Fiona Apple and her sister singin’
Fiona Apple and her sister singin’
I confess having little interest in the Paula Deen story, most likely like most of you. There seems little abnormal or interesting about Deen’s racism except, perhaps, her openness about it. When hearing about it on NPR, I thought, “Well, it’s a cool case of a private lawsuit shining a light on a much bigger problem.” I’ve spent a tiny amount of time trying to learn more about Lisa T. Jackson’s lawsuit against Deen and her brother, Bubba, and I haven’t really found anything substantive. It seems Paula and Bubba Deen made a hellish work environment, and one of their managers took ‘em to court over it. As I said, kind of cool that the lawsuit unearthed an actual social problem and is making a racist pay in ways far beyond the $1.2 million Jackson is seeking. Of course, though, Deen has become a scapegoat for a nation’s ills and the brouhaha over her casual racism is obscuring a wider conversation about race in America. It’s cool she’s gonna “pay” in ways she didn’t expect, but Deen is just another one of those “bad” or “immoral” people rather than a reflection of a society, an era, and a history.
Michael W. Twitty—a chef, food historian, southerner, and blogger—gets all this and more. Twitty recently composed a beautiful “Open Letter to Paula Deen” that not only digs into the true complications Deen’s testimony has brought up, but he does so with an empathetic nobility that is quite breath-taking. Plus, he doesn’t let Deen, her brother, her family, or her history off the hook. Not one bit. I encourage readers to read this letter in full, but here are some highlights:
“You and I are both human, we are both Americans, we are both quite “healthily” built, and yet none of these labels is more profound for me than the fact we are both Southern. Sweet tea runs in our blood, in fact is our blood…What I understand to be true, a lot of your critics don’t…which is, as Southerners our ancestors co-created the food and hospitality and manners which you were born to 66 years ago and I, thirty-six. In the words of scholar Mechal Sobel, this was “a world they made together,” but beyond that, it is a world we make together. So I speak to you as a fellow Southerner, a cousin if you will, not as a combatant.”
“Systemic racism in the world of Southern food and public discourse not your past epithets are what really piss me off. There is so much press and so much activity around Southern food and yet the diversity of people of color engaged in this art form and telling and teaching its history and giving it a future are often passed up or disregarded. Gentrification in our cities, the lack of attention to Southern food deserts often inhabited by the non-elites that aren’t spoken about, the ignorance and ignoring of voices beyond a few token Black cooks/chefs or being called on to speak to our issues as an afterthought is what gets me mad. In the world of Southern food, we are lacking a diversity of voices and that does not just mean Black people—or Black perspectives! We are surrounded by culinary injustice where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendants played key roles in innovating. “
“Don’t forget that the Southern food you have been crowned the queen of was made into an art largely in the hands of enslaved cooks, some like the ones who prepared food on your ancestor’s Georgia plantation. You, just like me cousin, stand squarely on what late playwright August Wilson called, “the self defining ground of the slave quarter.” There and in the big house kitchen, Africa, Europe and Native America(s) melded and became a fluid genre of world cuisine known as Southern food.”
The kicker here is that Twitty ends his letter with an honest invitation to come cook with him at a North Carolina plantation where he’ll be celebrating African American foodways and cooking in a 19th century style. “This isn’t publicity this is opportunity,” Twitty graciously writes, “Leave the cameras at home. Don’t worry, it’s cool, nobody will harm you if you’re willing to walk to the Mourner’s Bench. Better yet, I’ll be there right with you.”
A remarkable letter and a testament to the human spirit. Deen has an amazing and quite undeserved chance to act, learn, and grow, rather than side-step and explain away. I hope she can learn to walk the walk. She has already found (hopefully she’ll read Twitty’s letter) an inspiring mentor.
As everyone has surely heard by now, SCOTUS struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act this morning, effectively rendering the pre-clearance provision a dead letter until Congress rewrites the section. Which is to say: effectively rendering the pre-clearance provision a dead letter forever.
In response to this, Steve Benen asks a legitimately fair question:
There’s something about the Supreme Court‘s ruling in Shelby that’s bothered me all day. It’s probably unimportant – Jonathan Adler, feel free to jump in and set me straight — but as I read the ruling (pdf) this morning, I was looking for something specific: why the court majority considers Sec. 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
As David Gans points out (later in the post), Roberts and his minions are seemingly ignoring the 15th amendment’s very clear enforcement mechanism – “ The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” – by ruling that the 4th section of the VRA diminished the sovereignty of states, and was therefore unconstitutional. But of course Congress does have the power to legislate voting rights in the states, and has since 1870. There is no question about this. So again, what is Roberts’s argument that the 4th section is inconsistent “with the ‘letter and spirit of the Constitution”?
I’ll tell you how: the majority argues that the Section 4 test is irrational. The opinion lays it out clearly:
There is no valid reason to insulate the coverage formula from review merely because it was previously enacted 40 years ago. If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story. And it would have been irrational to base coverage on the use of voting tests 40 years ago, when such tests have been illegal since that time. But that is exactly what Congress has done.
Put another way, a majority of the Supreme Court of the United States of America believes that Section 4 was once rationally crafted to achieve permissible ends as defined by the 15th amendment, but since racism is fixed it is no longer necessary and therefore irrational. This is the logic of one of the most important SCOTUS decisions in generations. That racism is fixed.
The mind reels. I mean, we expected this in some form or another, but the mind nevertheless reels. This is that big of a deal. I don’t really have anything pithy to add, or any way to spin this other than to say that I hope history judges John Roberts as cruelly as I suspect it will. But that is cold comfort to anyone who will be denied their (formerly) constitutional right to vote in the world’s oldest republic. It is of no comfort to me now.
Here’s a sampling of what we’ve been enjoying this past week.
It was around the time Yeezus leaked when I first heard about The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!, an album released by performance poet Saul Williams in 2007, which was produced by Trent Reznor.
Williams is probably best known for his starring role in the 1998 independent film Slam (co-written by and also starring Sonja Sohn from The Wire). Williams had opened for Reznor a few times, and the two decided to collaborate on an album. A little over a week ago, I noticed some unusual chatter in my Twitter feed, some of which was coming from Saul Williams who was re-tweeting his fans‘ responses to Yeezus. Several of his Twitter followers said that Kanye West’s album was “a more egotistical and less creative” version of Niggy Tardust! I could see there being something to the allegations of Yeezus being derivative since West’s recent SNL performance indicated that he seemed to have evolved into something different. I immediately bought Niggy Tardust on Amazon, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think it’s a five-star album. Continue reading
Erik Loomis makes a good point about a well-intentioned yet revealing excerpt from George Packer’s new book:
What Packer’s moralism about the choices elite makes miss is that they always made those choices when they could. The Roosevelt Republic only changed their behavior because of the combined strength of a federal government seeing corporate behavior as destabilizing the nation and threatening capitalism with tens of millions of unionized workers providing the votes and public pressure to cower corporations as best they could. One frequently sees progressive commentators today cite some business exec or Republican politician from the 1950s or early 60s on the need for labor unions or Social Security or some such thing. It always makes me chuckle because it is out of context. Rarely did these people actually truly believe in such social programs. And when they actually did, it was because the power of the American working class to demand these programs had become internalized within them, so they could not fathom eliminating them.
Packer isn’t a Baby Boomer, but he seems to have accepted the centrist bromides of our media class just enough to make him sound like one. Remember when we were young, he seems to be asking. Remember when the world was pure and all of our politicians were noble? According to this worldview, the Greatest Generation possessed the moral fabric to stave off the kind of no-holds barred politics of the modern day. The leaders of yesterday, Packer seems happy to remind us, make the leaders of today look tiny:
Much has been written about the effects of globalisation during the past generation. Much less has been said about the change in social norms that accompanied it. American elites took the vast transformation of the economy as a signal to rewrite the rules that used to govern their behaviour: a senator only resorting to the filibuster on rare occasions; a CEO limiting his salary to only 40 times what his average employees made instead of 800 times; a giant corporation paying its share of taxes instead of inventing creative ways to pay next to zero. There will always be isolated lawbreakers in high places; what destroys morale below is the systematic corner-cutting, the rule-bending, the self-dealing.
Note that I agree with the larger concern here – that widening inequality is shocking and the growing debasement of the poor morally disgusting – but I feel like this point can be made without the “Get off my lawn!” sentiment that characterizes so much of our mainstream discourse. As Loomis rightfully points out, elites “always made those choices when they could.” Horrific inequality didn’t miss the middle of the last century. Power didn’t suddenly stop wielding a heavy hand between the New Deal and Contract with America. What the Boomers and their misguided acolytes tend to forget is that the past really isn’t comforting.
In a broader sense, our goal when looking at the past shouldn’t simply be to get back to the way things were. In fact, that probably should never be our goal. Things kind of sucked in the 1950s for more than a few people – and they sucked in some ways that don’t suck as much now. Perhaps a better question would be why our politics have become so fractured and hysterical in the “post-racial” present. I can think of a few reasons, but the Boomers – and perhaps Packer – may not feel too comfy with my hypothesis.
Last month, two iconoclast musicians collaborated on an album for the first time. Pat Metheny’s renditions of John Zorn songs have caught more attention than either individual’s stand-alone projects of late. Recorded mostly as a solo album, Tap: Book of Angels volume 20, allowed Metheny to play all manner of instruments before getting his long-time drummer, Antonio Sanchez, to overdub parts. Presiding over the project as an executive producer, Zorn picked 16 of his songs for Metheny to choose from and put the album out through his Tzadik label in collaboration with Nonesuch Records. Before the New York Times’ Nate Chinen conducted a joint interview with the musicians, Metheny and Zorn had never met, even though they’ve both been heavyweights in the American jazz world for nearly 40 years.
Pat Metheny is kind of the Platonic ideal of the jazz guitarist. Versatile, heavily-schooled, and interested in expanding boundaries, Metheny has been one of the most popular improvising musicians in the world since his first record, Bright Size Life, came out in 1976. Fitting well into traditional jazz, jazz fusion, and smooth jazz radio, Metheny has sold records far beyond the scope of most improvising players, and he routinely fills large music halls and concert theaters.
Roughly the same age and a veteran of the mid-70s New York jazz and improv scene, Zorn has staked out a niche in a collective of avant-garde experimental musicians where his idiosyncratic aesthetic theories and “game play” approach to spontaneous composition have mingled with his abrasive anti-capitalist theories about making art. He owns his own label—which puts out dozens of records a year, mostly of his own compositions—and maintains one of the last bastions of improv music in Manhattan, The Stone, where Zorn picks musical curators to book gigs each month and 20-30 audience members pay $10 a set (regardless of the performers) to sit on folding chairs. Nothing is consumed in The Stone except music, and all the night’s money goes to whoever is performing. If Pat Metheny is the darling of the mainstream jazz press, Zorn is more conspicuous for his invisibility in commercial settings. Zorn’s productivity, however, is legendary, even among folks who don’t like his music. Continue reading
In 2007, McSweeney’s came out with a book of essays by Lawrence Weschler entitled Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences. The collection focused on the potential insights to be gained by placing two images of widely disparate origins side by side and exploring the deeper resonances evoked by their shared visual imagery. McSweeney’s then hosted a contest where readers could submit their own striking pairs of images, in order for Weschler to comment on the winning pairs. A couple of my favorites: 1) a grain of Coney Island sand next to a NASA image of one of the moons of Mars; 2) a Piet Mondrian painting next to a Chicago wage map; and, of course, 3) papal fire. Here, I attempt my own juxtaposition.
First, a visual depiction of “the size of the [iPhone] screen that could be made if the displays were ripped out of every iPhone ever sold and combined into a single colossus”––depicted, naturally, “looming above the Manhattan skyline” (read the detailed explanation here).
Second, since it’s been on my mind the past couple weeks, an aerial shot of the NSA headquarters in Fort George G. Meade, Maryland:
Thoughts? Reflections? Observed convergences? Discuss!