Monday, January 25, 2010

You better tell your story fast...

Junot Diaz had an interesting article in the New Yorker about the lack of narrative in the year long presidency of President NeObama. Diaz argues that NeO has not been able to frame his legislative efforts inside a greater narrative of his presidency. Diaz cites the rethugs' use of 9/11 as a masterful example of how narrative can be used to drive policy.

To this, I have a few things to say:

1. The first year of the NeO presidency reminds me of how I felt after I watched the sequel to the Matrix: slightly disappointed. The Matrix ends with Neo ascending to a seemingly infinite level of power. He tells us that he is going to get rid of all the rules and boundaries. He crosses from the Rubicon of potential and (literally) flown into the realm of actualization. It might sound corny, but the first movie left me wondering if some large part of myself had not been just changed by what I had seen on the screen. Maybe everything was different now.

And then came the sequel. I've written extensively about the dreaded White Dreads from Reloaded, but let's just say that no matter what happened in the second movie, we were bound to be disappointed. The election of Scott Brown was my White Dread moment.

No, we don't use gel!

2. Diaz makes a good point about the importance of narrative in a presidency, but he doesn't recognize the genre that NeO is "writing" in. We are talking about the story of the Presidency of the United States here. Don't get it twisted, this is a Western. The main character has always been a White man. This particular White man has always had to bust his guns. The vast majority of the bullets have been caught by colored folk (whether they be Injuns or Hajis or Charlies or run-of-the-mill-Negroes) in the interest of "settling the land."

What? That's what I thought.

Bush and the Rethugs rode that narrative so well because they were traveling a well worn path that everyone could understand. On 9/11, once again the White man was under attack and answered the call, reluctantly, of course, to save the day. (The story got a little old near the end there, especially when it became blatantly clear that the rethugs were more apt to blast their friends in the face than smoke out and round up the offending redskins.)

That's why the Tea Partiers have it so easy. Hell, all they had to do was watch the first twenty minutes of Birth of a Nation to figure out their political platform.

Well, we don't care what Senator Brown said in his speech. His daughters are NOT available.

But there's no question about NeO's writing ability. On the campaign, he constructed one of the greatest political narratives the world has ever seen. He reached out as a beacon of redemption for an entire nation. If our country could put centuries of prejudice and hatred aside and take a leap of faith for this brilliant, special man (and his family), than maybe there could be hope that the vision of America we always here about could be real for all of its citizens. And if NeO had been able to fly into the clouds on inauguration day (high, high over Aretha Franklin's hat), that would have been the perfect ending of that story. But that's not what happened.

What's happened is that NeO is in the midst of about ten different narratives, from overt and covert wars on multiple continents, to health care, to immigration, to economic disaster, to natural disaster, to an education system in turmoil, to Scott Baio (!) trying to clown his woman. Trying to unite all of these these narratives within a single overarching structure is something that would even make Dickens shake his head. It also doesn't help that in the traditional POTUS western NeO would be the one wearing the feathers, shaking a tom-tom. Western's are all about the domination of the Other, and in order for NeO to be successful against his opposition, he's got to rally White support against the an Other that is White. That's complicated.

For real? Charles in Charge. Do you really want it? Because we can make it happen for you.

3. But in the end, I think Diaz is right. NeO has made some decisions, like state secrets, like the bank (giveaway) bailout, like escalation in Afghanistan, like the expansion of executive power, that cause me considerable pause. One of my favorite professors, Alexs Pate, used to always talk about the importance of discovering the "goodness" of a character. Goodness doesn't necessarily mean that the character is good, but that you have a firm grasp on the motivations behind their actions. They are consistent with who they are, even if that consistency makes you shudder. Dick Cheney may be many things, but his goodness is not difficult to grasp, though his narrative may be shallow. He is a satisfying villain because you know what he is going to do: evil. NeO, on the other hand, is harder to get a sense of because so many of the things that he has done, or not done, have gone against my understanding of who he is a character. Not that I've given up on him by any measure, but he's getting a lot more complicated than I imagined.

You just had to put on the black hat, right?

4. My hope for NeO, which I guess is the hope I have for all of us, is that he take the risk to evade the Western genre. It doesn't matter if you put Tyreese Gibson in the starring role, the Western is about domination. To regain the confidence of the American people in his POTUS narrative, some will advise that he needs to dominate, he needs to start collecting some scalps. Historically, during similar ebbs in popularity these scalps have been "scalps of color". (See: Clinton, Bill; Bush, W. George; Bush, George H.W.; et cetera)

Although I give NeO mixed reviews so far, I hope he has the courage to resist the trappings of the genre and take a stand that's principled, even if it costs him a sequel.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Brother From Another Planet

Say what you will about President NeObama, he has given us the gift of some amazing iconography.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Don Belton: Truth teller


I first met Don Belton when he visited Bloomington to apply for the professor's job at Indiana University in 2008. I got to sit in on a dinner with some faculty members and I was immediately struck by the man's warmth and intelligence. You could tell this was a brother who had not only read and written extensively, but also had the life experience to inform his work and teaching. This was a wise, caring person.

He also had that James Baldwin aura about him: he was a truth teller.

On December 27th, Don Belton was brutally murdered in his home. Police later found a journal entry Belton wrote about a man named Michael, and how happy Belton was about their relationship. This lead police to Michael Griffin, a 25 year old former Marine. Griffin quickly confessed, but portrayed the murder as a revenge killing. Griffin, who served a tour of duty in Iraq, claimed that the 53 year old novelist was able to sexually assault him, not once, but twice, on Christmas day.

With all due respect to the judicial process and the rights of the accused, this is, of course, the worst kind of fiction.

Griffin, who has a girlfriend and a two year old son, says that he came to Belton's home seeking something. He says it was an apology, but maybe it was an absolution, or an answer to why what happened between them happened on Christmas. Whatever he found with Belton in that house left him disturbed enough to stab this man, this loving man, to death. 

Describing Belton as a loving man, I think of Baldwin. He once said, "love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within." According to Baldwin this love principle requires us to remove our masks and come to grips with the truth of what lies underneath. This principle also obligates us to share this truth with those that we share our love with, even when it painfully unfastens the masks they hold. The consequences of this truth telling are often great, and it takes a person of great bravery and integrity to uphold this standard. I'm not sure what happened between the two men, but it seems that Belton's faithful adherence to this love principle is what cost him his life.

 He will be sorely missed.

A candle light vigil is planned at IU from 5-6pm. Friends of Don have set up an excellent blog dedicated to memorializing Belton and bringing his killer to justice.

***Update after the trial