Can we talk about race? On Obama and Tony Porter.

There is a lot that is right about Tony Porter’s “A Call to Men” speech, also a lot that is wrong.  See also the website. What is right is the message that normative masculinity is rigidly identified with violence and domination and masculinist oppression,  Normative masculine men are fundamentally insecure and spend their whole lives proving that they are “men” by punishing, persecuting, and shaming others who appear to be “less masculine” than the most violent and powerful.

I like what he says.  I preach what he preaches.  I want my son to hear this.   But I’m bothered by the racial undertones.  How do you respond to them?  Did you notice them?  Did they bother you?  Do you know why?  I’m trying to figure out why they bother me.  ESPECIALLY because I like the message.

What creeps me out is that the deliverer, the prophet, is preaching to mostly white women of a certain class.  It’s called “A Call to MEN” and here’s this black guy calling to an audience of mostly white women.  The camera searches and searches for the random dark-skinned women, as though to say—“see!  he appeals to black women!  we can prove it!”   What’s up with that?

Alas, he corresponds in some ways to racist stereotypes that liberals have.  We aren’t a bit surprised to find out that he grew up in the “tenements” of New York City, since, after all….he’s Black, and that’s a romantic image for us Northerners, in a sexy West Side Story way.   But also he’s astute, and right (as in correct, as in just) and he is in fact delivering the truth about gender relations.  He’s a boundary-transgressing animal.  He makes us uncomfortable.

His message about gender may be a truth that has been obvious to  you since you were born, or maybe only after a revelation, in a college film class, for example.  You got a dose of “good news” which meant not “the news that Christ was born,” but rather, “a refreshing dose of rationality in a sea of violently emotional and sometimes frighteningly violent thinking, a.k.a. the Truth, or its closest approximation so far.

News.  He spreads it.  It is good.  But the context in which he dispenses (his seed?) troubles me.  The gender relations of this gender-conscious video bother me, actually, much, much more than its race relations.  I thought I was going to see a rally from a man to men, some kind of masculinist ideology-fest at which men were reinforcing with one another, muscling themselves up in defense against the feminizing threat of wimpy-ness or small-penis-nes.  So I tuned in.  It sounded fun.  But what I got was this quite different animal.

What do you think about it?  Can we talk about race here?  Does the race problem cancel out the feminist message?  Do you think it is important to talk about race and gender at the same time?  I do.

I mean, surely that was one of the greatest things that our president did for the nationwas to talk about race relations (A More Perfect Union), which have been brutal, indecent, and hard to comprehend, in our country since its founding.

The Europeans who landed here, in search of gold and slaves, neither of which they found, slaughtered thousands of natives deliberately, with swords, and by accident, with disease, in the 1500s.  So we Americans were founded in violence, pestilence, and fear.  And greed.  Yes, also in hope, in a search for freedom from interference by other people with whom we don’t agree. But that quite liberal inclination to seek liberty was not strong in the first settlers who got themselves established here–they were much more repressive and intolerant than most Americans learn.  With the goodwives looking on approvingly, the venerable Fathers of Massachusetts burned people at the stake.  They whipped Quaker women naked down the streets; they tarred and feathered; they ostracized; they publicly humiliated.

Not all the European invaders were English or Protestant, of course.  They were far more diverse than most seem to know.  They were Dutch; they were Swedish; they were French; they were Spanish.   They were also Natives of that continent, whose ancestors wandered, we think, from the Bering Strait.  They were Asian but also maybe Russian and Sami, too.  When you start moving back, you realize there is no single blood line, no such thing as a “pure” race; no such thing as race.  No such thing as native.

Our family history is rich and complicated.  But violent.

Here’s the problem: The”democratic spirit,”  the spirit for freedom, seems to have gotten tangled up with the spirit for imprisonment.  It seems to have gotten involved with bizarre theocratic notions of American male supremacy, of Judeo-Christian mythology about Adam and Eve; and religious intolerance. You think we’ve evolved?  Today’s Puritans have no compunction about compelling their fellow citizens to accept major infringements of their civil liberties without a whimper.  These people who use “freedom” like a weapon, a blasphemy, these people who claim to be the “moral majority,” who want to put women back into the kitchen and the kindergarten, these “men’s rights” groups and “white rights” groups, these devils who claim to be angels, …THESE are the people who have mastered the game of self-representation, of marketing, of selling the soul, selling the SELF, self above all, in our country?  These people who want to give the top 2 percent of the population the greatest tax benefit?  How did they sell that one?  Why are still selling it?

We’re the center of capitalism, why has the left let the right control this market?  We live here, too.  We, too, know how to sell the self to get ahead.  We’re just as good, we think, at the game.  Except we’re not.  We’re not making any progress lately.   What is wrong with us?

It’s the age of the internet; yet people are lazy.  They mostly want to be fed.  So.  FEED THEM.  Get the slogans out there; advertise, throw all your creativity into the project.  OUT PERFORM them.  What has gone wrong?  Are we stuck in the 18th century? Don’t we know how to sell knowledge?

Don’t get me wrong.  I admire the President.  It matters that we finally elected a man who defines himself as a Black man.  And he is a great man, a well-educated man, an eloquent man, a philosopher, an intellectual (he’s practically French–he’s our Jefferson!).  He’s thoughtful.  He’s a feminist.  He’s by all accounts enlightened in his views about women, race, class, ethnicity.  He gets an A plus for human rights.  He won the Nobel Prize.

I like him.  But why isn’t he standing up against intolerance and bigotry with greater strength?  What, in fact, is the difference between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims?  None that I can see.

What is good, in Barak and in Tony, is the turn towards the light, the truth.

Too many people seem to think is that the truth is fixed. Therefore. once they find what they think it is, they freeze it in time, and won’t let it move or change with the flow of history and events.  We call these people fundamentalists.

But really the truth is not fixed.  It is continually in flux, like an amoeba or an energy.   It is always changing in response to historical events taking place in a specific environment.  These might be events that have uncertain and potentially cataclysmic, world-altering consequences.   Like, for example, if Ahmadinajhad and his cronies were to get possession of the nuclear bomb and to set it off.  World-altering.  But who would you fear more?  I’m-a-dinner-jacket or Rick Santorum?  Mike Huckabee?  Mitt Romney?  Re-read The Handmaid’s Tale.  Say hello to our possible future.  We have to overcome our unwillingness to embrace the product, to sell “the truth.”  We need positive slogans.

Or do we?  We can’t predict events.  But we can predict the way that we respond to them.  Do we escalate the violence?  Or do we master ourselves?  Could we ever really master ourselves as long as we were trying to dominate an Other? Isn’t this the message and the method?