Monday, January 21, 2008

Down That Dark Alleyway—Part One

Whether we want to or not, we're going there.

As the campaign season heats up and attrition has winnowed the Democratic field of participants down to the seemingly inevitable two and the potentially kingmaking one, we are headed—like it or not—for an ugly place indeed. Down that dark alleyway ending at a brick wall and filled with the stinking detritus from three overturned dumpsters in said alley.

Dumpsters labeled “Race”, “Sex” and “Class”.

Don't breathe in too'll retch from the recent stink.

There is no outlet, or side exit in the alleyway. The only way out is back the way we came in. But it seems people don't want to leave the alley unless they can manage to leave their opponents sprawled unconscious in it—covered in the muck from those dumpsters a ways in.

Hell...we're not even going there. We're in it now. Post-Iowa and New Hampshire and Nevada—knee deep in the trash and stinking to beat the Goddamned band. How the hall did this happen? How do we get out? Well again, we'll have to analyze just how we got here, who led the way, and who shoved along and then try to pick our way back accordingly.

It's just after the Iowa Caucus and there isn't a box of Depends™ to be had within a 20 mile radius of the Beltway or a Clinton campaign office. Barack Obama's stunning victory in the 94% White state's caucus (pun not intended) has set sphincters a' quivering and caused odd pattern baldness where pundits and supporters alike have scratched their heads bald and bloody. His stirring victory speech, hitting all the magical kum-ba-ya notes of togetherness, change and near-religious fervor in the attendees and TV viewers further shifts the landscape, placing a brand-spankin' new exit off The Hillary Clinton Highway To Anointment. Welcome to “ObamaLand”—a shiny new amusement park that has all the kiddies pounding the seat-back and screaming “We wanna get off heeeeere!

The talk shifts from the “inevitabilty of Hillary” to the possible end of her quest, at the hands of a personality who can do something she cannot—move with the word. And at this juncture, the word is all the candidayes have to establish themselves. So what happens? Disarray. Talk of firing key advisors and campaign bigwigs to stanch the bleeding and get on a new, more Hillary-friendly tack. Somehow, the Obama express train of “Hope and Change” had to be derailed. That's a playing field that does not work to Mrs. Clinton's strengths. I described her problems here:

Hillary's handicap (and no fault of her own) is that we've seen her for what is to many, too long. “Stand By Your Man”, and “Baking Cookies” and the black headbands, and a million interviews and their clipped-out soundbites over the last fifteen years (!) have glazed the eyes of enough people it seems where they've grown tired of her. What price extended limelight? In spite of the difference and change seeing a woman as President should engender, because the woman is the almost over-known Mrs. Clinton, she almost transcends difference and change entirely. That's a horrible irony.

So what to do? How do you get everybody away from that narrative and onto something sticky and gooey and messy that'll gum up the works just enough to divert from the glittering “Hope and Change” message taking hold?

You look to the pundits narrative from that fateful night and there it is. The youth and ideallism—not to mention the wife and two kids alá JFK . The soulful, rallying spirit and challenge of the status quo of an RFK. The oratorical ability to captivate and move to action of an MLK. The answer was clear. They had to throw rocks, mud and anything else available to scar the facade of the newly sprung Camelot/Eyes On The Prize hybrid edifice.

Anything to move from the newly viral “Hope and Change” message.

Thus the clunky, un-artful LBJ vs. MLK remark. And the Clinton campaign staffer griping about Obama as being the country's collective “hip, Black friend”. Add in their Black surrogates attacks—the idiotic Bob Johnson's “Obama as 'round-the-way corner-boy” smear and Charlie Rangel's “stupid” crack and a cunning, sublime attack becomes crystal clear to anyone with eyes. Obama on that Iowa night was attempting to transcend race—and the only thing that would counter that was to move the conversation back to race—the great, fallen 400-year old redwood across the road of American discourse.

Now, does that make the Clinton camp (Bill included) racist?

I honestly don't think so. It's such an amazingly freighted word and is so easy to abuse when more precise language should be used. What I think the Clinton camp is is not above using America's longstanding issues with race in politics as a distraction to put another candidate off his game and distract would-be voters from Mrs. Clinton's exposed flaws when matched against a Barack Obama. These people are first and foremost, political operators as skilled and gutter-capable in campaign theory as anyone—including Karl Rove. (The gamesmanship in Nevada with the Cuilnary Workers Union is marked “Evidence Sample One”) It was a move to “muddy the waters” (pardon the pun) if you will, trotting out established Black politicos and luminaries to do the facade-sullying, and the mangling of the King/LBJ power dynamic was a distaff toss off a match onto a fireworks barge. Casual enough in appearance, but destructive nonetheless.

And with that strategy, we were off Main Street and down that dark alleyway in a flash.

Note how the media, always at the ready to pimp a race story, bit at the hook and took it all the way down the gullet, tearing their innards on the way. And note also how the Obama camp, eventually, and in spite of trying again to “transcend” the dynamic, found itself forced into responding (and in some respects over-responding) lest it come off “soft”. Once those two things happened, it was on, and the prevailing “Hope and Change” narrative shifted to the thorny, poisonous one of race.

Now, if I may put on my Chris Matthews “stupid motherfucker who obsesses on pure politics like a dysfunctional 17-year-old does on Dungeons and Dragons” hat, let me say this:

It was a canny fucking move on the strategy tip. Stripping away propriety, decency and class, as a strictly strategic move, it was the shizznit. But...the Chris Matthews “stupid motherfucker who obsesses on pure politics like a dysfunctional 17-year-old does on Dungeons and Dragons” hat has an inner band of sandpaper, is tight and leeches mercury into the head of the wearer, so I can't wear it for long. And in taking it off, thoughts of propriety, decency and class return...leaving me and I think anyone else with a shred of those things to just shake our heads and go “Damn.”

It initiated a pissing match that neither side could win—one could only lose less. Which in the end meant both sides would lose something, and that beats the living hell out of just one side (Clinton's) losing.

So let's look at what was said where Hillary clunkily laid out how the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, elevating LBJ to an almost God-like status in her prismatic view:

First, a little context. At Saturday night’s debate, Clinton warned of the dangers associated with “false hope” Yesterday, Obama told a New Hampshire audience that he rejects that kind of thinking, and alluded to the 1960s as an example: “Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking out over the magnificent crowd, the reflecting pool, the Washington Monument, ‘Sorry guys, false hopes, the dream will die, it can’t be done, false hope.’ We don’t need leaders who tell us what we can’t do, we need leaders to tell us what we can do and inspire us.”

Asked to respond to Obama’s comments, Clinton told Fox News:

“I would point to the fact that that Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became a real in peoples lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished.”

Now, as I sit here on this, the official celebration of Dr. King's birthday, I realize that though I was but a child at the time it all went down, I'm hip enough to the history (which directly affected folks like me) that Mrs. Clinton saw playing out in real time to have a slightly more nuanced understanding of what was really going on. The Kennedy comparison was an unfair one to make as he was a little pre-occupied in what would have been the fourth year of his term, what with his being um...well, dead from an assassin's bullet months before. There's no telling what he would have done as the Civil Rights landscape was shifting under the government's feet—Birmingham's Bull Connor had just done the infamous water cannoning/dog siccing and those images being beamed across the world changed everything. We saw the beginnings of national civil unrest springing off from the intransigence in granting full civil rights to Black folks, so the notoriously pragmatic LBJ didn't necessarily take John Brown pills and wake up with bursting rays of Negro love.

She apparently forgot that Johnson was a main saboteur of the earlier 1957 Civil Rights Act that was anathema to his fellow segregationist Dixiecrats at the time. He back-room gutted it of much of its power to appease southern segregationist Dems wanting no part of radical or for that matter, incremental change.

And she was also clearly unaware of his old-school, back-room arm-twisting during the '64 convention to prevent the MFDP, (the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party) from knocking any of his Dixiecrat buddies out of the box. The Mississippi rank and file Dem party callously excluded Blacks from delegate membership (Senators Stennis and Eastland repped the status quo and backed that segregation) and found itself at odds with the national party because of this racist stance. When it became apparent that some members of the integrated (mix of Blacks and rural White poor) MFDP might unseat some rank and file Dixiecrats at the Dem convention in Atlantic City (who were backing Hillary's boy Goldwater and bucking the more progressive national party) the renegade southern bloc threatened to side with them for Goldwater if LBJ didn't allow them to seat their exclusionary Whites Only slate.

LBJ went to his old senate bag of tricks and skullduggery pre-empting a televised speech by the MFDP's Fannie Lou Hamer with one of his own (her famous “Is this America? cry). It failed. Enough Americans had heard her speech and expressed support. Johnson then pressured liberals like Hubert Humphrey to come up with something to “not split the party” The compromise pushed for was granting the MFDP two powerless non-voting hush-up delegate “seats” (while allowing the segregationists their full voting power and televised seating). The Dixiecrats would have to abide never again seating a delegate block that practiced segregation in its selection process. All members but four of the all-white regulars walked out. Johnson desperately tried to twist MLK's arm to have him “get his people in line” when the MFDP tried to take the abandoned seats of the spiteful “regulars” and then finally sicced Hoover and the FBI on the MFDP where they were put under, “ahem!” agency surveillance. The tragedy is that the best chronicle of this history lay in the seminal documentary “Eyes On The Prize”, presently not commercially available. A viewing of that, particularly Episode Five lays this out in great detail. The segment that still makes my blood boil is one focusing on opposition to the MFDP's efforts. Here's one of the people whose interests LBJ was so Goddamned anxious to protect. From Eyes On The Prize I—Episode 5

Judge Tom P. Brady
Mississippi White Citizen's Council:

I don't want the nigra as I have known him in contact with him in my lifetime as a control the making of a law that controls control the government under which I live.

Interviewer: Would you feel better then if then if there were some legal means of keeping all negroes off the rolls?

Brady: i'd feel better and I think this country would be better off if all nigras were removed from it because I is a potential source of racial strife.

LBJ was the guy in charge as all hell was about to break loose in '64, not some magnanimous friend to “the race”. The above Judge Brady and his noxious views and policies did not lose out to presidential “courage”. They were protected. Clinton's ham-fisted verbal relegation of Dr. King to “dreamer” as opposed to the “do-er” status of the—to say the least, extremely complicated LBJ smacked of more than a bit of condescension.

It's like giving a catcher all the credit for a no-hitter the pitcher's thrown. Yeah, he did his part, but the dude on the mound is the catalyst for everything that occurs in the fucking game.

King got the Nobel for his work...not LBJ. King risked his life and took a blade in the gut marching for equality...not LBJ. And King would eventually pay the price with his life...not LBJ. To diminish—and that's exactly what her statement did, like it or not Dr. King's import in getting that legislation as well as civil rights in general moved to the front burner was a red flag in the face of every Black person hip to the history of the time. Her clunky words inflamed and thus, were the perfect prompt for shifting the discussion.

Race and the Clintons (And I pair the two of them as a Rosey Grier/Ray Milland-ish campaign team) is a complicated relationship indeed. They—Bill primarily—are used to being the “blackest” (by policy stance and proximity of influential friends) people in any campaign they're involved in. Their odd pedigree via adoption by Black folks has been a boon to their success and a wellspring of support for them. But a Barack Obama upsets that delicate porcelain mask of Mailer's “White Negro” that Bill Clinton wears with aplomb and Hillary claims via her sporting her “I'm with the pseudo-Black guy” t-shirt of marriage to him. Clinton's absorption/adoption of and into “Negrodom”.is a badge of honor. Mailer himself said of that absorption/adoption the following:

"The hipster has absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro. To be an existentialist, one must be able to feel oneself - one must know one's desires, one's rages, one's anguish, one must be aware of the character of one's frustration and know what would satisfy it".


“The bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.

But in the “community property” of the marriage, Mailer fails to note that the “White Negro” is allowed to keep the “cool” he gets in the union. He or she may cross back into their own world thanks to skin privilege and keep that “cool”. The Black however by dint of his appearance is never allowed to change really and cross over and about. He is who he is.There you have the two of them...the “White Negro” and the actual “Negro”.

Guess which one can't duck catching hell? (And by all means, enjoy a chuckle at the “marijuana wedding ring” reference.)

It was a macabre bit or turnabout at play though—the post-Iowa Obama excitement . It was, a freaky circle completion. The Black 50's R&B artist puts out his record. The hip, White guy appropriates it, covers the tune as per usual and it goes higher up the charts than the Black artist's recording ever could. But then, imagine the Black artist coming back and doing the song again, mixing the best elements of his original, and copping the buffed edges of the cover and setting the word afire with the “new” sound. The kind of thing that'd put a major Georgia kink in ol' Bill Haley's cowlick.

Obama's real crime though, is calling attention to the Clintons “White Negro-ness”. He does this by his very presence on the same stage. He cannot help but supercede their aura of White Negro “cool”. Say what you will about his level of Blackness, but when the rubber meets the road and they are poised opposite him, Obama becomes in the eyes of most people, “the blackest guy in the campaign”. And in so doing, in stealing back that “cool”, he takes away a major plus the Clintons had in their favor.

Don't think that hasn't infuriated them.

It sotfly shoves them back across the aisle with all the White folks they benignly mocked as “uncool” forever. And yes...more then a few of their longtime “uncool” opponents are getting their jollies over the double-edged irony visiting them now.

They're put in the uncomfortable position of having to slay an actual vessel of the cool they've appropriated for decades. So, how to stick the knife in him without their fingerprints on the blade?

Enter the hit men. Enter...the surrogates—Former BET head Bob Johnson and Charlie Rangel.

Cue The O'Jays. You know the tune.

(End of Part One.)