Monday, July 21, 2008

“Whispers Gettin' Louder...”

“Callin' you out your name...”

I found myself strolling amongst the gathered Netroots throng Friday night along the 6th Street “fun zone” stretch of Downtown Austin, post-a few parties for some of the blogs. There were burnt orange credentials a' swingin' from the necks of reveling progressives from one side of the street to another, but alas—nary an upper-floor water balloon spatter on the ground to be found. “Sigh!”

What could be found was clusters of folks pointedly hashing out this issue and that one. Every once in a while you'd catch a blast of conversation from a group—“But the shit about FISA was...”, or “You don't bring a knife to a gunfight—and when you publicly finance against the right, that's what you're doing!”

I came across some Netroots folks near an open window at Maggie Mae's discussing Jesse Jackson's “microphone malfunction” on Fox, hearing one say “Still, you've gotta feel bad for Jesse...I mean, you know what this makes him look like?

And as if on cue, a Black woman walking by the pub—a local with a crew of fellow revelers and more than likely not a Netroots-er caught the same snip of conversation I did, and she simply blurted out a quick and vicious little epitaph to that empathetic statement.

“Oh, fuck Jesse!”, she spat without missing a stride.

How deeply the knife cuts when wielded so brutally.

It got me to thinking about Jesse in a holistic sense—what he means, what he meant, and what he'll be remembered as. And the results of my pondering are not pretty at all.

I missed the initial showing of the Fox news video and only read Jackson's words. That was for a couple of days. Then, I saw the video and I actually winced on viewing it. What got to me was the bitchy, hater-ific whispering from him and the whole junior high-school way he came across on-camera. For someone supposedly so adept at public discourse and handling himself in the gaze of the media's eye, I was stunned at his unprofessionalism there. I've worked in TV for over 15 years. I've stood before multi-camera set-ups with dangling booms and lavalierres, and the first rule of thumb here is “when in front...punt”. It doesn't matter if you think the cameras and mics are off, or even if you think you KNOW they're off—you ain't in the control room, and you don't know what's going on in there. Someone can ALWAYS hear you, and there's always a chance that something is recording you. Jesse's little “Mean Girls” moment was of course captured forever—that little tilt and hissed remarks to the Smithers-esque clown to his left was embarrassing, and severely damaging to what was left of a frittered-away credibility. Now, in full disclosure, I have over the years been in social settings with Reverend Jackson. Moments where everyone let their hair down, and knowing that, there is a certain expectation of privacy therein. Ratting that shit out is pretty damned foul. But to sit there on a “hot” (meaning fully mic'ed and camera-ed) Fox News soundstage—A FOX FUCKING NEWS SOUNDSTAGE?—and bitch and moan about a...well, let's face it...a rival and and heir—was just dumb. Dumb in the thinking that anything a progressive would say at that place would ever be off-the-record, and doubly dumb in that it revealed something I think many of us thought, but didn't have verification of.

Namely, that there's a LOT of hateration and holleration up in Jesse's dance-er-ree since Obama's run.

And while I respect Jesse like nobody's business for all he's done for folks over the years—his being the burr in Reagan's saddle back in the day, and his ultimately superhuman-humanity towards the downtrodden in society, I also realize he's a somewhat vain man (many up-front leaders are) with a bit of a sense of possessiveness about his place in the firmament in the Civil Rights “sky”.

This kind of self-aggrandizement is nothing new for Black folks of prominence in America—generational tectonic shifts always seem to leave those who came before feeling “dissed”, or “not-properly thanked / acknowledged”. Jesse's mid-eighties presidential runs (One of which I worked on) were landmark events. Turning points in American political history. I still remember the issue of Newsweek with a presidential portrait pose of him on the cover, with the screaming 120 point copy below the pic reading “JESSE?”, playing out an equal mixture of shock, fear, and awe.

But, it was the eighties—a time when a nascent campaign like his could still be easily stifled by the old-school skullduggery of the Atwater-era. There was no internet or alternate media sources for him to use to bypass the spin and smears, and paid-for denigration of his chances. No alternate path to exploit to energize folks with a direct message. And, as proven by his ill-timed, and ill-mindedly infamous “Hymietown” remarks, the man also had an amazing propensity for sometimes saying way too much, too often around those who were too much against him.

He became easy to lampoon, (again, no secondary outlet available for him to control the message.) and worse, he would even aid in people's eventually dismissing him by lampooning himself with sometimes funny, but ultimately prestige diminishing appearances on SNL and the like.

He became a TV pundit fixture and an entire generation has come to know him as that, and NOT the young, idealistic guy who knelt there as MLK's life bled out into his hands on a Memphis balcony. For the easy, steady money one craves in middle age, Jesse sadly opted for a highly metastatic (I don't think he knew how bad it would be) case of irrelevancy.

As the years have worn on, and his place in the activist front lines was superceded by the earnest, but even more flawed Rev. Al Sharpton, I think Jesse became comfortable in his “Old lion who can still occasionally let loose a fearsome roar” status as paterfamila to all things Black and political.

But as is always the case—when MLK's generation supplanted the staid Roy Wilkins era of Civil Rights warriors, or when Stokeley Carmichael's more militant folk, stepped up (and sometimes ON the heels and toes of) and walked right by King's now deemed staid generation of activists, or when a young Charlie Rangel snatched a congressional district and a lifetime's worth of power from an older, established giant like Adam Clayton Powell Jr., THERE IS ALWAYS A BITTERNESS FROM THE PREVIOUS LEADERS WHO ARE SUPERCEDED.

It's simple human nature—and Obama's blistering ascent to pinnacles Jesse can only dream of, while not needing him for much of anything publicly, and clearly very little pre-run consultation privately has got to rankle him. It's a long, LONG time since that Newsweek cover for Jesse. In the last six months I've seen Obama on the cover of GQ, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Time, Newsweek, The Economist and every damn magazine outside of “OK!”. He was a “fringe” candidate up until ONE primary—Iowa—and from then on, he was the tone-setting major player, impossible to relegate to the background or dismiss like Jesse eventually was. Obama was Jesse 2.0. No beta, and a skip over a 1.0 version of the “Black Candidate Software” update. The “bugs” as they were, were worked out between the releases of “JesseWare” and “iObama”. And I seriously doubt Jesse likes being described in that way, but the truth is the truth. The other problem is that Jesse doesn't seem to realize that that IS the truth, and there's a palpable anger there in him over the way people consider his legacy like some ancient version of Windows we all thought was “the shiznit” back in the day, but laugh about in terms of usefulness now.

Add in Jesse's own self-inflicted wounds post-Hymietown that have so damaged him, like his funniness with Operation: PUSH money in later years, (not giving him a pass on this, but when a “movement” is how you pay the bills and live, stuff always has a chance to get financially dicey down the road a piece) and worst of all, his unfortunate out-of-wedlock fathering of a child outside of his marriage. The ironic thing about this is that Jackson himself spent years challenging Black fathers to step up, much the way Obama did. (Bill Cosby's a different story—he's been a known cockhound for decades, and his bitching about poor Black folks' excesses is as much a “bourgie” class issue as it is a dodge for his own creepy behaviors. He's tired of his rich White buddies in high places asking him 'what's the problem with poor Black folks?', and instead of noting his part in 'pulling the ladder up' and walking away, he'd rather rag his dusky lessers as lazy laggards who are prone to destructive excesses. 'Cause only the fully evolved among us offer up un-asked for Ny-Quil-adas to comely and unsuspecting female visitors. Ugh.) Jesse's credibility on those matters has been so tarnished to where it's cost him a considerable amount of his status in “The Black Community”—especially with women...of whom many now perceive him as a “dog”.

Then, here comes Barack Obama. Younger. Without the baggage. Not over-exposed. A high-end orator as well, AND actually elected to public office at least twice—something Jesse, for all his time and gravitas could never do. Playing the media better, faster and stronger. And worst of all for Jesse, Obama has also emerged as a pulpit arbiter—in fact, the pulpit arbiter heir apparent to Jesse's position there. Folks saw that when Obama was broaching this self-same touchy parenting issue to thunderous applause before Black churches (and even in some sniffy media circles)—like at his breakthrough Birmingham Sunday speech earlier this year. A torch was passed...and Jesse was the last one to know about it. His ego was probably bruised when he found out about it—the hard way...

“Two decades ago, my father ran for president, calling on South Carolina and the nation to 'keep hope alive.' Today, Barack Obama has taken up the torch," (Jesse) Jackson Jr. says in the ad, which will air on 36 gospel and R&B radio stations across the state.

Ouch. Papa J's clearly not ready to cede a bit of the stage, but the spotlight sadly has already swung past him a ways.

It's a status dance Black America's leaders have done since time immemorial. I don't actually Blame Jesse. I feel bad for him. And I'm certain HE feels bad too—not just about his alleged damage to the nominee (alleged because ironically enough, Jesse's screw-ups have so damaged him that a diss from him on Obama potentially makes Obama look better in many folks' eyes), but also the public playing out of his little petty bit of turf-marking via verbal pissing.

And then I go back to that woman sashaying down 6th Street with her friends. Unbidden. Unprompted. Call and response.

“I feel bad for Jesse.”

“Oh, Fuck Jesse!”

The parties went on in the streets that night.

I saw a plastic cup on the ground. Dented. Filmy. A trickle of suds running from its mouth.

And kicked to the curb.

Alas and alack.