• What’s the Point of Cancellation (Halloween Edition)?

    November 12, 2021 // 1 Comment »


    I’m holding an old Polaroid, taken at a Halloween party at one of my early State Department assignments in the 1980s. One of my diplomatic colleagues is in blackface, done up to look like the minstrel player who was on the “Darkie” toothpaste boxes then for sale in every drugstore in Asia. You can see a photo of the packaging; the white teeth against the minstrel player’s face were supposed to show how good the toothpaste was. My other colleague is dressed as the Frito Bandito, a caricature of Mexicans used to sell corn chips. The costume theme for the night was advertising icons. In the 1980s these were acceptable ways to advertise and acceptable costumes for Halloween.

    But looking at the photo now I realize it is a weapon. Both my State Department colleagues pictured managed their careers much better than me and are in senior positions. There is no doubt in 2021 the photo would at least make it to Buzzfeed, maybe make a bigger splash, you know “Blinken Denies Racist Diplomats in Charge” and all that. It’s a familiar playbook today, an old photo pulled out of time and litigated in the media under the harsh light of 2021. The outcome is predictable — America has no tolerance. There’s a new rule that says people who used the wrong word or gesture, no matter how long ago or in what context or with what intent or no matter what else they did in the intervening years of their life, should not be allowed to work. Anyone in a public position, or who can be dragged into public, is especially vulnerable.

    The thing is neither colleague was or is racist. They were mocking goofy advertising characters of the day. One went on not long after that photo was taken to protect the human rights of a group being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. He risked his career to speak out, and made actual change happen in an organization resistant to it. The other colleague has done the right thing in a lot of difficult situations. The State Department is a better place for them working in it. I doubt either remember the Halloween photo, or realize how thin the ice is underneath them in 2021.

    But splashing the photo on some front page would accomplish nothing that matters, certainly nothing the self-righteous babble that would have to accompany it would claim. You know it by heart. Secretary of State Blinken would ritually say “We have reassigned diplomats X and Y pending their voluntary retirements. We have zero tolerance for racism no matter when or where it takes place. This is not who we are. Their actions fly in the face of the Department’s public denouncements of racism and sexism and its promises to be more inclusive amid criticism for its past treatment of black and Hispanic employees.”

    To be fair, the words I just put into Blinken’s mouth are not fully original. I stole them from statements the NFL made recently around the firing of Raider’s coach Jon Gruden. Emails recently surfaced, some 10 years old, where Gruden used language likely heard in any NFL locker room today. In fact, language used most places, albeit not by a white man. So in stories about Gruden we see p*ssy while on another page we read about a Pink Pussy Hat march. Never mind the so-called n-word which means burn the street down if a white person says it but is a term of endearment in a hip hop song. I guess Gruden was supposed to have thought about all this years ago when he wrote his emails. Same as my diplomatic colleagues should have thought twice three decades ago when they chose their Halloween outfits. In today’s logic, that “mistake” means Gruden is unfit to coach and my colleague is unfit to sit in an ambassador’s chair. The thing is no one accused Gruden of being a racist, or favoring players of one race over another. And I can comfortably swear in court I never knew either of my colleagues to make a racially-oriented decision.

    The people who believe they are fighting racism in this way spend their days digging through old yearbooks, watching hours of video, trolling emails and social media, and receiving hacked fodder from someone’s political enemy. The result is teachers, sportscasters, cops, and whoever else being run out of their career not for being a racist but for just using words some don’t like. These are not crimes of action. They are thought crimes, tied to a specific political theology.

    One of the latest thought criminals is Dave Chappelle. Chappelle, a black comedian, is under attack for jokes in a Netflix special “the community” considers transphobic. Netflix black and trans employees have expressed their concerns to upper management. Employees took to Twitter. People called for a boycott if Chappelle wasn’t punished somehow someway.

    I watched his show, The Closer. Yep, he sure said some things about trans people. Maybe the things were funny, maybe not. Maybe they would sound hurtful to some people, maybe not. But left unsaid in the trans-fuss was almost all of Chappelle’s show was about his dislike of white people. He actually explained that most of his jokes about trans people are actually jokes about how he hates white people. One story was about how he almost got into a fight with a transman and how the transman called 911. Chappelle as a punchline said something like “Dude was trans only until you need to be white to call the cops on a [n-word]” He went on to explain how he finds white fans who recognize him in public a bother while welcoming black interactions, made remarks like it was 1950 about “white bitches,” and so forth.

    We’re all well past noting the hypocrisy that racism in 2021 can only occur from a white person to a POC and never the other way. This Halloween, I bet anyone can go to a party dressed as A White Couple, with whiteface makeup, Bermuda shorts, a pink polo shirt or whatever racist clichés carry the message (someone actually sells such costumes as a joke/not joke) and no one would raise an eyebrow. But if you do dress that way, be careful. Someone may take a photo that could sink your career 20 years from now.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Seeing the Promised Land: Springsteen on Broadway, a Review

    December 18, 2018 // 10 Comments »

    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show finished its 236 performance run in New York, and arrived on Netflix December 16.

    It is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a tally of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.

    I saw the show live, an early winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way. Over the year and a half run, Bruce moved a few things around a bit ,a nd added two songs, Long Time Coming and Ghost of Tom Joad. Otherwise, the show stayed pretty much the same.

    Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs” and admonishments against giving in to those who probe at our differences for their own benefit, you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much of Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people those presidents left behind, those once the American Dream and now just what happened to it.

    Bruce signals early it is time to make amends, via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs admitted what they’d done, the people they’d hurt, and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem. Bruce is pissed off now singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.

    So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and later, politicized by Ron Kovic, wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial who was sent in his place.

    Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018.

    The lack of empathy which caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it is all different, that we don’t need to care about old white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about poor immigrants of color. There are no deplorables here, just Haves and Have Nots, and some who Took It All. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who came before him and understood it, too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Debs, Dylan, alongside a little Holden Caulfield and Joe Dirt.

    Land of Hope and Dreams captures all this, with its signature line about a train called America carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from Promised Land to warn, changing “I believe in a promised land” from his records to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better.

    Promised Land thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret the promise he saw in America then remains unfulfilled, and the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so.

    Yet for its intimacy, much of what happens doesn’t seem like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, the pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.

    The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but now, 43 years passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP-3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix and had to face, together, the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Age is omnipresent – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period forty years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show is short, tight, maybe even a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    The weight of it all – the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise – feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Obama to Iran: Give Us Our Drone Back

    December 15, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Obama revealed the request for the return of the drone–which fell to earth in Iran recently, and has since been flaunted in video footage by the Iranian government–during a Monday White House news conference. “We’ve asked for it back,” President Obama said. “We’ll see how the Iranians respond. With respect to the drone inside of Iran, I’m not going to comment on intelligence matters that are classified.”

    Other statements made today by Obama include:

    –Iran cannot ask us to return any intelligence info our drones gathered.

    –Iraq should return all the bullets (and depleted uranium) fired at it since 2003.

    –Iran should not ask the US to return any hostages previously returned.

    –Iran can’t fly any drones over the US until they return our broken one.

    –Joe Biden should return his Netflix movies.

    –Return of the Drone would be a good movie title.

    How do you say “when pig-shaped drones fly?” in Farsi anyway?



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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State