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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

MICHAEL RICHARDS AND OUR NATIONAL REEXAMINATION OF RACISM

"I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled."

-Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963

Martin Luther King, Jr. was truly a visionary. His ideology and philosophy ring as true today as they did 43 years ago when he made his famous "I have a dream" speech in Washington, D.C. And his dream is just as relevant and necessary today as it was then, as evidenced by recent events sparked by none other than a sitcom star.

Michael Richard's racially-charged outburst directed at hecklers who interrupted his comedy routine at the Laugh Factory has been well publicized, triggering a massive public backlash against the former Seinfeld actor, reopening racist wounds that much of the politically correct-minded public had confined to the darkest recesses of their memories, and prompting a much-needed examination of the one word that has caused so much turmoil -- "nigger."

A regrettable consequence of the media storm that followed Richards' tirade was that the character that made him infamous, Kramer, is now forever linked with his unfortunate two-minute rant. Because Richards is known for little else, the media irresponsibly ran headlines declaring "Kramer a racist." But not only does that wrongly brand a fictional character as something Seinfeld's writers obviously never meant him to be, but it avoids thrusting true responsibility on Richards -- the man, the comedian, the actor who made the comments. His angry words weren't part of an act; they were a terrible outburst from a real individual. The media should have reported it as such instead of initially confusing the man with a character he played. As a big fan of Seinfeld, I'm sad to see that the media's careless reporting may harm a show that was brilliantly written, funny and poignant as well as packed with great characters, made possible by great actors.

But on to the real issue at hand: Michael Richards should be ashamed. He should be embarrased. He should be reeling with a guilty conscience and make every effort to apologize and make amends. He has and will continue to undoubtedly suffer from the almost universal outrage following his epithet-laden response to a couple of apparently rowdy audience members who happened to be black, in which he yelled (and as a fair warning, this particular blog entry contains much cruder language than I generally use in writing):

"Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f***ing fork up your ass," an obvious reference to lynchings.

Richards continued, "You can talk, you can talk, you're brave now motherf**ker. Throw his ass out. He's a nigger! He's a nigger! He's a nigger! A nigger, look, there's a nigger!"

It was at that point that Richards completely shocked and offended his audience and, from what he has said since the incident, himself. In subsequent apologies, he has seemed confused and dismayed by what occurred -- such a blunt verbal assault is at the very least a guaranteed way to stifle a career. Hopefully upon reflection, Richards is horrified by the very power and venom of the words themselves.

I've read a lot about the incident and heard pundit after pundit analyze Richards' reaction to the heckling and subsequent apologies on The Late Show with David Letterman and Jesse Jackson's radio program. I've looked at op-eds and editorials that condemn or defend "Kramer," as the media still insists on referring to him, and I've thought quite a bit about the whole situation myself ... both before and after his initial apology.

I'm enraged with news analysts who prattle on about his apology not being "sincere enough." Granted, Richards' appearance on Letterman with fellow actor Jerry Seinfeld was stilted and awkward, even garnering laughs from a crowd confused by the whole situation. And given the impact of such a powerful diatribe, we do expect a lot to make up for it. However, no one truly knows what's in Richards' heart and in his mind; no one is qualified to judge whether or not an apology is sincere or, based on this incident, Richards is a racist.

I do take his apology, however awkward and inappropriate it may have seemed, as genuine; and no, I don't believe he is a racist in spite of his harsh overuse of the word "nigger." A core definition of racism is
"a person with a prejudiced belief that one race is superior to others." Although he howled comments about lynching and disrespecting the "white man," I honestly don't believe he truly thinks that way. Rather, I think he was angry ... angry enough to play a trump card in a back-and-forth that got carried away. Allusions to lynching, racial superiority and the repeated use of "nigger" were fired off in an attempt to shut up his heckler and win the wrestling match for control of the stage.

Without defending his actions, I can say that stand-up comedy has got to be a difficult job. Other performers are subject to public scruity, but none are as isolated and vulnerable as the comedian, alone on stage. I can understand his anger -- on the absolute most basic level, he was attempting to do his job and was not allowed to do it by someone who disagreed with his approach. How many of us would respond poorly if someone consistently berated us as we worked? I know I would. If someone "heckled" me as I worked, I'd get upset and respond angrily, quite possibly to the point of using racial slurs -- not as an affirmation of belief, but as an ill-considered defense mechanism.

And I believe that's what Richards did. He responded with the most powerful verbal defense he could come up with in order to silence his critics. And as much as I disagree with his repeated shouts of "nigger," I equally disagree with (presumably) the heckler's angry response of "cracker-ass motherf**ker." The phrase "two wrongs don't make a right" was never more relevant ... but the heckler responded out of anger just as Richards did, firing off just as much of a racial slur in response.

Michael Richards was angry. He felt he was backed into a corner, and he fired back with the oral equivalent of weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately for him, stand-up comedians are generally expected to be able to deal with a certain amount of abuse from the audience. He handled it poorly by throwing around racist remarks in an unrestrained way, and now he is suffering the consequences.

Although he's probably damaged his reputation beyond repair and offended the majority of our sensibilities, Michael Richards may have done us all a favor by dragging the issue of racism back into the spotlight. Many Americans choose to ignore what amounts to a seedy underbelly of racial consiousness in this country. Racism and xenophobic attitudes are much more prevalent than popular culture likes to recognize, and it's not a black-and-white issue ... racist attitudes from all races and against all races is surprisingly popular. Political correctness usually keeps it buried just under the surface, but it also prevents us from taking an honest look at a prominant problem -- meltdowns like Richards' thrust the issue to the forefront once again.

From a terrible explosion of hate-laden words may come positive results. And much of the work that can be accomplished as a result of this incident centers around the word "nigger."

Since the Civil Rights era and a rise in the number of black entertainers, one ubiquitously puzzling issue is "nigger." Randall Kennedy's aptly titled book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, looks at the relatively harmless beginnings of the word, how it grew into such a detestable racial insult and why African-American pop culture embraced it in a post-Civil Rights world.

Paul Mooney, a flamboyant black comedian who regularly sprinkled "nigger" throughout his act, has said (in agreement with Kennedy's assertions) that black entertainers took the word and made regular use of it in order to diffuse its meaning. Black people could regularly refer to each other as "nigger" or the more accepted "nigga" and feel empowered by using it in a friendly way, taking the harmful meaning away and transforming it into a term of familiarity.

But the nation remained confused. "Nigger" still had a racist, abhorrant meaning, and white people (or any other race, for that matter) could not use it in any way that would be seen as socially acceptable. Black entertainment became increasingly popular across all demographic groups, so "nigger" remained alive and well in the national consiousness. But how could a race of people own a word? Why did keeping its existence alive and so prominent in public empower black individuals?

The idea of one race being able to acceptably (and liberally) use a word while keeping others from doing the same really makes no sense ... insert any other racial slur and see how ridiculous it sounds. White people don't run around calling each other "cracker" or "honky," and I don't know that I've ever seen any Latinos throwing around the word "spic" in casual conversation. It doesn't make any sense for other races, and despite an attempt to diffuse meaning, it doesn't make any sense for black people to do the same.

Prominent black leaders agree, and even some who made "nigger" a part of their vocabulary -- like Paul Mooney -- have changed their ways in light of the Michael Richards incident. Mooney now admits that black entertainers' consistent use of the word over the last 30+ years has seared it into the minds of Americans, perpetuating a word that, if not for their attempts to make it a regular and inoffensive term, would be remembered only negatively. Now "nigger" is everywhere -- music, movies, stages and in the vocabularies of youth across the country. Jesse Jackson, Maxine Waters, Mooney and others are now advocating eliminating the word from all forms of entertainment.

While I disagree with Jesse Jackson's assertion that "nigger" is "unprotected by the First Amendment," I do think that some words should fade into history. Our free speech allows us to say nearly anything, but a consistently applied societal standard spurred by a continuing intellectual evolution can make us all opposed to the use of derogatory terms like "nigger." And "cracker," "kike," and others.

Do you think that Dr. King stood on the National Mall 43 years ago and fought for equality so that one race could own a word and have yet another manufactured superiority above another race? Of course not. That's a message Bill Cosby has preached for years.

An all-out effort by our nation's leadership (and yes, that means entertainers, who are so public and so influential) to eliminate the confusion and brand all slurs as negative will only make us a better, more well-connected society. We need to work to eliminate the most negative and obvious slurs as well as take back words that have had their meanings twisted; for example, "Jew" should no longer be a common insult as it is with much of today's youth.

We're all racist to a degree; it's a genetic reality that can only be overcome by stimulated educational growth and expansion of one national philosophy of brotherhood and equality. That starts by addressing the most basic of interracial conflicts. It may well start with taking a long, hard look at "nigger."

While Mooney has taken the right step in swearing off using the n-word, he and I still differ in how we wish to be defined. In an MSNBC interview this evening, Mooney said that he didn't want to be defined by the n-word, but he wanted to be seen as a proud and successful black man. While I applaud his change in opinion, I hope that one day he can be defined as a proud and successful man. I hope that each individual can be judged on his own merits, his attitude, his personality and his generosity toward his fellow man. Race should play no role in an assessment of an individual. I think Dr. King would agree:

"I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled."

We've got a long road to travel to eliminate racism in this country. It may well not happen in my lifetime. But perhaps we all will have Michael Richards to thank some day for waking us up and giving us an extra push in the right direction.

Monday, November 06, 2006

VOTE

Please don't forget to vote tomorrow, November 7. It's embarrassing that there are more than 100 countries in the world that surpass us in voter turnout. When all was said and done, only around 65% of adults eligible to vote (that's eligible to vote, not just all those over 18) actually did so in 2004. That's actually a pretty high turnout, considering most midterm elections draw far less interest. Many of our recent presidential elections have drawn closer to 50% turnout. It's hard for me to find people my age who are actually willing to put forth the effort and take the time to vote, especially in midterms.

Tomorrow may be different.

I voted nearly three weeks ago, on October 18 -- the first day that early voting opened in Ellsworth County. As it turns out, I should have done a little more preparation before hand, but most of the choices were very clear:

Governor: Kathleen Sebelius -- A powerful, popular and effective two-term Democratic governor is almost unheard of in Kansas, but Sebelius will easily win her race against Republican Jim Barnett tomorrow. And she deserves to. There are certainly issues with which I disagree with the Governor on, but overall, she's done a slick job at cutting government waste, keeping the Kansas economy going strong and, yes, keeping our taxes at exactly the same level they were when Bill Graves left office in 2003.

Despite popular rhetoric, the Kansas Democrats have not "raised taxes," nor have they even threatened to, save for when the Kansas Supreme Court forced the do-nothing Kansas legislature back into session last year to adequately fund education. If your taxes have gone up, they're either your local sales or property taxes, and you have an over-zealous Republican legislature to thank for that. Johnson County rakes in the revenue from sales and property taxes and can more than adequately fund all of their services, but when state income taxes were cut late in the Graves administration, it ended up being the rural counties that suffered because their sales/property tax revenue can't fund all of their services.

More than anything, Sebelius is to be admired for her genuine effort to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans rather than opposing them simply because their of different political stripes. She's been instrumental in a resurgence of moderate Republicanism in Kansas, and a record number of disaffected Republicans have left the GOP for the Democrats thanks to her. After all, it's hard to stick with a party that calls you a "traitor" or a "turncoat" simply for being willing to compromise on issues ... that's why I'm happily an unaffiliated voter. No party, no platform, and no problem holding everyone's feet to the fire.

Forget Hillary -- this is where the Democrats should look for a female presidential nominee in 2008.

US Representative: Jerry Moran -- Despite being in a real anti-incumbent, anti-GOP mood, I absolutely couldn't vote against our First District US Rep. Jerry Moran. Why? Jerry isn't a blind supporter of the Republican agenda; he's disagreed with the leadership on numerous issues when the GOP's plans don't line up with the needs of ordinary rural Kansans. Unlike other legislators around the state (and nation), Jerry makes an enormous effort to meet with constituents.

As far as I know, he's been home every weekend since he was first sent to Washington in 1997. That's not saying much this year, since Congress will spend less than 100 days total in DC, but Jerry is out there meeting with people in all 69 of the Kansas counties he represents. He's a good, down-to-earth, honest politician who would still remember my name if I ran into him, and I haven't seen him for years. Name recognition may not be an indicator of how good of a legislator you are, but it means a lot to the lowly voter.

Attorney General: Paul Morrison -- Phill Kline's advertisement that digs up a 15-year-old dismissed sexual harassment against Paul Morrison is enough for me to vote against him (Kline). I know it's not necessarily en vogue anymore, but what ever happened to elected officials trying to get reelected based on what they had done in office?

Kline's got nothing save for embarrassing failures and questionable searches into private records. So what's he do? Throws mud, of course! Morrison is exactly right about Kline -- he's playing gutter politics and is nothing but a bottom-feeder. I fully expect a new attorney general by January.

State Board of Education: Jack Wempe -- Jack is the moderate answer to the conservatives that have repeatedly made education in Kansas the butt of national jokes. Kansans are proving this year that we're tired of ultra-conservatives forcing their personal religious believes into the public educational process under the guise of "science."

Six-day creationism no more belongs in a public school classroom than molecular biology belongs at the pulpit. If concerned parents are really so concerned that their children receive a good religious education, perhaps they should take it upon themselves to teach it. If we allowed one religious teaching into science classrooms, we'd have to allow them all, melding philosophy, history and anthropology all into a class where they don't belong.

Kansans are fed up with the ridiculous pseudo-intellectual posturing of the likes of Connie Morris and Kathy Martin -- the conservatives will lose the majority on the Board of Education tomorrow, and the moderates will restore sound science to our classrooms.

That's it for our big elections. In other races, I voted Lynn Jenkins for State Treasurer, Ron Thornburgh for Secretary of State, Sandy Praeger for Insurance Commissioner and Josh Svaty for State Representative.

My only regret on the ballot was voting for Al Oller for county commission. I picked him for a stupid, stupid reason -- one that I would berate other people for. You see, Al Oller sent me a postcard. So I voted for him over Lavel Heitschmidt. The day after I voted, the Ellsworth County Independent-Reporter carried an interview with Oller.

For a Democrat, he took a staunchly conservative line on issues like state income taxes and immigration -- things that a county commissioner would never, ever encounter in his job. He quoted some off-the-wall numbers about taxes and overall showed that he was unprepared for the job -- after all, he's only going to be on the county commission if he wins, not in the White House.

That was my one mistake. Otherwise, I'm completely comfortable in my choices and think I picked winners all around.

I'll be watching the national elections closely. Six years ago when I first registered to vote, I never would have believed that I'd be rooting against the GOP. But the Republicans deserve to lose. They've been wrong or completely inactive on issue after issue after issue. I don't trust that the Democrats will do much better, but at the very least, they deserve a shot -- it took the Democrats over 40 years to become stupid, corrupt and inept, and they were booted out of power in 1994. It only took the Republicans 12 years to become the same type of party, and the bitterness and dirty politics that have been featured in this campaign are largely products of a nasty GOP fighting to keep control.

Losing an election? Don't worry -- the GOP teaches us that we can incite racial hatred (Ford v. Corker), try to label our opponent a deviant because of incredibly selective passages taken from fiction novels (Webb v. Allen) or make broad medical generalizations about a rival's health because you don't like his opinion (Michael J. Fox v. Rush Limbaugh).

Perhaps a few years out of power will give the GOP the perspective it needs to become an active, effective and progressive party once again. For now, they deserve nothing but a complete loss.

I won't make predictions -- the media totally flubbed their early predicitions in 2004, and this time around, I'm not calling it till I've seen actual numbers. However, you can expect that I made the right picks on my ballot (with the exception of Oller) ... don't forget to vote. Please.

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