Archive for August, 2011

income inequality

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 31, 2011



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Brown University and the Slave Trade

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 21, 2011


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The Poverty Tour

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 21, 2011


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Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 20, 2011

Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style


THE best posts on the style blog Street Etiquette find its principals, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, in motion. As opposed to the fascistically frozen street-style snaps of The Sartorialist and others, these pictures are styled and plotted fictions but also affecting ones, depicting a pair of young black men taking ownership not just of the body and what goes on it, but also of the environment it moves in. No one ever smiles on Street Etiquette: there’s business to attend to.

Most days, the actual business of Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs takes place in a work-space-cum-clubhouse on Bergen Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. With vintage sweaters hanging from the ceiling and art books lining the walls, this is the nerve center of the Brooklyn Circus, whose flagship store is just a few dozen steps away, and which is a key collaborative partner for Street Etiquette, which began as a basic beautiful-things blog in 2008 but is now one of the foremost online repositories of black style.

The posts on Street Etiquette straddle the modern and the historical. Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi, both 22, highlight specific themes — floral prints, the saddle shoe and so on — modeling them and detailing their history. They are careful caretakers, respectful students, tailoring loyalists and handsome models.

And they have become Internet-age fashion polymaths: stylists and models, but also writers, preservationists, photographers and editors — and soon, designers and retailers.

Already they have wide reach: Street Etiquette receives 20,000 page views a day. The two men are the most prominent public faces of a new burst of black dandyism taking root in small retail outlets, niche fashion lines and thoughtful style blogs.

“There’s more than one cool now for black people,” Mr. Gumbs said on a recent Tuesday at the Bergen Street studio, wearing a slight wisp of a goatee and dark glasses that sharpened his round face. “When we were growing up, it was just one kind of cool.”

That was hip-hop, with its hegemonic style. But the men of Street Etiquette and their peers practice a deliberate elision of hip-hop style (except in the site’s early days, when the two were still shaking free of their Air Jordans). They even eschew the prim eccentricity of an Andre 3000, or the cosmopolitan flamboyance of Kanye West.

Instead, this generation emphasizes the basics: great fabrics, aggressive tailoring, thoughtful accessorizing. It’s a return to style as a source of dignity, a theme that has run through generations of black American style, from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights era to the mixed messages of the hip-hop era.

“I used to wear size 42 jeans,” Mr. Kissi said. “Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way.”

Fonzworth Bentley, hip-hop dandy, motivational speaker and author of “Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence and Style to Get Ahead,” echoed that sentiment in recalling his efforts to get Sean Combs into more-elegant clothing: “He had to walk with his back different,” Mr. Bentley said. “He had to talk different. To bring class to hip-hop, that was the specific singular goal I had.”

Making a strong statement about cultural pride is central to the Street Etiquette mission. “It shows people of African descent in a good light,” said Mr. Kissi, whose family hails from Ghana. With Ouigi Theodore, the owner of Brooklyn Circus, Street Etiquette is collaborating on college speaking engagements under the “style and character tour” banner. Said Mr. Theodore: “Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense. If you’re hood, you’re hood forever.”

The musician and actor Mos Def was turned on to Street Etiquette by a friend, and was taken by the founders’ direction. “They want to elevate the awareness level of young people in their communities,” he said. “As opposed to ‘We’re better than y’all,’ it’s ‘You can be this, too.’ ” He now serves as a mentor to the duo. “All of it is a political expression,” he said. “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.”

A new generation of black fashion entrepreneurs is emerging to fill this gap, among them Mr. Theodore of Brooklyn Circus; Brian and Autumn Merritt of Sir & Madame in Chicago; Ontario Armstrong and Clifton Wilson of Armstrong & Wilson in Philadelphia and several others.

“We wanted to give a different perception of the young black man,” said Mr. Armstrong, whose company specializes in pocket squares made from outlandish fabrics and embellished with buttons.

The new dandies are found on sites like Guerreisms or Aveder Outfit, the site of Cleon Grey, a frequent photographer for Street Etiquette. Since its March introduction, Aveder Outfit has quickly become a thrilling repository of bold and natty black styles. Mr. Grey first came across Street Etiquette while in college. “My initial reaction was, ‘This makes me proud to be a black man,’ ” he said.

Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs stumbled upon their calling in high school. “We was too cool for Evisus,” said Mr. Kissi, his hair fashioned into a field of twists and knots, recalling the dominant hip-hop denim of the day.

He and Mr. Gumbs, who was born in St. Kitts and moved to the United States at age 8, met as students at Mount Vernon High School, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and bonded over their shared aversion to the style of their classmates.

First came streetwear: skinny jeans, complemented with brands like Stüssy and Supreme. As the only ones in their high school who favored that look, they turned online to find peers.

The pair honed their writing skills not in the classroom but on Internet forums, particularly the ones on Hypebeast and NikeTalk. “It was like a high school within a high school online,” Mr. Kissi said. “I felt like I had a voice, and a lot of people followed me.” This was in stark contrast to the reception the pair got in real life: “It was like, ‘Why can’t I think outside the box?’ Our peers, in our neighborhoods, they’re the ones who hated us the most.”

That online training ground was also responsible for the signature Street Etiquette mood: Even a dig deep into the site’s archives fails to turn up a single grin. “In the forums you post what did you wear today and you don’t smile because it’s cheesy,” Mr. Gumbs said. Added Mr. Kissi, “I can be silly, but I don’t want to look silly.”

Street Etiquette began mostly as a way of cataloging the duo’s taste; it was several months before they appeared on it themselves. Now, though, the Street Etiquette aesthetic is finely honed: echoes of civil rights-era style, the Malian portrait photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé and images of historically black colleges in the mid-20th century. Each shoot is treated like a magazine spread, with hundreds of photos winnowed down to a select few for the blog. And while the two men are often shot individually, the photos gain power when they are united.

“It’s the mise-en-scène, the whole package,” said Monica Miller, a Barnard English professor and the author of “Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity.” “It’s not just the clothes. It’s the body that’s wearing the clothing and the disposition of the body, how the body inhabits the clothes. It’s asking the viewer to construct a narrative about that black male body.”

Last September, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi orchestrated the site’s most involved shoot, and narrative, to date: Black Ivy. A dozen or so of their friends posed in classics worn with a twist: a tweed jacket over a green shawl-collar sweater with purple pants rolled up just so, and so on.

“They wear it with such respect,” said Jim Moore, the creative director of GQ, which has featured Street Etiquette in its pages. “But it washed all that heavy blue-bloodedness out.”

If the hip-hop generation’s embrace of prep fashion signaled the style’s move from tradition to subversion, Black Ivy qualifies as post-subversion, the full-scale embrace of prep heritage filtered through an outsider’s lens. It was also timed perfectly with the resurgence of interest in prep fashion.

“They’re bringing things back a little ahead of the curve,” Mr. Moore said. “They were the first ones that legitimized the summer scarf for me. These guys featured it, and I was like, ‘That’s going to be huge, not just some Euro trend.’ ”

When it comes to style, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi dine widely. They’re expert vintage thrifters — Mr. Kissi manages about 200 eBay alerts in his quest for unique pieces — and inadvertent frugalists, often making clothes from stores like Club Monaco look dangerously expensive. The two also have an instinct for great juxtapositions: The most notable element of a recent post about guayaberas wasn’t the shirt, but rather Mr. Gumbs’s hat, a variant on the Greek fisherman style that looked like an implied retort to years of fedoras and trilbys.

“I enjoy the range of masculinities they’re trying to portray,” Professor Miller said.

The ease and rapidity of the Internet helps keep that range wide, and frequently updated. Of the two, Mr. Kissi is the talker; he manages their social media presence, including Tumblr, Facebook and a sometimes pugnacious Twitter.

The Internet has also created a virtual community for this new generation. No longer do style outsiders have to rebel in isolation.

“Prior to the last couple of years for me, the only source of information would be magazines,” said Mr. Armstrong of Armstrong & Wilson. “Now it’s everywhere. It’s giving people the heart to step up and express themselves even more.”

Mr. Bentley recalled: “When I moved to New York, I had to go Hudson News to look at international magazines to see what happened at the fashion shows. Now a teenager can get it online 10 minutes after I see it in real life.”

And for some of those teenagers, Mr. Gumbs and Mr. Kissi are stars. Classmates of Mr. Gumbs get choked up when speaking with him; Mr. Kissi receives notes from fans in Ghana and Nigeria who have Street Etiquette pictures on their walls. Meanwhile, they’re still learning how to generate more than just fame from the blog. Mr. Gumbs works part-time at Opening Ceremony while studying at Baruch College, and Mr. Kissi works at the J. Crew Men’s Shop. Both still live with their families in Mount Vernon.

“The hardest thing has been learning what our actual value was,” Mr. Gumbs said. The pair have done some marketing work, including a recent promotional video for the Nike Air Force 1. In that video, Mr. Kissi wears a vibrant Aztec-print jacket that’s one of the items on sale in the Street Etiquette-branded store on the new men’s wear site Park & Bond, a spinoff of Gilt Groupe.

Their branded vintage section shows 16 pieces unearthed by Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs, and modeled by them. “They think like editors,” said Andy Comer, the site’s director of editorial content. “That’s not a slot that’s just for a blogger. We’re more concerned with the message it sends, which is that we’re a place that values point of view.”

Last year, Mr. Kissi and Mr. Gumbs collaborated with Sebago on a limited-edition boot and a tasseled moccasin (red on brown), and are planning a Street Etiquette branded line: the first piece will be a varsity jacket inspired by the Black Ivy shoot.

They’re now making the clothes they want to wear from scratch, instead of having to fine-tune what they find in the world. In a Street Etiquette post from early 2009, Mr. Gumbs wrote about seeking a reliable tailor. They’ve found one, though they’re cagey about who it is.

“I’ve definitely tailored something four times, one item,” Mr. Gumbs said, not embarrassed at all. But not every attempt is a success. “There’s a lot of items laying in my room that are just fails,” Mr. Kissi said. “You just got to deal with it.” And finally, here, he laughs.

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Do Black People Still Listen To Jazz? New Study Says Hardly

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 20, 2011

While it was brought to life by the creativity of African-Americans, today’s jazz audience has fewer blacks than ever before.

According to a new study from the Jazz Audience Initiative, no more than 20% of jazz audiences are people of color. The study found that the people buying tickets to jazz shows are more homogenous now than in years past. Here are just a few of the study’s findings:

  • Demographically, jazz ticket buyers across the 19 communities are middle-aged, predominantly male, and very well educated. On average, only 17% are under age 45, and 80% are white.
  • The research reveals three underlying dimensions of musical preference: 1) Fusion – a combination of youth‐leaning cross‐genre artists like John Zorn and Jamiroquai; 2) Standards and Masters – artists that in many ways represent the “canon” of jazz masters (e.g., Charlie Parker, Stan Getz); and 3) Pop Crossover – artists that have, over time, grown to appeal to a broad mainstream and pop‐based audience (e.g., B.B. King).
  • Respondents revealed strong associations with values around new artists and cultural diversity ‐ ‘discovering new artists and new works of art;’ and ‘learning about a broad range of cultures around the world.’ This was especially true for younger buyers.

In one interesting note, JAI pointed out that the audience usually is a reflection of the act on stage:

Preferences for specific jazz artists vary significantly by age and ethnicity. However, preferences for specific artists are clearly influenced by the programming choices made by the study partners. Overall, results point to the pivotal role that jazz curators (i.e., programming directors) play in evolving preferences and tastes. The more knowledgeable jazz buyers become, the more live jazz they want to hear. Ultimately, the audience is a reflection of what’s on stage, which is not to diminish the influence of price, venue and other factors on the audience.

The study really got me thinking about recent experiences I have had visiting jazz clubs around New York City and going to concert events with Jazz headliners. Seeing Esperanza Spalding with an old graying professor, it was striking to see how much of the audience looked like him as opposed to me- even though young black listeners were embracing the Best New Artist Grammy winner enthusiastically. Still listeners are different from ticket buyers and depending on the venue and market, audiences can vary dramatically as pointed out by Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR:

The core of the study is a random survey of jazz ticket buyers distributed through six large jazz presenters and 13 university-based jazz presenters, accounting for 19 cities throughout the U.S. This is significant: It means audiences surveyed were largely attending concerts put on by big arts institutions (Jazz at Lincoln Center, SFJazz, Monterey Jazz Festival, etc.) rather than small-to-medium-sized venues, or other relatively off-the-grid jazz shows. That also means there was only data from the most conspicuous of New York venues, and no representation from the large jazz community in Southern California.

What do you think about the JAI’s findings- are you surprised or not at all? Are you an avid jazz listener? A frequent ticket buyer? How do you discover new acts? How do you decide which shows to see? Weigh in Clutchettes and gents!

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Melissa Harris Perry Hates Her Some “Help”

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 20, 2011

Melissa Harris Perry Hates Her Some "Help"

via The Black Snob Feed by Danielle Belton on 8/11/11

Prof. Melissa Harris PerryRecently academic and author Melissa Harris Perry took one for the team and watched Hollywood’s latest offering in mainstream cinema about nice white people saving unfortunate black people (it’s their favorite kind), aka, the new Viola Davis film "The Help."

Prof. Harris Perry was able to stave off a head-explosion of irony and focus on everything she absolutely hated about the film — from the "feel-good" premise of black maids being given their voice by some perky young white woman to how the film took an ounce of history and turned it into a "cat fight" about the "Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi."

From Mediaite:

“This is not a movie about the lives of black women,” she clarified, as their lives were not, she argued, “Real Housewives of Jackson, Mississippi… it was rape, it was lynching, it was the burning of communities.” She then explained that it was, to her, completing the work started by the Daughters of the American Confederacy when they “found money in the federal budget to erect a granite statue of Mammy in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,” which happened while the same Senate contingency failed to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. “It is the same notion that the fidelity of black women domestics is more important than the realities of the lives, the pain, the anguish, the rape that they experienced.”

“It’s ahistorical and deeply troubling,” she argued, to make the suffering of these laborers a backdrop for a happy story. But there was a silver lining to the film, and Harris Perry concluded on a good note: actress Viola Davis’s buzz was well-earned. “What kills me,” she concluded, “is that in 2011 Viola Davis is reduced to playing a maid.”

I haven’t read "The Help" and I’m sure it’s a super, fun book. Most of my annoyance at all this is if a black woman had written a book about working as a maid during the Civil Rights Movement it would have been relegated to the "African American Lit" section, wouldn’t get a movie and wouldn’t be marketed to a non-black audience. Instead, because a white woman wrote it, it’s some modern marvel, like a dog that can bark "I love you" or a super smart Chimpanzee you decide to raise as a pet until it leads a chimp rebellion. Only you normally would have left out the "chimp rebellion" part because there was no way to paint yourself as the hero anymore.

Hollywood is responsible for many lovely works of "Aw, look at those poor Negroes, I just want to help them!" White Liberal Guilt Theater. All-stars and award-winners they often are, most notably including "The Blind Side," "Mississippi Burning," "Driving Miss Daisy," "The Green Mile" and, now, the film version of the popular Kathryn Stockett novel "The Help."

The film is actually getting rave reviews (ahem, just as "The Blind Side," "Mississippi Burning," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Green Mile" all did before). A friend of mine tried to compare it to the interest and hype surrounding Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, but I was all, "Noooo." Since:

#1) That book was written by Alice Walker, a black woman, about the interior lives of black women.

#2) No white people come to save Celie and show her that deep down she is beautiful just like in that Christina Aguilera song. Shug Avery did that shit, then Celie saved her damn self.

The only modern heir-apparents to "The Color Purple" are "Precious" and Tyler Perry’s "For Colored Girls," since all three can easily be manipulated into being some kind of black poverty porn for lookie-loos or empowering, true-to-life visions of black literary art. Either way, the black people have agency in those stories, even as they explore the more bleak side of things.

Before the film came out I had a lengthy chat online with Jamilah Lemieux, aka "Sista Toldja," and, later, my friend Vernon Mitchell Jr., (aka "The Negro Intellectual") about "The Help." In Lemieux’s case, she was working on her response to the making of this film. I went on a rant about how, if you want to make "The Help" a movie, that’s fine, but what does Hollywood have against stories about black people where black people still have agency and they’re equals with white people, or, as in many cases during the lengthy fight for equality, white people were actually following a black person.

I wondered where my film on John Brown was or a film on Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass or the founding of the NAACP or Madame CJ Walker or Dr. Charles Drew or Langston Hughes or George Washington Carver or the Freedom Riders or the Greensboro sit-ins. Even though George Lucas has been severely deficient in the storytelling part of his career as a director, I couldn’t help but be excited when I saw the trailer for the World War II era film, Red Tails, based on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Maybe it will do better than Spike Lee’s "Miracle At St. Anna," which I had initially hoped was a film adaptation of "Lasting Valor," the incredible story of black WWII infantryman Vernon J. Baker. It wasn’t. It’s based on a work of fiction by the same name by James McBride. (Baker’s story is pretty incredible and film-worthy in its own right. He lead his unit after his white officer abandoned his segregated unit — half of them already dead — in the middle of a fire-fight. Stuck three miles inside enemy lines on a hillside in facist Italy, Baker and his fellow infantrymen fought on. He wasn’t acknowledged for his efforts until 1997 when then President Bill Clinton award him with the Medal of Freedom, and even then, Baker was kind of bummed, thinking about all the men who needlessly died and went unrecognized for decades.)

But the reason why stories like these are far and in-between is there is no invention like the main character of "The Help," a plucky, personable white person who saves the day. These stories are complex and multi-layered where you have to confront the ugliness of the human condition.

These aren’t stories like "Dances With Wolves" or "Avatar" where the white guy gets to "go natural," start out just some white dude and then become leader of a "noble, oppressed people." John Brown is someone who believed in ending slavery so much he killed people over it and then was killed himself. A guy, so serious that even Frederick Douglass had to tell his good friend he couldn’t go off that cliff with him and incite a rebellion in raiding Harper’s Ferry.

I know why these films are popular because you get the hint of danger (OMG! The segregated 1960s South! Separate drinking fountains! Horrifying!) but you never have to confront your own prejudices or get dirty. You never have to question yourself or ask the hard questions of others. You also get a sanitized, accessible version of black pain. You don’t have to face all that murder and rage and rape and poverty and oppression that totally bums people out. They’re called "Feel Good" films for a reason.

I’ll probably get around to watching "The Help." Eventually. Like many African Americans with Southern roots quite a few of the older women in my family were maids. And I grew up hearing many uncomfortable stories from my mother about the often complicated and uneasy relationships between her family and the wealthier white families in town. How even if they were "kind" to them, there was still at times a taint of "ownership" which made her uncomfortable. Efforts at independence were still discouraged. Views were still very paternalistic. I’d like to see a film that explores that, how complicated race relations in the South can get, where you’re raising someone else’s kids and spend more time in their house than you spend in your own. Where you can love the black woman who raised you, but you’ll fight to keep other blacks separate from you. To see the power dynamics of that relationship play out in a film or literary work that explores both the common and uncommon ways these situations unfolded would do more service than turning pain into a pop confection of a past that never was.

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Conference i am speaking at

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 9, 2011


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Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 8, 2011



A few years ago, when I knew I was heading toward becoming a parent, I began to think about what sort of parent I wanted to be. And I began to weigh whether or not I should spank. I grew up in the ’70s and was spanked — quite a bit. I think the vast majority of black children of my generation were spanked, and nearly all the black kids in my parents’ generation were. Spanking seemed like a black cultural imperative: black people tell one another, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

But nowadays spanking has many opponents. I wondered if spanking was being sullied by the be-your-child’s-friend crowd even though it remained a valuable tool for raising kids. Was spanking a major shaper of black kids, a significant reason they turned out the way they did? My Lebanese girlfriend, who I knew would be my wife, would not bring blackness into the home. That was my job. Would I be somehow shortchanging some essential aspect of the black parent-child experience by not spanking? I think my parents did right by spanking me, but did I have to do it, too?

One summer Saturday night, a friend took me to a house party on Martha’s Vineyard. I spent an hour talking to the hostess, a short brunette with blue eyes. Her three young kids were respectful and well mannered. She was a big proponent of spanking. I’d never met a white woman so enthusiastically pro-spanking. She said there was no way to keep kids in line without the threat of spanking. That made sense. My parents sure believed that.

At the same party, I also met a black man with three great, well-behaved little kids who told me he never spanked because the home should not be a place of violence. He, too, made a lot of sense. I had never met a black man who was so articulately and proudly anti-spanking. He gave me the freedom to visualize a different path as a black parent. This, while the white woman had almost convinced me that spanking was essential, just as having an army is necessary to be a strong nation, even if it’s rarely deployed. Those two conversations only complicated my internal debate, and for some reason I felt compelled to say so.

When it was time to leave, I found the hostess in the middle of her crowded living room. Soul music from the ’70s boomed as people danced around us. I hugged her and said: “What an interesting night. I met a black man who doesn’t believe in spanking and a white woman who does.”

She furrowed her brow and shot back, “Who’s white?”

I blurted out, “You’re not white?”

“What in the world made you think I was white?”

During our hourlong conversation, I felt she was by far the downest white woman I’d ever met. She set off my blackness radar in a way no white person ever had. I thought she understood blackness better than any white person I’d ever encountered. But she looked so convincingly Caucasian. Surely I was not the first person in her 40-plus years on Earth to come to that conclusion. So I was shocked that she was shocked and indignant that she was indignant.

I said, “I can’t believe this has never happened to you before.”

She said, “I can’t believe you thought I was white.”

Me: “I can’t believe this has never happened to you before!”

Her: “I can’t believe you thought I was white!”

By now the whole room was watching us bark at each other. The music had screeched off. No one was dancing.

Her blond, blue-eyed sister ran up in a frenzy. “Did ya think I was white too?”

I met her earlier. She hadn’t set off my blackdar at all. I said, “Yeah!”

At that point, given the large audience, and our deep investment in our positions, and our shared pigheadedness, no one was willing to give an inch. So we stood there in an angry stalemate until my friend squeezed through the crowd and dragged me off.

Two postscripts: 1) I now have two kids. I do not spank them. I think the “home should not be a place of violence” argument won me over. Maybe the quick rage of the pro-spanking hostess pushed me over the edge.

2) I hear the host has told this story to her black friends — about a guy who thought she was white and how shocking that was to her. Those black people walked away and said, “I didn’t know she was black.”

Touré’s new book, “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” will be published in September.

E-mail submissions for Lives to lives. Because of the volume of e-mail, the magazine cannot respond to every submission.

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Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 8, 2011

What Happened to Obama?


Drew Westen is a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”


IT was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story — and there has been none since.

In similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right. Beginning in his first inaugural address, and in the fireside chats that followed, he explained how the crash had happened, and he minced no words about those who had caused it. He promised to do something no president had done before: to use the resources of the United States to put Americans directly to work, building the infrastructure we still rely on today. He swore to keep the people who had caused the crisis out of the halls of power, and he made good on that promise. In a at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not half-acted.

To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.

What makes the “deficit debate” we just experienced seem so surreal is how divorced the conversation in Washington has been from conversations around the kitchen table everywhere else in America. Although I am a scientist by training, over the last several years, as a messaging consultant to nonprofit groups and Democratic leaders, I have studied the way voters think and feel, talking to them in plain language. At this point, I have interacted in person or virtually with more than 50,000 Americans on a range of issues, from taxes and deficits to abortion and immigration.

The average voter is far more worried about jobs than about the deficit, which few were talking about while Bush and the Republican Congress were running it up. The conventional wisdom is that Americans hate government, and if you ask the question in the abstract, people will certainly give you an earful about what government does wrong. But if you give them the choice between cutting the deficit and putting Americans back to work, it isn’t even close. But it’s not just jobs. Americans don’t share the priorities of either party on taxes, budgets or any of the things Congress and the president have just agreed to slash — or failed to slash, like subsidies to oil companies. When it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are united across the political spectrum, supporting a message that says, “In times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it.”

When pitted against a tough budget-cutting message straight from the mouth of its strongest advocates, swing voters vastly preferred a message that began, “The best way to reduce the deficit is to put Americans back to work.” This statement is far more consistent with what many economists are saying publicly — and what investors apparently believe, as evident in the nosedive the stock market took after the president and Congress “saved” the economy.

So where does that leave us?

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production — two methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on immigration reform after deporting a million immigrants in two years, breaking up families at a pace George W. Bush could never rival in all his years as president.

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars — in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars. When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

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Eloquence And Abolition

Posted by jcmaziquemd on August 8, 2011

Eloquence And Abolition

The escaped slave told a white theologian that if slavery was to exist to the end of the world, whites should take their turn.


In 1827, a 19-year-old slave named James Pembroke escaped from his owner’s Maryland farm but in a panic mistakenly fled deeper south instead of toward Pennsylvania and freedom. He was cornered and accused of being a runaway slave even before notice of his escape and the reward for his return could circulate. Protesting to his captors that he was a free man, Pembroke played for time as the group dwindled—and then escaped again.

But he was soon caught. This time Pembroke admitted that he was a slave but said that he had been abandoned in a locality that smallpox had ravaged. The ruse worked: Captors became even scarcer; within a few hours, a single young minder was assigned to him, and the runaway soon slipped off—eventually making it to a Quaker community in Pennsylvania, where he began work as a free man. And he would exercise his liberty by taking a new name: James W.C. Pennington.

Christopher Webber recounts the series of escapes early in "American to the Backbone," a luminous portrait of Pennington that amply makes good on the author’s observation that biographies "provide a means of expanding our lives by entering into the lives of others."

Pennington was a blacksmith and carpenter by training, but in the North he did whatever was useful to a series of patrons. In his spare time and with their help, he began the intensive studies that were to take him from illiteracy to an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1849. Along the way, in the late 1830s, he studied at the Yale Divinity School, where he was permitted only the status of silent auditor. He later worked as a schoolteacher and parish minister but also became a respected classical and biblical scholar and a stunningly productive and protean abolitionist orator and author. "Those who argued that black people could never equal white people in accomplishment," writes Mr. Webber, "were silenced simply by James Pennington’s witness."

In the mid-19th century, a popular idea proposed sending blacks "back" to Africa, but Pennington insisted that the U.S. was their home—if he himself was "American to the backbone," so must they be. Opening Mr. Webber’s book to almost any page is to gain a window on U.S. history during a tumultuous era. Pennington didn’t just maintain his own stop on the Underground Railroad; he sheltered the newly escaped Frederick Douglass, solemnized the young man’s marriage and shared invaluable Northern contacts with him. Pennington knew everyone in the abolitionist movement, including the early British campaigner Thomas Clarkson, Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown. He won deep respect—and some nasty sniping—through his writing and oratory.



American to the Backbone

By Christopher L. Webber
Pegasus, 493 pages, $29.95

How is it that such a vital figure has faded from prominence? Part of the explanation: That’s as Pennington would have wanted it. He regarded his work as sacrifice, not to be commercialized or institutionalized for his benefit. For instance, when he wrote a popular autobiography—in "The Fugitive Blacksmith" Pennington revealed the secret of his runaway-slave past—he did so to raise money for paying off his church’s debt. Only slightly acquainted with Christianity before his escape, he associated his freedom strongly with the Quakers and Presbyterians who took him in.

As noted by Mr. Webber, who is an ordained minister, Pennington also embraced a concept of "Gods’ moral government" while studying at Yale. Slavery was evil not because it had injured, thwarted and humiliated him and his family; it was evil as a cause of sin. It allowed masters to break Commandments without hindrance, especially the one against adultery; it kept human beings, born for salvation, in ignorance and moral darkness; it made a mockery of all the biblical commands to do justice.

Pennington was not, however, a hell-fire preacher or a tedious moralist but a constant source of empathy, practicality and good humor. He once replied to a white theologian that if slavery was to exist to the end of the world, whites should perhaps take their turn. His American backbone held up through all the hardships, frustrations and provocations that even the relatively enlightened North offered him.

Among these was the frequent exclusion of blacks from public conveyances. Pennington lost a lawsuit after he was manhandled while resisting ouster from a New York tram. But he made significant progress against the relegation of blacks, including visiting clergy, to a sort of isolation pen in nominally liberal churches. On a larger political scale, he helped marginalize the white Northern "philanthropists" who in effect pandered to Southern slaveholders through the colonization movement, trying to arrange for the export of all free African-Americans—and former slaves, if the "peculiar institution" should end—to Liberia.

Over time, the constitutional compromise leaving decisions over slavery with the states, and counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for Electoral College purposes, skewed the federal government’s concerns sharply toward slaveholders. In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act forced active cooperation with slave hunters and placed an official gloss on the kidnapping of blacks, slave and free. Pennington and his family were subject to prolonged terror in a country where, for blacks, there was little effective difference between policemen and free-lance thugs.

For decades, Pennington was committed to nonviolence, but slavery, as it turned out, could only be dislodged by war. With lectures and writings, he helped to recruit blacks for Lincoln’s army and after the war spent time in the South ministering to freed slaves. He died in Florida in 1870, at age 61. Mr. Webber’s vivid account resurrects this astonishing figure, conveying all that he endured and achieved during America’s longest, most harrowing trial.

Ms. Ruden is the author of "Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time."

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, In

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