community dependent—which is to say, social. There is real genius in our knowing that and becoming community-makers as a species. We made societies, we made that unfortunately named thing we call civilizations, we organized into villages, nation states. We made bureaucracies and governments—empires and such. Small to large scale we go on overkill on the notion that we need each other to take care of ourselves. But apply as we have applied ourselves to the task, we have created situation after situation—none more presciently illustrative than these United States of America—where our dire and desperate need for community is only matched by our profound incapacity to make a decent one. We really fucking suck at the community thing. And insofar as this is true for the planet, the majority of the almost 8 billion of us are not going to do very well.

This is not a black fathers problem, this is a failing community problem on a global scale. We have an empathy deficit of global threat proportions. We think this next person, say a black absentee father, is very specifically distinct from ourselves in the way they fail to meet their responsibilities. We think that next person, say someone crossing the border illegally, is vastly different from ourselves in the way they pursue a means of providing for their family. We just don’t see each other at all sometimes...