Race, Class and the Royals

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We Americans like to think of ourselves as egalitarians, not at all interested in separating people into social classes. Yet we have an endless obsession with the life of the royals across the pond. Last week the world was riveted by the rift exposed when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan declared their intention to live apart from the royal family for some  portion of the year and to become financially independent.

While our own Senate begins its deliberations about whether to remove the president from office, our obsession lies with “Meghxit” and what it will mean for the future of the dynasty that has had us in its thrall for decades. There have been no shortage of news stories and op eds about the defection of Harry and Meghan. Speculation about how Queen Elizabeth will handle these upstarts also runs rampant.

Many in the press are sympathetic to Meghan Markle and the fact that she has had to endure some racially biased attitudes since her engagement to Prince Harry. Despite the huge influx of immigrants from around the world into the UK, English society holds onto strict class distinctions. Kate Middleton may have been a “commoner,” but she was a distinctly well-bred white woman. With Meghan Markle’s mixed racial heritage and her past as an American actress, she has had to fight the disdain of this class-conscious society in which she lives. Even baby Archie is not immune from the thinly-veiled racism, having been described as looking like an ape by a British journalist.

On the other hand, Meghan Markle did not exist in a bubble when she met her prince. The royal family’s stuffiness, the British public’s relentless prying and open criticism of various members, and the tabloid nature of many British publications should have clued her in that her every action would be scrutinized and that is was unlikely she would remain unscathed under such a microscope. As Maureen Dowd put it in her spot-on column, “It is hard to feel sorry for the Duchess of Sussex complaining that her diamonds are heavy.” (“Gone With the Windsors,” Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2020)

There is also some sense that Meghan has been responsible for causing, or at least exacerbating, the enmity between brothers Harry and William. And as a royal living off of public funds, she has certain responsibilities to that public that she has refused to honor. For example, she refused to be photographed leaving the hospital after the birth of Archie. She and Harry have insisted on a level of privacy that is just not possible in their positions. Now they want to abscond to Canada, necessitating expensive security measures that they are in no way able to afford “independently.”

Is Meghxit a sign that the authority of the British monarchy is on the wane? Is it a breath of fresh air into the stuffy halls of Buckingham Palace? Or is it an entitled and childish tantrum against the golden chains that bind the royals to their destiny? Whatever the case, our enduring fascination with monarchs and class distinctions indicates that we may not be as democratically-minded as we like to think.

 

The Evolution of Humor

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In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.

 

Beloved Author

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The first time I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, I didn’t really understand it. The figure that haunts Sethe, the main character, is omnipresent yet mysterious. It took a second reading many years later for me to capture the import of this seminal work of American literature.

Toni Morrison’s death at age 88 has had many readers reminiscing and reflecting on her greatness. The first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature, Morrison wrote with such power and lyricism that her works almost literally vibrated. Despite how puzzling I found Beloved, I followed up by reading some of her earlier works: Sula and The Bluest Eye.

As a woman, I identified with some of the emotions and the powerlessness felt by the female protagonists of Morrison’s fiction. Feelings of uncertainty and of not being good enough in the eyes of others are issues that have always faced “the second sex.” The sacrifices mothers make for their children is another universal theme Morrison explored in works such as Beloved and A Mercy, one of her later works. After I became a mother myself, I could relate to the pain and helplessness these women felt in trying to protect their children.

But what really affected me about Toni Morrison’s work was the window it opened into the world of blacks, particularly black women. Morrison’s unflinching depictions of the horrors of slavery were hard to read. The goings-on at the ironically named Sweet Home of Beloved and the D’Ortega plantation in A Mercy show the devastating effects of whites’ willingness to dehumanize black men and women. Morrison’s writing forces whites to see the evil legacy of slavery, and it refuses to let us look away.

Toni Morrison opened up American literature to the black female voice. Her success even led to the rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston, a gifted writer from the 1920s. Americans will be forever indebted to her for championing the artistic efforts of other black women authors, as well as for her own deep and beautiful body of work.

A few years ago, I had the great good fortune to see Toni Morrison in person. She was in town to receive the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a benefit dinner to which I was invited. She was a formidable presence on the stage, but when she autographed my copy of Beloved, she gave me a warm smile. I am still grateful for that close encounter with her literary greatness as well as her graciousness. Her presence in our world will be sorely missed.

 

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

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Donald Trump’s entire strategy for defending himself against any charges is to go on the offensive. Essentially, he lobs at his critics the playground retort, “I know you are, but what am I?”

In the past few weeks, the president has actually told U.S. citizens of color to go back where they came from. More recently, he decided to attack his critic Rep. Elijah Cummings by denouncing Cummings’ district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” The comment was akin to his description of certain African nations as “shithole countries.” The more blatantly racial Trump’s attacks become, the quicker he is to label his critics as racist or un-American.

And instead of calling on the president to refrain from such remarks, his apologists get into a dissection of the victims. First they analyzed and called into question every statement made by the four Congresswomen who were the subject of Trump’s vitriol: women of color, all of them U.S. citizens and only one of them born outside the U.S. And as pundits pointed out, even that naturalized citizen had been a U.S. citizen longer than Trump’s own wife, Melania.

In the case of Trump’s attack on Baltimore, Rep. Cummings’ home turf, pundits started in on the Democratic failures to solve endemic poverty in big cities. Again, all this serves as a dodge to avoid confronting the fact that they support a small-minded racist.

The Trump strategy of counterattack is a brazen and shameless one. Despite the fact that there is ample evidence he obstructed justice in his attempt to derail the Mueller investigation, Trump has managed to turn the investigation against itself, demanding that U.S. justice and intelligence agencies be investigated for pro-Hillary/anti-Trump bias.

Aside from the fact that the “I know you are, but what am I?” tactic is the mark of a man with stunted emotional maturity, the repeated attempts on the right to distract the American people from legitimate concern and criticism of this president are disturbing and dangerous. It seems clear that the Republicans in power, their media mouthpieces, and Trump’s diehard base will ignore any level of impropriety, dishonesty, and meanness from this president.

It’s up to the rest of us to keep focused on what we see right in front of us: a divisive, mean-spirited, and narcissistic bully who must be called to account – in 2020, if not sooner.

Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.