Let's Dig In..Shall We?
High-speed internet access.
A bit of a grasp of “pop” culture.
That's all you need in Campaign Season 2008 to create election-influencing media.
The $1000 dollars will get you a decently powered computer bundled with near-pro level audio and video editing and compositing software. The broadband internet access allows one to gather the raw digital media for the creation and then distribute the finished product to the masses. The handle on pop culture, tropes and visual, emotional shorthand enables a content creator to know just enough— just e-damn-nough to make the produced piece grab the eye and psyche. And finally...an agenda.
Oh my...an agenda. That's the driving force—the solid rocket booster that launches the piece from a mere “that'd be cool to do” meandering to a crystallized, will-to-power-ed reality. Be it employed for good, or evil, a hard and fast agenda added to those other elements is the catalyzing force behind what people are able to do today producing ads that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to crank out a mere ten years ago.
In the entertainment community, there's a lot of debate about this paradigm—the hyper-democratization of the process where high-end art/product is created, and there's an equal amount of discussion/consternation about the same situation in political circles. A Goldwater “Daisy”, or Atwater-esque “Willie Horton” ad can be whipped up in a matter of a day—hours if you push, and uploaded to YouTube in minutes for millions to see and be influenced by.
That's the world we live in—an exciting, almost instantly receptive and reactive one, fairly vibrating with readiness for our (“our” being anyone with an agenda and the easily accessible technology) “art”.
The following is one such example of that “art”—albeit a toxic one. A crudely done one in fact. But again...that agenda thing, and access to the media to manipulate gives a motivated party power. The power to influence,
To pull from the recesses of the mind, imagery and emotions that move people to think, and act
It's two minutes and thirty-nine seconds of what I'll call “trope-o-lining”—bouncing up and down repeatedly on well worn audio and video snippets that go to the heart of White America's fears of in-your-face (meaning non-deferential) “Negritude”, and it's crafted by a hard-core “grunt” for the right. The creator, a former producer for the chalkboard scratching that is “The Laura Ingraham Show”, named Lee Habeeb is a freelancer basically just doin' his kuh-ray-zee wingnutty thang on his own. A loose cannon if you will. But, give the devil (I don't know the color of his eyes) his due. It is an effective ad. Not necessarily because it's well done. You could toss off a lookalike ad on a seven year old 500 mhz G4 Mac. What makes it “effective” is its maker's dedication to wringing every drop of gut-level, fear of the non-pink paranoia out of its target viewers—namely White folks on the verge of cutting loose some serious racist ballast in even considering a Black person for the office of President. This ad was designed to bring the “waverers and considerers” home if you will. It plays to people of a certain age. Boomers who grew up in the first “saturation” media age of the 1960's when the visual media of television took hold. Insofar as it who it targets—it uses the perfect loaded images and sounds. And if we as progressives are to defeat the right this year, we'd damned sure better develop a discerning eye for this stuff and be able to dissect it—one, so that we can better “SDI” it (“Star Wars” it and blow it up before it detonates in our backyards), and two, so we can master the techniques ourselves and mount people-powered media counter-offensives against them.
So, let's “ad-topsy” this thing shall we?
From the start, there is an over-arching narrative this ad is fighting against. A powerful narrative that Obama has worked hard to cultivate and has some serious staying power.
Obama is, in spite of his people-rallying ability, is what you'd have to call a “cool” presenter. Even at his most animated and exhorting, Barack Obama is decidedly NOT what one would call the blazing firebrand. In his rhetoric and approach, he is a “cool” persona. That flies in the face of what his GOP opponents need him to appear as to spark the base's racist turnout and to tip tightrope walkers back to the rocky earth of fear-based voting patterns. Thus the deployment of the fiery, and decidedly “hot” Jeremiah Wright's words to his flock in the video. He is NOT Obama, but he is someone close to Obama—someone Obama trusts and evidently values, and that is good e-damn-nough to get the job done. As Obama himself refuses to play the badass “Stagger Lee” and give the soundbites that so inspire White fear (a.k.a. a carte blanche to hate without compunction), this ad's creator cannily used—as Obama's better-funded and more professional detractors will—Wrights hard, “Liberation Theology” (more on that in another post) words. They ARE hard words. Spat, cried, growled and laced with the hurt of centuries of subjugation, but in their shorthand form—chopped and clipped with the scrubber bar of editing software—“God damn America” is a soundbite-perfect call to arms to the yellow car-magnet brigade, and other such rhetoric literalists for whom slogans mean far more than actions.
It is in fact, an attempt to re-cast him. To move him from the amiable, palatable “Cliff Huxtable” Black guy you'd gladly welcome into your home and buy a pudding pop from...to the dangerous antithesis—the jumpy, volatile “Richard Pryor—the “brotha” you can't really trust because he just might call...“a spade a spade” and deal with those inconvenient truths that make you squirm in your oh-so-comfortable seat.
Wipe away the silly, nonsense Cosby gobbledygook that raises a chuckle. Goodbye to “Hey, hey, hey!” and all of that. And say “Heyyyyyyyy, bay-beh!” to “That N*gger's Crazy”, unpredictability and getting called out on your shit—all with that twitch in the face and yes...the rough words. The hell with post-raciality, this is a forced re-n*ggerfication. And there is nothing more fear-inducing in America than a so-called angry, agitated n*gger. Even a fictional one. Joe Klein long before he shredded his credibility with bloggers, tore his ass with Black folk with his jumpy, paranoid pronouncement that Spike Lee's “Do The Right Thing's” ending riot sequence would spur homeboys to “wild out” in frustration at ...the man. A real angry man, albeit a non trash-can tossing Rev. Wright's brash imagery and words kick the video off. Others pick up the ball and run with it deeper in. More on those in a minute.
But pair Wright's verbal molotovs up with the editing trick in the video that digitally blunts Obama's greatest strength—his ability to express himself verbally—where he is made to stutter and stumble in the cut-and-pasted “call and response” technique used in the piece and you have a well-deployed, if disingenuous bit of media manipulation.
Now, toss in three healthy shakes of “HateAmerica” spice. Shake One: Wright's words. Shake Two: The stuttering chop-up of Michelle Obama's “First time I've been proud of this country as an adult” comment. Shake Three: The statement of Obama's about the superficiality of sporting the “flag lapel pins”, and the semi-artful mash-up of the debunked “Pledge of Allegiance/National Anthem” stance of his. Tis a bitter seasoning indeed. It plays to the truism that it only takes a typically callous dose of good, old American racism to unearth in many Black folk—a not deeply harbored enmity for Mother America's superficial pledge of “equality for all”—which IS America as far as racism's perpetrators are concerned.
The insidious barb in this “play” is that the factual aspects of that African American cynicism are downplayed by the very parties who catalyze that cynicism with their daily deeds. They deem that anger, that bristling as irrational and unjustified.
Which leads us to the most hackneyed, yet wannabe poisonous images in the “ad”. Immediately after the “Pledge of Allegiance” section the video cuts to the classic shot of 1968 Mexico City Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos in mid “Black Power” salute on the medal podium after their Gold and Bronze medal-winning performances in the 200 meter sprint.
This one to be precise:
Now, the power of this image is utterly lost on many post-boomers. In fact, it fairly reeks of “cool” (Another fact: Puma released this month a commemorative sneaker in honor of the event—The Tommie Smith Suede Lo (shown at left) ...
...and replete with Mexico City badges and Smith's name in the sneaker. Ironically Smith stood on that podium shoeless to symbolize American Black poverty. Now, the gesture is seen as a perfect example of “fuck the man” cool. But back then, in an America roiled with anti-war protests and a barely stable society thanks to exploding racial struggles (MLK and RFK were both assassinated in the six months before Mexico City) it was a black-gloved, black-handed slap across the face of a culturally hypersensitized U.S. of A.
This blog's dear friend, a reader, commenter and damned fine writer in her own right— Maggie Jochild breaks down the historical context personally and forthrightly:
During the early 60's, Mama kept trying to explain the Civil Rights movement to me, to all of us. She would not allow my grandmother, her mother-in-law, to perform her allegedly hysterical routine of a colored lady trying to place a long distance call. She forbid the use of any term for blacks in our house except Negro -- which, given my father's family, meant battles that caused a permanent rift in our connection to that side of our heritage.
This is all preface to let you know how shocking it was when, during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrust their fists into the air on the medals stand in the Black Power salute, my mother went berserk. She called it a slap in the face to all Americans, an unforgiveable betrayal of our country, and she added “If that's where Black Power is headed, then it's lost my respect.”
I was thirteen years old. Her rearing had already shaped me, because my reaction when I saw what they did was “Cool!” I kept it to myself, however. Both reactions, my own and my mother's abrupt snap, revisited me when I saw that extremely brief clip in the Habeeb video. And in that instant, I understand how calculated this assemblage of manipulative images and sounds was, how completely devoid of human decency but demonstrating a keen understanding of which buttons to push.
It was...a cultural thunderclap, shooting eldritch fire and touching off the dry brush of conservative defensiveness and jingoism in the face of the uncertainty whether this country would make it past that rollercoaster year. I remember it. I also remember that the hated International Olympic Committee head Avery Brundage then expelled Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village and rescinded their medals as punishment for their silent, poetic intransigence. (those medals have never been reinstated to this day) How dare they stand there and with a simple gesture challenge America, the flag, and apple-fucking-pie? Representing that scary-ass “Black Power” that empowered Black folks to no longer go for the okey-doke, and let White folks know there was a new, and assumption challenging order in place?
Now you KNOW what that photo was chosen for the spot. It doesn't work so well on the kids and “cool” folk who'll snap up those commemorative Pumas, but for that older generation who thought the whole damned country was gonna go up like an M-80 dropped into a bucket of kerosene...it can be a powerful and soul-churning image of a tenuous time when it all nearly came apart. Dog whistle, kids.
Trope-o-lining 101. “Boooooing! Boooooing! Boooooing!”
And then...then there's maybe the most subtle, but well-executed series of images in the video—the cutaways between Rev. Wright and Malcolm X, juxtaposing their words “America's chickens coming home to roost.”
Wright's usage pertained to the U.S.'s callous foreign policy stance—equal parts condescension, bigotry, provocation, bullying and neo-colonialism contributing to our enemies hatred of us, and their over-the-top violent lashing out against us. Malcolm X's usage was maybe even more incendiary considering its context. It came in the days immediately following the assassination of JFK. He was commenting on an American government that had covertly participated in the assassination of elected Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba three years before and looked the other way as its own law enforcement people actively brought the hammer of racial violence down on its Black “citizens” (Medgar Evers assassination and the infamous 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama—both unpunished—had taken place in the mere twelve weeks leading up to Kennedy's Dallas shooting) seemingly every day.
Malcolm X spoke bitterly of Kennedy's death and cited America's government-sanctioned violence blowing back onto the Presidency itself, He noted America's “chickens coming home to roost” in Kennedy's assassination. It was a gut-kick to a stunned and grieving populace. It was intemperate and to many, nakedly disrespectful—including higher-ups in the Nation of Islam who suspended Malcolm indefinitely for the cold-hearted statement.
Both Wright's and Malcolm's statements are spun in this spot as a canny “it has always been thus” mantra of Black hate against white-bearded, forthright Uncle Sam himself. But the underlying dig—and I don't think it's accidental—is the spinning of Obama into that weave by comparison to Malcolm X. Again, it doesn't play to the younger voter who sees Malcolm as another avatar of nose-thumbing cool. It's set up to dredge up those who know that tale of the days after Kennedy's death. Those who sat in darkened rooms watching John-John salute the flag-draped casket rolling by, and would despise that uppity, mean-mouthed Negro who dared not genuflect in those dark days. Those who were offended.
The superficial “image” leap from Malcolm to Obama is a short one to be quite honest. Those who compare him to Martin Luther King in his presentation and style utterly miss the boat. While his rhetoric is quite King-esque, Black folks see much more Malcolm in him than Martin. Tall, ascetic-seeming men, both of obviously mixed heritage (Malcolm's mother was a Biracial Grenadian who could pass for White), gifted orators and not far apart at all in age (Malcolm was three months shy of forty when killed—Obama himself is forty-six), they also share a strikingly similar vocal timbre, delivery style and even physical gestures (the thoughtful chin on hand pose is kind of eerie) at the ever-present lectern. As someone who's seen and heard more than a little bit of Malcolm X's speeches over the years (enough to do a passing impersonation) and heard more than a few Black folks comment on their (Malcolm's and Obama's) similarities. (Down to their hard midwestern “twangs”), I don't think I'm overstating this. And Habeeb, the ad's crafter is just hip enough to know exactly what he's doing with this juxtaposition.
“Show old-school firebrand young Black orator with Jeremiah Wright—does he remind you of the new school young Black orator he pals around with now?
And think not for a second that the audio background deployment of the bangin' Pubic Enemy track to this section was an accident in any way. “Fight The Power” was a near anthem of the late-eighties “Afrocentrism” boom while also being the signature cut from the then-politically incendiary group itself. Wouldn't you know that it was also the main title music for Spike Lee's aforementioned Joe Klein diaper-filler “Do The Right Thing”, featuring a scowling Rosie Perez dancing/shadow-boxing the camera furiously to the song's booming beat.
Oh yes...the song was also the lead single from P.E.'s 1990 album entitled...wait for it...“Fear of a Black Planet”. Only one of the most controversial albums by one of the most controversial groups of the end of the Reagan “era of innocence”. Some twenty years hence, the old soundtrack is cued up again by Habeeb, and the well-trained, Inverted Pavlovian response kicks in—instead of salivating at the mouth, these soured ex-yuppies and one-time “Reagan Youth” crap their pants. Or rather...their Depends™.
In discussing this with Doc Wendel, he summed it up by saying:
“This was was clearly put in to slaughter the demographics for people 50-55 and up, everyone who is of a certain age who hates the Dirty Fucking Hippies.”
Indeed. Those who hate the so-called “DFH's” and the people they palled with, stood up for and air guitared Jimi at Monterey (down to the incendiary finalé) and The Chambers Brothers' “Time Has Come Today” with too.
But there's a secondary dynamic at play here. There is the target audience Jesse notes pointedly—and then, there's of course...the subtle shit that equally hamstrings Obama and by extension, many in the party that ostensibly supports him. Take it away Maggie...
One of the not-enough-acknowledged dynamics of the current Presidential campaign is the racism of how many Democrats (and especially independents/Republican crossovers) perceive Obama as an “alternative” black. He's not like Jesse Jackson, or Martin Luther King, or Al Sharpton—he wasn't raised in the U.S. during his most impressionable years of racial conditioning (Hawaii is outside the U.S. norm for this imprinting), his father was not an American black, and his mother, that source of our most intense identity training as children, was white. We can tell the difference. I think much of the rhetoric about how “hopeful” he is originates from white people who are using acceptable liberal racist code for “he doesn't sound like other black people”. And he doesn't.
I think the makers of this video understand how Obama's “alternative” black mythos has been to his advantage, and have figured out how to deliberately use it against him -- all too effectively. Dropping the "secret Muslim" smear, they're now going for “not really American” blended with “ungrateful, angry blacks”. (A potently evil cocktail —ed. note from LM) Malcolm X is a figure who fits both of those categories in the minds of most whites, so he's used. Wright “damns” America, so he's good as gold for both categories as well. King, Jackson and Sharpton, all ministers, fit the “ungrateful and angry” meme but not the “unAmerican” one -- they are all TOO American black, reminding whites of our legacy of racism, so they do not appear in the video.
Um. Ding! Seeing that he flies in the face of the stock, hackneyed memes for Black politicos, and that his “alternativity” to those well-mud-slung norms works for him, said “alternativity” must be neutralized. This scene from Spike Lee's “Do The Right Thing” sums the phenomena up nicely:
PINO: Twenty minutes.(To caller, then he hangs up the phone. To Mookie)How come you n*ggers are so stupid?
MOOKIE: If ya see a n*gger here, kick his ass.
PINO: Fuck you and stay off the phone.
VITO: Forget it, Mookie.
MOOKIE: (To Pino) Who's your favorite basketball player?
PINO: Magic Johnson.
MOOKIE: And not Larry Bird? Who's your favorite movie star?
PINO: Eddie Murphy.
Mookie is smiling now.
MOOKIE: Last question: Who's your favorite rock star?
Pino doesn't answer, because he sees the trap he's already fallen into.
MOOKIE: Barry Manilow?
Mookie and Vito laugh.
MOOKIE: Pino, no joke. C'mon, answer.
VITO: It's Prince. He's a Prince freak.
PINO: Shut up. The Boss! Bruuucce!!!!
MOOKIE: Sounds funny to me. As much as you say n*gger this and n*gger that, all your favorite people are “n*ggers.”
PINO: It's different. Magic, Eddie, Prince are not n*ggers, I mean, are not Black. I mean, they're Black but not really Black. They're more than Black. It's different.
In the end though, Pino goes to “core”, and in spite of himself—his superficial self that can half-“appreciate” that otherness—that beyondness—just isn't enough to dilute his racism. He buys into the old tropes and then twists them, as Habeeb does in the ad to hoarily slam the “beyonded”—but-still-too-tan-for-prime-time Obama.
This ad's job? To stoke that uneasy “core”. To prompt that queasiness. That discomfort at the gut level to overcome that hopeful, aforementioned otherness—and beyondness before it seeps to the core and cannot be dislodged. What happens when you transcend that? When people in living their lives in America and actually having to deal with folks see people as people and NOT as monolithic hordes to be feared or relegated to the backwaters of our collective psyche?
You get...a connection. You push past the old bugaboos and set this land on it's way to living up to that mantra of a “more perfect union”, and not the ugly bifurcated thing that serves the evil and narrow-minded. You get a real chance at America The Beautiful, and not “Americo—A Subdivision of Megalocorp LLC—Maintaining The Bullshit Status Quo Since Sixteen-Twenty-Fucking-One, A.D.”
The ad works hard at maintaining that status quo through manipulation. It's not a high-end attempt. But it doesn't have to be anymore, because the walls have come down. The ghost has sprung from the machine and it's spreading ectoplasm now inhabits countless other devices owned by eevryone it seems, and NOT just the cackling mad scientist on the hill. The torch-bearing “peasant” can now create right alongside ol' Doc Frankenstein. And the peasant's monster is just as capable of wrecking the countryside as the Doc's—mayve moreso.
So, fuck fearing the monster. We need to break his ass down. Go to blueprint for every bolt and wire—every sinew and bone. Dissect it so that we may know how to fight it when confronted with it and if we must, use what we've learned to craft our own fearsome answers back.
This is how it goes now with ads like these. To paraphrase the old Eric Burdon and The Animals tune, “Don't Let It Be Misunderstood”. We can't just go to raw emotion and scream “That's bad!”, “That's racist!”, or “That's a lie!”” any more. To counter this stuff we've got to understand it—where it comes from, what it's about and why. And once we nail that stuff down...
We can mount our own “grass roots” assault against the Habeebs and his deeply thankful—and deeply pocketed enablers and patrons.
Get your tools ready folks. We've got work to do.
NOTE: Updated to add a section (on P.E.) that got lost in the draft/editing shuffle—Best, LM