Monday, March 19, 2012

HBO and the 'New York n*ggers'

Pardon my French, but this happened, and I just need to tell it the way it was.

When my father died in May 2001, my most desperate wish was that Flannery O'Connor had been alive -- and there -- to help me (and, most especially, my Yankee bride) process the Southern Gothic fun house that once again surrounded us after many years in the Midwest.

There were many scenes Miss O'Connor could have offered her commentary on, but I'll just tell you about this particular one. It was a late spring evening in Baton Rouge, and we had gathered at Rabenhorst Funeral Home East -- my wife, my elderly mother and me -- for my dad's wake. Once again, for the first time in many years, the missus and I were engulfed in the barely controlled chaos that is my very large, very south Louisiana, very blue collar and very loud family.

We were standing in the front of the chapel, Daddy behind us in the casket. It was a wake, but it also was a family reunion, a potluck and a competition. If you're from where I'm from, you understand.

Anyway, we were there, and some cousins were there, and my Uncle (Deleted) had arrived a little while before. He is (Deleted) for a reason -- to protect the guilty. I owe family at least that much.

Uncle (Deleted) has a hang-up, you understand -- a not-uncommon one, which you'll see in a second. It's one my old uncle has held onto rather fiercely through the years.

After a short while, in came Uncle D., my mother's baby brother. And, no, I'm not naming him either. Always the, uh . . . eccentric, Uncle D. walked into the chapel -- down the middle aisle of the chapel -- looking like a white man's take on Huggy Bear, the black "street character" from the '70s cop show, Starsky and Hutch.

Uncle (Deleted), Mama's older brother, took one look at this spectacle -- and, remember, we were standing in the funeral-home chapel with my dead father six feet behind us -- and bellowed, "Boy, you look like a New York nigger!"

It was not a compliment.

Again, pardon my French. More importantly, pardon Uncle (Deleted)'s.

THE ABOVE video -- from "filmmaker" Alexandra Pelosi's journey to a Manhattan welfare line, as screened Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher -- is what Uncle (Deleted) was talking about. And just as Pelosi and Maher pointed out the previous week about "typical" Mississippi Republican voters, Pelosi made clear she "didn't have to go too far" in New York to find a critical mass of idiot, reprobate welfare mooches foursquare for President Obama in the coming election.

All but one were African-American.

Once again, I am not sure what Maher's or Pelosi's point is -- apart from "look at the freaks." Racists, idiots and welfare mooches exist. I'll alert the media.

And once again, I am not sure what they hoped to accomplish, apart from confirming coastal liberals' condescension toward white Southerners (Maher: "You didn't pick out these people, and they're not a microcosm of what was there.This is what everyone said to you") and, now -- despite the "context" -- white bigots' stereotypical convictions about the average black American.

I think the real message is from America's cultural elite -- via its compensated spokespeople, Bill Maher and Alexandra Pelosi -- to the country's
obviously unenlightened hoi polloi. What they want us to know, I think, is that we should be grateful they allow the likes of us to intrude upon their country, and that they allow us to do so is a sign of their intellectual and moral superiority.

Or, to quote Ferris Bueller, “It's understanding that makes it possible for people like us to tolerate a person like yourself.”

YOU KNOW what, though? People like Maher and Pelosi are intolerable. What they're doing -- branding people as The Other and holding them up to ridicule -- is intolerable. Furthermore, it's dangerous. We've seen that throughout history.

It's intolerable that, after the dirty deed was done, Maher made vague excuses for the dysfunction of the black Other ("The black guy, his legacy is real, and the white guy in the South, his legacy is a chip on his shoulder") while offering none for the Mississippi Other. Fair is fair -- everybody has a story. Everybody has his reasons for doing what he does and believing what he believes, no matter how wrongheaded the behavior or belief.

What's most intolerable, however, is what people like Maher and Pelosi have done to television . . . and us. Again. I'll give you an example.

What seems a lifetime ago, as a kid in the Deep South, the only culture I knew was a profoundly racist, segregated one. There was no "N-word" euphemism in the working-class universe of Baton Rouge -- there was the universal "nigger." If my people were being polite, "colored" or "nigra."

In the world of journalism or in the polite, for-public-consumption conversation of the cultured classes, it was "Negro."

What made "nigger" possible was the widespread (white) acceptance that the kind of thing we saw on the Maher show Friday was the normal state of blackness in America. What made it possible was the cultural conviction that any evidence to the contrary was the exception, not the rule.

What also made it possible was the belief, constantly reinforced, that maybe you couldn't be completely sure about the exceptions.

That many black folks might, in most ways, be just like you was unthinkable. Just unthinkable.

But. . . .

In the 1960s and '70s, television began to challenge the segregated party line, expanding the narrow horizons of kids like me. It's no exaggeration, I think, to say that the network TV broadcasts of that era were to the South what
Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America were to people behind the Iron Curtain.

We got to see Diahann Carroll in Julia, a black professional in an integrated world up North. We got to see Bill Cosby in I Spy. And Sidney Poitier on the movie of the week.

White kids like me were hooked on Room 222, this California vision of an integrated high school where coexistence was possible and a black man was a universally admired "cool" teacher -- a role model. It was no small thing that Room 222 prepared young minds for encounters with the real thing as integration slowly eroded the once-impermeable monolith of "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

AND WHAT television can help bring together, it also can begin to tear asunder.

That's the business Maher and Pelosi are in. In it, they join much of the rest of our culture, for which "the Other" is the next big thing.

There is a Them, we all seem to agree, and they are out to take away your money, rights, security, culture . . . whatever, and everybody is somebody's Them. Maher's and Pelosi's particular Them -- as I said earlier -- seems to be anyone not as smart, well off or "enlightened" as people like themselves.

Next stop for America 2012 is Bosnia 1993.

No doubt Alexandra Pelosi will be there with her camera.

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