August 2008 Archives

Money Whitens

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One of my favorite stories from the legend and lore of the Mississippi Delta concerns an extremely dark-skinned black man named Wash Jones who married an exceedingly light-skinned black woman. Many thought this was an ill-fated union from the outset because in that era especially, lighter skin was generally a marker of higher social status. Sure enough, after a few years, the wife announced that she and her equally light-skinned children could no longer abide the embarrassment of living with that “graveyard black” Wash and high-tailed it to parts unknown. It was not long, however, before word reached her that the husband she had so unceremoniously abandoned had come into a rather tidy inheritance courtesy of Wash’s recently-deceased white employer. At this point, she took pen in hand to advise Wash most earnestly of her undying love and let him know that the children were crying for him every night. In return mail, the errant spouse received a post card bearing the simple inscription, “I Ain’t Fade None.”
This poignant illustration of the old Brazilian adage, “Money Whitens,” came back to me as I made it a point to observe American press coverage of China leading up to and during the Olympics. I wouldn’t say that the byword in this case is exactly “Speak No Evil,” so much as “ If You Speak Evil, Do So Softly and Sparingly and Outside Prime Time.” Compared to the massive media blame dump taken on Atlanta for every sin, actual or rumored, that was ever committed in the South, and the daily litany of nitpicking about contemporary conditions, most of our major press people seem totally bullish on Beijing. For example, way back in July The South China Post and other papers throughout Asia and the world reported that Chinese police were forcing bar owners in areas likely to attract Olympic visitors to agree not to serve blacks or Mongolians. Fire up Google and see how much significant attention to this you can find in the American media. Then there’s the story of the adorable little girl whose singing we were supposed to believe was coming out the mouth of a lip-synching second little cutie whose photogeneity was deemed superior by Chinese officials. How about the faux fireworks aired by a gushing NBC with, shall we say, something pretty far short of full disclosure? I’ve hear a few commentators laud the air conditions after rainstorms, but everytime I see an outdoor shot it’s ten times as hazy as my recollection of the last sermon I heard. Finally, don’t even get me started on the supposedly sixteen year-old gymnasts who, in reality, are eager to be done with the Olympics and see if the fourth grade is all it's cracked up to be.
There are obviously many more serious media oversights and points of de-emphasis, dealing with brutal repression of human and civil rights and anything that even looks as though it has a remote possibility of qualifying as dissidence. The Chinese made a lot of up-front promises to cool it with this kind of stuff during the Games, but from what I read I wouldn’t want to be in Beijing right now looking the least bit pissed off about anything. To their credit, NBC did run a piece on how Chinese officials put a huge farming population on the brink of starvation by using their water to fill the dried-out stream bed that is the Olympic rowing venue. Meanwhile, despite China’s vaunted great economic leap forward, the World Bank estimates that 300 million of its people still live in poverty, i.e., on less than $1 per day. (By way of contrast, the compassionate souls who make China’s welfare policies think you can get by just fine on $.25 per day.) The plain and simple fact is that the explosive technological breakthroughs of the last half century have made it possible for countries to leapfrog ahead and grab the economic momentum from other nations that allowed themselves to get distracted occasionally along the way by concerns about developing their societies and institutions along with their economies. Back in the ‘50s when the Russkies were scaring the hell out of us with their nuclear missiles and bombs and beating our butts in the space race, a good chunk of their population was still standing in line all day to buy beets. China has gone them one better and then some, and they have had a lot of help from us very truly. The Chinese are the world’s largest holder of foreign financial reserves, and the value of their U.S. holdings is currently nudging up toward a trillion bucks. Much of that is in U.S. Treasury notes, and as James Fallows observes, it is as if every American in the past ten years or so has borrowed $4,000 from someone in China.
Asked about a potential boycott of the Opening Ceremonies to protest China’s human rights violations Barack Obama suggested that American reluctance to come down harder on this issue boiled down to “It’s very hard to tell your banker that he’s wrong.” Especially, I might add, when the banker’s investment in you hasn’t paid off all that well recently. So, what’s the big deal with a few tortured and slain dissidents or a few million people allowed to teeter on the brink of starvation when the responsible entity can pretty much pull the plug on your already dimming economic bulb? For that matter, anyone struck by seeing Bush yuck it up with his “great guy” buddy Vlad Putin while the former’s tanks rolled into Georgia (Quick Sonny, organize a prayer meetin!) need only think about whose feet are on our oil hose. One thing’s for sure, if ol’ Tom Sawyer had just had a little cash or a few oil wells, he’d have had an even bigger crowd of people eager to undertake whatever whitewashing project he had in mind.

Look South, See America?

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At least as far back as 1830, folks have been predicting that the South would soon be sucked into the mainstream of national culture and emerge from its baptism thoroughly cleansed of its manifold sins and virtually indistinguishable from any other part of this great country of ours. Up until the mid 1960s or so, those of the liberal persuasion thought that this would be an unmitigated blessing. When cities outside the South began to explode in ghetto riots and violent temper tantrums over busing, however, and the deindustrializing Rustbelt began to hemorrhage jobs and people, the prospect of seeing Dixie Americanized became noticeably less appealing. In 1990 when Hodding Carter joined the 160 year-old conga line of southern obituarists by declaring “The End of the South,” he made it clear he wasn’t exactly turning handsprings over the fact that “what is lurching into existence in the South is purely and contemporaneously mainstream American, for better and for worse. “ Eighteen years later, Newsweek’s cover is now also proclaiming “The End of the South,” and offering two excellent discourses on the region by two excellent southern boys, editor Jon Meacham, and Paris Bureau Chief Christopher Dickey.
Dickey is the son of Deliverance author James Dickey, and at one point during his sojourn last month through Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas, he sees a T-shirt that admonishes “Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music!” Roughly following the trail of some Yankee pyromaniac named “Sherman,” (Note to self: Google this guy.) Dickey finds a region thoroughly transformed economically, and affected dramatically by in-migration as well as immigration. Viewing the South through the lens of the 2008 presidential race, however, he thinks the campaign’s racial overtones have reopened wounds or at least re-aggravated old raw spots. Among those who will not support Obama because he is black, he finds “the obvious suspects, people like Dent Myers, a relic collector and self-caricaturing bigot in Kennesaw, Ga., north of Atlanta. (His shop, Wildman's, [which he calls “the best little warhouse in Kennesaw”] is full of the crazy literature of the unreconstructed South, as well as guns, swords, Ku Klux Klan hoods and scurrilous bumper stickers.) Dent argues that when Southerners criticize Obama, "They say, 'He's a Muslim, he's a mulatto Muslim, or quadroon Muslim … [only because] they don't want to use the old N word."Dickey knows his homeland well enough to know that out people like Myers are still out there, but he is clearly shaken to discover that “even a third cousin of mine in the mountains of North Carolina, an independent-minded Democrat who voted for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004, said he can't bring himself to vote for Obama, either. Why? "Because I believe he is a Muslim," said my cousin. Not so, I said. He was raised a Christian and is a practicing Christian. My cousin shook his head. "I just don't believe him," he said.The most telling and, to me, most troubling example of the lunacy-masquerading-as-fact that has been embraced by those who don’t want to explain their opposition to Obama in racial terms came from a 12 year boy participating in a civil war re-enactment:
"There are too many chances we would take if he became president, you know what I mean?" I said I wasn't sure I did. "I don't know if it's a myth or it's true," said the boy, "but they say that they caught him trying to sneak Iraqi soldiers into the United States."
This example suggests that dumb stuff sounds just as dumb coming “out of the mouths of babes” as it did when it originally came out of the mouths of their parents. However, neither it nor the case of Dickey’s cousin strike me as having any peculiarly southern ring to them. I will concede that the South probably has more than its share of out-front entrepreneurial bigots like the aforementioned Mr. Dent (who sells a bumper sticker asking “Will the U.S. Become an Obama-Nation?”) but his kind are hardly non-existent above the Mason-Dixon line, and, as we saw again and again in the primaries, neither is the frantic search to find reasons not to support Obama.
By the same token, black southerners’ intense emotional investment in Barack Obama’s candidacy and their rekindled mistrust and suspicion that the white political establishment will never countenance his election is to be expected in a place where the war against Jim Crow was actually fought and finally—and at great price--won. However, as polls and turnouts for rallies and levels of enthusiasm at those rallies clearly show, black southerners are not the only African Americans who are “all in” for Obama
In fact, what I believe Dickey has captured is what his editor-man Meacham describes as the South’s oft –observed capacity to “exemplify, if sometimes in an exaggerated way, much of what the nation thinks and feels.” Besides, he insists, the South “ just ain’t that different anymore.”
Meacham seems more sanguine about Obama’s prospects in the old Confederacy than Dickey and believes that at the very least “many whites who have been skeptical of Democrats since the civil-rights era are not going to make a reflexive choice in November but will—like many other Americans—carefully weigh Obama against McCain.”
Meacham also finds potentially good news for Obama in an anecdote passed on by “a friend of mine was buying a plate lunch from the Church of God on Natural Bridge Road in Franklin County, Tenn., in July—you have to get there early, because the fried chicken goes fast—and overheard a couple of white truckers denouncing President Bush and the GOP in virulent terms. If you are a Republican in a nation at war and you have lost the truck drivers at the Church of God on Natural Bridge Road, you cannot be sure of anything.”Dickey reports that he didn’t see a single McCain bumper sticker in ten days of driving through the South. I am quite certain that I haven’t a half dozen bumper stickers and yard signs combined in my wanderings across the South during the last seven months. On the other hand, I haven’t seen as many signs or stickers for the Democratic nominee since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976, and not just in liberal college towns like Athens, either.
Still, anger and disgust with Bush and indifference to McCain in August do not an Obama victory in November assure. Although it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Obama run as well or better with white voters than John Kerry did, when it comes down to it, I expect the great majority of the white southerners who voted for Bush last time to resign themselves ultimately to voting for McCain this time, and as far as I know, unenthusiastic votes count just the same as the other kind. Meanwhile those whose can’t quite manage even a default vote for McCain are a heckuva lot more likely to sit this one out than to go for his opponent. Obama may have a decent shot in Virginia, but whatever slim chance he has in any other state in the lower right-hand quadrant is likely to turn less on how many Democratic voters he gets to the polls than on the number of would-be Republican voters that Johnny Mac manages to keep away.

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