A Report from a Recent Colloquy from the Facebook School of History, Anthropology, and Society

burning klansmanWell, I checked in late to a recent symposium hosted on Facebook regarding the history and evolution of race relations in America 1960-2014.  I was too late to offer much, but I was taken by the reasoning and rhetoric of one brilliant visiting scholar who wished to illuminate the thinking of younger colleagues. This elder academic wanted the younger participants to be aware that their thinking about the history and contemporary state of American race relations had been hopelessly distorted by “liberal apologist” rhetoric dominating the discourse of the last several decades.

Since his argument was so terribly novel and fresh, I’d like to share it here, verbatim (except for some lengthy segments that were beyond my untrained mind to interpret:

I personally saw [acts of kindness and cooperation among] diverse groups here in Fredericksburg 5 (almost 6) decades ago. Do not believe all of the liberal gibberish you see and hear today. Some folks of different races actually “managed” to co-exist “way back then”…

I [am] not claiming there were no wrongs. I grew up through that period and saw the good and at least some of the bad. My point [is] the “standard” approach today, promoted to a great deal by the liberal apologists, that ALL interracial activities from that period were harsh, wrong, discriminatory, are often misleading. My point is that then, as now, there were good people and bad; there were good interactions and bad. We need to…spend more time focusing on the good and positive and building on that rather than re-chewing all that should have been better…

I think anyone who deliberately wrongs someone else should apologize.
In fact, I think we should start vilifying Abraham Lincoln, and condemnatory letters should immediately be sent to all of his descendants because of his failures. You do realize, I hope, that Mr. Lincoln only emancipated slaves south of the Mason Dixon Line, and, in fact at one point proposed that all persons of African descent should be returned to Africa. Now, while you are leaping to your ivory tower demanding apologies, do you also condemn Africans (I’m not talking white, South Africans here) for their part in slavery?

You see, it was not usually a while man that went into the jungles to capture blacks to be brought here as slaves. Usually, it was other tribesmen; these were the spoils of tribal war. The losers were often sold to black slavers who in turn sold them to ship captains for transport to the colonies/states… most of my relatives came over on a “potato boat”, and I can assure you neither I nor any of my known ancestors were slave owners, so I guess I am absolved as you rant.

Statistics are wonderful. Could it be that some small part of that disproportionate incarceration number is due to a disproportionate percentage of crimes committed? How about your indignation (let me hear you now) about the roving gangs of blacks attacking persons with lighter skin (whites, Asians, Hispanics) all over our nation? How about Knockout or Polar Bear Hunting?* Can you name a single instance in the last 10 years where a group of whites singled out an elderly black person and beat them to death for no apparent reason? Is it really true that over 90% of crimes against blacks are committed by blacks? Oh, and where is your righteous indignation about slavery occurring TODAY (sex-related right here in America and openly enslaving others in Muslim cultures in the world)?

…I grew up in segregated Fredericksburg, but had traveled with family through deep South…My first year at James Monroe High was first year of Freedom of Choice in F’burg schools,. I was at Woolworth (now antique store downtown for the sit-ins at the segregated lunch counter. The two in-town walk-in theatres were segregated; blacks in balcony. My granddaddy ran a store on William St that served primarily a black clientele and I played in the black pool hall next door with my black playmates. Two of my favorite adult mentors as a child were black men. Damn…that proves it…I MUST be a damn, racist redneck.

[Followed here by a long litany of long since debunked misappropriated and amateurishly malinterpreted ‘statistics’ drawn from”research” funded by the odious Pioneer Fund and spread all over the place through internet hatesites]

Yes… many things done in our past were wrong. Slavery is right up there at the top. How about what was done to the South during reconstruction? Can I demand reparations from residents of today’s northern states for what their ancestors did to my ancestors then? Oh, and while you are on this, please tell me a SINGLE nation in this world that has done more throughout history overall to promote, improve, lift, enhance current and future opportunities for blacks.

[Followed here by a long incoherent, largely unhinged defense for using mislabeled sources along with a laughably misfiring defense of his major source, Jared Taylor…yes THAT Jared Taylor]

I stand by my premise that much of the so-called racial inequality today is trumped up by the media, by certain liberals with an agenda, by individuals trying to increase their personal situation, and by racial profiteers such as Jackson and Sharpton who prey on their own people and generate CAUSES for personal gain. I also believe that much of what is laid on blacks (explanations, excuses, reasons why blacks have not, can not, (will not???) succeed in our culture) by liberals, whether sincerely trying to help them or merely trying to use them… I believe much of this is incorrect, limiting in itself, demeaning and insulting. Very complicated subject, but the blame for much of the failings within black culture, families, neighborhoods, MUST be shared by whites AND blacks, especially successful black leaders and business people. That too is a long discussion for “tomorrow”.

Is there racial division still? Of course, and it will exist so long as humans walk this earth. Is it as bad today as it was pre-1960? Yes and no, but that is far too much to get into tonight.  Am I a racist? …I do not think I am, nor do my friends of color. Suppose I’ll just have to settle for that in this forum.

And there the case was put to rest…

I was able to offer only the following small objection to this spectacularly lucid account and argument from an obvious scholar seeking to stake out a moderate position on matters of race:

Thanks..for your post [of this]long litany of the recounted views of a bevy (klan?) of well-known racially and socially toxic “conservatives” –all spewed by a guy who started out trying to diminish the significance of [recent improvements in the state of race relations] by asserting that during his youth in Fredericksburg, VA he witnessed diversity and routine acts of interracial cooperation. (Except of course for the segregated lunch counters, theater, and other public accommodations he himself claims to have witnessed!] PRICELESS. Most comical is the list of authorities he cites in defense of a man who in HIS OWN defense this goof quotes as asserting: “‘I think Asians are objectively superior to Whites by just about any measure that you can come up with in terms of what are the ingredients for a successful society.” Then this boob quotes his source verbatim characterizing Taylor’s self-assessment: “Taylor himself rejects any accusation of racism”; that should settle that question.

Somehow, I find reason to doubt the gentleman’s recollection (which, because he remembers it. he tells us is “not an anecdote”, tee hee). He reveals himself as an unreliable reporter on matters of race–despite having grown up with black playmates. I’m sure the coloreds and negroes of mid 1960s Fredericksburg deeply appreciated his benevolent efforts to befriend people who his chosen authority, Jared Taylor, would remind us are objectively inferior and given to criminal misbehavior. I’m curious why Mr. ______ senior would have allowed his son to cavort with a population given to higher propensities for criminal behavior–though, now that I think about it, I know for certain that towns like Fredericksburg did not put up with a lot of liberal softhead ideas about how to deal with the darker criminal element…

* For those of you who don’t follow the rightwig hate and paranoia media, the so-called “Knockout Game” has been labelled a myth by no less a radical left news organization than USA Today. Our FB scholar apparently does his research on filthmongering WorldNetDaily where this sort of white paranoia shit is reported.

Comments from a recently orphaned son…

Surrounded by her best audience and her most willing court jesters, 1976

Surrounded by her best audience and her most willing jesters, 1976

Rome, NY circa 1969—Accidentally tipping over a display rack of women’s blouses, Betty Burneko quickly turned to her 12-year-old son and, with a mischievous gleam in her eye signaling her intent to make as much hubbub as possible, loudly shouted, “Aren’t you going to pick that up you little creep? Who are you and why are you following me around the store? Get away from me before I call the store manager!” Mother and son departed the store as quickly as two people laughing hard enough to spray snot possibly can–the display rack remaining fallen and disheveled, a problem for someone else not involved in that joyous escape.

* * *

But here’s the thing, this shopping trip, like most others with my mom, had been full of tension, drama, anger, recriminations, apologies, gritted-teeth threats and oaths (my mom), and histrionic promises to run away forever (me), followed by sarcastic pleas to finally let it be so (my mom)–all of which storming and bitterness came to an immediate end in that instant of shared rule-annihilating silliness simply because my mother saw an opportunity to do something entirely unexpected and guaranteed to make us both laugh.

That there were many, many shopping trips, Sunday rides in the family car, entire vacations wherein no sunbreak of irony or unexpected sillitude appeared in time to disperse the heavy clouds of family terror that hung over most of our attempts at normal recreation (or dinners for that matter) is beside the point. My mom was a constant possibility, an unpredictable source of mayhem for good or ill. And more often than not laughter was involved–real, lung-squeezing, eye-watering laughter of the sort usually reserved for brilliant comedic performance and typically associated with epiphanic insight into the absurdity of the world.

For me, this was Betty’s greatest gift. The lightning shift from tragedy to comedy, the Marxian (Groucho not Karl) impulse to anarchy in the midst of distress; the smart remark that must be spoken even at the height of rage–especially at the height of rage; the whip-quick rejoinder too funny to silence even in those settings most inappropriate for mirth.

Thus my training into our family’s shared imperative to never let a thoroughly dysfunctional situation fuck up the possibility to laugh in the face of it all.

I recall being yelled at by her in words, volume, and tone that would have shocked a drill sergeant only to be brought down in a gale of laughter–both hers and mine–by some mid-rant bit of mocking or sarcasm she could not resist tossing at me with perfect pitch and timing.

Was this some sort of intuitively wise skill for parenting? Absolutely not. The woman was an actual demon. Life with Betty was like life in a basket with a hooded cobra: intriguing and exciting but…tricky–in a really really dangerous sort of way.

But that instinct to make joyous, ridiculous fun of and out of the madness of life was her own survival skill, her very own way of defeating tedium, pain, anger, sadness, obstacles and barriers real, imagined, or self-deployed. It was a major source of  that “strength of will, perseverance, and general inability to give up in the face of ridiculous odds” of which my little brother has spoken so sincerely and so accurately.

My mom wasn’t just a diva, she was an opera.

She was the prima donna di tutte le prime donne.

And she made it look great.

And no one took more ironic joy at poking fun at The Baroness than la Baronessa herself. As quick as she was to come up with the line to make us laugh, quicker still was she to laugh at the jibes and showoff antics of her children. NO ONE has ever been as good an audience as Mary Elizabith Lis Elisabetta LoFaro-Burneko-Fisher. (Betty to those who loved her most and wouldn’t let her get entirely away with her various fabulist personas.)

Elegant, vulgar, dynamic, lazy, shrewd, tender, wise, demanding, bewitching, terrifying, vital and vivacious, duplicitous and secretive, brilliant and earthy, phony as a Chinese Rolex, real as a category 5 hurricane…there will never be another like you, Betty.

And so, because your faith is more important to me than my doubt, I offer a prayer for you mom:

Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope…Thou hast made known to me the ways of life, thou shalt fill me with joy with thy countenance: at thy right hand are delights even to the end.

Psalm 16:9 and 11 mashup


Insights from the FB right on mass shootings and mental illness, part 2

If you were to go slumming on the right (as I often do) you would see that the blogs, FB posts, and FB pages of the liberty loving right are full of commentary about getting guns out of the hands of the crazies.

Here’s a sample:

FB Fan of “Postively Republican” Aundra Mcquillen says: “…we need more mental help for these crazy lunatics who kill innocent people! We need more affordable healthcare (not obamacare) and more lockdown institutions that are not volunteered for these nuts”

Cheryl Meinke, FB fan of “Postively Republican” says: “…mental health is the issue here. Family and friends protect the mentally ill until it’s too late to stop something like what happened last week.”

Katie Harrell Cargill, a “Postively Republican” FB fan weighs in with this: “…president Obama is another Hitler. wanting to keep the people from being able to defending themselves against the government, so he can completely take us down. Guns don’t kill. People do. This will not stop until we get rid of saten, and bring God back.”

Now moments ago, speaking to Ed Schultz in MSNBC, Congressman and Talking Baboon Jack Kingston (R-GA) has called for a national hotline for people who are mentally ill. A hotline for people in crisis to call for help? Not exactly. This is more of a tip line. Do you see somebody who seems to be mentally ill? Call the hotline. Report them…so they can get *help*…

…except that Kingston placed that brilliant idea in the context of helping local police get more and better information about people “who shouldn’t have access” to firearms.
Put these “ideas” together folks. People dropping a dime on people who act strangely so that police can investigate them and see if they need any help such as denying them “access” to dangerous stuff (and freedoms others enjoy).


Lying fascist fucks.

I say if you feel like you need a 30 round clip in your assault weapon to feel safe from the bad guys (or more insanely, from the conspiracy of socialists in government) or to feel like a big bad movie character; or if you are a “gun enthusiast” who collects guns (in exactly the same manner as pedophiles “collect” porno flicks of children), you are by definition mentally ill. I hope Congressrube Kingston’s hotline idea catches on so I can call it every time I go by a Virginia gun shop or shooting range and report that I see a collection of raving fucking lunatics who need “help”.

(Personally, I think someone needs to make a call to get help for Katie Harrell Cargill)

And by the way, if you want me to know that you are a gun owner who uses guns legally and safely for the purposes of (hunting; sport; target shooting; personal safety; protecting your family; protecting your freedom; preservation of the American way of life; addressing some personal tragedy you could have prevented if only you’d had a gun; to fulfill your covenant with Jesus, Allah, your extraterrestrial alien master…) Keep it to yourself. I don’t care. You don’t need your substitute hardon as much as this nation needs to get straight and healthy; the inherent violence of your firearm is a danger to every fucking body. Grow up.


The FB American Right Wants You to Know: Mental Illness is Behind Mass Shooting Epidemic. They’re Right.

Just days after the mass shooting of children at school in Connecticut, Congressional Embarrassment, Louie Gohmert of Texas, added his “thoughts” to the discussion on Fox News Sunday; his voice quavering with simulated emotion he  said that when the Newtown principal lunged at the gunman, he “wished to God she’d had an M4 in her hands.”

Tea Party Gun ControlHe, like the bloodthirsty Tea Party goons sponsoring the message linked here, answer the cries of the families of dead children in Sandy Hook with the vulgar, sick-minded suggestion that their children, our children, would be made safer by the arming of faculty.

Gohmert and the weapon-lusting, gun-pumping masturbating riflesuckers want their guns so much—are so infatuated with the sexy hardware of assault and human destruction–they are willing to profane public discourse with their childish, irrational commentary. While the literally bullet riddled bodies of Newtown children lay still unburied, they dare to offer suggestions that good educators would be better if they were trained to kill. They offer the wise counsel that children’s elementary school experience would be better if school employees were trained and equipped to shoot it out with mass murderers in the school hallway–gun fanatics who enter schools armed for public massacre  with weapons and body armor designed for military and police SWAT engagements–all of which are protected for legal public purchase with the lunatic excuses of ‘hunting, ‘sporting’, ‘home protection’, ‘hobby interest’, ‘check on the authority on our (elected) government’…

Educator, Principal, Hero, Dawn Hochsprung

Educator, Principal, Hero, Dawn Hochsprung

By all accounts Principal Dawn Hochsprung was an outstanding school administrator, gentle and present to the students in her care, a highly trained educator.

Kindergarten teacher.Victoria Soto wanted to be a teacher all her life. Parents and students confessed to responding to her display of love for her students with their own love for her.

Educator, Teacher, Hero, Victoria Soto

Educator, Teacher, Hero, Victoria Soto

Yet, by the reckoning of Gohmert and supporters of “I Am the Tea Party”, these two ideal educators were insufficiently trained for their positions as elementary school educators. Shame!

Listen to the voices of support sampled from the “I Am the Tea Party” FB posting:

Dennis Hand They should get rid of the “Gun Free Zone” classification and not only have armed guards, but they should train and arm staff. There is no reason that there should have been this much carnage. If there had been armed staff members, there may have been a couple of deaths or injuries, but the assailant would have been brought down in short order.

Kristy Kirk We need the principals of schools all around the country to at least have a gun in their offices to protect their school and us at home as well.

Mary Grimm Bunker Let’s train our staff with firearms and prayer

Debbie Wood Scrimshire Have to fight fire with fire. Be prepared to defend and protect our children.

Scott Swigart Until the school teachers and staff of these schools are armed this is going to continue to happen…a few AR’s in the principals office and a little training would have gone a long way towards stopping the insanity of this young man that dreadful day. Imagine the difference it would have made if the principal and perhaps his secretary would have come around the corner with their own AR’s to confront this man.

Jimmy Dempsey It is way past time for our people to arm the teachers and staff at all of our schools. It is a must that they ALL (teachers and staff) get psycological evaluations, but then give them the arms they need to protect our children. Why is it so hard to understand that?

Beth Harmon Stadlmayr Travers I say we only hire teachers who can speak English , have a degree to teach and have a CCW!…Good people with guns will always prevent murder! DUH! [1]

GOOD THINKING FB TEABAGGERS! Teacher education programs could follow the course on student management with a course on the “12 Critical Elements of Modern Firearms Training”–How many Dawn Hochsprungs and Victoria Sotos will aspire to enter that kind of teaching profession?

You’re right Congressman Gohmert and Tea Party geniuses, American education will certainly improve when educators like Victoria Soto are driven out and gun-toting, weaponhead gym teachers take control of our schools.


If after what we have seen now, we cannot have a serious discussion about the status of guns in America without the intrusion of idiotic nonsense, then we deserve the violence we allow to continue through our unwillingness to call stupidity what it is.

The gun crazed right has come out in force to deflect all attention away from the role of firearms in the growing epidemic of mass public shootings.  In the case of this shooting, the removal of God, Jesus, prayer, religion, and the Bible were cited as “the real cause” of hyper-lethal public shooting sprees in schools.

Also blamed were lack of corporal punishment at school and at home, the influence of liberalism, socialism, and Marxism (no, really), video games, Hollywood, and the ever popular “culture” (with no supporters of the post citing specifically gun culture as a problem.)

And, most of all, mental illness. And this deflection is deployed not only among Tea Party types; all over the mediaverse entire constellations of ink, electrons, and slobber have been spewed into the public square intimating that this tragedy (and all the string of tragedies that make up the American gunslaughter epidemic) should focus our national attention on “mental health” aspects of the phenomenon.

On the rifle right, this usually involves arm waving about keeping guns out of the hands of the “mentally ill”, “psychopaths”, “crazies”, “lunatics”, “sociopaths”, and “the sick”. Sure let’s scapegoat and demonize people with health problems–recall that that’s what folks suffering with mental illnesses are: people with health problems.

On the “I Am the Tea Party” chain, on average every third comment indicated that mental illness or medications for mental conditions (which many of these libertarians would ban—not guns, medication) are “the real problem.”

I agree that mental illness is a real problem in the context of gun use: After watching two decades of increasing gun violence go unaddressed by craven lawmakers cringing before the power of the personal weapons lobby and their bogus membership association–the NRA–while all the while the whiteright paranoia chorus chants its claims that the gubment is about to seize their weapons, I would think the upcoming edition of the DSM ought to include a newly recognized mental illness:  Second Amendment Derangement Syndrome.

And after a season of watching Tea Party sociopaths marching outside presidential appearances with assault weapons slung across their backs, a season in which right-wing candidates openly spoke of “second amendment remedies” to public policy differences, a season in which a top leader of the right stiffened the spines of ‘conservatives’ with her inane motto: “Don’t retreat, reload,” I want to state in complete seriousness that the real mental illness we need to be talking about is right-wing ideology. It has long since become a deadly sociopathic disease.


NOTE: No essay, article, or comment on matters of gun violence should ever end without calling attention to Mother Jones brilliant Guide to Mass Shootings in America; be sure to check out all the links.

Related articles

[1] Hey, Beth. How come Nancy Lanza didn’t “prevent murder”? Reporting indicates that she was a good gun mother. She taught her children how to use guns, took them shooting, and by all accounts spent a great deal of time working with her son’s learning problems. More evidence that Mrs. Lanza was one of Beth’s “good people”? All agree she was one of your tribe: a “gun enthusiast”!

On Color, Culture, and ‘Complexity’

It couldn’t have been easy for a 12 year-old poor girl from North Carolina hill country to risk all her unlikely dreams by refusing to play at her first formal concert recital. But she did. Thought she had to I suppose.

Even though Eunice Waymon was a prodigy—started playing piano at three, for a pair of struggling, working class parents from Tryon to find a way to get Eunice a genuine concert recital, there had to be a bunch of sacrifices and a lot of invested hope, not just from Eunice and her parents, but also from whoever pitched in to help this gifted kid land such a big opportunity. The Waymon’s couldn’t have done it alone. They were simple poor folks without connections to sophisticated people. And they were black. And it was 1945.

So Eunice must have known how much was riding on doing everything just so for this recital. But when Eunice saw that her parents had been removed from the front row of the concert hall and shown to the seats for coloreds at the rear, apparently her sense of right overcame what must have been an outsize fear for a child of 12—to defy authority, white authority; make a fuss, act uppity; risk everything she and her parents—a housemaid and a handyman—had sacrificed for this one child of seven to get to this point. A child risking an opportunity big as her whole life and more, but fragile as a rare ice coating on a winter pond in the North Carolina piedmont.

But 12 year-old Eunice from Tryon refused to play a note until her parents were returned to their rightful front row seats.

Apparently the showcase recital went well because Eunice was on her way after that. A fund was created to help Eunice attend school and study her instrument. At 17 she got the chance to enter the elite and highly competitive Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Though it seems she had done everything needed to earn admission by the school’s official standards, she was rejected. Now a young woman who’d seen some things, Eunice thought the rejection was another instance of racist discrimination and, though she may or may not have been correct about the Curtis Institute’s rejection, the important point is Eunice believed it—an important point because racial injustice and battling against it would shape the rest of her career and her commitments within and outside the music and entertainment field she was to inhabit for the next half-century.

Eventually Eunice, who eventually got into Julliard to receive the classical training she sought, would give up her aspirations of a career as a classical pianist when limited funds compelled her to begin playing jazz and blues in Atlantic City. She changed her birth name for one more suited for the entertainment industry and became Nina Simone.

But though she gave up on classical piano and traded in her name, she did not give up either her fierce sense of racial justice or her will (some said diva attitude) to raise her voice and make trouble when she thought trouble was called for.


The High Priestess of Soul, 1969

Everyone who knows the basics about Nina Simone already knows of her commitment to the concerns of racism, a commitment demonstrated both through her songs and through her role in the Civil Rights movement. But one matter Simone thought called for her kind of trouble went beyond the rough edged concerns of racism to the more delicate issue of colorism. As a dark-skinned, coarse haired, broad nosed, thick-lipped woman of color, Simone was well aware of Americans’ (of both races) cultural preference for—and privileging of—the more Anglo-European coloring and features of “passable” black women. How do we know she was aware of it? Because she was Nina Simone: when something bothered her, she made trouble about it. She spoke about it, acted on it, and sang about it.

In all the popular art forms, women of her complexion and features were (and remain) at a career disadvantage relative to female artists with “prettier” (read: euronormative) faces and body types. Simone could be forgiven for thinking this state of affairs politically, economically, and culturally unacceptable. Or just simply wrong. As wrong in its own way as moving her parents to the negro seats during their daughter’s piano recital.


Of course, today’s release of wordy words is inspired by the casting of Zoe Saldana for the upcoming biopic about Nina Simone. It is inspired by that but it’s really not about that.

Actress Zoe Saldana presumably not in her Nina Simone makeup

It’s not really about whether Saldana should have taken the part (please, she’s an actress), or if Saldana is not black enough or black at all (c’mon), or if anyone should boycott this movie (I won’t go see it, but that’s because (1) the movie will apparently contain none of Simone’s music since the company was unable to obtain the rights, so (2) the movie will rely for its main dramatic interest on a romantic relationship that never happened; (3) I do not have any reason to believe that its writer-director has the capacity to make a watchable movie about someone whose music and being I am crazy about and so (4) I’d rather watch Nina Simone videos until someone not interested in a major-release hit decides to tell a story about her in film. And anyway, (5) biopics generally suck.)

It’s about something far less serious (but far more meaningful) than these concerns. It’s about the economics and politics of culture and entertainment. It’s about stupidly missing an opportunity to honor Nina Simone the influential artist even while profiting from making a movie about her. And it’s really pretty simple. No heavy, Frankfurt School, Critical Theory needed.

Casting Zoe Saldana[1] would seem to be either a tastelessly ironic joke by writer-director Cynthia Mort, or a complete failure to do even minimal research about the public and interior life of the character Mort’s movie is putatively about. Either way…

But maybe I’m being unnecessarily concerned about the director’s plan for Nina. IMDb offers this storyline summary: “The story of the late jazz musician and classical pianist Nina Simone including her rise to fame and relationship with her manager Clifton Henderson.”

Good. I sure hope for Mort’s sake it spends so much time on the entertainer Nina’s rise to fame and her relationship with Cliff Henderson (who in real life was, by the way, entirely out as a gay man)  that no time is left to explore the work and mind of Nina Simone the woman and artist, because it would be painful to watch an audience try to keep a straight face while watching Saldana speak lines expressing Simone’s oft stated thoughts about the entertainment industry’s deplorable backhanding of talented dark-skinned black women.

Seriously. With Saldana in the role, they should really just skip this whole part of Simone’s life and work and add an exclamation mark to the title: Nina! 

That would be far better than embarrassing everyone involved, especially the audience, with scenes involving Saldana talking, as Simone did, about her wooly hair and broad, flat nose. (We can always hope that Saldana’s ability to speak any lines at all will be inhibited by the ridiculous buck teeth they have outfitted her with in a pitiful attempt to simulate Simone’s enticing overbite that flashed whenever she graced an audience with a rare but genuine smile; typically after a brilliantly improvised riff from her band or a smart improvised line of her own.)


Don’t overthink this. Don’t get caught up in double paradoxes of ‘post racial’ reasoning (seriously? ) or the literal ‘shades of meaning’ about color.

Make it simple: Imagine Simone had not been a singer but an actress who’d spent her whole career pointing out Hollywood’s pernicious colorism. Whether we though that character’s views were right or wrong, well-reasoned or obsessive, fair or not, we would not be engaging in discussion about whether or not Saldana (or Jada Pinkett Smith or Jessica Alba or Christina Milian or…) should be getting made up to play the role. It would be absurd. No director would have even sought a reading or casting interview with Saldana.[2]

But that obviousness, the obvious absurdity of casting any actress like Saldana is somehow blurred by the fact that Simone’s critique came from a singer instead of an actress (a strange blindspot given Hollywood’s usual subtlety on matters of meaning and cultural interpretation…)

It could be argued that for writer-director Mort and, more importantly, the film’s financial backers, colorism is beside the point; simple capitalism dictates that a name-brand actress like Saldana is needed to make the deal fly and generate box office receipts. Or more generously, one could argue that the filmmaker wants a large audience to watch a movie about Nina Simone.

Okay. Go ahead. Make either point. So now you have arrived at my point. The pool of dark-skinned black actresses with Saldana’s name recognition and Hollywood buzz is shallow. That is exactly what Nina Simone made trouble about. And that fact is exactly why people are making trouble about this movie.


Sometimes seeing the complexity of an issue blinds us to the obvious.

And This

Watch Nina Simone perform her song Four Women  and then ask yourself a few questions:What kind of film would do proper justice to this woman’s remarkable work and artistic gift? Do you trust the woman who wrote The Brave One and the actress who played Neytiri (or any role in Avatar for that matter) to make that kind of film? Nina Simone was the very essence of countercultural pride and subversion; are these the people to celebrate Nina Simone’s celebration of counterculture?

Next blog: Why Mel Gibson would be a poor choice to play John Brown, Elie Wiesel, or a human.

[1] Last seen in a prosthetically engineered face and colorizing movie makeup for Avatar in her role as a euronormatively beautiful female creature from another planet (Hollywood long ago having determined that even our spacecritters have to fit conventional criteria of attractiveness, especially when cast alongside white leading men with transspecies sexual proclivities…). Perhaps Saldana is seeking to carve out a niche as the actress most willing to alter her face and color.

[2] Unless the director made that choice as a deliberate, challenging point of meta-commentary. I think we can dismiss any notion that Cynthia Mort (whose ‘writing’ and/or production ‘skills’ are behind the grotesque misuse of Jodie Foster’s talent for the preposterously dullwittted revengeporn flick, The Brave One, six episodes of the shitcom Rosanne, a dozen or so episodes of the precious and precocious Will [ampersand] Grace, and little else) has that much in mind or the chops to carry it off if she did…

Speaking of Israel’s Unspeakable Treatment of the Palestinian People…

Today’s loopy contemplation is inspired by a blog my daughter reposted on Facebook (no doubt as a prompt for thoughtful comment or just thoughtful thought). The rest of this entry comments on said blog, so I’ll pause a minute here to give you time to read it.

How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic

Well…go on. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Okay. So, first off, I have no major issue with the overall advice here. Though It does seem less like a useful guide for folks of good faith who wish to civilly criticize Israel’s horrendous abuse of the rights of Palestinians than like a guide for detecting anti-Semitic bullshit encoded within bad faith criticisms of the policies of the state of Israel, that is not my concern. As I said, overall the blog strikes me as a well-intended and mostly accurate if innocuous reminder to be civil and sensitive to important distinctions when expressing all due anger at Israel’s political leaders (especially Likud and Netanyahu).

The part of the blog I do want to take issue with is the author’s comments on the proper use of the word Zionism. The author’s advice on this score—“Don’t say ‘Zionists’ when you mean Israel”—is beyond dispute (if rather obvious). Just as no one should say ‘feminist’ when they mean women or capitalism when they mean America.

But that bolded statement has little to do with the rather glib (and oddly non sequitur) definition of Zionism the author seems to want us to accept. There are a lot of Zionists just as there are lots of feminists and there are some of both who hold ideas that should be open to good faith challenge–if not outright rejection–on progressivist grounds.

For my own part, I see Zionism’s role in Israel’s national liberation as a heroic movement and a necessary ideology in the history of Israel and of the Diasporan Jews in particular. And I cannot help but to continue to feel a deep longing in my heart for the doomed Labor Zionism of A.D. Gordon, Berl Katznelson, and the Hapo’el Hatza’ir party, not to mention Albert Einstein and Golda Meir.

However, the present day’s rightwing Zionism seems to have become not only anachronistic but perverse. It is the Zionism of ultra-nationalists in the Likud party and many who settle the “frontier”.

As Avi Shlaim long ago argued in a New York Times commentary, “Occupation transformed the Zionist movement from a legitimate national liberation movement for the Jews into a colonial power and an oppressor of the Palestinians.”

I want to make clear before moving on that I claim no expertise on Zionism. My interest and knowledge of Zionism (such as it is) is based on my longstanding interest in social-democracy. Zionism, especially Labor Zionism, has a special place in the history of the development of democratic socialism and so I know whatever little I know about it through the many ways the two histories cross paths. I understand Zionism through that lens. Indeed, Labor Zionism provided me my first model for what I, as a budding little socialist, thought a just and humane socialist society would look like whether for Jews or Gentiles.

On the other hand, I find Religious Zionism and Nationalist Zionism frightening. I would argue they are inherently anti-democratic, as are, I would argue, the Zionist elements of Likud ideology. That doesn’t make them beyond the pale of civil discourse or illegitimate forms of human organization, but they are antithetical to my own views on just and democratic social organization and I reserve the right not to be stiff-armed as some sort of hostile outsider when I criticize these ideologies. The universal right to self-determination requires that Israel’s right to organize itself along the lines suggested by (Likud’s version of) Zionism must be respected if that’s how things go. Truly. But that does not entail that Israel can do so and continue to proclaim itself a democracy. It also does not entail that Zionist ideology is beyond criticism if it is used to underwrite permission to occupy Palestine, build settlements all over it and create a de facto prison state in which the Palestinians must live.

I am probably way out of my depth on the complexities involved (not that that has ever stopped me before), but that doesn’t make me an anti-Semite (not even at some preconscious level parallel to that of your dimwit uncle who vomits all the putrid tropes and codewords typical of a Tea Party meeting but honestly believes he is not a racist…).

While the author is self-evidently correct to assert that there is no justification for conflating Israel and Zionism, that does not mean that the author’s characterization of Zionism has to be accepted at face value. Zionism is an ideology and is thus not just a simple idea or principle. It is a thought system that cannot be accurately described in the innocuous value-neutral way the author suggests.

It is a gross distortion to suggest that “unless you believe that Israel should entirely cease to exist, you are yourself Zionist.” Despite the author’s claim, Zionism goes well beyond a simple “belief that the Jews should have a country in part of their ancestral homeland where they can take refuge from the antisemitism and persecution they face everywhere else.”

Zionism includes the ideas that the Jewish homeland must be contained not just within a “country” but within a Jewish State.  Admittedly, among Zionist factions there is wide argument about what exactly makes a Jewish state Jewish, but whatever it is is something different from a Jewish homeland within a “country” with secular institutions uninflected by aspirations to “manifest its Jewishness in concrete ways that will make it unique” as the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs explains it.

Without question, history testifies to the inevitability and importance of this aspiration for Diasporan Jews.

But history also attests the fundamentally anti-democratic tendencies posed by states with similar aspirations of “X-ishness.” Think “Islamic State.” This sounds even more democratically suspect than rightwing assertions that America is or ought to be a “Christian nation”; it suggests the added power of codification into state institutions and law. The modern concept of the state entails that a Jewish state, by any definition, must involve either some concrete intermingling of religious precepts and the crafting of law or some sort of differentiated status between Jews and non-Jews in Israel or both. Else, what is the meaning of Jewish State? How else to concretely manifest Jewishness in ways that will make the state uniquely Jewish? And what of the confidence and consciousness of a non-X community living in an X-ish state?

On this score alone, those of us who believe that pluralism–cultural, ethnic, religious and racial—concretely manifested in political institutions that foster and protect it, is an essential element of a democratic state can criticize Zionism without lapsing into any sort of antisemitism.*

Moreover, a common thread running through a lot of various flavors of Zionism is the notion that the Jewish State belongs in a conceptual-geographical space known as Eretz Israel (a concept far more potent in the current context than “part of their ancestral homeland.”) While not all Zionists agree on the proper or acceptable definition of Eretz Israel, it is precisely that contested nature of its “borders” that makes this aspect of Zionism of particular threat to the interests and hopes of the Palestinians.

Israeli military in Palestine

And just because it is true that “many of the Jews IN Israel who are most violent against Palestinians are actually anti-Zionist,” as the author asserts, it does not follow that Zionism may not also play an important role in legitimizing policies that are inimical to the interests of the Palestinians in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

American military in Iraq

Just as American Exceptionalism is an ideology that authorizes re-narration of the US’s policies and history of human rights abuse at home and abroad, I would argue that Zionism is a political ideology that often serves to underwrite the mistreatment of the Palestinian people and the dismissal of their legitimate claims. Certainly, other ideologies—many of which are at odds with Zionism—deployed  by Israeli policy makers also serve the same end, but that does not excuse Zionism from this defect.

Does Zionism’s role in excusing Israel’s ongoing abuse of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank entail that I believe that “they brought it on themselves by being Zionists” as the author puts it? Obviously not. As the author has already made clear, where “it” refers to antisemitism or antisemitic violence, Zionism cannot be used as a synonym for “them” where “them” is meant to indicate Israel or (more awfully) the Jewish people. But the truth that the term Zionism has been “used to justify anti-Semitic attacks outside Israel” does not mean that we must not criticize the ideology of Zionism. Just because it is false to assert that all Israelis are Zionists, criticism of Zionism’s potential role in diminishing the moral claims of Palestinians is not rendered thereby illegitimate.

Why is any of this worth a long, rambling, and possibly unhinged critique? Well, perhaps it isn’t. But here’s my defense: Because once we recognize the role of the ideology of American Exceptionalism in the history of this nation’s worldwide fuckery as well as auto-excusing our history of segregation and race policy, we cannot be glib or indifferent about parallel ideologies elsewhere.

I don’t know if the author realizes it, but her assertion that “imposing your values on another group is not okay…appointing yourself the judge of what other groups can or should believe is not okay” is an inoculation strategy: If it’s not okay to “impose” our values on other “groups”, we cannot mount an effective critique. I am of the American “group”. I fully welcome members of other “groups” to “impose” their values on my group insofar as  it is essential to pointing out that American Exceptionalism is an ideology that has been used to excuse egregious abuses of justice and human dignity. I can tell the difference between some opportunistic fanatic who says it as part of a rhetoric of anti-American hatred and an intelligent critic who respects America and wishes to point out an important flaw in an important ideology in hopes of changing our dangerous behavior.

Finally,the outrage expressed by non-Jews in the American left over Israel’s crushing occupation and arrogant expansion of settlements into Palestine is directed not at the people of Israel or even the Israeli State but at rightwing Likud thugs who mirror (or are mirrored by) rightwing Teaparty and Fundamentalist thugs we oppose here in the US.

Blessed are You, Lord, who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular.

* And without committing oneself to the ignorant, ahistorical argument that Zionism is the equivalent of racism. My argument is not that argument. The logic of my argument may commit me to the position that Zionism is an inherently useful tool of anti-Arab or anti-Palestinian racists, but that’s a different claim and one I could defend (though I would rather not)…