Saturday, January 27, 2018

How To Talk: Overcoming Polarization In 2018

Paying attention to how you say what you say doesn’t mean you have nothing to say.    -Michael Eric Dyson

Almost every aspect of our lives has become polarized. Large segments of our country have cocooned themselves inside ideological bubbles that never challenge their worldview. Civil conversations about important issues are vanishing. In the old days, politics and religion were the only subjects one had to avoid to be considered polite; now, friendships are lost over hashtags trending on social media. Society writ large is losing the ability to talk rationally about anything. We are becoming robots. Our inability to see shades of gray has reduced us to binary beings. The world is more than 1’s and 2’s We have to do better.

Biting your tongue to keep the peace is a trap of comfort. The illusion of civility is just that. Ask yourself who benefits from your silence? Who is hurt by it? We have to start talking about the issues that divide us. James Baldwin was right when he said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we can’t talk about important issues with people we have established relationships with then there’s no way we can bridge the divides between those on the periphery of our lives. There are a few things we can do to help facilitate these tough conversations.

1. Wrestle with (and accept) the fact that there will always be people you don’t understand; inversely, there will always be people who don’t understand you. We don’t have to agree 100% of the time to respect each other. No one will listen to you if they feel disrespected.

2. Understand that you are vulnerable to all of the cognitive and linguistic pit falls that make clear speaking and plain understanding almost impossible. The Rorschach test is a great example of this. Every time you see a butterfly someone else could be seeing a bat. We have to challenge ourselves to see issues from another point of view. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

3. Leave as much room for the humanity of others as you expect. There are conversations that elicit visceral responses. Terms like triggered and gas lighting are thrown around so often that we diminish their meaning. People are heavily invested in their beliefs. We can’t expect someone to just surrender a tightly held belief without a fight.

4. Avoid insulting people who misunderstand you or your point of view. We can’t usher in civility with derogatory language. bell hooks relies on her Buddhist faith when it comes to dealing with confrontation. She reminds us not to get in the ring. We don’t have to create the conditions for a fight or escalate them.

5. Be real. Authenticity isn’t always appreciated, but it’s become so rare people notice it. Your consistency is a direct reflection of who you are. Avoiding tough subject matter becomes a way of life. People might not understand or respect your positions, but at least they will know where you stand. Having an identity is better than having one projected on you.

6. Be forgiving. Life is hard enough without adding revenge to your daily to-do list. We can leave a discussion in which no consensus was formed without creating an enemy. There are issues that affect us that can’t be resolved over lunch. The idea is to create the conditions for future dialog.

All of us are emotionally invested in our beliefs. There will be times when our opinions will be diametrically opposed by people who are close to us. When this happens, we have to talk about it. We have to respectfully counter implicit societal agreements that force us to be quiet about important issues. This won’t be easy, but it’s something we have to do.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Hugh "Bra" Masekela 1939-2018

I had a friend ask me about Hugh Masekela after seeing his name trending. I didn’t know where to begin, so I said, “If Bob Marley lived and continued his social activism he would be the Hugh Masekela of the Western Hemisphere.” This wasn’t an attempt to elevate “Bra” Masekela or diminish the legacy of Bob Marley. The two had great respect for each other; Masekela performed on some of Bob Marley and the Wailers early songs. But that’s how important Hugh was to South African Jazz and the spirit to fight apartheid in South Africa.

Bra Masekela joined the ancestors this morning (1/23/18) at the age of 78 after a decade long battle with prostate cancer. His family said that he, “passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

Masekela died a legend. He used his trumpet and love for South Africa to give a voice to a silenced people. His first break in music was as a member of the Jazz Epistles: South Africa’s first jazz band. At a time when artists of all stripes were having their work curtailed by the government, the Jazz Epistles risked their freedom to perform shows off the beaten path.

In 1960, the South African government banned large gatherings of Black Africans and instituted the segregation policy known as Pass Laws. The pass laws severely limited travel for Black Africans. Tensions were so high that a planned protest in the Sharpesville township against the law ended in what is now known as the Sharpesville Massacre. 69 unarmed people were killed and hundreds injured when the police opened fire on the crowd. Masekela left his home country and wouldn’t return for 30 years.

After pursuing his education in London and Manhattan, Masekela returned to the studio and started making music. He played across multiple genres. His discography includes over 50 albums, almost 300 guest appearances and records with the likes of Herb Alpert, Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Vusi Mahlasela and many more. In 1986, he released “Bring Him Back Home” a song calling for the release of Nelson Mandela.

Hugh Masekela weaponized his gift. Even though much of his musical catalog was banned at the height of apartheid, his message found the people who inspired it. Music wasn’t just the vehicle that transported him across the globe, it was his way of fighting racism. If you listen to his music you can almost hear the love spilling out of his trumpet. During his life he partnered with anyone fighting racism and oppression. He learned from those who came before him and made sure to teach the generations that would follow. South African President Jacob Zuma said, “Masekela's death was an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large… His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten."

The legacy of Jazz in South Africa isn’t much different than the legacy it has in America. The ruling classes in both countries thought the art form was crude and corrupting. There were musicians and scholars who couldn’t find the value in this new genre. At a time when elites in both countries were still fetishizing classical music created in Europe, people suffering the soul killing effects of racism sought another way to reflect their pain and inspire a sense of pride. Bra Masekela was more than a musician. He coupled his gifts with real world activism. He left the world more than he took. His life and music are worth studying and learning from.


Friday, January 12, 2018

One Exhausting Sh*thole!

“Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here?”

Sh*thole has been uttered on cable news over a dozen times. My only regret is that George Carlin didn’t live long enough to see the barrage of politicians, news anchors and pundits repeat one of the FCC’s seven banned words.

Almost a year into this experiment, the polarization in our country is just as palpable as it was on election night. Our choices are no longer Democrat or Republican. The people who defend Donald Trump’s daily attacks on civility are at war with commonsense and decency. This is bigger than a “poor choice of words”. It’s about a defining principle of this nation. Are we still striving to be the shining city on a hill, or is it time to finally admit the American dream was never meant for everyone?

I’m not going to write 1,000 words about this statement; it doesn’t require critical analysis. Fox news and other conservative media outlets will spin the president’s words in an attempt to drain them of their ignorance and racism. Left leaning blogs and websites will use this latest controversy for clicks. This cycle has no end in sight. Instead of engaging the superficial I want to make some statements that contextualize this moment.

  1. America was created for wealthy white men.
  2. We inherited a country that wrote a Declaration of Independence and a Preamble to the Constitution that willfully excluded everyone who wasn’t a land owning white male.
  3. The past is a great whipping boy for anyone trying to deny structural racism today; The past allows nostalgic Americans to ditch their responsibilities to future generations by pointing out how bad the past was.
  4. Skin color has always been strong enough to unite people of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
  5. Whiteness is not a blessing or a curse.
  6. Donald Trump represented the hopes and wishes of millions of Americans who advocate for a return to authoritarian white hegemony.
  7. Donald Trump’s message of restoring whiteness was electoral gold.
  8. Donald Trump has done everything in his power to make sure his vision for America is crystal clear. He has repeatedly expressed his desire to take us back.
  9. There are scholars and political pundits still trying to convince us that overt racism is a byproduct of economic anxiety.
  10. As America undergoes more racial and cultural shifts we will see more "whites only" populist movements.
  11. I’m not trying to trigger white anger, guilt, or sympathy. I’m suggesting we be honest about what the legacy of Donald Trump will be.
  12. We have all wasted too much time psychoanalyzing this president and his defenders, but we have to keep going.  
Covering Donald Trump is exhausting. I have friends and acquaintances who make a decent living doing so, most are liberal, some are conservative, but almost all of them are worn out. This presidency is turning our beloved vocation into a dreaded occupation. I am tired of expending time and emotional energy cataloging and explaining our president’s racism and white supremacist ideology.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Cult of Consciousness

"I'd rather have a smart enemy than a stupid ally." 

By now, almost everyone knows Oprah Winfrey received the 2018, Golden Globes' Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement. Her acceptance speech was inspiring. It was one of those moments where the right person was on the right stage saying the right things at the right time. I knew the warm and fuzzy feeling she created would enrage those who hate seeing others enjoying nice things. White supremacists took to social media to do what they do, but they were not alone. Many of the “leaders” inside the Conscious Community also took this opportunity to attack her.

Apparently, Oprah is a “Negro Bed Wench”. I know this because the “leadership” inside the Conscious Community sent out social media decrees that were shared and commented on without any fact checking. From the posts I’ve read, “Oprah has a history of covert transgressions against the Black community”, and, on top of that, “her wealth and fame are rewards for her being a useful tool of white supremacists”. A claim so crazy Alex Jones also leveled it against her once rumors of a potential 2020 presidential run dominated the news cycle.

Oprah’s speech and the attention it garnered was the perfect opportunity for some to point out her latest act of racial treason. Did you know she gave Ron Clark money to build a fake Harry Potter school instead of investing in Dr. Umar Johnson’s school? No, this isn’t a typo. There are Conscious leaders who believe Oprah gave a white man money to build a school where kids can learn spells. This is what happens when people blindly trust the internet postings of people in leadership positions. A Google search could have solved this, but who has time for that?  

This controversy was reborn a few days ago, but it has been swirling beneath the surface for two months now. Here are the facts. On November 3, 2017, Oprah donated $5 million dollars to the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a very real school that has educated very real children in grades 5-8 (90% of whom are black) for over a decade. Her donation didn't seem like a controversial gesture. Oprah helped put Ron Clark on the map in 2000 when he was named Disney’s American Teacher of the Year.  She donated her money to a school ran by a person she has known for seventeen years. This is what passes for selling her people out.

I’m not writing this to defend Oprah Winfrey. I’m certain there are very well compensated lawyers and P.R. experts who could do a better job than I can. This is a defense of commonsense. There are people who claim to love the community who are constantly pumping their followers’ heads with bad information. The same folks defending Dr. Umar Johnson from attacks they believe to be illegitimate are using illegitimate attacks against Oprah Winfrey.

Thankfully, some tried to add some truth to the conversation.

Social media might be the best and worst thing that happened to social activism. It's an almost perfect weapon for circumventing the media's ability to craft or distort narratives; it's also great for connecting with like-minded individuals, but it has succeeded in elevating too many people above their calling. Some of these movements are starting to resemble cults. There isn't enough critical thinking or questioning taking place. 

A leader is more than someone with followers, money and/or power. True leadership requires integrity and credibility. People need to know that the people they are following can be trusted. Quality leadership never leaves the people following them worse off. The comments sections of these posts are depressing. There are people spreading misinformation because someone they trust said it was true. This diminishes the movement and is indefensible. This has to be called out for what it is: Ignorance.