On the Nose: Gail Collins on Joe the Canary

In this morning’s New York Times column “Joe Biden, the Flue, and You”, Gail Collins describes Biden’s role quite well:

The swine flu scare has made it clear why Barack Obama picked Joe Biden for vice president.

As the White House’s unfiltered talking head, Biden is the perfect warning bell to show the White House when things are veering out of control. A kind of mental canary in the governmental mine shaft.

Obama is too cool to panic about anything. The best he can do is look unhappy when someone around him misbehaves too much (see: Joe Biden makes fun of Chief Justice Robert). Then he purses his lips together like Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada” and everyone shakes and shivers. Biden, on the other hand, is totally uncool (like totally, man) and more like school officials closing down schools because someone in an adjoining state coughs a time or two. He could at least be funny like my mother who apparently had good time making her own flu mask, which she put on just as my father returned from work. At least she told me it was a flu mask. I hope it wasn’t some new “game” (ahem) that my parents are playing now that mom is retired….oh dear. I’d prefer to think about swine flu.


Right on the Nose: Bob Herbert on Barack Obama

Bob Herbert compares President Obama to a master chess player:

There is always a tendency to underestimate Barack Obama. We are inclined in the news media to hyperventilate over every political or policy setback, no matter how silly or insignificant, while Mr. Obama has shown again and again that he takes a longer view.

Semper Fi

The battlefield has its own values, starting with courage. Sexual orientation falls somewhere below musical taste. —Owen West (Iraq War Veteran)

More often than I care to admit, I wonder how I will answer the question, “What did you do during/when/in response to____?” when young people of the future ask me about culture and politics of my time. I have a rich imagination, and in it, in the future, I imagine that young people will care about who did what in the past in the same way that I wonder what the adults around me did during the 60s and 70s. This is not my only motivation for making the decisions that I do, but when I read of past atrocities or large cultural failings, I wonder what “the people” did to respond to the crisis. While I try to be aware and involved because I think this is the way the world works best, I also speak up, butt in, write letters, and opine because I want to be able to say that I did something, that I didn’t just sit silently, twiddling my thumbs, watching DVDs while horrible things happened around me. Even if my efforts fall on deaf ears or don’t change anything, I need to know I tried.

I’ve been thinking this quite a bit in the past few years as the civil rights crisis for GLBTs has grown and grown. Even being raised in a conservative Christian home, I have never been able to understand homophobia. And that’s what all of the fuss and lawsuits and propositions are about—-fear of homosexuality. People can dress this fear up with religion and tradition and protecting children, but I’m not buying it, and more and more I’m saying so aloud. I have to. I would certainly expect my white friends to stand up against racism in all of the subtle and explicit forms that it takes, so, as a heterosexual woman, I feel it’s my moral obligation to defend GLBTs, those I know, and those I’ve never met…and even those who perpetuate stereotypes in ways that make me cringe (I’m talking to you gay actors who put on cultural black face for a laugh and a paycheck).

It’s not always easy. Many people I love disagree with me, and we have to find respectful ways to be honest with one another without a lot of finger pointing and yelling. I’m not doing so well; at a certain point, I just dissolve into tears, which really isn’t fair to the person on the other side of the argument. I can’t help it, though. It is beyond cruel to support or participate or even believe in efforts that oppress people. Perhaps it is because I’ve been single for the vast majority of my adult life that this hits me so deep. I cannot imagine finally finding “true love” and being told that I’m not allowed to have it because of some wrongly interpreted Biblical passages or because it breaks with tradition or because it’s not “natural.” Lord help us. Really, Lord help us. We are using Your Word and Your name to beat one another up again—-just like we did to women and blacks.

Will we never learn?

Maybe we can. Owen West, a Marine who served two tours of duty in Iraq (he’s a commodities trader now), has a smart, concise piece in the New York Times ( “An About-Face on Gay Troops”) about why it’s time to repeal “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell.” It’s the kind of piece I love because its argument relies on logic and looks to history rather than using rhetoric as a crutch. The argument is simple: it has been proven that sexual orientation (just like race and ethnicity) does not get in the way on the battlefield. Even Colin Powell and former Senator Sam Nunn, the two main crafters of the “don’t ask; don’t tell” legislation, believe it’s time for a change. Let us hope and pray that even as the military lead the way in racial integration, it will become a model for how heterosexual culture can treat GLBT citizens with respect by allowing them to live their lives with the same freedoms we all enjoy.

We all know that Semper Fi (short for semper fidelis) is the motto for the Marines and that it means “Always Faithful.” Owen West’s editorial is a moment when the motto fits perfectly.

At Last: Cutting the Gordian Knot

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray

–from ” The Negro National Anthem” by James Weldon Johnson

Today in class, during a conversation about Harry Potter and Reganomics, a student made a passing comment about President Obama and the economy. He said “President Obama” so casually, so offhandedly, that I got choked up and had to look down for a minute to regain my composure. Nonchalance about President Obama can bring me to tears.

Of course, at any given moment I’m in danger of losing it, for no particularly good reason. Obama doesn’t even need to be mentioned, on the television, or on the radio. In line at the grocery store I’ll see a young black man in a suit and get weepy, any commercial featuring a little black boy…waterworks, seeing a little white girl hugging her little black girl friend…and don’t let me see an old black man or woman.

I’m in serious danger of dehydration.

My feelings are not unique, but I’ve been curious about the depth of my reaction. After all, I’m young enough to see the Civil Rights Movement as history, young enough to use the phrase “free at last” playfully, and young enough to feel I can wear multiple identities at once. Although neither of my parents graduated from college, no one was surprised that I did and any surprise about my decision to pursue a doctorate was about the fact that few people could imagine me sitting still long enough to complete a dissertation.

I still never thought I’d see a black president, and the success of our country regularly reduces me to tears. Why?

For whatever gains were made because of the Civil Rights Movement, racism and ignorance still run rampant and, with one exception, every black person I know has at least one glaring, scarring moment where they were denied something basic because of their skin color. I’m not talking about rude service in a restaurant but about being denied jobs, housing, and adequate health care. I am talking about young black people who followed the rules their parents and grandparents set out for them—go to college, get a degree, get a good job, dress appropriately, treat others with respect. It doesn’t work they way we thought it would. Yes, we have more opportunities than our parents and our grandparents, but in many ways we have less.

Faced with racism in its myriad forms, my generation has developed a series of responses (humor, anger, rap), all of which are inadequate at any real level. These responses, coping mechanisms if you will, did little more than thicken my skin to help me keep moving. Yes, I learned to brush things off, but swallow too many bitter pills, and they form a knot in the pit of your spirit, a bitter knot comprised of righteous anger, pain, rejection, confusion, and dashed hopes.

The election of THIS black president has cut that cord loose. And so I’ve been crying a lot. It’s a big knot (I was six-years old the first time I was called a nigger, though it’s a memory that belongs more to my mother than it does to me), so it’s loosening takes time. But oh my does it feel good.

It goes too far to say it has been replaced by hope, but the absence of a certain kind of deep despair will suffice for now.

This is not to suggest that I believe all this “post racial” claptrap. As Frank Rich put it so well earlier this week in “White Like Me” :

For all our huge progress, we are not “post-racial,” whatever that means. The world doesn’t change in a day, and the racial frictions that emerged in both the Democratic primary campaign and the general election didn’t end on Nov. 4. As Obama himself said in his great speech on race, liberals couldn’t “purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap” simply by voting for him. And conservatives? The so-called party of Lincoln has spent much of the past month in spirited debate about whether a white candidate for the party’s chairmanship did the right thing by sending out a “humorous” recording of “Barack the Magic Negro” as a holiday gift.

But the times they are a changing, so much so that when Reverend Lowery ended his poetic, rousing benediction, I could laugh heartily through my tears:

when black will not be asked to get back,
when brown can stick around,
when yellow will be mellow,
when the red man can get ahead, man,
And when white will embrace what is right.