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2016, The year of the Negro Citizen

January 24, 2016 7 comments

As a French-American national originally from Iran, I realize the limits of what I can understand of any culture or civilization into which I was not born and of my misconceptions about issues that I cannot totally grasp. That doesn’t prevent me from observing the society around me and deeply feeling what, to my uneducated eyes, appears likJNE2015covere injustice. Among these, race relations in the United States; after decades in this country and the importance to me of that particular issue, I believe I have a say in the matter.

To begin with, the title of this post. I have not set out to provoke but as a writer I like to give words the proper weight that they have lost in the midst of clamors. I use “Negro” as opposed to the horrendous n-word and to pc euphemisms such as “African-American,” “black,” “minority,” etc. “Negro” may be a broad word but it still defines a race. If I belonged to this race, I would question considering an insult the very word defining me, my skin color and my features. I don’t know many present-day uses of the word except in the title “The Journal of Negro Education” at Howard University. With a proud history since its inception in 1932 and contributors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy B. Porter or Thurgood Marshall, this publication has not changed its name to reflect today’s general wishy-washiness.

As for the word “citizen” in this title, I am borrowing it from poet Claudia Rankine’s recent collection of prose poems, (“Citizen: an American Lyric”) which I have read several times with fascination, rage and bafflement after seeing it reviewed in The New Yorker. After all I thought I knew, I still didn’t know.

Thus, I use “citizen” as a means to move beyond blacks seen as mainly descendants of slaves but as full-fledged citizens. Not people who are grudgingly given a spot near the table where they can be grateful for any crumbs thrown their way; not chattel that can be shot at with impunity by white police officers, left to rot in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, spend a lifetime behind bars, face discrimination no matter what exalted position they reach (read what Claudia Rankine says of rulings of tennis umpires against Serena Williams); not parents such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction telling of his anguish whenever his fifteen-year old leaves home as any encounter can turn ugly, brutal, or fatal; not the broken families where fatherless children face a life with no education and no future. All this with hardly any help from either government agencies or from blacks who have made it, against all odds or through accidents of birth or their own determination and perseverance, and don’t want to see that not everyone draws the lucky numbers.

So, can one hope that, as in Sam Cooke’s superb anthem “a change is gonna come”? Maybe. Over the last few months, the rumblings and grumblings related to the mass murder of blacks by police have reached a pitch. Rahm Emmanuel’s coverup in the police killing of Laquan McDonald did not help anyone. Chicken are coming home to roost and given video cameras on police cars and public scrutiny, it’s becoming more and more difficult for white police officers to kill blacks with impunity.

Another sign that we may be in for a tectonic shift is the justified recent brouhaha over the ridiculously small acceptance of black artists at the upcoming Academy Awards. Does one have to spell out that it’s only right for Will Smith or Spike Lee to refuse to participate in this ceremony where an Oscar is only awarded to blacks  when it would be impossible not to do so (such as best actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor for “12 Years a Slave”)?

I don’t agree with the parity promised by the Academy for the year 2020—that does not even reflect the population percentage. Absolute parity is as condescending as the Canadian PM touting the equal number of men and women in his cabinet. Sure, one has to start somewhere but lip service instead of appreciation of actual competence is as insulting as non inclusion, one reason that makes me find affirmative action as abbhorent and hypocritical as distributing stars to every child in class.

Grudging token recognition is worse than no recognition at all. Negroes are actual people, not stand-ins for their slave ancestors. They are also citizens. It’s about time they are recognized–and recognize themselves–as such.

Will no one take on the monsters with the guns ?

July 25, 2015 11 comments

A lovely crisp morning with blue skies and perfect temperature, breakfast on the deck and… one more front-page story about a mass shooting–the facts, the accompanying hand-wringing, the op-editors weighing in. With all these stories, one after the other, it’s come to the point where we can’t find ourselves in a crowded place—mall, theater, downtown sidewalk—without having at least once the random thought that this would be the perfect place for a deranged individual to start mowing everyone down. Lafayette shooter

Is something going to be done about it or are we going to keep on being inundated with pieties ? The answer is fairly obvious : no one will risk losing NRA votes. Here is how the Washington Post puts it today : « The orthodoxy among political advisers for candidates is that no one votes for a candidate because of his or her support for gun control laws, but lots of people will vote against him or her for that single reason. » Even staunch Democrats such as myself need to read this sentence over to realize that the sorry individuals we vote for, putting them in power or wishing they would be don’t deserve our allegiance. From the top down, it’s the same story ; Obama is now on his way out but from Hillary Clinton to the rest of the lineup of wannabees for 2016 (I won’t even mention the pathetic flotsam that labels itself Republican—at least present-day ones; the GOP was very different one or two generations ago) lurching from one state to another on their drunken race to power, one eye on polls and the other on coffers that never fill up fast enough with campaign funds. That takes care of both eyes, then, not much left for vision. As for commitment, moral courage or heart, the words are as obsolete as the concepts.

Adam LanzaThen there are the pundits and their discourse on mental health. They tell us social services and ourselves should reach out to lonely, friendless, depressed people. Good luck with that. I don’t know about you but if I see a neighbor or a guy in the street with tics and wild eyes, muttering to him or herself, I’ll run in the other direction as fast as my legs can carry me, thank you. Are these pundits serious ? Should every American be on the lookout for lunatics and bring them chicken soup or wrestle them to the ground before they walk into a theater with one or several Glocks ? Of the probable millions with mental problems, how do we as individuals or specialized organizations find the ones that will go berserk, be front-page news and cause immeasurable grief until erased from memory by the next awful incident ?

There is a way out, one only, but this blessed country of ours is too election-oriented to see it or too shy to actually say it, if and when they do actually see it : BAN GUNS. Which part of BAN GUNS is difficult to understand or to embrace? (To hear the voice of reason in this absurd debate which shouldn’t even be taking place, watch the stupendous Australian stand-up, Jim Jefferies, on the subject.) Banning guns, all guns, should become law, as it has in Australia and actually in the entire civilized world—a world to which our membership is shaky : beside allowing loonies to run amok, semi-automatics in hand, we are also the only country with the death penalty. How civilized is that ? Not only do we have mental cases loose in the street to Dylan Roofshoot at will, with the NRA’s blessing, not only do we have beefy white police officers murdering blacks left and right, punching and tasering and pepper-spraying and pummeling them and banging their heads on the pavement and strangleholding and shooting them—then doctoring videos to show that they, the cops, felt threatened—but we strap people* on gurneys and inject them with doubtful contraband substances that make them writhe in agony before a very slow death.

That too, my friends, is civilized.

 *Often black, often their guilt not satisfactorily proven, often poor, their only legal help an overworked public defender.

So the President has cojones after all

November 23, 2014 2 comments

At least as seen through the eyes of fans–even chastened but still fans such as myself. Signing an executive order to set five million undocumented Hispanics on the road to legalization, hurray. Refusing to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, bad for the environments and good only for deep pockets in which far too much tainted money goes as it is, hurray again. Continuing to provide health insurance for Americans who didn’t have any, yes, indeed.immigration

The view is quite different as seen through the jaundiced eyes of the extreme wings of the Tea Party and even so-called “moderate” Republicans such as Boehner and Mitch McConnell. They consider Obama at the very least as deserving impeachment–an actual lynching would be difficult to pull off–for innumerable crimes, among which signing too many executive orders, (less than his predecessors, but we’re not talking good faith here). Read more…

Murder by any other name

May 5, 2014 3 comments

Opponents of the death penalty—a growing number, from 20 percent a decade ago to 40 percent today—still think they have to come up with reasons that are neither here nor there to explain their aversion to the practice. Why do they have to give a reason? For fear of what? Being seen as weak in the face of crime? Not red-blooded enough? Un-American? The mistaken execution of innocents is the statement most often trotted out as indeed it has been known to happen and is a terrible thing. But no reason is needed to oppose the death penalty other than that it’s murder.

lethal injection

Since the dreadful recent mess-up in Oklahoma, I’ve had to argue with a few people (very few—I live on the East Coast where most everyone I know opposes the death penalty, as they oppose torture, this last still proudly claimed by Cheney and the couples of cronies he may have left) regarding the very principle of the death penalty. Didn’t Clayton Lockett deserve death for his abominable crime, they ask? To which I answer that he deserved it a thousand times, that had I been the mother of the poor young woman he raped, shot and ordered buried alive, I would be the first to drive a stake through his vile heart. But I will not accept that my government exact revenge, I don’t want it to invoke either justice or any principle at all to justify the death penalty. Killing is killing. Killing in a terrible manner is also killing, on one side or another. And even if this criminal had received a kiss on the forehead and been gently put to sleep instead of being tortured to the point that hardened prison officials were sick to their stomach, it would still be killing. Read more…

Frank Underwood goes to Washington

February 22, 2014 5 comments

Did I watch Season 2 of Netflix’s “House of Cards”? You bet I didSpacey, me along with what, some thirty million others, streaming problems notwithstanding. Obviously, I’m not the only one fascinated and repulsed by politics and the second season confirms our worse misgivings.

The series, despite some over-the-top moments, is well-written and eminently watchable, though to me Kevin Spacey grates as much as VP as he did as congressman in the first season. A good actor, he is devoid of the grandeur of, say, his counterpart Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) in the 1990 English version of the show and is more believable in a “Glengarry Glen Ross” setting than in the corridors of power. Not that all the men and women who stride those corridors have grandeur, far from it, but they seem to belong more than Spacey. Even that little guy—what was his name, the elder Bush’s VP, the one given to extraordinary pronouncements such as “bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement”—blended in fine. For me, Spacey just doesn’t.

Miscasting problems aside, what surprises me is the reaction from TV critics who one and all find that, entertaining as Frank Underwood’s shenanigans and evil scheming are, they give a false image of Washington. The nation’s capital, they say, may be the most corrupt city in the country (seriously? Things are better in Albany? In Austin? In Trenton, eh, Governor Christie? In scale maybe but certainly not in stench). But in Washington, according to these critics, politicians bumble along, play it by ear, don’t have a plan, and no one would come up with any plot or multiplots as nefarious as those of FU (per the main character’s initials on a pair of cufflinks given to him as a birthday present from the security guard who will end up in a threesome with VP and his wife Cruella—I mean Claire).

I’ll admit that a vicious self-serving strategy such as Underwood’s and his conspiracy aimed at getting rid of clueless President Walker in order to take his place are a stretch. But if the particulars differ, for me there’s no question that the show hews close to reality. Politicians are human, yes. To paraphrase Shylock, if you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? If you poison them, do they not die? But as the Bard also said—in Macbeth, in Richard III, in Hamlet and elsewhere, and as Machiavelli before him amply illustrated in The Prince, they don’t have the needs and aspirations of ordinary humans. Rather, blind ambition and the thirst for ever more power and territory are the incentives, the only incentives, of course cloaked in soaring rhetoric and commendable sentiments. The good of the people? Of the country? The days are long gone of politicians who were also public servants and conscious of their duty to deserve the trust put in them by voters. For all of them, from the highest office in the land down to all levels and in all parties, obfuscation, lame excuses, insincere apologies, arrangements, cronyism, back stabbing, shifting alliances and blatant lies are the rule. I’m not saying this is specific to one country, only to this particular dismal area of human endeavor (but we live in this country and are more affected by the Frank Underwoods than the Danes in Denmark or the Senegalese in Senegal.)

Frank Underwood may have had no soul to begin with but those who enter politics lose theirs anyway. It wasn’t always the case. The list is long of individuals such as Lyndon Johnson a flawed, complicated man who played the tortuous game as it’s supposed to be played but still agonized over tough decisions affecting the lives of untold numbers whom he saw as people with rights, not only voters. The flickering flames of decency and hard work to protect our democracy have been almost extinct since Ted Kennedy died or John Warner (a Republican who supported gun control laws, imagine!) retired. Elected officials such as these worked together, were friends and partied together while focused on the larger picture, not only on the next election cycle and the one after that; they didn’t spend the better part of their time and energy cajoling donors and were vested in their constituencies more than only to the extent of reaching the numbers.

There are still good people around, I’m not saying there aren’t—not above reproach, mind you, no one is or ever was above reproach—but good: Senator Mark Warner comes to mind, so does Governor O’Malley of Maryland. But their voices are drowned out–while we pay for the fiddlers–by the wackos who dance on our town squares—libertarians, creationists, Tea Party extremists, NRA members, the Rubios, the Ted Cruzes, the Koch brothers, along, alas, with a long list of my fellow Democrats who may sound more reasonable but have long accepted that clashing ideologies leave them few options.

So yes, television critics are wrong in saying that the game isn’t played as in “House of Cards.” Actually, it is played exactly like that except that there’s not the one nasty guy pulling all the strings. That task is pretty much divided across the board.

The Bush-Cheney years: the shame that won’t go away

February 4, 2014 8 comments

Driving while listening to an NPR interview with John Rizzo, former CIA agent, about his book “Company Man” and his years with the CIA, I couldn’t help but cringe and hit the wheel and more than once cry out, “oh, for shame!”dilawar

Much as I hate publicizing a book by anyone from the eight nightmare Bush-Cheney years, I can’t help mention how actions once considered so ugly and perverted they would never have been publicly acknowledged can now be discussed on radio shows with guests who believe themselves to be not only decent human beings but staunch patriots who kept America safe. The man I heard today—none too eloquent by the way, I’d like to think he was at least slightly embarrassed—did mount a sort of defense.
“We never water-boarded more than two or three people beside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That’s not much considering the prison population at Guantanamo. And the enhanced interrogation procedures had been vetted by legal departments.” Two or three only? And that makes it okay? And it was legal? According to whom? Read more…

What happens in Iran stays in Iran

November 21, 2013 5 comments

We live in a complicated world, awash in a sea of information where topics swell and shrink according to immediate relevance like words in the computing cloud. Right now the two subjects du jour that top every list are a) everything JFK and b) the Iran nuclear talks. This may be as good a place as any to bring the two together.

Although the talks in Geneva, two weeks ago, regarding Iran’s nuclear program became a non-event ending on a stutter, bringing about another Netanyahu conniption, a sudden show of resolve from France’s pitiful government and an exchange of forced smiles between Kerry and the Iranian delegation, that door remains ajar. nooses 112113

The possibility of a deal when these talks resume rests on the fact that Iran has a new president, one that at least on the surface seems more palatable than his miserable predecessor. Also, Iran, on its knees economically, is ready to talk. The country’s oil exports have been slashed in half and remaining clients aren’t allowed to pay in cash but in manufactured goods, which in turn shuts down the industries that used to produce the same goods inside Iran. Given that present sanctions don’t allow financial transactions, the country’s banking institutions are in a coma. Inflation stands at 45 percent. I don’t know if Iran pursues or has pursued in earnest an actual nuclear weapon but at this point the Islamic Republic’s position is not tenable; either it gives in or it collapses. Read more…

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