Monday, December 31, 2012

The Book of Mormon: A Review

Within five minutes you can tell why The Book of Mormon is so popular. The story, the music, the cast are all awesome. It finds pathos and humor in surprising places, namely among the struggles of Mormon missionaries to reconcile faith and religious identity. In the end, you'll never look at those gentlemen in crisp white shirts and earnest smiles the same way again. Its a shame that the play, which takes place in Uganda, doesn't give the natives the same courtesy.

One of the best things about South Park is how well it humanizes its most outrageous characters. Cartman could say the most objectionable thing imaginable about someone, but you knew where he was coming from. He's a kid who wants to be loved and the reason is clear whenever the show features his mother. He becomes a rounder (sorry) character because you see what makes him vulnerable and what he loves. Then he becomes more than just a Dbag kid.

The Book of Mormon is especially adept at providing such rounding to the Mormons in the play. That's laudable because it would have been really easy to make a play bashing Mormonism and making it all sound like a bad joke. Nobody's really going to stand up to defend Mormons and they represent a bit of an easy target. But it's clear from the beginning of the musical, when the protagonists first meet up, that the writers have done their homework into the rituals and modes of thought that Mormons have adopted. Of course nothing can capture the total experience of all Mormons, but the opening number, Hello, does a brilliant job of giving us insight into how important the concept of Mission is to Mormons. They've got a story they want to tell and they deploy a lot of resources to spreading it. Plus its catchy as hell, so you find yourself repeating it. It instantly humanizes them.

The introductory song of the Ugandans, Hasa Diga Eebowai however, has a different effect. Their song is a sorrow song, but instead of praising God or begging for his mercy, the number is an indictment of God's cruelty. That's interesting because it goes against the "spiritual negro" trope that so often comes up when Black/White binaries are presented in the culture. If Black people ain't got nothing else, they're supposed to be able to pray to the Lord above. Instead, they literally tell God to go fcuk hisself.

And all of that would be fine if the Uganda in the House of Mormon were really a reflection of what life is actually like in Uganda. The Africans sing that 80% of them have AIDS, but even in at the height of the AIDS crisis in Uganda only 15% of the population was infected. The joke is hyperbolic of course, but we have to also realize that American understandings of Africa are pretty much limited to nature shows and Save the Children ads. In the song we learn that Ugandans tell God to suck it because they have nothing except poverty, despair, rape, and genital mutilation. And of course there is truth in all of these troubling things, but reducing the experience of any group of people to such a limited narrative runs counter to the empathetic consideration they offer the Mormons. Instead the Ugandans are a helpless, miserable people, without history or context beyond their suffering.

Later when the protagonist tries to convert a ruthless warlord by singing an awesome (and silly) song, I Believe, about his faith, jittery Africans with machine guns wait to deliver the number's ultimate punchline: sexual violence. Again, although the Mormons' belief system is continually tweaked and made fun of, there's a naive earnestness to it that makes you want to believe right along with them. The Africans are offered no such nuance.

One of the strengths of Trey Parker and Matt Stone is their ability to hold up a mirror to the white American psyche and explore its biases and blindspots. Although the Mormons in the play are explicitly what its about, they are an effective vehicle to getting us to think more about the role religion and belief play in our lives, no matter who we pray to (or don't). And its funny as hell. Those things alone make the play worthwhile and highly recommended.

However, much of the show's humor flows from a White gaze that has little use for the details of Uganda or its people. The moral of the play seems to indicate that all people, no matter their nationality or religion, in the end just want to hear a story that gives them hope and makes it alright to be who they are. I can work with that moral, but it's just too bad that the Ugandan people in the Book of Mormon never become more than empty vessels that need spiritual filling.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Using Both Hands in My Land

If you're going to have any kind of productive dialog on any issue, you have to concede that people with opposing viewpoints are not disagreeing because they're evil, dishonest, or stupid (not to rule it out), but work under the assumption that they're just coming from a different place. So, although the right wing response to the slaughter of children has been mystifying, you have to hope they're being sincere when they say that fortifying our schools with semi-automatic weapons is going to make our children safer.

But with all due respect to these perspectives, they don't know what it's like to work in a school that has armed guards. People who suggest such things don't understand that many urban schools are already fortified like military camps. And in the end you may gain a measure of security, but you lose a lot in terms of what it means to have school.

Working in Baltimore, we had a policeman in the school. One day I turned the corner and their was a big cop with his finger in the chest of a 4th grader, warning him to not "act tough". I've never been arrested, but police have always made me nervous. I guess you could call it a Black male tic/survival mechanism. When you bring in men with guns, you bring in the energy of men with guns, which is generally an inhibiting force when it comes to free expression and learning. Nothing against the men with guns, Machiavelli knew what he was talking about when he said the unarmed prophet comes to grief, but arming the schools is not the answer.

Urban schools have had metal detectors for a couple decades now and our kids are still getting killed. The children that die in our community don't die because of one lone psychopath with access to high power fire arms. We've got plenty of psychos with fire power. Indiscriminate killing happens every month. Every week. And some days it seems like every damn day. Kids all over Chicago getting killed with weapons that people make money selling. The real psychopaths are the corporations that drain so much human resource, so much humanity, in the cause of increasing revenue.

Walmart had to know they were going to have trouble with this whole Bushmaster thing. You know, how you can find the incredibly powerful semi-automatic on their website. How people can really buy this damn thing and they make a lot of money off it. How this practice can be traced directly to what happened in Connecticut. In the hours and days after the killing, it would make sense to withdraw momentarily from the arms market so as to not draw undue attention. Instead, they waited. And why did they wait? Why not come right out and say you were suspending sales? Because they know that gun sales go through the roof after one of these mass killings. And that's what happened. They cashed in during the days after the tragedy and then finally took the Bushmaster off of their website only after the media reported on it. That's psychopathic behavior.

We do need to be the good guys on this one. Although conservatives are right when they say that this is a soul issue, their only problem is that they don't have a solution that doesn't involve excluding someone or bombing someplace. There is soul problem, but it's also inextricably linked to the economic issue
Instead of framing the conversation about firearms all around the crazy fringe who won't budge on gun rights, why don't we focus more on the corporations who stand to gain so much if gun policy doesn't change?

There are psychopaths out there with business suits and power ties. If we're serious about gun control, we have to let everyone know about the economics of the issue. I wonder if some of the 2nd amendment conservatives would be so willing to take arms for corporate rights, especially when corporations infringe upon the civil and economic liberties of their communities. People have to become more aware that someone is making some serious money selling misery.  This isn't about rights, it's about greed.

Every discussion that involves guns should mention that although the second amendment gives people rights, it doesn't cover corporations (even though Mitt tried to tell you that corporations are people to) and it doesn't state anyone has the right to sell death mechanisms unregulated. The production of firearms in this country needs to be more tightly monitored. We would demand accountability with any other consumer product. The things they sell are literally thousands of Americans every year. This is not a second amendment, it's a national security issue. And really it's a world security issue.

Not only are our psychopath corporations selling death mechanisms to kill Americans, they're making even more selling them around the world. Although I'm sure the world feels the pain of Newtown, unspeakable gun violence done to and by children is really nothing new to many places in the world. 

The UN proposed an international treaty regulating fire arm sales. According to Wikipedia, the treaty would have prevented sales if weapons were reasonably suspected to:
  • be used in serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law, or acts of genocide or crimes against humanity;
  • facilitate terrorist attacks, a pattern of gender-based violence, violent crime or organized crime;
  • violate United Nations Charter obligations, including UN arms embargoes;
  • be diverted from its stated recipient;
  • adversely affect regional security; or seriously impair poverty reduction or socioeconomic development.
The Obama administration reversed the Bush position and came out for the treaty, but they faced stiff opposition from some "rogue" international states who were more concerned with how the treaty might limit their access to sell and buy guns. Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, and Iran. However, the most effective opposition came from another rogue state, the gun lobby. You would think Republicans would be a bit concerned aligning themselves with the interest of these despotic regimes, but they successfully stalled discussion of the treaty until March.

So our job is not just to make Americans more safe from guns. We need to make the world more safe from these death mechanisms. And we have to admit that their presence in the American psyche has more to do with fear and containment than freedom and liberty. Without this realization, and the action it should herald, our children will never be safe, no matter how many guards we post.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Misstra Knowitall on Twitter

Yes, I tweet now. Check it out and don't be a...

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Remorse Code

On my drive home Friday, I was listening to the radio and heard someone mention that they had been crying all day over the murders of children in Connecticut. At the time that struck me as a bit odd, perhaps melodramatic. I had been in school all day and although the news had given me a heavy, dark feeling, I hadn't yet unpacked its significance. I could see feeling bad for them, but crying? Especially since this feels like the millionth time something like this has happened in the last few years.

When I pulled up to the house, my wife Candice was parked out front, with my daughter Lucy perched quietly in her car seat. Lucy is a doll baby, but she almost didn't seem real she was so serene and peaceful. Later, when Candice was making dinner, she insisted on being carried, even though she's almost two years old and a lot harder to hold than she used to be. At one point Candice put her down and walked away. Lucy ran to her and jumped into her arms. Sitting there watching my daughter, it struck me why the death toll was so high. As deadly as guns are, usually it takes a bit of work to kill a person, unless the assailant has specialized training or high caliber weapons. I hadn't heard much about what the suspect was carrying, but seeing my daughter pumping her little arms and legs to get to her mom, it struck me: those children never had a chance. They were too little to run. They were terrified. And that realization made me cry. Hard.

That's when I think I started to get it. Well, really there's a part that you never really get. You just are left with a bunch of pieces that don't fit. So here's some pieces:

I talk about narratives all the time because the stories we tell about the world and ourselves have a lot to do with the things we do. Usually in situations like this where innocent Americans are killed, we start the war narrative and declare war on someone or something. This would be easy if Al Qaeda had broken into a kindergarten and shot up a bunch of kids. We'd call for scalps hijabs immediately. No Muslims allowed within 100 feet of school. Send those prayer rugs through the x-ray scanner. Or let a Mexican "Illegal" shoot up a preschool. Churros would be removed from the lunch menu and we would secure our schools with 100 ft. border fences. Or God forbid the perpetrator was a brother. One in three Black men might end up in prison. Oh wait, never mind

But alas, it's not that easy. Those narratives have next steps that involve building things and bombing people, but this one is tough. What do you build, who do you bomb, to protect you from a white man with a gun and a plan to kill? That's even more tough because so much of our understanding of the concept of "hero" is tied to a white man with a gun and a plan to kill.

It's important to understand that, in the words of Malcolm X, the founding fathers were White nationalists. This country wasn't built for White men to take a back seat to anyone, but things are changing. The most obvious sign occurred in 2008, but the erosion of white power has been coming on for some time now. Believe it or not, there was a time in human history when the white man wasn't running everything. It seems that this era is coming to a close. (Not that the political and economic infrastructure will stop serving the interests of the elite; the packaging will just be darker.) This change makes some people anxious. Many of these individuals choose to soothe their anxiety by buying fire arms.

If you are someone who claims the 2nd amendment will protect you from the tyranny of your government, yet you choose not to vote, you are an idiot. No one has an inalienable right to fire arms, especially those who won't participate in the system of government that secures their rights. Besides, how is a Glock going to protect you from a government that can send a predator drone to your house? A

It's also ironic that government operatives have used the firearms of citizens to murder those who would challenge government tyranny. See: MLKjr, Malcolm X, JFK, RFK, to name a few.

Gun control never goes anywhere because too many people are making money selling them. The advertising for their product is on every TV, movie theater, and game console. Weapons that kill people was a $38 billion industry in 2012. That can buy a lot of political ads.

So, maybe we preserve the right to bear arms, but eliminate the right for corporations to make millions producing guns that cause so much misery. Like Chris Rock said, if you really want to stop gun violence, make a bullet cost $10,000.

If the President does take gun control on, he's going to have to push back his whole agenda. Disarming this white man is going to be a tall order. They're not giving up their guns. And it wouldn't be a stretch to say that pushing tougher gun laws would make the President more of a target. Justin Beiber ain't even safe these days. Honestly, I fear for NeO. 

Talk about product placement
But I think he has to take it on. Half measures aren't going to work here. No more commissions or investigations or studies. After 9-11, we signed away half of our civil liberties--you know rights guaranteed by the Constitution? People grumbled but didn't say much out of fear of being called unpatriotic. But why is this right untouchable? I'd rather give up my gun then allow the government to tap my phone calls without a warrant.

And I know that the easiest win will be to eliminate the access to high-caliber semi-automatics, but that's not what's killing the kids around my way. NeO mentioned kids in Chicago who were victims of gun violence, but our children are being wiped out by small handguns that are cheap and powerful. If you can't get people to give up their guns, you've got to find a way to make it more expensive to get them.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

An Urgent Appeal to President Obama

I know the President is setting himself an ambitious agenda following his defeat of Mitt Romney last month, but there is one question that it's in all of our interests that he answer: Does he plan to forget about all of the white men he's slapped over the past four years? Who will look after their welfare (so to speak)? 

Ever since 2008, he's been doing it. I mean for real, just putting guys to shame that were supposed to be real dudes. If our President doesn't watch it, he might have an epidemic of white men who have been publicly pimp-slapped by a black man. I'm not saying that it's wrong to slap a white man in public, but you've got to be careful with the consequences. 

I'm looking for America's Next Top Model
We, as a world community, need to figure out what we're going to do with all of these disgruntled white men. If the 20th century was about solving the Negro question, the 21st will be about solving the Crakasskracker question. Many of these troubled individuals have guns. They are just now realizing that the White Supremacy is not an ideology suited to the present reality. In other words, we don't believe you, you need more people.

That's a heavy blow for a lot of folks. The President could show some leadership on this issue by providing services to a few of the high profile white men he has emasculated in the past. 

Final Five or not, you gotsta chill
John McCain: Remember how Neo had him staggering around stage? McCain was a war hero who sold his medals to the Bush crowd and never got them back. He would have been a more formidable contender if he hadn't placated to the Republican establishment. He knows the toll war can take on a human being. Instead of thinking about the soldiers first, the people he relies on are more interested in war as an economic tool. One could argue that it always is, but McCain bangs the war drums a little too quickly on just about anything these days. He shouldn't have anything to prove, but you get the feeling that he still has never gotten over losing to a Black man. Maybe some kind of 12 step recovery program. Step #1: Forgive yourself. Please. 

I still got my binders
Mitt Romney: He would be a good Willy Lowman if he wasn't so damn rich. The election brought to mind the Jordan Sick game. NeO holding his guts, but bussin threes every time down the court. In the second debate he made Mitt Romney his Byron Russell. Romney got thirsty when the Bhengazi thing came up. He, like Byron Russell, thought to himself "I finally got him!"  
Proceed Governor, NeO said. Drive right, followed by a cross back to the left hand, and finally a nice pull up with perfect form for the game. Next thing you know, the debate moderator had to step in and tell him how bad he got faked. I actually don't think Mitt Romney is going to need all of that help. He has little to know respect for most of the voting population and convinced himself that people on welfare cost him the election. His self-delusion is supported with enough cash that he'll pull through. Maybe just have him try that Cory Booker Welfare Week diet.

It was like right, left, right
Jim DeMint, now known as Ji'Mint: So remember when ole boy was talking about it's going to be NeO's Waterloo? Made me have to look up Waterloo on Wikipedia and everything. Ji'Mint said he was going to break the president. It must have felt so good to stand in front of those cameras and talk all that trash.  Kind of like Joe Wilson standing with a room full of White men calling the Black president a liar.
**Ed. Note: That actually happened. It actually did** 
But now we get word that Ji'Mint is quitting the senate. He's taking a think tank job. Now, he's going to clean up on the financial end, but if you had to choose one person who did not get "broken" in the exchange with NeO, it seems a fair point to say it's probably the dude who still has his job.
 When Ji'Mint comes back around the block and tells everybody about the fight he was bragging he would win, you know people are going to ask how he won with two black eyes.
Maybe we could just arrange for someone to go by the house and check in with him every now and then. I do, however, take it as a good sign he's trying to get a brother to be appointed to his spot. I don't know much about the brother, but I assume they have him on a short leash. That shows Ji'Mint is thinking beyond his whiteness.That's encouraging.

Naw, girl. Don't worry. I got you.
Chris Cristie: I wouldn't call this an emasculation, necessarily. More like CC cut his deal after the storm hit and went with the hug instead of the coming lipbustment the Republican were about to get. Dude is sharp though. He's one of the few people I've seen make John Stewart start grasping at straws. CC just needs to keep getting invited to the house. Keep him on the payroll and everything will be alright.

Donald Trump: There was a point where I actually felt bad for Donald Trump. Not only did the President go all Hot Sauce on him at the White House Correspondents dinner. Obama:
He petty for that, Mr. Trump. Petttty.

“All kidding aside, we all know about your credentials and experience. On Celebrity Apprentice the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha steaks, but you recognized that this was a lack of leadership, so you fired Gary Busey. These are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir. Well-handled.”

Sitting there fuming, it must have just sounded to Trump like one joke told over and over again: what did the five fingers say to the face?And to top it all off, the next day dude is killing Bin Laden. Talk about dissed and dismissed. In this case I don't think it's going to be so bad. As long as there's a camera around, Mr. Trump is going to be able to blow himself back up. I'm not sure how severe the case is right now, but I would suggest some kind of invasive treatment with Arsenio Hall. Maybe they have to hang out together and do a reality television show. Call it The Big Buck and The Big Bucks.

John Boehner: Leave John John alone. You know he's quick to tears. It's bad enough that Pelosi done smacked up side the head and Barbara Bush went in on him. Now you going to punk him about the fiscal cliff? You know that ain't right. And Maybe just no more jokes about the tan. That's probably not helping.

 In a post pimp slap world, we need to have the resources at our disposal to make sure that these White men aren't left to their own devices. We must bring them back into the fold. For everyone's sake.

Saturday, December 1, 2012