It’s back-to-school time. Students are returning to campus, and intellectual inquiry is ramping up once again. So let’s try a little thought experiment…
Race & Culture
MY SMALL CONTRIBUTION TO
THE CONVERSATION ON RACE
Back in the early 1960s when I was in ninth grade, I was selected to represent Franklin Delano Roosevelt Junior High School at a regional gathering of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. At that time, NCCJ was a leading exponent of racial integration in support of the then-current Civil Rights Movement (the group is now called the National Conference for Community and Justice, a much trendier/leftier name).
The event I attended featured a slate of speakers, both black and white, addressing the topic of interracial cooperation. They cast that objective in terms of brotherhood, reflecting the faith-based organization’s sponsorship of “National Brotherhood Week.”
The next day I gave a report on the program over my school’s PA system. I thought I did a bang-up job. But afterward, several schoolmates complained that my presentation was more of a sermon than a report, and much too long.
Alas, certain tendencies of a budding writer showed even then.
WE’RE A MINORITY RELIGION
AND WE MUST BE UNITED
Over the last couple of months I had been trying to place an article about the ongoing conflict over liturgical music. As I announced in my last post, the essay was finally picked up by the online journal, ChurchPop.
It appeared Friday, June 26, the day our Supreme Court legalized “gay marriage.” That was also the day Islamist terrorists pulled off a triple-play in their ongoing run of carnage…
- killing 38 tourists at a seaside resort in Tunisia while wounding 36 others…
- killing 25 and wounding more than 200 in a bomb attack on a mosque in Kuwait…
- blowing up an American-owned chemical plant in France (that one perpetrated by a French Muslim of apparent radical sympathies who had worked at the facility and disliked his boss intensely enough to behead him)…
The Islamic State also held its own celebration of the Supreme Court’s ruling by executing four Iraqi men suspected of being homosexuals by tossing them off a tall building, and making ironic use of the #LoveWins hashtag tweeted by the White House.
Compared with such startling events, disagreement about the songs we sing at Mass doesn’t seem like all that urgent a topic. And expectedly, there appears to be a rather low level of interest in my article.
BRUCE JENNER AND RACHEL DOLEZAL
RAISE MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
We’ve recently been treated to two very engaging little dramas about personal identity.
The first, of course, was Bruce Jenner’s introduction of “Caitlyn,” the much anticipated expression of his inner “identity” as a woman. Second was the revelation that Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP, is a white person who, by her own claim, “identifies” as black.
Many observers have drawn parallels between these two individuals who, for whatever deep personal reasons, find themselves in conflict with the physical realities of their being. What can certainly be said of both is that theirs are the faces that launched a thousand jokes.
MEMORIES OF RIOTS PAST AND
It’s like “déjà vu all over again.”
Yogi Berra’s famously mangled line is often quoted to describe the feeling that not only has something happened before, but that it’s happened repeatedly.
The chaos in Baltimore evokes Los Angeles’ Watts Riot of 1965, the Detroit Riot of 1967, the second L.A. outbreak in 1992, and of course, last year’s mayhem in Ferguson, Missouri. And others. So many others.
I remember most vividly the multi-city violence that broke out after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. A student at Temple University (which, to this day, remains an integrated island located in the middle of a predominantly black urban ghetto), I was doubly saddened at King’s assassination — first, for the blind, persistent hatred that should strike down a man of principle and courage, and second, at the rapidity with which righteous anger was translated into the very kind of wanton lawlessness King preached against so fervently.
Had the nation learned nothing from the Civil Rights Movement? Had whites and blacks made no progress at all?
SIMPLE GOODNESS IS OFTEN
AN AFFRONT TO IDEOLOGUES
My daughter and her husband — being of the wired, high-tech generation — have taken to downloading movies, documentaries, and TV series from Netflix.
This technical advance benefits my wife and myself. We long ago dropped cable TV; and slow web speed in our rural community makes video streaming agony.
Thus, the kids gain shelf space, and the DVD collection at our house expands.
The latest batch of disks, acquired during our Christmas visit, includes a film titled, “The Blind Side.” It tells the story of an under-achieving but athletically gifted black teenager who is saved from a dead-end life in the Memphis, Tennessee “projects” through the combined efforts of a local Christian academy’s white coach (who knows football bulk when he sees it) and a rich white couple who welcome the youth into their home, eventually adopting him.
The 2009 film, which we had never seen before, was inspired by the real-life experience of Michael Oher, offensive tackle for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Oher is portrayed by actor Quinton Aaron.
Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the tough-as-nails/heart-of-gold mother who perceives the intelligence, talent and spirit which Oher’s intimidating physical presence and introverted nature conceal from most people. Her part veers close to a “Steel Magnolias” cliché of the strong-willed, all-knowing, “momma grizzly” Southern woman. It’s kept on track by Bullock’s engaging screen presence. She’s good at portraying confident, personable women.
The movie was a box office success and received a Best Picture nomination. A little poking around on the web reveals that it also stirred controversy.
MONSTROUS ALLEGATIONS ABOUT A GREAT COMIC
SUGGEST EXPLOITATION IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Cosby had a significant presence for me during my college days, since we both attended Temple University (albeit years apart) and worked at the university’s radio station, WRTI. Also, like most people, I’ve been a big fan of this remarkable performer who has always radiated such great personal warmth and kind, intelligent humor.
I’m as shocked as anyone at the monstrous charges, though I’ll grant that everything being said against him surely could be true, human frailty being what it is and there being so many accusers.
However, I also see the distinct possibility that there’s something at work in this current media frenzy other than a search for justice.
THE WORLD’S FUTURE MAY DEPEND ON
ANSWERING A VERY BASIC QUESTION
That’s a reasonable question which has been asked many times in the years since 9/11, though I don’t think it’s been decisively answered.
The responses most often given have a defensive edge — something like…
Most Muslims want to live in peace.
Don’t assume all Muslims are terrorists.
And that’s true enough. I accept that most Muslims want to live in peace. And I know all Muslims aren’t terrorists. Indeed, I assume that only a very small number of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world engage in or provide material assistance to acts of terror. And I’m aware that there’s a debate throughout the Muslim world on the proper understanding of jihad.
Still, the question remains…
What is the true nature of Islam?
Rather than how many Muslims are terrorists, perhaps it would be more relevant to ask…
How many Muslims would agree with the characterization of America as the Great Satan?
In the early 1970s, I was a copywriter for the subscription-services department of McGraw-Hill which published a variety of specialized industry journals. Among them was a magazine called Power that served utilities and power-generation equipment companies.
Being young — and being what today I might call terminally hip — I came up with a headline/graphic concept which I thought was wildly funny and ever so current, something to be used in ads, direct mail pieces, or issue insert cards.
I recruited an acquaintance to pose for a photo in the then-typical protest posture, his right arm raised, but with a light bulb in his hand. The headline read…
Power to the People…
…the People who Know
What Power’s All About
Our assistant art director, a talented young lady about my age, did a quick layout, and I showed it to the Mail Promotion Manager — our internal equivalent of an ad agency account executive — who handled Power’s marketing campaigns. I was sure this concept was going to knock his socks off.
The MPM, whose name was Leon, chuckled at the image, volunteered that the idea was cute, and then handed the layout back to me.
“What’s the matter with it?” I asked. “It’s timely. It’s topical. It’s humorous.”
“Oh yes, it’s all of that,” Leon said. “But the people who read Power are a bunch of sturdy engineer types. Pragmatic and conservative. They’d see the guy in that picture as somebody who’d likely blow up a power plant.”
Looking at the layout with new eyes, I grudgingly conceded that Leon had a point. And so I learned something about perception in advertising.
This episode came to mind when I read about the little dustup surrounding Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl spot.
I’m sure whoever thought of having people of different ethnic types singing this cherished national song in their native languages saw it as a heartwarming expression of the nation’s cultural diversity — the great American melting pot, as it were. They may well have expected their commercial to become a 21st-Century equivalent of Coke’s famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” campaign. But they missed the same thing I’d failed to see in my Power ad concept: people’s underlying assumptions.
BLAMING ALL CRITICISM OF THE PRESIDENT ON RACE
RAISES DISTURBING QUESTIONS ABOUT LEGITIMACY
There’s a dear friend I haven’t seen for some time. She and her husband participated with me and several other performers in an evangelistic entertainment ministry back in the 1980s.
She is an enthusiastic Barack Obama supporter.
During the election campaign of 2008, at a time when I was creating comedy skits for Ave Maria Radio, I wrote and recorded a song that satirized the Democratic candidate then generating so much excitement. Knowing both my friend’s political predilections and her sense of humor, I sent her an MP3 file of the song — one verse of which touched on Obama’s international popularity along with the questions being raised at the time about his origins…
“The whole world claimed him as their own
on that inaugural morn’
It’s just as well no one can tell
the place where he was born”
Cute? Certainly tame, as political satire goes.
My friend — someone who well understands my comedic style and has probably observed my warped mind at work more closely than anyone except my wife — suggested, in a not-so-veiled way, that my gentle little satirical song was racist.
In a responding email she asked me if there was another reason for the piece. And her implication was clear.
This amiable, generous, effervescent person — and a fine singer, incidentally — who had worked tirelessly with me to advance our ministry over seven years was apparently so enthralled by the historical milestone of a first black President, it didn’t occur to her that a satire of Barack Obama could be ascribed to anything other than bigotry.
THOUGHTS ABOUT THE EFFECT OF WORDS
AND THE INCONSISTENT RESPONSES TO THEM
The flap over Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn’s awkward testimony before a Michigan legislative committee prompts thought about what expressions are acceptable these days. It also makes me think about why certain people receive sharp criticism for their ill-chosen words while others slide by after the most egregious and irresponsible pronouncements.
Here’s long-time Congressman Charlie Rangel on the Tea Party…
“It is the same group we faced in the South with those white crackers and the dogs and the police. They didn’t care about how they looked. It was just fierce indifference to human life that caused America to say enough is enough … What the hell! If you have to bomb little kids and send dogs out against human beings, give me a break.”
Uh…this is the Tea Party you’re talking about, Charlie?