Saturday, July 12, 2008

wereallnumberone #4: In it to Win it! On Election Season and Bad Political Rhetoric

Wrote this during election season last year. Apropos discussion to the presidential election season, too ...

Its election season, which means that the aspiring politicians and incumbents are hard at it trying to get votes, not only lobbying at their fundraisers and at orchestrated events and p.r. ops, but also attending many other public functions where you, frankly wouldn't see these folks (e.g. white politicians at black Baptist churches; black politicians in Jena, La. after dark, etc.). One thing that you also often see is the emergence of political action committees and grassroots organizations calling for "positive change" of one sort or another -- you know, less abortions, more guns in schools, less Mexicans on earth (what up Arizona Republicans?), and the like.

Today, at my weekly Lions' Club meeting, a fella came in and spoke about "Blueprint Louisiana" such a grassroots organization calling for aspiring politicians to sign on to their 5 point plan in order to garner their lobby's votes and considerable wealth and favor. Their five step plan -- which frankly, is not innovative, but reasonable enough, I mean, you hear it and you're like "duh, yeah, lets get kids health insurance" -- reads like straw man argument 101 and will likely die in its nascent stages like most other movements of its sort. Furthermore, I was irked by their misuse of the term "grassroots," given that the organization is fronted by a wealthy, internationally regarded cardiologist and made up of the state's most wealthy and powerful businesspersons … i.e. not organic (in that its interests are primarily financial ad self-interested rather than directed at needed societal change) not from the bottom-up, and not directed at the establishment (these people are 'big white daddy').

So when this front person went on and on about integrated health care, education and ethics reform in the state legislature -- basically all political and economic and no social, a thought ran through my head, as is my wont. Somehow, we were having a conversation about perceptions of Louisiana that lead people who are from Louisiana to leave ASAP, people outside of Louisiana to avoid coming here (including many corporations) and people who manage to leave Louisiana to rarely return … and no one managed to bring up cultural perceptions of Louisiana, as a red state in the "backwards" south that is unfriendly to its black, poor inhabitants and xenophobic in its treatment of outsiders.

Or the perception (read:reality) that wealth here is preserved carefully and maintained by incestuous agreements between financially and politically powerful families, and our justice and legislative systems are as corrupt as the movies. People don't think about welcoming and encouraging diversity -- they think about Hurricane Katrina and drowning, disadvantaged, and abandoned black folks who left (and still haven't returned). They think about backwards ass Jena, Louisiana, where there is an effing "Whites Only" tree and a DA and police force that actively practices segregation and Jim Crowism -- unsanctioned by local or state government.

And when I mentioned this today, the speaker, an otherwise cool and well-rehearsed chap went all "Dyslexicon[1]" on us … he stammered, paused uncomfortably, said the word "diversity" about 16 times, and even mentioned one of his best friends, who is of course black. He also put his hand over his heart, which is universal for "I really really feel you and understand you please believe me."

And it hit me, here was someone proposing far reaching political measures for Louisiana's next decade and he didn't even have a na├»ve plan for addressing racial and cultural inequality … he didn't have a plan at all. He wasn't uncomfortable talking about race … he didn't even bother to think about it. He'd presumed that racial inequality wasn't even a problem, certainly not one of our top 5 problems. Certainly not one of the top problems for an all-white, all-wealthy commission of folks.

What. The. F**k?

Anyhow, I enjoyed his answer. I enjoy the discomfort that exposing (or having exposed, as it occasionally happens to me) ignorance brings. But I was upset that he didn't just simply say "I didn't think about that, but I will now." Because he clearly hadn't.

So, I offer to him, and anyone else out there, the top ten rhetorical constructions used when politicians have to address "diversity questions" from "ethnics." Basically, it's a bullshit meter. Say these things and we'll know you're lying every time. And I know I'm biased toward racial division … I'm not claiming to be addressing all areas of diversity here.

10) I'm so happy to be here with you (ethnic group) people!
No you aren't. And that's okay. I know frankness won't play well in this situation "a la, "I gotta tell you, I thought I'd be uncomfortable around all you coloreds, and when the big fella in the back gave me some, whaddayacallit? Dap? I peed myself a little bit." but the middle ground, it seems to me, might work. Maybe "I won't stand here and tell you that I am in my element here, or claim to know or understand your struggle … but I am here in the spirit of understanding it a little bit better, and I am the candidate who is willing to listen and work so that we can build bridges over these unnecessary gaps." I don't know, I'm spitballing here.

9) We need diversity!
Straw man. Cant be argued with. No one will say diversity isn't a good thing (even the KKK needs jew-haters and catholic-haters to compliment their n-word haters). In spite of the ever present need and the positives of having a diverse workforce and classroom, there are still significant barriers. Try "diversity is a cornerstone to successful business and educational practices. We don't need empty promises, we need candidates who truly understand what diversity is, what we can do to achieve it, and what historical and cultural barriers prevent us from achieving it."

8) I care about (ethnic group) people!
A) don't say it if you don't mean it.
B) if you have to say it, you probably don't mean it.
C) do you have to say you care about white people? Isn't that obvious?
D) just don't effin say it. You cant win.

7) (Go to Black Churches)
If you don't normally go to Black churches, don't up and start. If your ass cant clap on 2 and 4, you will look like a plum idiot, and everyone will say "bless your heart" which is our code for "Are you retarded?"

6) (Go to any "Ethnic" events, even if your ph.D. is in Ethnic Group Studies)
You're still not an expert. Not any more than my ph.D. in rhetoric would allow me to go to Greece and be like "Hey, know what you guys should do? Bring back the Vomitorium. That was the shit!!! Oh, and pederasty with your students! Also the shit."

5) I feel your pain.
Skipping lunch doesn't mean you understand hunger. Losing money in the stock market doesn't mean you understand poverty. Visiting Costa Rica last summer doesn't mean you understand the difficulty of speaking a foreign language as your non-native tongue. Don't claim that rhetorical space unless you own it -- and having to get your law degree from Vanderbilt because you couldn't get into Columbia doesn't count.

4) I'm down with (ethnic group) people.
Now if you said "I fux with black people" I would vote for your ass imm-mee-juht-lee and I suspect black folks would follow suit.

3) The Republican Party (verb) ________________
We just don't like y'all. I cant explain it in brief … we feel the same way, by and large, about mayonnaise, Tom Arnold, the Dave Matthews Band, and 401 ks. Just kidding about the 401K ... I max my 403b out. Hate if you want, I'm not trying to be able to fold my money ... I want that unfoldable s@#t.

2) I have a (ethnic group) friend …
I tell a lot of stories, right? Y'all ever hear me say "I once had this white female friend" or "middle class white heterosexual" friend and then go from there? If I did, wouldn't that make you think I didn't have a whole lot of friends of those persuasions (if I spent time remarking about it)?" Look, the whole "I'm not racist because I have a sister's baby momma's cousin's high school roommate who had a friend who once saw Arsenio Hall on the street and didn't call the cops or anything" is literally the most pedestrian defense available. Just avoid it.

1) I'm color blind.
That's unfortunate. Be careful in traffic. The green light is the one at the top. We're the ones, typically, with the kinkier hair, if that helps. It doesn't matter if you act on your perceptions of racial difference -- you see them. You can't not see them. What you do when you see it is a whole other bunch of strange grapes. Just say that -- "As an American, we have no choice to be cognizant of racial difference, given our country's unfortunate division of the races which stems back to the origins of "America" as a concept. However, given our understanding of that history, which is crucial, it is of the utmost importance that we work together to retrain ourselves not to think of divisions, enmity, and hatred when we encounter people whom we perceive to be different from ourselves, but understand that we have the potential to rewrite the pernicious histories of racial division and unrest upon which many believe this nation to be built." Again, spitballing.

So yeah, if you're uncomfortable with people of different races, own it. And education can rid you of it. So can listening, talking, and being among people not like yourself. I don't like Sex and the City, American Idol, and John Mayer, but I get why a lot of people do. So kick it with someone not like you. Kick it with a lot of people not like you. You'll learn very quickly, if those people mean anything to you, how not to sound uninterested and lacking in compassion when among them -- especially when seeking their vote.

[1] Mark Crispin Miller's apt designation of Bush's linguistic faux pas, which he ties to his treatment of issues that are unimportant to him (i.e. Bush borders on eloquent when he defends the war, and was even convincing when he defended the tax cuts. He sounds like a retarded tourette's sufferer, however, when he talks about the middle class, public education, or Kanye West).

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