Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Sucking all the magic out the room

People get all worked up over certain words, so as a general rule it's not okay to use the word "negro." I need a special dispensation for this topic, however, so go spend your indignation somewhere else. The topic here is "the magical Negro" vs. the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

If you've seen the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance (which is a terrible movie even if you like golf, so I don't know why you would have wasted two house on it like I have) you are familiar with the character of "the magical negro." As described in Wikepedia:

The magical negro is typically "in some way outwardly or inwardly disabled, either by discrimination, disability or social constraint," often a janitor or prisoner.[5] He has no past; he simply appears one day to help the white protagonist.[6] He is the black stereotype, "prone to criminality and laziness."[7] To counterbalance this, he has some sort of magical power, "rather vaguely defined but not the sort of thing one typically encounters."[6] He is patient and wise, often dispensing various words of wisdom, and is "closer to the earth."[3]

The magical negro serves as a plot device to help the protagonist get out of trouble, typically through helping the white character recognize his own faults and overcome them.[3] Although he has magical powers, his "magic is ostensibly directed toward helping and enlightening a white male character."[5] It is this feature of the magical negro that some people find most troubling. Although the character seems to be showing African-Americans in a positive light, he is still ultimately subordinate to European-Americans. He is also regarded as an exception, allowing white America to "like individual black people but not black culture."[8]

Other examples: Sidney Poitier's character in The Defiant Ones (and maybe a little in Lillies of the Field, too) or the character John Coffey in The Green Mile.

Why is the "magical Negro" such a common literary device? About a year ago, when this term was getting a lot of use, this piece in the LA Times summed it up nicely:

He's there to assuage white "guilt" (i.e., the minimal discomfort they feel) over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history, while replacing stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest.
And here's where it gets complicated. The "danger" that is posed by the stereotypical black man is heightened if that black man is angry. Note that none of your "magical Negro" characters ever show anger, unless for comedic effect. White America is petrified of the angry black man. Perhaps because that same white guilt whispers in our ear that he has a pretty good reason to be mad?

Obama has been a real life personification of the "magical negro" story-telling technique - seemingly wise, appearing out of nowhere to help us solve our problems, and never angry. The Rev. Wright, on the other hand, has anger to spare. And whether he is entitled to that anger or not, that makes him a scary black man, and we sure don't like the scary black man. Obama's magic is tarnished by association. We wonder if he is just hiding his anger, and in reality he too is a scary black man.

Newt Gingrich has suggested in an interview with ABC that Wright may be trying to damage Obama. Whether that's his intention or not, that is what he's doing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bandwidth, glorious bandwidth

The latest issue of Time magazine showed up in the mail the other day. (You'd think a modern, high-tech guy like me would have already sworn off the dead-tree version of weekly news, but I still have a weakness for reading material you can hold in your hand.) I flip through a couple of pages and come across a spread they call "Dashboard." Seems everything these days has a dashboard. When I use my Blogger account for this fine product you're reading now, I go to the dashboard. The customer relationship management software I use at work has an "executive dashboard." And my car, which apparently was way ahead of its time, also uses a dashboard.

Although it seems like a thoroughly appropriate term for the software interface (and a term that is ultra American - if we can't eat it or shoot it we want to drive it) it's kind of pathetic that Time wants to work in reverse and take this computer screen term and paste it into their printed magazine. "Hey look, our magazine looks kind of like your computer screen! See it has words and pictures! It's a dashboard! And no worries about battery life!"

So as I am shaking my head at how hopelessly obsolete the magazine has become, darned if I don't run across something worth knowing about. Granted, it's something I've heard about before, but this time I had a page to dog ear and that helped me remember to check it out. This grand discovery is hulu.com.

Hulu is a website where you can watch TV shows and movies on your computer. What makes it different from You Tube or other sites where you can get video is that Hulu has been created by NBC Universal and NewsCorp. This is the establishment getting a grip on the fact that people want to get content this way and trying to do it right (albeit with some ads in there, you knew that had to happen) rather than trying to fight the inevitable (remember the Napster battles?) In addition to Hulu, there are content-serving sites called Joost and Miro, says Time, and who knows how many others, in addition to the content you can pay for from iTunes or steal using any of the peer-to-peer file sharing products, so what makes this different is that is free, legal, and industry supported all at the same time. You can watch a little Dragnet or Remington Steele or WKRP in Cincinnati with a clear conscience and save $1.99.

Not only do you find your episodes of The Simpsons and Family Guy and stuff you'd expect, but there are scads of other shows, both current and really, really old. (I sampled a little I Dream of Jeannie - like a fine wine, it just gets better with age - and a few minutes of Lost in Space, featuring the most atrocious painted backdrops in the history of the media. They must have budgeted about $12 a week for sets on that show.) And there are full length movies, too.

You won't see me passing over my HD widescreen and my comfy chair for most of my tube time, but there are plenty of people who are more than ready to make this fusion of TV and computer, and it's all possible if we just have enough bandwidth and the wisdom to see the next big thing. We're on the way to an ultimate on-demand entertainment nirvana, where any visual or auditory experience will be just a few clicks away. We will have gone from the two channels of TV of my childhood, to the "57 channels and there's nothing on" of my youth, to a world in my dotage where it will take me all night just to scroll through the viewing options.

I guess if it all gets too complicated, I can always read a magazine.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ice chewers and wave do-ers should literally be punished

People who chew ice should be deported. Maybe to Iceland, where they would find all the ice they want to chew until their freaking faces freeze and break off.

There are a few times and places where the chewing of ice will be allowed:
(a) you are 10 years old or so, or
(b) you are at a county fair and have a snowcone, or
(c) it's over 90 degrees and you are in the bleachers at a ball game, or
(d) you just had a nice fountain Coke with crushed ice on a hot day, or
(d) you are dying of dehydration and all the water is frozen

Times and places where chewing ice is NOT allowed:
(a) you are in a meeting room with lots of other people, one of whom is speaking to the group and everyone is supposed to be listening quietly
(b) all other cases not described in a through d above
(c) in general, anywhere within 500 yards of me, or I swear I will - I mean it! Don't make me come over there!!

People who know me know I have a thing - and I mean a bad thing - about noisy eating, the smacking of the mouth, the talking with the mouth full. Ice chewing is a subset of this banned behavior. Just say no. Besides, chewing ice will cause cracks in your teeth and you will need root canals and crowns and perhaps brain surgery. And on top of that, I have read that people who chew ice are sexually frustrated, so before you start munching you should look around and see who might have also heard that, and consider that they may spread rumors about your lack of mojo. If they don't, I will.

And another thing - the wave is over. Saw a recent post on some sports site where the writer described being at a baseball game, close score, runners on base, the moment when the "organist" should play dah-nah-na-NANT- nu-NAH! and we all shout "CHARGE!" but instead some nimrod's got the wave going. The wave has had its day, and it's time for the wave to hang 'em up. When you're at a game and you think it's boring, you can text somebody, check your email, call your mom, look under the seats for loose change enough to buy one more beer - anything but the wave!

And while I'm at it, please take a moment to consider if you are an abuser of the word "literally." Just for clarity, "literally" means something that actually happened or may happen - it is the opposite of "figuratively" in common speech, agreed? Hence, if you say "...and when she walked in I literally died!" there is at least a chance you are exaggerating. How about "this new product will literally melt away fat!" - not really. "He is literally strong as a bull." Not really. And so on. You can make all kinds of wonderful figurative statements and I sure won't quibble over the accuracy if you just leave literally in your quiver.

To recap:
ICE: shake your martini with it, have a Coke and a smile, make some home made ice cream, but don't bite it.
WAVE: Resist and ignore. If it persists, run out ahead of the crest and shout it down by saying "F*%&@ the wave! " over and over until you are escorted from the facility. It's the least you can do.
LITERALLY: Each time you catch yourself saying it, ten Hail Marys.

Go on about your business now. Just remember, I've got my eye on you...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What does it mean to be poor anymore?

My dad had a saying- one of a thousand or so - that he would use when he felt like he was engaged in something indulgent: "I wonder what the poor people are doing?"

This was irony, don't you know, because I think he always considered himself part of the "poor people," and for the most of his life he had good reason to think so. When I grew my hair long in the 70s he didn't like it, but not because it was rebellious. To him, having shaggy hair meant you didn't have enough money to get a haircut.

Daddy would say "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" when we were doing something extravagant, like ordering the fried shrimp at Burl's Drive-In. Fried shrimp was the most expensive thing on Burl's menu, maybe $2.99 back then. "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" would be asked when we had dinner at a place like Wilder's, where people drank cocktails and ate 3-course meals. Dinner at Wilder's was, at best, a once-a-year thing.

Not to say that he was cheap. Cheap is a term for people who have plenty of money but can't stand to spend it. You can't be a poor person and be accused of cheapness, too. He was thrifty, let's say. After he died, I remember running across a coffee can full of soap scraps, the little pieces you're left with when you can't hold onto the bar of soap anymore. Turned out he had a plan to melt all the little pieces down and mold them into new bars of soap. That's thrifty.

That expression - "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" - keeps coming back to me when I am doing things that Daddy would have never allowed himself to do, even if he had the money. Traveling, for example, and choosing the more expensive hotel just because I can. Drinking good wine when there's no special occasion. Paying more for a round of golf than he would have spent on a full winter's supply of firewood. I have always had, to use another of his expressions, "champagne taste on a beer budget." But these days, you could say I have a microbrew beer budget. Maybe even a Belgian ale budget.

I can't say "I wonder what the poor people are doing?" with the irony intact because I'm not poor people. I don't even know any poor people. Being "poor" today means having more possessions and a higher standard of living than the average upper middle class person of two generations ago. Today we are in a recession, and the unemployment rate is only a little over 5%. I think we don't have much idea of what it means to be poor anymore, and I hope we don't have to learn it again. And I wonder what Daddy would make of it all.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Would The Dude abide a 37?

Just when you start to think we might have found an inspirational new American leader in B. Obama, the ugly truth comes out - he can't bowl. If you hadn't heard, BO rolled a putrid 37 while engaging in some obligatory "act like a regular guy" campaign activities in Altoona PA. If he now loses in the PA primary by about 75%, you'll know why. Them regular folks in the Keystone State probably don't have a lot of respect for a grown man who can't do better than 37 in 10 frames.

I mean, really. Your average adult male could probably score better than 37 using a cantaloupe. This is not a catastrophe at the level of "Dukakis Drives a Tank," but if I were running that campaign I'd have a throbbing headache. Do you think anybody bothered to ask the Senator whether he thought he would do well on the lanes before they handed him the saddle shoes? Got to plan ahead, people. (I'll bet dollars to donuts that you'll see Barack doing something athletic that he's good at before a week passes by. Got to recapture some confidence from those of the masculine persuasion.)

Then again, the record is cloudy on whether our past Presidents had the qualities of the real American male. What do we really know about, say, Washington - he could lead an army, but could he make chili? Or Jefferson - he liked wine, for Pete's sake, and real men like beer. Would Franklin Pierce (he was a President, right?) have held his own in a game of 5 card draw? Would Nixon have been able to quote lines from Caddyshack? Would Carter have known the right time to say "He who smelt it, dealt it?"

Obama's failure this week, however, is offset by Hillary's latest gaffe and the fact that she is, relentlessly, Hillary. The gaffe was comparing herself to Rocky Balboa. While there are probably lots of Philadelphians who admire that Rocky spirit concept, there are probably a lot of others who remember that the original Rocky was basically a loser who got one shot at greatness and whose only goal was to go the distance and not embarass himself. Nice role model, Hil.

So if you had to vote for one of the Dems this week, you've got Mr. Gutter Ball and the Ms. Punch Drunk Bum to choose from.

Whatever happened to that loony Ron Paul guy?...