24 April 2009
Michelle Obama is too kind when she talks about Bo, the new Obama family dog.
"It was like 10 o'clock. Everybody was asleep and we hear all this barking and jumping around," the First Lady said to more than 100 children invited to a White House program marking the annual Take Your Child to Work Day. "The president and I came out and we thought somebody was out there. And it was just Bo. He was playing with his ball. And it was like there was another person in the house.
"He's kind of crazy, but he's still a puppy. So he likes to play a lot."
I had to laugh out loud as I read this.
Michelle Obama is too generous.
The First Lady and the president and I are like millions of other people who did not grow up with a dog in the house. To people like us, there is always that lingering "why is this animal in the house with us" feeling that comes over us whenever we temporarily forget about the dog and then he just pops up when we're trying to do something important, like sleep.
It doesn't matter if it's one of those Vietnamese Water Torture dogs like the First Family has, or one of these Chihuahua looking half breed mongrels like we've got, all dogs seem to sense when they are around people who are not totally smitten by them the way true dog lovers are.
The Obama's daughters chose the name Bo for the pup because first lady Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed Diddley, in reference to singer "Bo" Diddley.
S.'s dog is named for Tito Jackson of the Jackson Five (don't ask). S.'s dog is really the Resident Diva's dog, or at least he was until she got tired of him after a couple of months and wanted to send him back. But by then S. was in love with his yappy little ass. He looks just like that damned dog on the Taco Bell commercials, but he's not a purebreed - he might be a Chihuahua and a terrier mixed together.
That little son of a bitch is thirteen pounds of attitude. He has a stubby little chest, a lean, high behind, and a face like an old man. He thinks S. is a toy. He is either jumping into her lap, nuzzling her breasts, nipping at her face or licking her ears - I think he's in love with her.
Now,if he and I are alone here together - there is silence. He doesn't make a sound.
He parks his doggy smelling ass on a couch or a chair, AS IF HE OWNS IT, preening and napping and stretching his little legs like a teenager at the beach. If I'm eating something, he sidles over to the table and tries to give me the "sad eye" routine. Most of the time, I'll hook him up with a bite or two of whatever I'm having, in the hopes of buying some goodwill.
Let S. come home - the son of a bitch loses his mind, as if he has been fighting for his life since she's been gone.
When I wake up in the morning, he goes off like a banshee if I creak the bed rolling over. He snarls and yowls and grunts and warbles if he doesn't get his way, just like a damn two year old.
His most common nickname is "that motherfucker." "S., I'm tired of that motherfucker." "Motherfucker, we rescued your mongrel ass off of doggy death row and all this fucking barking is the thanks we get?" "S., that motherfucker looks just like my old roommate Herb. Look, look, look - look at how he's shrugging his shoulders! Look at the way he's crossing his long ass front legs! Look at that hang dog face! Those droopy eyes! Those tawny brown wrinkles around his mouth! Put some glasses on that son of a bitch and he looks just like Herb! I'm telling you - this damned dog looks like Herb!"
When he's being a real annoying ass because he can't get his way, I call him "M." - the name of S.'s dead mother. "Yep," S. says, "he's acting just like mamma. Trying to control everything. And refusing to shut up." Even now, after I finish writing this, he will be waiting for my foot to hit the wrong floorboard so he can get in a last growl or two before I go to bed.
The most satisfying part of any trip we take, at least for me, is at the beginning, when we are pulling out of the parking lot of the kennel, sans dog. You have no idea how good it feels to know that he is locked up for a few days, and will not be barking when you least expect it, and has no possible way to leave one of those pungent little gifts for us to discover in when he doesn't get his way.
I see why the president is out of town so much lately.
There are a lot of people who are bent out of shape about the president not keeping his promise to get a rescue dog. First Lady and Mr. President, I live with a rescue dog. He is tended to by a lifelong dog lover, who could not give him any more attention if she tried, and he is still hard to handle most of the time, and unpredictable as hell the rest of the time. Getting a rescue dog is a crap shoot at best. Since you two don't look like gamblers, I will tell you - the odds in crap shooting are terrible. Trust me, first time dog owners who are as busy as you two are had no business even thinking about getting the kind of dog that would need that much attention.
22 April 2009
Citibank says it made "a 1.6 billion dollar profit" in the first quarter of this year. Goldman Sachs considers it its "duty" to return the 25 billion in TARP funds it received. And JP Morgan...good old JP Morgan's CEO will actually stare into a camera lens and look bewildered when you ask him about a bank bailout. "Bailout? What bailout? We didn't need that money. We were fine all the time. You guys were worried about nothing."
If you don't need "government money" because you don't like "government" telling you what to do, then send back all of that "government backed money" the Fed has been handing out to Wall Street banks like it was government cheese.
What school do you have to go to to learn how to make your problems disappear simply by saying they do not exist? The Jedi Mind Trick degree must be hard to get - I only see a handful of people with it, and almost all of them seem to end up on the same little overbuilt northeastern island that sits on the Hudson River.
The entire Wall Street banking sector has devolved, going from a farce, with actors who are paraded before microphones as if they are on stage to repeat nonsensical lines of dialogue from a script that defies the boundaries of logic, to pure outrageous spectacle, even as truckloads of money from the U.S. Treasury are being delivered in the background, the actors raising their voices whenever the hydraulic lifts on the dump trucks begin to scream as they drop their payload of fresh greenbacks.
The whole performance has become one big ridiculous charade. It typifies the theatre of the absurd.
"In being illogical, the absurd theatre is anti-rationalist: it negates rationalism because it feels that rationalist thought, like language, only deals with the superficial aspects of things. Nonsense, on the other hand, opens up a glimpse of the infinite. It offers intoxicating freedom, brings one into contact with the essence of life and is a source of marvellous comedy."
Dr Jan Culík
The Theatre Of The Absurd
The West And The East
To claim "profitability" of a few billion dollars when over a trillion dollars has been pumped into the banking system is beyond surreal - it is the signal for a total and complete psychotic break with reality. I wouldn't expect these guys to ever admit this, though, which is why they all need to be fired, officers and board members alike, the way they fire people in their own organizations - with a security guard escorting them out the door as they carry that cardboard box of their belongings in their hands.
21 April 2009
Last month I had a post titled "Sad Letter From Tom Joyner This Week" that explored the ramifications of the nationally syndicated The Tom Joyner Morning Show being dropped from the Chicago radio station that carried them.
So today's news - the The Tom Joyner Morning Show will have a new radio home in Chicago, beginning this Wednesday - was one of those sappy feel good moments where I got to feel like I made a difference.
This Wednesday, the TJMS will be coming back to Chicago on SOUL 106.3FM The Best Mix of R&B!
Mornings 5a-9a SOUL 106.3FM WSRB
Chicago, and our friends and family from all over the country, you have spoken, you have emailed, you have Tweeted—and once again your activism has made a difference in a big way! We are going back on the air in Chicago, and if I could hug and thank each and every one of you individually, I would. Starting Wednesday, our new home will be SOUL 106.3FM!
The best way for you and all of us to claim a victory is for you and everyone you know to make sure all of your radios are tuned in to SOUL 106.3FM weekday mornings from 5am-9am . When you do this, we all are helping lack radio thrive. Let’s show the world we’re not only here, but we are strong, we are empowered and we are able to make things happen!
We will be visiting Chicago soon to let you know in person how much we appreciate everything you did to ensure we could still have a voice in the community. Until then keep blogging, texting us at OH OH OH (646464) or mingling with us online on the Tom Joyner Facebook Fan Page and on Twitter. The more ways that we can reach out to each other, the stronger we can become and the more assurance we’ll have that we can stand up to any force when we’re on the right side.
Thank you to the thousands upon thousands of you who let the media know that you wanted us back. Special thanks to our friends at WCIU, The U for their support. (And don’t forget, you could still win a trip from The U to come see us in Dallas!) It touches my heart to know all of you care as much as you do. I feel the love and the sentiment everywhere I go.
Tom Joyner was creating a social media company before anybody knew what "social media" was. Not only does his radio show emphasize the importance of higher education for African Americans EVERY SINGLE DAY HE IS ON THE AIR, unlike Steve Harvey or Doug Banks or the rest of the Negro LaughaPalooza radio personalities who make "the 'hood" sound like a temple of higher learning, Joyner puts his money where his mouth is, with promotion after promotion after promotion aimed at giving students in college cash on the barrel head. He will raise money for your historically black college or university at the drop of a hat, and always has something positive and personal to say about all of them, including his own beloved alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute. And back when the Resident Diva was going to elementary school, we used to listen to the "little known black history fact" segment every morning before she got out of the car to go to homeroom.
The radio d.j., for many of us, are the new community leaders, especially in urban areas, where they keep their audiences informed on long morning commutes to work. In big cities, many end up listening to these guys (because they are still mostly men) more than they listen to their preacher.
So what do we want?
Tom Joyner used to own his show, which is how he got to do what he wanted, the way he wanted, in a way that could benefit the communities where his listeners live. The only thing a lot of these other morning show minstrels are doing is making Clear Channel Communications rich.
Glad to see that Mr. "Party With A Purpose" has still got the juice.
19 April 2009
Spring is here.
Which means yellow green dust is everywhere in Atlanta and my nose is stopped up. Which means the hedges that have been dormant all year are now growing like they're on steroids, taunting me with new, unruly tendrils yesterday, just two days after I'd given them their first "high and tight" shape up of the year.
Which means I have used enough Clorox to bleach an army in my efforts to get all the mildew off of the birdbath. Which means all that Spectracide weed killer I've squirted into the nooks and crannies around here where the tough guy weeds like to hang out needs to be working as I write this, before all this rain gives their thirsty roots the wrong ideas.
It only takes a few weeks to get your rhythm back, after you've knocked a few of the once a year clean up jobs off your list, but it's almost enough to make you wish winter lasted a little longer.
So after a hot shower to get rid of that pollen itch, I get a cold beer to wash that scratchiness out of my throat, a nice big cigar to remind me that I'm not the hired help, and step outside to admire my handiwork in the muted light of the late afternoon sun.
The cul-de-sac is full of cars. It's so full that my neighbor, who is looking to take some relatives who are visiting out to eat, can't pull his car out of his driveway without major contortions.
"What's going on?" he asked me.
"I thought you were having a party," I replied.
"What? Me?" It took him a second to figure out that I was joking with him.
"Actually," I said, "it's a prom thing."
My neighbor, a West Coast transplant in his fifties who had never had any children, looked a little concerned. "Oh my. I wonder...I wonder what we're going to do. Do you know which house they're in?"
I took a puff on my cigar. "They won't be there long."
"Are you sure?"
"Yep. We went through this last year. This is the beginning. They're all getting together at this girl's house with their friends and their dates and take pictures. Then they'll be barreling out here in a hurry, because they don't want to be late for the reservations they have at the restaurant they've chosen for dinner, which, I imagine, is all the way in Buckhead or Midtown. You shouldn't have to wait more than ten minutes."
"Sounds like you've been through this before."
"Yep." I am amazed that he doesn't remember this same procession happening last year, except it was at our house, and our people were more courteous parking their cars. But then again, they are always biking or tubing or walking a nature trail or hiking up Stone Mountain, so they probably missed all that frantic energy."
"Ten minutes, you think?"
"I saw them all pull up when I went in to take a shower."
It wasn't five minutes later that we saw the group of girls in gowns and boys in tuxedos swarming down the street. The couple who had parked closest to my neighbor's mailbox smiled as they approached their car. She was giddy. He looked like he had just won the lottery.
There was something about the zeal and enthusiasm of youth in those few moments that had me, my neighbor and his guests still talking long after the last car had left the cul-de-sac, until I had to remind them that they needed to be heading on. It was a sort of spring fling moment in time as we all began to recall some of the more memorable highlights of our youth. These are the kinds of things that we often overlook as we cut hedges, clean birdbaths, kill weeds, beat rugs, clean windows, cut grass, or blow driveways clean. These activities are merely the fine tuning of the backdrop for the things that should really matter to us, the same way politics are intended as an adjustment to the background of the communities we live in.
18 April 2009
S. and I were talking this morning about the Texas governor's pronouncement that Texas might be ready to secede. It led to a conversation about some of the attitudes she had encountered since moving to Georgia.
"These people in the South," she said, "seem to be unwilling to deal with reality."
I had to laugh at that one. "My buddy called the other day to remind me that these people were not going to sit quietly after the election. 'We could have another civil war' he said.
'My man,' I replied, 'the last Civil War was between two fairly weak opponents who weren't really prepared to for a long battle. There is no comparison. The modern day Union has all the firepower this time. The only way these guys have a chance at doing anything like this is if a foreign power backs them.'"
S. cannot get over how pervasive the memories of the Civil War still are here, as if some of these people think they are actually asleep and living in a fairy tale, a nightmare from which they will one day get to wake up from to see life reverted back to the way it used to be.
However far fetched the idea of secession is, or the idea that these people who see themselves as the newly disenfranchised are going to "take back the country" goes, the sentiment underlying it is real. And in a lot of areas like Atlanta, where there are many communities who are unsatisfied with the way they perceive their taxes are being used, they have done something about it, which is the kind of small success than can lead to dreaming of bigger and better conquests.
My neighbors were dying to incorporate into a city a few years ago so they could collect and distribute their own taxes, rather than have the county do it. The city of Atlanta is located mostly in Fulton County, in an area that almost neatly divides the county in half. South Fulton is mostly black - rich, poor, middle class - with a pocket of newly immigrated latinos near the city limits. North Fulton is mostly white - middle and upper middle class - with a sprinkling of blacks, Indians, and Asians, with a pocket of newly immigrated latinos near the city limits.
Back in the Thirties Fulton County had been enlarged dramatically - Milton County, a rural jurisdiction to the north, went bankrupt and was absorbed by Fulton. Ford had a plant on the Southside. Rail spurs ran through the area. Post war development took off, and by the time the airport as we know it came into its own in the sixties with international flights, the Southside was fairly mature. North Fulton was still farms. White flight in the late sixties and early seventies slowly changed the complexion of our county commissioners.
By the eighties, turf wars, infighting, and in some cases out right incompetance typified the Fulton County commission's operations. An airport scandal erupted. Boondoggles began to blossom. Budgets got bloated. Commissioners got arrogant. Not only did they use the higher taxes generated by the more affluent northern suburban districts to subsidize southside infrastructure construction, they informed their constituents that there was nothing they could do about it.
By the nineties the farms in North Fulton were mostly gone, with a new subdivision sprouting out of the ground every week. Construction of an interior hwy through this area had opened up access, and with the tech boom in full swing mini-mansions became the symbol of North Fulton. With more and more residents, more and more need for services, and a commission that was at best abrasive to its northernmost tax payers, discontent set in. Smaller cities on the north end of the county grew bigger through annexation. Sandy Springs, which had been seeking to wrest control of its tax dollars from Atlanta since the early seventies, finally became a city a few years ago.
Now there are no parts of North Fulton that are unincorporated. My new address is John's Creek, Georgia, one of the states newest cities, although I will continue to use Alpharetta as my mailing address until they quit bringing the mail. Other than the new police cars which seem to zip around with abandon, searching for someone to arrest, nothing much has changed.
Talk is circulating now about reviving the old Milton County, since those "ignorant, savage politicians", most of whom just happen to be black, the ones who are "stealing our money to put new roads in on the south side" according to North Fulton residents, need to be stopped.
The thing is, it took a lot of different peoples - blacks, Irish, Italians, Germans, French, Indians, Chinese, and now Mexicans - picking cotton and potatoes, manning production lines, cutting timber, laying bricks, assembling railroad tracks, harvesting grain, processing food and building houses to get the United States to where it is today. Maybe these people who are so dissatisfied want their America to be like one of those little European countries whose populations are pretty homogeneous but don't have the capability to produce much more than moral outrage and subtitled movies.
Try as they might, though, there will be no Civil War "do over".
Just because the people brought here to do the heavy lifting have figured out how to run the show is no cause for alarm. It's at times like these when you get to see who the real patriots are. We are about to find whether our newly "disenfranchised" can walk the walk and live up to the ideals we talk about all the time, the ones we swear make America great. Or whether they are willing to tear apart everything WE'VE ALL built just to feel like they are in charge again.
16 April 2009
[Sometimes I run across original research, original analysis, or hard-to-get information that is exactly the kind of stuff I live for - well thought out, well written, well researched commentary, the kind that your media experts get by the pound but think is too much for you to understand.
David Atkins, also known as thereisnospoon to DailyKos members, has given me permission to publish his comments and photos here.]
Dear Tea Party Participants,
Let me begin by saying: I know how you feel. I've been there.
As easy as it is to mock your fringe besotted, astroturf corporate, woefully named protests - and the ease with which you are mocked has made doing so almost de rigeur - I will not mock you here. For many of you, these poorly attended, ill-considered events are your first foray into real citizen activism, and your first venture into the art of the street protest.
Insofar as you have taken the opportunity to do in some small way the work that progressives have long done (and usually moved beyond in recent years), I applaud your efforts. It certainly beats slapping a useless yellow ribbon on your SUV and calling it an act of patriotism. For better or for worse, Americans have had a chance to see your ideas, such as they may be, on full display.
Personally, I believe (and the polls would suggest) that your doing so works to our advantage rather than yours, but that is neither here nor there.
Instead, what I want to address here is not what you did during your protests, but how you feel now. You've said your piece and waved your signs, marched in front of the taxpayer-funded buildings and heard the car honks voicing the approval of your compatriots speeding by on your taxpayer-funded roads. You took time off of work (if you haven't found yourself laid off in the new Bush economy) to make yourself heard.
And now you're back at home. Perhaps you're working at the last minute to fill out your belated 1040, frothing at the mouth and cursing the fates with every stroke of the pen.
I want to address the sense of helplessness you feel right now. The knowledge that, in the long run, nothing you did today made the slightest difference.
I know because I've been there. You may recall that about half of America disapproved of George W. Bush's plans to invade Iraq. There was a huge public outcry both here and around the world: by some accounts, some 36 million people across the globe took part in 3,000 major demonstrations against Bush's Iraq policy between January 3 and April 12, 2003 alone.
This was me during a major protest near UCLA shortly after the fiasco at Abu Ghraib had been revealed:
I'm second from the right in the dark shirt. At the time it felt good to make a statement. It felt righteous. It felt like I was making a difference. Eventually, however, I came to realize the pointlessness of such political theater.
Over the years to come, millions of Americans repeatedly engaged in protests against the invasion, the war, and the occupation. They did so in numbers that dwarf by far the pittance that showed up to your tea parties--and they did so without the help and support of entire cable news organizations and the biggest voices in AM radio. Starting in about 2005, they did so with the support of a majority of American public opinion behind them in opposition to the war; by contrast, polling shows that your negative views of Obama's economic policies are a small minority.
And none of it mattered in the least. All those people, myself included, speaking all that truth to power, accomplished precisely nothing.
Because at the end of the day, the American people had elected George W. Bush as president. At the end of day, the American people in their infinite wisdom had chosen to elect a majority of Republicans to represent their interests in the House and the Senate. At the end of the day, our traditional media outlets were controlled by a small cabal of corporate owners, and the journalists were each and every one scrambling for access to the very politicians whom they should have been holding accountable.
Public opinion was irrelevant. Protests were irrelevant. All that mattered was the individuals who controlled the levers of power. The only thing that mattered, in the end, was elections.
Having observed that grim reality, some of us (like Cindy Sheehan and those in Code Pink) were determined to dig in our heels in the pursuit of the sort of self-righteous hostility that only true political irrelevance can bring.
The rest decided it was time for effective mobilization in the pursuit of winning elections. That meant leaving the fringe behind, and working to speak to Americans about the fundamental issues that affected their everyday lives. It meant the hard work of building infrastructure, finding candidates, creating and pushing effective messages, and moving Overton Windows.
It meant being reality-based rather than ideologically driven. It meant speaking with a clear voice to a broader audience, rather than playing to an increasingly small echo chamber. Above all, it meant using bottom-up democratic organizing tools, media outlets, and fundraising to build a broad coalition of Americans dedicated to creating a brighter future.
That work paid off in 2006 and 2008. It resulted in the election of an African-American named Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency--a result not even the most aspirational leftist ideologue would have imagined possible in the dark days of 2003.
So as you sit helpless and depressed this evening in your living rooms, realizing that the world around you will be no different for all your sign-waving today than it was yesterday, it may behoove you to consider a change in tactics.
First and foremost, you will find it necessary to dissociate yourself from the craziest of your supporters. The ones that make you look bad in front of a national audience.
Unfortunately for you, your craziest and least popular supporters are named Limbaugh, Beck, and O'Reilly. Your strategy of resentment-fueled race-baiting has left you in an electoral cul-de-sac: a regional rump party of Southern racists and aging white exurban holdouts against the tide of modern reality. Starved of political oxygen and unwilling to deal with the political reality that has presented itself to you, your entire movement has been left in a state of crazed panic. Your top spokespeople are the very Pied Pipers leading you off a cliff and doing you the most damage.
Independents are leaving you in droves; Hispanics, once a competitive voting block and by far the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, are increasingly permanently Democratic; and young people are breaking Democratic by large margins. Unless you change something and fast, you are looking at decades of electoral disaster.
When you're in a hole, stop digging. Ditch Beck, Limbaugh and O'Reilly. Stand up and reject them. It may be painful; your base may abandon you for an electoral cycle or two; but those whose message purports to be "personal responsibility" should understand the concept of short-term pain in exchange for long-term gain.
Until you do, all your tea parties and incipient street protests will amount to the same hill of beans they have for the Left, and you'll wind up sitting at home, depressed and angrier than when you started.
If you truly want success, target your fire not at Obama, but at Glenn Beck. Clean your own house.
Only then will the American People acknowledge you as serious participants in the public debate, and give you a shot at what really matters: governance.
Trust me. I've been there.
14 April 2009
If you frequent the downtown of just about any major metropolitan area regularly, then you know the difference between the homeless and the hardcore crackheads. The temporarily homeless have a look in their eyes that says "I am lost. I not sure how I got here. Can you help me change this picture?"
A hardcore crackhead doesn't have that look. The look they have in their eyes signal that they are oblivious to what is going on around them. All they want to do is get that feeling that they had when they were high, and they'll do anything to get it back.
If you are in downtown Atlanta today, or any of the hundreds of other locations that Tea Parties will be held in around the country, take a close look into the eyes of the vocal, rabid ten percent of the Tea Baggers who are hardcore followers of this diversion, and you will see the same kind of look you see in a hardcore crackhead. All they want to do is get that feeling that they had when they felt they were higher up on the food chain of American society, and they'll do anything to get it back.
The ninety percent who are joiners are like those who are temporarily homeless – they will look to anyone for help when it seems the rest of the world is ignoring them. Some company when it gets dark. Their outrage that will be beamed into your living rooms during the evening and late night news broadcasts tonight will be real, the same way the hunger that curdles the stomachs of the homeless and the hardcore crackheads in the middle of the night are real.
And on Thursday morning, these hundreds of thousands of people will wake up the same way the homeless and the drug addicted do after getting a good hot meal in their stomachs and a little doggy bag to go - like something might really be starting to change in their lives. The hardcore crackheads of the Tea Party movement will be the most boisterous, because their dealers - Glen Beck, Rick Sanchez, Rick Santorelli, Michelle Malkin, Neil Cavuto, and the rest of the street lieutenants - will get the word from the kingpin of the nope dope, Rush Limbaugh himself, that it's okay to give everybody a free twenty piece today.
Because kingpins don't get to be kingpins without knowing how to keep their users hooked.
But we all know how this story goes, because if you frequent your downtown regularly, you know what I know. There are those who are temporarily homeless, and then there are the same helpless souls you saw last month, and the month before that. Because no matter how much you feed the permanently homeless and the hardcore crackheads today, they are going to be starving again by the weekend.
This outrage is a lot like hunger. It can be an urge so overpowering, especially when it is fed by the nope dope, that it forces you to make the kind of decisions that ignore permanent long term gains because you need short term relief. Because you are craving the kind of tingle you had when you felt like "your kind of people" were running things in D.C. And if you get a taste of that uncut nope dope - they call it that "extreme righteousness" - your outrage can become so powerful so fast that it can allow you to simply blow right past some of the realities of modern life.
A week from now, a month from now, these Tea Baggers will still be outraged, indignant at the their brownskinned president, even though the decisions he and his staff are making are about the same as what any other president faced with these circumstances would have to make. The most principled Republican governors in the country have had to bow to the demands of pragmatism, because things are just that bad.
I would imagine though, if I had another brownskinned man pop up as the leader of the party I normally belonged to, and I had to listen to Glen Beck and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh caterwaul all day and night about how bad I've got it, before they got driven home to their mansions to get a good night's sleep, I'd feel pretty abandoned myself.
Pretty damned mad.
And pretty damn ready for another hit of that "extreme righteousness", even when I know all I'm doing is making the kingpin richer.
After this blows over, I hope the real Republicans, the kind that I grew up around, get together and plan a mass intervention. Declare a War On Drugs and put the "nope dope" dealers out of business. And please, please, get Condolezza Rice or Colin Powell to give Micheal Steele a call and tell him that he's a member of the Big Boys Club now and doesn't have act like a clown anymore. Because there is no way this political party is going to have a chance at building a positive future out of negative attitudes like these.
Four Negroes in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher and a couple of machine guns are a "defining moment in foreign policy" for the Obama administration? I think Bill Bennett is one of the smarter, and usually more thoughtful conservative commentators, so I was more than a little surprised when I saw one of my fellow bloggers use the "defining moment in foreign policy" quote from a Bennett radio appearance in his deconstruction of the latest Republican talking points, talking points that tried to frame this latest hijacking incident and the subsequent rescue attempt by the U.S. government as something that is bigger than it was.
But the basic premise here, which is still "four Negroes from Somalia in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher and a couple of machine guns" are a "defining moment in foreign policy" for the Obama administration?", has still got me wide eyed ten minutes after reading it. I don't see why we weren't blowing these people out of the water from the rip. Why would I give millions of dollars to four Negroes from Somalia in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher and a couple of machine guns? Since when did pirates have the right to due process?
Somalia is broker than broke. Maybe they need to hire Sally Struthers (is she still alive?) to do an infomercial for them where she begs for money to feed a starving nation, the way she used to years ago for - hold on - starving African children. Oops. I forgot - its not like we weren't sending money, both from our public institutions and our private citizens, to help provide food, shelter and clothing for a struggling nation. Which African dictator we supported for what ulterior motive would take up a week long series, but setting that aside for a moment, we are still talking about what is essentially the same problem - a few thousand Negroes from Somalia in military transport vehicles with a few rocket launchers and a couple thousand machine guns who have been pirates on dry land for decades, holding their own people hostage for ransoms from industrialized nations like ours.
I haven't been to a barbershop since my "front forty" deserted me - I can trim my "back forty" myself in a matter of minutes without leaving home. But I can imagine, if I were in a barbershop today, that the tonsorial experts would have boiled this down exactly the way I have, telling bad jokes in poor taste about the "four Negroes in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher and a couple of machine guns" who have fooled themselves into thinking they can really make this pirate thing a career move.
Two little boys visited us on Saturday a few weeks ago, the children of S.'s second cousin. They reminded me of myself at their age - sheltered suburban black kids who walked around outdoors with a sense of trepidation and a standing order to stay clean from their mother. They had looked a little restless in the house, so I had ushered them outside. It was still damp from a rainstorm earlier that morning, with standing water in some low spots near the curb around the cul-de-sac.
Earthworms were everywhere.
That held their attention for a few minutes. Then I pulled out a golf ball and a putter, and that amused them a little longer as they putted around the turnaround, at least until they discovered how to hit the ball hard enough to get it airborne. The putter and the golf ball were quickly shelved after that revelation. By this time, my own inner child had surfaced, which meant that it was time to investigate how to get the water in the puddles at the edge of the street to move. Those few puddles were as mesmerizing to the three of us as the open sea is to sailors.
It didn't take long for the cuffs of their pants to start getting damp. Since I wasn't interested in hearing about it from their mother when one of them fell in, we suspended our engineering experiments immediately. The boys looked around at the street as they shook their shoes off and drew in their breaths.
"What's wrong?" I asked the oldest one, who was around six or seven.
"Worms! They're all around us." A dozen earthworms were vigorously inching their way across the blacktop towards the damp circle we'd made around us as we played in the water, their segmented bodies glistening, the smooth, band like clitellum swelling with each undulation of their almost see through bodies. The youngest child looked like he wanted his mother.
I started laughing.
"Come here, boys." The two of them crowded around me as I stepped in front of a fast moving worm. "Aren't you bigger than this worm?"
"Then what are you worried about? Just step on him."
The oldest boy looked at me as if he didn't believe his shoes would protect his feet from this ferocious predatory worm inching his way past us. I flicked the worm into the landscaping. "See how easy that was?" I scanned the pavement - sure enough a few of them had already been run over. "This," I said, pointing at their shredded carcasses, "is what happens when you step on them."
By the time we went back inside, the boys looked like they had learned something about themselves that they didn't know when they arrived, something that gave them a little more context about the world and their place in it.
We can blow four Negroes from Somalia in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher and a couple of machine guns out of the water all day long as easily as I can crush a worm with the bottom of my shoe. Any African dictator will tell you that in an environment of heightened violence and intense poverty, you have to kill quite a few folks to get the attention of the masses.
There is a point at which four Negroes from Somalia in a lifeboat with a rocket launcher with a couple of machine guns can go from being people to being nothing more than worms. But there is absolutely no point at which stepping on these worms can even remotely be a "defining moment of foreign policy" for a presidential administration.
These worms deserve to be nothing more than fish food.
13 April 2009
Mr. President, you're a pretty good parent. Although it's pretty obvious that your wife and mother-in-law have pulled double duty the last few years, you seem to pitch in readily when you are home. You've raised your children to look out for each other. You've constantly reminded them that "they are all in this together." You've showed them how their interests, as separate as they may seem to them as individuals, are all intertwined. You've punished them when they are selfish and refuse to share with each other. You've trained the older, stronger, wiser child to care for the younger, weaker one. You've taught them, when there is a family crisis, to rely on one another's strengths and battle their weaknesses as a unit. This is not just an American phenomenon, it is a human one, practiced all around the globe.
So here we are, with a banking industry so far underwater you could call the mortgage derivatives they wish they'd never seen ".357 magnum liabilities", because the hole these debts would make in their balance sheets upon exit would be much, much larger than the holes they made going in - this is the very same banking industry who is now ready to turn around while we are still giving them their own bailout money and become "holier than thou" about the few billion dollars worth of their corporate brethren Chrysler's debt they control.
You couldn't do a more thorough job of destroying money than our bankers on Wall Street if you backed hundreds of dump trucks piled full of cash up to industrial furnaces and dumped their payloads straight into the red hot kilns. The convenient fiction these bankers want us to believe is that they did not do this intentionally, nevertheless, turning junk bonds into triple A rated securities was a whole lot like playing with matches. Keep it up long enough, and you are sure to get burned.
But the field of high finance has almost as many euphemisms for playing with matches and starting a fire as the military does when they kill people during peacekeeping missions. If you use this kind of lingo long enough, phrases like "mortgage backed securities" start to sound like they are describing sleek, elegant bundles of gilt edged securities instead of what they really were - unstable rocket fuel whose combination with the hot sparks of poor risk management decisions have exploded, creating a blaze that is curling billions of dollars worth of greenbacks into ashes right in front our eyes, the same way the phrase "collateral damage" has a smug knowingness about it that almost completely divorces the loss of human life from the act of firing deadly weapons.
Chrysler is in the same boat. They and GM use the phrase "we need to restructure our legacy costs" with so much vigor and flag waving, you are almost convinced that these companies could have really achieved all their success with a few hundred key people pushing the right buttons on their computers, as if the parts would formulate themselves and assemble into cars without any human intervention, the way things happen in a Disney movie.
If you're a parent, you know what to do when you have a child who is delusional, and given to believing in imaginary characters. It takes awhile with a kid like this, because he's got a really active mind that will concoct new fictional friends as fast as you neutralize the old ones. But eventually, between your perseverance and the passage of time, your kid will grow out of this as you teach him the difference between the things that actually exist and the things he wants to believe are true. Which means, Mr. President, that you are going to have to let the remaining execs in the auto industry know that there is no Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus doesn't really live in the North Pole. You are going to have to insist that the only reason that these companies got as large as they did was because of the people they employed who actually did the work, people who have earned their retirements.
You know instinctively as a parent, Mr. President, that if you've got two children who both keep throwing rocks at your neighbor's window until it one of them breaks it, you have to punish them both the same way. Right now, the nation's masses are your metaphorical middle child, the kid who can recall with annoying certainty exactly how much the oldest received for their allowance when they were twelve. They are the kid who can regurgitate at a moments notice what kind of punishment you meted out to their siblings, broken down by type of offense, method of reprimand, and duration of punishment. They are the kid who has memorized in chronological order, down to the day, date, time of day, and location, each and every instance in which their youngest sibling received an extra helping of dessert.
We've seen what New Age parenting has done to our nation's children. In its quest to promote self awareness and high self-esteem, these kinds of parenting techniques have devalued the importance of authority, reduced the significance of achievement, and disavowed the notion that struggle and sacrifice are an integral part of success. I guess you and Mrs. Obama understand this yourselves, because you two seem to have gone back to the basics in raising your own children. Which means, Mr. President, you need to discipline the banking industry and the auto industry the way you appear to discipline your own daughters - sternly, fairly, and without showing favoritism to one over another.
12 April 2009
Chinese symbol for friendship
I talked to my father last night about a lot of things, including his take on these infamous "Tea Parties" that are going on around the country next week, and the state of the U.S. economy, and the fact that Congress, the present administration and the last one have done little but dance around the issues underlying our current financial crisis, but the most interesting tidbit he shared with me was something I hadn't heard very much about - the Chinese farming in Africa.
"What did you just say?" I asked my father.
"The Chinese," he repeated, pausing to emphasize the next two words, "are farming in Africa."
We talked for a few minutes about why the Chinese were in Africa, but after a couple of exchanges, we both realized we knew next to nothing about this.
"I'm going to read up on this tonight" I said before I hung up. It turns out that the Chinese are doing a 100 billion dollars worth of agricultural related commerce a year in Africa, substantially up from the 10 billion worth they were doing eight or nine years ago.
Why is this important? The only place left to sell things to are countries that are in the process of developing, countries that are still dealing with food, shelter and clothing issues. The only big place that fits the bill is Africa.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that my father is a Republican - not a RINO, or somebody who was just mad at the Democratic Party because they let everybody in, but someone who is well versed in GOP minutia and is fairly well known among the party leadership in South Carolina. So when I asked him about these "Tea Parties" planned for next week, I wasn't sure what his answer would be.
"You know," he said, "there are a lot of people out of work right now, a lot of people who are hurting, who are looking for some way to vent. I don't disagree with their right to assemble, but stuff like this...things like this can lead to anarchy if people aren't careful."
The bad thing about being a writer is that in the middle of his preaching, you find yourself doing stuff like critiquing the minister's selection of the controlling metaphor in his sermon. How S. decided to become a member here I don't know - there were so many songs I thought I was at the Soul Train Gospel Awards. The good thing about being a writer, especially a writer of fiction, which I am in my other non-paying night job, is the amount of self-examination you go through in creating fictional characters. Every narrative is self-referential because the writer has to always start with what he knows about himself and the people he or she has come in contact with to lend a sense of authenticity to make-believe lives.
A reverend who is loud and perspires heavily may get you excited for an afternoon, but a reverend who tells you a story that builds upon itself can give you the kind of insight and inspiration that lasts for weeks.
The Ladies Number One Detective Agency on HBO on Sunday night with Jill Scott as the star, self taught detective Mma Ramotsweis is entertaining, but if the show's script doesn't call for her enterprising secretary to get paid this week, I may have to quit watching until the secretary has got a big wad of pula stuffed in her purse. I mean, Mma Ramotsweis has a house, a car, and is even hiring little boys off the street to pass out flyers, and can't afford to pay her employee anything at all? Other than this plot twist, its not bad. Not bad at all - one of the few prime time shows on HBO that doesn't try to break the world record for most profanity used in an episode.
This is what happens when I eat dinner too early.
10 April 2009
President Obama went on a European vacation, and all we got were some pictures. I guess I'll have to take a cue here from ESPN, the master of made up statistics - "Larry Bird is the most accurate inbound passer of all time" - and declare the Obamas "the tallest American presidential couple of all time." The buildup for this trip was so big it was hard to believe that the world leaders only met for a day. I imagine they wanted to make sure they got back home in time to see the world leader of golf try to snag another green jacket at the Masters in Augusta this weekend.
Then again, I guess it couldn't take too long for them to all announce "we're broke as hell too." I'll leave the parsing of promises that won't be kept to the pros at the Washington Post and The New York Times who get paid the big bucks to tell us, in euphemisms and anecdotes that we don’t understand half the time, why the majority of us don’t really understand the nuances of foreign diplomacy most of the time.
What I want to get into today is the debate that is brewing among the black critics of the Obama Administration.
- How much criticism is too much?
- Can you criticize the president and still keep your Afro-American I.D. card?
- How critically are black people willing to examine the inaction the president has opted for on numerous occasions?
I've been in online writing groups for years. The only reason they exist is to bring writers together to help each other get better by reading and criticizing each other's work. The first critique I got on my favorite writers workshop, Scrawl, stung quite a bit. I'd been writing in a vacuum on and off for a few years, and it showed. But I hung in there, and submitted another story, and then another. Meanwhile, I began critiquing the work of other writers. Doing the critiques, I learned early on that the way to get someone whose work I didn't think was very good to read my stuff was to address their literary deficiencies with some concrete actions, suggestions that were in some cases the same techniques I used to give life to my own work.
Many of us feel that in some ways President Barack Obama and his family are a cherished part of the African American collective, the same way the writers in my writing group felt that the work they submitted for review was an important representation of their artistic perspective. Which means that we who have dubbed ourselves cultural critics owe it to our new president to be as honest and as forthright as possible about his shortcomings as we are about his strengths. What we have to do is be wary of efforts by the mainstream media to delegitimize our commentary.
How much criticism is too much?
It's almost impossible to create a melody with just one note, let alone a whole song. When the critic begins to sound like a one note nancy, the way Tavis Smiley did last year, it's too much. But when the president is having a bad week, or a bad month, it is what it is. The best hitters in baseball strike out more than they hit the ball. The president is kind of in the same boat. Calling a strikeout after an unsuccessful at-bat is expected. But every solid base hit is not a fluke, or a lapse by the pitcher, or an unforced error. When President Obama gets some good wood on the ball, call it "good wood on the ball."
Can you criticize the president and still keep your Afro-American I.D. card?
This metaphorical membership card, not to be confused with the "race card", which is one of the funniest media-fostered oxymorons I've ever heard, does have a similar intent - to place restrictive boundaries around those upon whom these designations are conferred. If you are having a problem with the allegiance to President Obama versus your allegiance to your perceived peer group, you need to think about this - he may look like us all of the time, but he stands for us for only a small part of the time that he is the president. This metaphorical membership card business is more about how you think than who you are. You might not be able to leave home without American Express, but this 'black card" is one you can leave behind.
How critically are black people willing to examine the inaction the president has opted for on numerous occasions?
This is probably the most important area of all. When the president does not address certain issues that disproportionately affect African Americans, it may be for a variety of reasons - lack of political capital, lack of emphasis by his staffers who put together his briefing books, or simply that there are other issues that are crowding the president's bandwidth. It really doesn't matter what the reason is, though, because our responsibility to ourselves should trump any urge to submerge our needs in order to make him look good. For instance, there are many homes in poor and working class black neighborhoods that have been flipped over and over again until they were sucked dry of their equity by unscrupulous investors who took advantage of the relaxed lending standards, or in some cases, committed outright mortgage fraud.
These empty houses, which are a significant part of the "toxic assets" the banks are complaining about, aren't moving, even with new investors out there who are willing to bring as much as half of the purchase price to the table, because the lenders are not willing to write down the debts on these houses to levels that can support current appraisal values. This is an issue which needs to be addressed right now - the people left in these neighborhoods are now being held hostage by redlining because the lenders who are willing to write new loans for buyers won't do business in zip codes with a high number of foreclosed properties. And if the president isn't willing to use his bully pulpit to do something about it, we need to aggravate him and his staff until he does.
Cliches are cliches because they are overused metaphors, but we use continue to use them because they are one of the most efficient distillations of the essence of a literal truth. So I will leave you with my final reason why we need to criticize the president - "the squeaky wheel gets the grease", no matter what color they are.
09 April 2009
I don't have any problem with people protesting the status quo. I serve as an agent provocateur myself here at Brown Man Thinking Hard, so the idea of the taxpayer "Tea Parties" that will be held next week on April 15th is the kind of thing that would initially appeal to me. I can even see some merit in the reasoning behind some of their issues with the Obama administration, even after allowing for the highly partisan slant of their platform.
The thing I don't like about it is the kind of people it has attracted. They are the same insufferable types as the dissatisfied Democrats who formed P.U.M.A. after Hillary Clinton lost her mojo late last spring when it became clear that she had been out hustled, out organized, and out fundraised by Barack Obama's crackerjack campaign managers. In fact, if you look closely at the people standing in the crowds at these "Tea Parties", you will see a common denominator, uniquely American smugness that can only be achieved by angry white people with an incomplete command of two or three catchphrases, the kind who are always suspicious that their birthrights are being stolen right from under their noses.
I thought about the things I protested in my life as I mulled over the details behind this latest partisan assault masquerading as a populist movement against the American government. Years ago when I was in college, the only black English professor I ever took a class from was a part of the journeyman teaching circuit, taking short term jobs wherever she could find them. The good doctor's PhD, as far as I knew, was a real one. Her passion for her chosen field of study, African American literature, seemed genuine. The quality of her research appeared to be solid. I have no real recollection, though, of how much she had published.
My alma mater, one of the most venerated institutions of higher learning in the south, had been spending the income from their enlarged endowment like water in an effort to recruit the best academic talent to our campus. The good doctor liked what she saw, so she applied for tenure. I don't know the mechanics behind tenure, so all I can tell you is that she was denied tenure, although I would imagine that she may have been denied the right to even apply for tenure, or was possibly even turned down for a teaching position with immediate tenure.
So the good doctor fought back. She filed grievances through the proper channels. She lobbied the department chair. And she went outside the university, enlisting the aid of Atlanta's civil rights and protest community. Now that I think about it, I don't know how I ended up involved in the good doctor's struggle to gain a permanent position on the faculty. She had a way of putting things in terms that made it seem like you were letting yourself down if you didn't at least listen to what she had to say.
A determined band of students from her classes started meeting at the good doctor's house to do what we could for her cause. Inside her home, she took the gloves off. She spoke freely of the horrors she had suffered at the hands of college administrators across the country. She condemned the idea of so much authority resting in the hands of white men, who she felt were already predisposed to discount her scholarship because she was black and because she was a woman. To impressionable college students, her anti-authority rhetoric spoke to that thing in all people that age who were still largely dependents of their parents, their original authority figures.
We got to meet C.T. Vivian. We were supposed to meet the celebrated writer James Baldwin, in town to do research on the Atlanta child murders, who had ostensibly enlisted in the good doctor's cause to put outside pressure on the university to reconsider her application, but he never materialized. And there was a hodgepodge of old line civil rights protesters who milled around the good doctor's house on Saturday and Sunday nights as she plotted strategy.
But black college students, especially at a top flight mainstream university, are more conservative than College Republicans. Those descended from parents who had gotten along to get ahead knew instinctively to shy away from the limelight and refuse to sign protest petitions. Those who were less fortunate depended so heavily on the college for aid that they wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardize their ability to earn a degree. Which only left the hard headed and the adventurous among us who agreed to stand up at a press conference for the good doctor and denounce the college administration. Being both hard headed and adventurous, I ended up being one of the key spokespeople for the good doctor's cause.
By the time we got to the press conference at the old Paschal's Restaurant and Hotel near downtown Atlanta, I'd learned a lot about protesting. From the dozens of us who gathered weekly at the good doctor's house, only three or four of us were actually willing to stand in front of the TV cameras in our mod "power to the people" black clothing and read our prepared statements. My mind was more on the silky haired, mocha colored goddess who stood beside me, a fine young woman from Michigan who hadn't given me more than the time of day before I became a protester than it was on the intent of my short speech.
Protesting became addictive. That spring semester, we protested something or another in front of the student center along with reinforcements from the Atlanta University schools. I sat in the ornate office of my university's president with a gonzo, balls to the wall partner-in-crime to present to the preternaturally cool president a set of demands for funding a new kind of African American organization on campus, since the Student Government Association seemed to have a stranglehold on the student activity fees we paid every year. I sat on a panel that spring at a symposium that pitted HBCU minority student concerns against mainstream university minority student concerns, where I proceeded to excoriate the status quo mindset among black college students.
When our protest for the good doctor didn’t elicit a response from the university through any channels, public or private, she began to become desperate and bitter. Some of Atlanta’s old line families, ones with connections to the university itself, she told us one evening a couple of weeks after the protest, were implicated in the Atlanta child murders, which was why the police were having a hard time making a case against anyone. And why the university was out to get her.
The balls to the wall guy who sat next to me in the president's office to help present our new black student organization proposals turned out to be some random black guy who had never been enrolled at the university. It turned out that he wasn't just always over at his girlfriend’s dorm room – he was living there illegally, at least until the school kicked him out of the dorm and banned him from campus.
Everybody at the helm of these things had ulterior motives. But it was easy, if you didn't know what to look for, to get caught up in the emotion of group action. To feel empowered by the kind of leaders who understood your pain and suffering better than anybody else.
In a down market, as members of an out of favor political party, Glen Beck and Michelle Malkin seem to be making as much of a play for increased influence and a higher "Q" rating as they are making a push for economic justice. I just wish they would point their troops in the right direction - the abuse of corporate governance that has allowed CEO's to become financial rapists.
Hating the president is pointless if you are not RAISING MONEY and ORGANIZING NEW VOTERS for your own candidate, or grooming somebody other than Sarah Palin for president, or learning to get over your aversion to Mitt Romney's religion because he is the best chance you've got. Money and votes, not outrage and protest, are what will facilitate an administration change.
I actually realized halfway through this little rant that isn't fair, but the irony, at least in my mind, is that neither are these crazed fanatics, the kind of people who will get together to beat your brains out to protect "the sanctity of life" and then drive home past real live human beings in need that they could care less about.
The principles in most protests are based on basic core human values and good intentions. But it is the extreme rhetoric that is most revealing, whether it is an angry looking young black man standing in front of a TV camera denouncing a "paternalistic administration that treat professors like sharecroppers" or these legions of Americans, almost all of whom are white, who are angrily denouncing "the liberal media", "Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the new Obama Administration" or "socialists".
How do I know they are white? Go see for yourself:
I tried the same thing on Google, since I'm apt to be biased in the links I provide. Try it yourself – type in "tea party taxpayer revolt" and select "images" from the Google toolbar, and you'll see that these protesters look suspiciously like the same white people in the Pelosi daughter's documentary who hated "that Muslim" running for president.
Maybe it's the way I look at the United States in the context of world history, but I've always thought of this country, at less than two hundred and fifty years old, as a nation entering its adolescence. Which means we are entering that awkward phase that all teenagers go through before they finally begin to come into their own as young adults. America's greatest days, I believe, are ahead of us.
The only advice I have for the protesters is the same advice my mother gave me the summer after my "semester of protest", when she learned about these activities for the first time during the break between my junior and senior year. "I think you need to remember," she said, with her patented left eye cocked open stare, the same kind that the actress Pearl Bailey used to use when she meant business, "why we sent you there."
My mother didn't want another Malcolm X - she wanted a college graduate.
And I assume that the Tea Baggers want more at the end of the day than a sore throat, so I suggest to my angry friends that you check your leader's ulterior motivations out to make sure their game plans can translate your ire into something that pays off for you as much as it is going to pay off for them.
08 April 2009
There seems to be a little too much smiling going on in Afro - America Land these days, a little too much chest puffing, a few too many heads held high. Black people from coast to coast are proud 24 hours a day right now, even as they brave the possibilities of layoffs, smaller paychecks, and retirement accounts that have evaporated.
All of this positive energy appears to be unnerving a miniscule but vocal subset of Americans:
"I am sick and tired of being made to feel guilty because I am white."
Why should these people be so happy, this group asserts, just because the president is black?
I've felt the same way before - "I am sick and tired of being made to feel guilty because I am black" - when I have been lumped in with black crime suspects whose physical description in no way corresponds to my actual dimensions or appearance, or when it was presumed that I must be an interloper because, well, because we just don't usually see black people in places like this unless they are lost, or waiting on us.
But that is usually the philosophical outrage of youth - philosophical because if you've grown up in any but the most utopian of locales here in the United States, you know if you are black that if you spend all your time being emotionally outraged at the vagaries of race in this country, you will go crazy.
I've been trained since birth to understand that my actions can be construed in a negative light as easily as the wind blows. I know instinctively how belligerent or arrogant or persnickety I can be before I am accorded that lowliest of designations, "one of them."
And I used to accept that I would live this way until I died.
But if we can all agree that the way things are right now in black America - I'm not talking about the seven out of ten black people who do the right thing all the time, but the perennial 30% of African Americans who don't have any real education, cycle in and out of jail, have children they are not willing to properly raise, engage in petty crimes that carry big punishments, and kill each other waaay, waaay too much - if we can agree that these things have to change, and if we can agree that a precondition for anyone to get from one station in life to the next is to "see it, then believe it", I myself am ecstatic that the nation's most downtrodden group of black people seem to be on their way to sustaining a permanent positive mental outlook.
"I think Black pride sometimes does not come across as positive feeling towards the strides that blacks have made, but as a 'get the white guy back."
Practically all the African Americans in this country who are descended from slaves are the progeny of those who did not revolt, of those who did not rise up in attempts to kill their white masters. If the election of Barack Obama doesn't show America anything else, it should be an indicator of just how little it will take to balance the scales of racial justice.
The vast majority of people in this country know how to live in diverse settings. I can talk to my neighbor from the Ukraine, or my neighbor from Seattle, or my neighbor who has just returned from a trip to his hometown in Ohio just the same, because we all have plenty of ordinary things in common in our day to day lives. We're all tired of the HOA, we're all upset when the school bus schedule changes, and we all feel like we're being held hostage by our local cable provider.
Even when we cross over from the mundane aspects of our lives to the parts about which we all have extremely strong personal convictions - our politics, our religion, our moral litmus tests - it is rare, at least among most of my neighbors, that bruised feelings stay bruised for long, partly because of proximity, and partly because of the forward nature of life itself.
So I would imagine, for that small minority who are feeling put upon these days because they are white, that this tinge of guilt brought on by visible signs of black pride sounds a lot like tinnitus, the constant sensation of having a faint ringing in your ear - a condition that becomes annoying over time, until the very thought of it threatens to drive the suffer over the edge. There is no real cure for tinnitus, and there is likely to be no real cure for this guilty feeling either, if the only way it will disappear is for black Americans to suck their chests back in and quit smiling so much.
07 April 2009
One of my previous posts, the tongue-in-cheek bit of humor I whipped up last week titled When Are White People Going To Stop Looking For A Handout?, has struck a nerve out there in the blogosphere, partly because I took great pleasure in insulting Michelle Malkin in the piece, but mostly because it took the twisted logic of the age-old conservative chestnut "when are black people going to stop waiting for a handout?" and flipped the script.
Angry visitors have been coming to Brown Man Thinking Hard in droves since yesterday to leave their two cents worth of opinions about the sharply barbed bon mots that were liberally sprinkled through this satirical piece.
People like these become some of the most thin-skinned beings on the planet when one of the aphorisms they have concocted and perpetuated over the years is altered with the substitution of one word - "white" - in a way that points out just how absurd the original version has become. All of a sudden, the phrase isn't so funny anymore.
The even sadder thing about all of this is how political blowhards like Malkin can prostitute the Republican Party party the way she does, in effect turning the party's principles, which are simple, human scale ones, into caricatures of themselves, the same way rappers exaggerate what it’s like to live in the 'hood.
My parents taught me to be a good host, though, even when your guests are prone to act up. So if you folks who are sightseeing really want to know what the Brown Man is all about, feel free to read through the archives here. There are over a hundred thousand originally produced words in the 300 odd posts here that demonstrate the commitment this Brown Man has made to expand the political narrative in this country beyond the binary version that is currently popularized on TV and in the press.
A good place to start, if I were a hostile visitor who was looking for more racially oriented material by that uppity, thinks he's smarter than us Kris Broughton to complain to my buddies about is the four part series I did last year, White Americans and The Politics of Race. I'd print it all out, get a good cup of coffee, and let 'er rip - if you don't read anything else here, this is the series I would say is a must.
Rush The Magic Ego is a little more intimate, with a few revelations about Kris Broughton's background that might surprise those of you hostile visitors who automatically think "Democrat" and "liberal" when you run into African Americans.
Don’t let the title to Aaahh! Mandingo Is Running The Country scare you – it is really a thoughtful meditation about those who pine for the nostalgia of a Norman Rockwell version America. A version, Kris Broughton is happy to announce, that will not be coming back.
I know a lot of you who might be coming over here are more used to the high pitched sounds of parrot chirping than the low, melodic, practically silent resonance associated with deep thinking, so take it slow. Think of this site like a library – you can come in anytime you want to check out a selection for free. Even if you don't agree with me, or look like me, I can guarantee that you will learn something here if you wander through enough of these archives.
Tell Michelle I said hello.
05 April 2009
We've had a good time, celebrating the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, our nation's first black president. A lot of us African Americans are still luxuriating in that post inaugural feelgood haze, an elixir so powerful that it has many of us seeing the famous metaphorical glass as half full for the first time in our lives, even as America faces what will prove to be one of its greatest economic challenges ever. I see a lot of commentary on the political end of the web, both from those who feel as good as we do about this momentous event to those who feel that the country is about to go to hell in a handbasket because the man in the White House is black.
But the problems this country has right now, which by extension are the same problems a lot of African Americans are having, started in the housing markets, with creative mortgage loans that kept a housing boom going long after it should have leveled off. The loans themselves were higher risks, but the subprime mortgage markets have always accounted for these risks by pricing the loans at higher interest rates to compensate for their lower repayment levels. These loans have been around for years. But until the 90's, no one in their right mind would have dreamed of creating an entire class of investment securities that gambled on securitized payment streams from these loans.
These used to be portfolio loans, the kind of paper that the lenders who made them had to hold onto for years before anyone might take a chance on buying them. Even the securitization of bundles of these loans wasn't a bad thing - it was the manner in which the smart guys on Wall Street figured out how to put enough lipstick on these pigs to make conservative investors believe they could fall in love with them the way they did real triple AAA rated paper that was the beginning of the end for "C" and "D" loan markets.
The travesty going forward will be the price that African American communities end up paying for this.
Back when I started in the mortgage business, I worked for a firm that only did subprime loans. I was glad they hired me, because I had just been laid off by an internet company during the internet bust and needed to get into something new. The two white women from St. Louis I worked for were crackerjack trainers - I completed my first loan, from taking the loan application to sitting in at the closing, in five days after two weeks of training. The thing about this company that rubbed me the wrong way was their insistence on advertising that targeted blacks, and a standing company rule to charge the highest interest rate allowed by law, no matter how easily a borrower could be qualified to get a Fannie Mae or FHA loan.
I ended up at a firm that targeted talk radio listeners - the kind of working class white Americans who keep Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh in business, people who worked hard to keep our plants running and our department stores staffed and our school children taught. We did good business charging competitive fees and getting low rates for them, even when their credit was a little slow, or their debt to income ratios were slightly out of whack, or they were a few points shy of meeting government loan guidelines. It was not the kind of business that made anyone rich - our average fees of $3500 paled in comparison to the the kind of cash subprime operations were generating, but the boss had lost his home as a child because his parents had been talked into an adjustable rate mortgage, and was morally opposed to doing them unless there was no other way to get a deal done.
The mortgage boom that took place after September 11, 2001 strained our operations to the point that we couldn't get our deals done in less than four to six weeks, so we became a victim of our own success. The firm that really opened my eyes to how important the much maligned "minority borrower" was to the bottom line of many companies, large and small, that populated the financial industry was a mortgage lender owned by an ex-builder. The FHA loan was just starting to come back into vogue, so we had a series of training seminars on how to do them.
One morning, as we were waiting to begin, I overheard the owner, who had just finished advising a loan officer on a marketing plan for Dekalb County, joke with his head underwriter about how things had come full circle. "I built my share of houses in Dekalb," he said. "Then, when the buyers needed repairs for that bad siding from Louisiana that we put on a lot of them, I went into the rehab business. I made money, but the guys at HFC and Beneficial were making more, and they didn't have to keep an eye on any crews like I did. So I get into the mortgage business, and here we go again, refinancing the second mortgages on the same damn houses we built and then fixed up."
Most of the business I've done since I've been a loan officer were Fannie Mae loans and some higher end "Alt A" loans, where the borrowers had great credit and plenty of assets, but had other quirks - mostly the self employed or those with job gaps. The handful of truly awful loans I've done were pretty much the borrowers last resort. The highest interest rate I've ever closed a deal on was at 12% on $250,000 for a white family who were going to have to move out of the house they were leasing from a builder if they didn't get a loan - with the tax liens they had, it was amazing that anyone funded it at all. Dozens more prospective clients, practically all of them African American, walked away from low interest rate deals I put together for them because their friends were all getting cash back at closing from the guys who peddled the 2 year ARM's with the teaser rates
Today, Dekalb County is one of the hardest hit areas in the Atlanta metro. Foreclosures have been a problem for some time, and if you drive through the areas of the county where the houses from the eighties are concentrated, which are homes owned largely by black middle and working class families, you will see his anecdote come to life, with homes whose siding is sagging once again while the people inside them try to figure out how to make another month's mortgage payment on homes they often cannot afford to keep fixing.
When you have this kind of perspective on these toxic assets, you begin to truly see how insidious this latest national financial calamity is for us. You see people who have put good money behind good faith, paying on first mortgages with 10% and 12% interest rates and second mortgages with rates of 15% or more while the roof leaks or the foundation cracks, and wonder what kind of seat in hell should be reserved for vultures like these.
Now these neighborhoods aren't just in Dekalb County, but all over the Atlanta metro area. Boarded up houses line many streets in working class black neighborhoods. The part of this story that we are in now is what to do about them. A big, big problem is the lenders themselves. These assets, they have said for months, are toxic to their balance sheets, so the government has offered them a way to get rid of them. Some of them have been flipped a few times. Some of them have simply been abandoned by the last homeowner when the payments jumped, as the lenders and the brokers knew they would, past a point that the borrowers could pay. The loans on them are in most cases much, much higher than anything they could possibly appraise for now.
But the bankers aren't moving them. It is as if the poison in the toxic assets are like snake venom that has slowly begun to paralyze their ability to move in the right direction. Now if it was me who knowingly stepped into a cage full of rattlesnakes, and then got bitten, when someone came running with the anti-venom to save my life, the way the Treasury Department has, I wouldn't hesitate in taking it.
But our nation's bankers have decided, now that the swelling has stopped from all the bites they've taken from their own brand of exotic mortgage derivative snakes, snakes they grew themselves, that they aren't sure they want to take the anti-venom, which in this case is participation in the TARP program that practically pays companies who actually have money to take these loans off their hands.
To these lily-livered son of a bitches, the loans themselves are an abstraction. To many of us, try to do our damnedest to keep a roof over our heads, they are as real as the boarded up house across the street, and the one next to it that doesn't have any windows left, eyesores that might only need a little repair work and a reasonable price tag to get families moving into them.
I feel good about having Barack Obama as our nation's president, but I would feel a whole lot better if he would quit smiling at the cameras long enough to put some wood to these guys on Wall Street, who look like they are willing to wait until their limbs start falling off before they get with the program. He needs to make them take the damn money they say they need, and then force them to get these foreclosed homes off of their books.
03 April 2009
Was getting rid of GM CEO Rick Wagoner a good idea? Will capping executive bonuses at Wall Street banks do any good, or just make us feel good? Will all the efforts to make the government more transparent actually matter if we don’t understand what we're looking at? Is our news media the equivalent of training wheels - something to hold us up until we can begin to see for ourselves - or are they more like bifocals - something we'll need to use the rest of our lives?
If we were all doctors, and the country was our patient, we would listen patiently at the outrage and disgust over Wall Street and the pity and regrets over the plight of the auto industry, take the nation's vital signs, review the symptoms of the citizenry, and prescribe a remedy. In this case, the proper medical protocol would call for alleviating the symptoms, if possible, while making an attempt to address the root cause of the problem.
Corporate governance would be our culprit in this case. It may sound innocuous, or tedious, the way some remedies your doctor prescribes may sound to you, but if you don't take the time to understand how power is wielded in a modern corporation, complaining about the fat cat salaries the media is spotlighting on TV these days is quite simply a waste of time. But we're human, so we yell at the TV anyway.
"U.S. restrictions on shareholder rights reflect the fact that U.S. companies are less controlled than non-U.S. companies by dominant shareholders. The U. S. has traditionally believed that directors are best placed to protect widely fragmented shareholder interests, e.g., long-term investors versus speculators, retail versus institutional, and large positions versus small."
A Global Perspective On Corporate Governance
All of the power of a corporation stems from the way it governs itself - from the way its bylaws, rules and regulations determine who has what say so in how the company is run. The number one fallacy about public companies that permeates popular culture is shareholder rights. Shareholders, according to popular lore, wield the power to elect officers, board members, and other representatives. It is also widely believed that a majority of shareholders who band together can dictate the direction of the company.
These things have not been true for a very long time.
The most amazing thing about a public company is the way a man can walk in the front door on his first day with absolutely nothing in his briefcase, and walk out a few years later with so many millions he would need a caravan of Brink's Armored trucks to carry them if he received his golden parachute or severance pay in cash.
Why is this?
Because if you took a look at the balance of power between the shareholders (known in finance 101 as "the owners") and the C-level executives (known in finance 101 as "the managers"), you will find, in just about every public corporation in this country, that the people who have the least amount of skin in the game - "the managers" - have the most amount of power.
Think about it. If you owned a private business, lock stock and barrel, a business that was large enough for you to hire someone else to run it for you in an executive capacity while you went fishing, would you let him set his own salary? Would you smile dutifully when he requested large bonuses in the form of options on equity in your firm every year, staggered in size and date in such a way that the first award would literally fund the actual outright purchase of equity in your company without your manager putting up one dime of his own money? Would you jump and down with glee and turn handstands when he lost money for the year, happily hand over a fat bonus of cash and equity in your business to him, and then tell him you’re thinking about improving his contract in order to "retain his services?"
Probably not, because every dollar you pay your executive manager is subtracted directly from your bottom line. When we talk about "real money", as opposed to the "play money" that corporations use, the picture becomes clearer in a hurry. But the money corporations use isn’t play money. It's as real as if it came out of the cash register at a mom and pop store.
My old roommate from years and years ago was a computer trainer. He made pretty good money back in the 90's showing people how to use software. But he struggled to stay on a budget. So he came up with a method that helped to rein in his spending. After putting aside money for rent, telephone (remember when there was ONE telephone bill per household, and you had to wait your turn to use the phone), monthly bills and savings, he would withdraw all of his spending money in cash. He'd sit the stack of bills on our glass topped dining table and think about how it was going to be spent. He believed that handling the actual money was a visual deterrent - watching the money go through his fingers, he said, was enough to make him reconsider how much he was about to spend on many an occasion.
Rolling the cash equivalent of a CEO's pay into shareholder meetings in wheelbarrows and dumping it on the floor in front of him would be a nice grandstanding ploy that might be a little embarrassing for the recipient, but it really wouldn’t help the shareholders much. What would help shareholders would be a return to the kind of basic corporate bylaws and rules that made shareholder rights take precedence over the rights of management. Can it be done?
In practically every instance that a shareholder proposal is broached, Super Corporations get their general counsels or outside counsels to issue a statement, one that normally contains language - "Super Corporation strongly urges the SEC to reject the shareholder proposal" – that denounces and rejects any overtures by shareholders to make it easier for them to have a voice in company matters. Combine that position with a slate of directors that most shareholders have never heard of, but the CEO has, and you have an entity that in effect answers only to itself, even as it sits atop a pile of other people's money.
We could go the English one better, and break out the windows of every bank on Wall Street, but after they are replaced, none of these board members will be any more sympathetic to us, or any more inclined to hoist their CEO's on a petard when necessary, or any less disposed to approve lavish pay packages whether the company earnings win, lose, or draw. The men who have signed off on the CEO pay bubble for the last thirty years are the directors, men and women who are supposed to be acting in your best interests. Men and women who are supposed to be the grown-ups in the room when your CEO throws a tantrum, or threatens to go home and take the shareholders ball with him if he doesn't get what he wants. Guess who they get their advice from when they need to make a decision? Guess who briefs them when the company has a problem? The guy with the ball - the ball that the shareholders own and the company's creditors have liens on.
If we go back to the analogy about being the owner of a private business, and take a look and one more item, we might get an idea of how to change this equation in the future. As a private business owner, the people you answer to are your bankers and your creditors. People you OWE money can influence you to do things as a business owner that you don't really want to do, just to get to continue to borrow money from your banker, or keep your longer term debt holders at bay. Common stock may be an outdated way to invest in a company. Bond holders and convertible debenture owners have much more leverage with Super Corporations than shareholders do.
This may not be the answer - I'm just thinking out loud here - but it is clear that what we have now only really works for the best interests of a few people. I'm tired of yelling at my TV too. Let's use this crisis as a way to rethink the relationship between capital and management for the new millennium.