Thursday, February 28, 2008

From the Mind of Mencia: Ah, the Old "I Was Joking" Defense

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch starring Eddie Murphy that satirizes then-dominant cultural assumptions about black and white race relations. The premise is this: Eddie Murphy goes "undercover," wearing make-up and wardrobe meant to disguise him as Caucasian. In costume, Murphy is given a free newspaper at a newspaper stand and discovers that the MTA bus becomes a swinging club when all the passengers are presumably white. The skit works because it hyperbolizes white privilege and institutional racism, and while the viewers who are white know they are watching a farce, they are likely to reflect on what, if any, differences they are aware of between racially homogeneous and heterogeneous groups.

In the 21st century, American culture is beset with Carlos Mencia, a "comedian" who utilizes racist stereotypes not to debunk them or to make dominant culture reflect, but to placate those who have power. For example, in some of his stand-up routines, he makes fun of white Americans who cannot tell the difference between "a Hindu and a Muslim." In the sketch, available on the Mencia site here, Mencia adopts a presumably mental-disability-based accent in order to denigrate tolerance before announcing that he pities Hindus because they are often mistaken for (implicitly stigmatized) Muslims. Mencia gets away with this because he is "ethnic," and his brand of "in your face" humor is defended by suggesting that you, the viewer, have a problem if you object to the sketch. In short, because he is a "comedian," he is not being racist; he is being funny.1

When the line is so blurred between racism, sexism, ableism, and any of the negative -isms, those who do the actual blurring encourage the dominant culture not to know the difference.

Consider State Senator Shawn Mitchell (R, and white), who, when addressing the President of the Colorado State Senate, Senator Peter Groff (D, and black), mistakenly called him Senator Gordon (D, and white), who was also at the podium. In response to his mistake, Senator Mitchell said, "Excuse me, Mr. President. You all look alike to me" (

Now, there probably isn't a single sentient American alive who does not know that this "punch line" comes from the racist stereotype that black Americans look alike (in fairness, Bill Cosby uses this stereotype in Himself, when he tells his son that he will kill him and "make another one who look[s] just like [him]"). Senator Mitchell contends that he meant to suggest that all Democrats look alike to him because of their liberal politics. Regardless, the claim is still racist. Here's why.

Mitchell is relying on the audience to understand that within his normative gaze, the objects upon which he looks are marginal, trivial, and that he enjoys the dominant, hegemonic position: i.e. Democrats are indistinguishable because one trait overwhelms all others when he, the empowered, gazes upon them. The reason that the audience understands his comment as a put down, even if they've never heard the term "hegemony,"2 is because it invokes that same discrediting, stigmatizing, attitude that was so and remains prevalent among many white Americans with (no?) respect to black Americans.

The point is, Mitchell's joke only works if you can reference a bigoted, racist attitude toward black Americans and index it within the context of the partisan Colorado State Senate. Thus, even if you take Mitchell at his word (and as a politician his word is sacrosanct, no?), he needs you to think like a racist in order for the "joke" to come off at all.

In his own defense, Mitchell explains:

"My attempted joke was that a tall black man and a short white man look alike to me because of their liberal politics," Mitchell said to a reporter later in explaining his remark. "If someone tries to turn that into a racial issue, they're just playing cheap campaign games."
One might counter, by denying any racial element to the statement, Mitchell is playing a cheap campaign game. In fact, by suggesting that criticism of his remark would amount to politics, he is suggesting that common decency is a political issue. If that is the case, we are headed for an even "greater depression" than most of us thought.3

1 This defense worked well for Don Imus.
2 This is the Colorado State Senate. Anything is possible.
3 As a rider or earmark, if you will, to this story, consider this description of local Denver television coverage of Senator Groff's rise to the Senate Presidency: "Earlier this year, a Denver television station ran a news story about Groff's historic ascension to the Senate presidency. However, the station inadvertently ran a picture of Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, another black lawmaker, during the story." Awesome.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Showstopper at the Democratic Debate in Austin? Disability.

Regardless of whether or not you have a license to participate in political "silly season," Senator Clinton's concluding remarks have been universally lauded as her most memorable, her most genuine of the debate.1 The crowd--and the CNN pundits--gushed over Senator Clinton's self-effacement when compared to wounded U.S. veterans from the war in Iraq.

Both senators were asked to describe a moment when they were tested and overcame adversity. Obama framed his response in the narrative of his life--born to a teenage mother, abandoned by his father when Obama was two years old, poor choices as a teen. Senator Clinton reflected on the personal trials she has undergone that were public domain because her husband was in the White House when they occurred. However, she minimized her own personal problems by contrasting her situation with soldiers who had undergone amputations as a result of injuries sustained during combat. Senator Obama nodded in agreement as Senator Clinton painted the injuries to these men and women as far worse than her own trials.


By using disability in this rhetorical way, Senator Clinton claims (and Senator Obama does with his agreement) that physical injury, specifically amputation, deserves the greatest respect and, implicit in her remarks, pity. Such a representation undermines PWD's work towards social equality and further ghetto-izes those soldiers (and others with these particular impairments). No doubt, a soldier without a disability faces many obstacles when he or she becomes a person with an impairment, but the benefit of Senator Clinton's commentary is questionable. In fact, representations such as these are regressive, reminiscent of how telethons frame disability and use emotional appeals to touch a presumably normative audience.

As a person with a congenital amputation, I know what I would choose if offered the option of (somehow) having my impairment eliminated or having my spouse commit adultery (let alone having that betrayal made international news). Here's to hoping my box of unused, left-hand gloves continues to accumulate new members.

1As she built up to the final, presumptively-controversial lines, the Vegas oddsmakers must have been going wild trying to settle a line on the likelihood that she would cry. No one watching had any doubt, yet Senator Clinton did disappoint.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Senator Clinton Vows to Make Your Head Explode With Cognitive Dissonance

First, I'm a supporter of Barack Obama's presidential campaign and a delegate to my county convention on his behalf. Having said that, though, I feel like my take on the democratic nominees' TV ads over the past three days is not biased, but objective. As objective as a sentient being can be, I suppose.1

Consider the following from

Hillary Clinton’s campaign unveiled an ad Wednesday that took aim at Barack Obama for turning down an offer to debate her in Wisconsin before the state’s February 19 primary, tying the decision to his stands on other issues.

Obama’s campaign struck back the next day with a spot that responded to Clinton’s, calling the original ad an instance of "the same old politics of phony charges and false attacks."

Today, Clinton’s campaign debuted ‘Deserves,’ a response to what it called “false attacks” in the Obama spot.

"Barack Obama still won't agree to debate in Wisconsin,” says the announcer in the 30-second ad, which will also air in Wisconsin. “And now he's hiding behind false attack ads.”

I quote an old Letterman schtick: "My head feel like it wanna bus' open!" Even in hide-n-seek, which is predicated on people hiding while one non-hiding person seeks, the term "hider" and the act of "hiding" are spoken as insults. I imagine in national politics, the rules remain largely unchanged.

Wednesday: Clinton Ad

Thursday: Obama Response Ad

Now, I may have missed the day in high-school civics when Mrs. Martha Smith taught us that a political ad which claims your opponent is ducking a debate with you is not an attack, especially when that same opponent is renowned as a modern-day political Orpheus who packs arenas with rock-band sized crowds, but the first ad seems particularly "negative." Consider: Obama and Clinton have already participated in 18 debates, and they have agreed to two additional debates. Thus, it seems more than a bit disingenuous to suggest he's hiding from her.

Of course, both of their motives for the not-to-be Wisconsin debate are political. Her campaign is not raising money like Obama's (it seems that Obama has the star power that the Clinton's typically enjoy), so another debate gives her another one-and-a-half hours of free airtime. Obama is leading Clinton in the Wisconsin polls, has debated or will debate her 20 times, so he, I imagine, is less-likely to do anything that might diminish his lead. No one can blame either of them (except it's curious that Clinton would use her resources to go negative, as she presumably wants to debate "policy" if such a debate would take place).

As for countering Obama's ad with a charge of "false attack ads," Clinton's campaign seems equal parts absurd and desperate. Clinton was the first to go negative as they campaigned in South Carolina, and now that she has authorized this ad, Obama played immediately into her hands: Instead of headlines that account for Obama's juggernaut since Super Tuesday, we are reading the name Clinton.

1This photo, however, is not unbiased.

Here Comes the Terror!

From the AP:

WASHINGTON — President Bush said today that “our country is in more danger of an attack” because of Congress’ failure to extend a law granting the government authority to spy on foreign phone calls and e-mails that pass through the United States.

For one, I would like to applaud the President for admitting that the law is an act of terrorism against the Constitution and....Wait, what? Oooooh.

After listening to President Bush on BBC Worldnews, I understand how upset he must be if he is willing to postpone a five-nation tour of Africa in order to lobby for the bill's extension. Luckily, the President does not plan to boycott the Beijing Olympics, because (as he said) the Olympics are only a "sporting event." President Bush claimed that he understood how the "Dalai Lama crowd"1 would protest, and that protest is their right.

When asked for comment, Jesse Owens said....

1Presumably, President Bush means "Tibetan Buddhists," who in some circles are referred to as "victims of genocide." The knowledge.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gauntlet, Thrown

On the eve of the Potomac Primaries, Senator John McCain used his victory speech as an opportunity to mark the territory for his supposed campaign against now-frontrunning Senator Barack Obama. Characterizing Senator Obama as ego-driven and messianic, claiming that:

The American people don't send us to Washington to serve our self-interest, but to serve theirs. They don't send us to fight each other for our own political ambitions; but to fight together our real enemies.

Moreover, Senator McCain attempted to co-opt Senator Obama's message of hope, reflecting that:

Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing. I can attest to that better than many, for I have seen men's hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience.

Senator Obama is not averse to challenging Senator McCain in his stump speeches--we've all heard the wheels falling off the Straight-Talk Express countless times--but McCain's attacks on Senator Obama are not based upon fact, but upon misrepresentation. For example, McCain intentionally portrays Obama as a self-serving, ego-maniacal politician when he claims that,

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life....

While McCain calls Obama's promises mere "platitudes," we are supposed to forget that Republicans for years have campaigned under the platitudes of God, Country, and Apple Pie, often avoiding the plight of working men and women by recharacterizing their struggles as struggles inherent to democracy. In fact, such politicking, as Senator McCain inaugurated last night during this campaign, is simply disinformation designed to promote the dominant ideology that keeps the disenfranchised and powerless in place and allows the hegemons to fill their coffers. And our nation's coffins.

Hopefully, Senator Obama and his hopemongering will continue to take the high road, countering Senator McCain's empty rhetoric with a discussion of policy, a discussion which can only reveal how bankrupt McCain's beliefs truly are.

McCain, John. "John McCain's Feb. 12th Speech." New York Times. 13 Feb 2008.