Monday, August 27, 2018

Fran Lebowitz on Racism

This is from 1997 (Vanity Fair). Someone sent it to me the other day and I think it is pertinent.

Fran is boss.

More soon. Summer is almost over.

Fran Lebowitz on Racism, October 1997

Do you think the proper way to talk about race now is to talk about multiculturalism?

I came from a town where there were two races, black and white. There were a few Chinese people, and this may sound shocking, but I had no idea they were a different race. I thought they were a different nationality, like Italian or French. Now you have people coming here from Cambodia, from Egypt, from Colombia, from places you never thought would be sending us their huddled masses. I mean, surely 20 years ago no one could have imagined a more unlikely pair of words than “Korean deli.” And all these people think of themselves as being members of different races. Ethnic groups have taken on the same weight as racial groups, with the same demands, the same notion of themselves.

To me, this plays into the hands of the people in power—the white people. If you want to ensure generation after generation of Mexican gardeners in California, you insist on bilingual education in the grammar schools. You can pretend that you would just as soon have your cardiologist speak to you in Spanish, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you would just as soon not.

If you’re black, don’t you say to yourself, “We’ve been here for a zillion years, and here are all these people coming along, acquiring power by saying they’re powerless—acquiring power by equating their lot with ours”? Blacks are the standard of oppression. People are always taking appalling historical events that one would hope are unparalleled and making absurd and immoral equations: the police raid the Stonewall Inn and instantly and forever it’s “Bull” Connor turning the fire hoses on the marchers in Birmingham; anti-abortion maniacs throw fetuses at abortion-performing doctors and an absolutely unembarrassed analogy is made to a lynch mob. These things are categorically unrelated, as are most things. Things are very rarely exactly like other things. If they were, people would be less baffled in general, and perhaps less given to such statements as “This is like the Holocaust.” Nothing is like the Holocaust. Not that there haven’t been other tragedies, other genocides. But simply that they were peculiarly, specifically, intrinsically like themselves. Genocides are like snowflakes, each one unique, no two alike. You can’t go around making these horrendously invalid comparisons. It is disgraceful and annoying. If you were in Auschwitz, you undoubtedly feel that on top of having been in Auschwitz you shouldn’t also have to have your experience used to justify, say, gay marriage.

What is actually served by multiculturalism and all things attendant to it is the power of white people, and this, despite any and all such academic quibbling, is primarily accomplished by the continuing oppression of blacks. Because even though the conversation now includes all these other elements, the truth is that the farther you are from being black, the more likely you are to assimilate, to be more like white. The more you are like white, the less trouble you have—because the more you are like white, the less trouble you are.

How do you think we should approach the topic of race in this country?

Clearly in some other way—in as other a way as possible—because if ever there was an example of something not working, this is surely it.

What are we doing wrong?

Well, first of all, by “we” I assume you mean the public, the public approach or the public discourse, which means the discourse that takes place in the media. And for the purposes of this discussion, let us imagine that the media is white and thus approaches the topic of race as if they (the white people) were the answer and them (the black people) were the question. And so, in the interest of fairness, they take their turn (having first, of course, given it to themselves) and then invite comment by some different white people and some similar black people. They give what purports to be simply their point of view and then everyone else gives their beside-the-point of view.

Surely 20 years ago no one could have imagined a more unlikely pair of words than “Korean deli.”

The customary way for white people to think about the topic of race—and it is only a topic to white people—is to ask, How would it be if I were black? But you can’t separate the “I” from being white. The “I” is so informed by the experience of being white that it is its very creation—it is this “I” in this context that is, in fact, the white man’s burden. People who think of themselves as well intentioned—which is, let’s face it, how people think of themselves—believe that the best, most compassionate, most American way to understand another person is to walk a mile in their shoes. And I think that’s conventionally the way this thing is approached. And that’s why the conversation never gets anywhere and that’s why the answers always come back wrong and the situation stays static—and worse than static.

Well, that’s part of the problem. What’s part of the solution?

The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, “What would it be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.

It is now common—and I use the word “common” in its every sense—to see interviews with up-and-coming young movie stars whose parents or even grandparents were themselves movie stars. And when the interviewer asks, “Did you find it an advantage to be the child of a major motion-picture star?” the answer is invariably “Well, it gets you in the door, but after that you’ve got to perform, you’re on your own.” This is ludicrous. Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game, especially in movie acting, which is, after all, hardly a profession notable for its rigor. That’s how advantageous it is to be white. It’s as though all white people were the children of movie stars. Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at this relatively minimal level.

Additionally, children of movie stars, like white people, have at—or actually in—their fingertips an advantage that is genetic. Because they are literally the progeny of movie stars they look specifically like the movie stars who have preceded them, their parents; they don’t have to convince us that they can be movie stars. We take them instantly at face value. Full face value. They look like their parents, whom we already know to be movie stars. White people look like their parents, whom we already know to be in charge. This is what white people look like—other white people. The owners. The people in charge. That’s the advantage of being white. And that’s the game. So by the time the white person sees the black person standing next to him at what he thinks is the starting line, the black person should be exhausted from his long and arduous trek to the beginning.

When did you first become aware of race as an issue in American society?

I probably had some slight awareness of it from hearing about segregation at school, or eavesdropping on adult conversations, or seeing the sit-ins in the South on television. I had a very strong association, an exclusive association, of racism with southerners. To me as a child, it was a southern thing. I think it probably also had to do with the way they taught the Civil War to us in my northern grammar school. In real life, the first time I can remember thinking about it was when a neighbor called my mother to say, “Did you know that Fran is in the front yard playing with a little colored boy?” I was really young, about five or six. My mother got into a fight with the neighbor. We lived in a small house. It was summertime. There were screen doors. These things are important because you could always hear the grown-ups talking. This was the 1950s, an era when there was such a thing as adult conversation. An era when there was such a thing as an adult. An era when there was such a thing as conversation. Now children can hear everything, and adults speak like children. My mother was furious at the neighbor, and I was shocked that someone from a good state like New Jersey would have these bad southern views.

That was the essence of it to you?

Without question. To me as a child, all villains were to be compared to Communists. It was the height of the Cold War. It was a very Republican town. We were steeped in anti-Communist lore and so the worst people I could think of were Communists. They were the people I was scared of. Next were southerners—not as bad as Communists, because I couldn’t imagine anything as bad as Communists, except, of course, Nazis, who, although definitely scarier than Communists, were, I felt, more my grandparents’ department. My grandparents were in charge of Nazis. I was in charge of Communists.

Nazis were the worst, then Communists, then southerners. Although I had every belief that the Russians were plotting night and day to bomb Thomas Jefferson School in Morris-town, New Jersey—every conviction that I was absolutely in the sights of the Russians—I had no notion that southerners or racism could be in my life. In other words, I had more expectation of having contact with Russian Communists, who were on the wrong side of the Cold War, than I did with southern racists, who were on the wrong side of the Civil War.

Are black people cooler than white people?

The notion that black people are cooler than white people is one that I am instinctively repelled by because it is adolescent, not only in content but also in form—it’s a teenager’s idea of an idea. It’s the moron in the oxymoron. In this case, however, I think it is true. Not because of the obvious, even blatant coolness of such black inventions as jazz, or fun, or a certain kind of stylishness in dress, but because coolness is a sensibility, and sensibility, at least in this country, has chiefly been the province of the marginalized rather than the oppressed—an example being the homosexual invention of camp. Oppression is usually so annihilating that it destroys the very possibility of sensibility. The invention of cool, the invention of a sensibility, by people who are so oppressed is in itself conclusively cool. They were literally cool enough in the face of the heat of oppression to invent a sensibility, one that is in every respect as rarefied, as ornate, as redolent of connoisseurship as camp, and, unlike homosexuals, they kept it even when white people took it away and made it square. When straight people took camp away and made it square, homosexuals couldn’t wait to join them in their squareness—to beat them to the punch. Who are now the most square people on earth? Who are the only people left who want to go into the army and get married? Homosexuals. Black people stayed cool even when white people stole it and made it square. That’s undeniably cool. And that’s what good sports black people are. With oppression staring them in the face, they averted their gaze and invented cool. Of course, as usual, they didn’t do it on their own—they needed sunglasses.

Traditionally, education is seen as the only real solution to the problems of black children. Do you think this still holds true?

Absolutely—look how well it’s working for white children. I think it is generally agreed that the great scandal in this country is the state of public education. But far worse than the problem is the currently fashionable, but in no way stylish, Republican proposal that it be solved by the use of school vouchers—a genuinely diabolical plan and one that, if instituted, would surely result in the end of any sort of democratic society. Recently a business magazine devoted an issue to this subject and used black parents who wanted school vouchers to argue their case for them. It’s so profoundly deceitful for rich people to ask “Why should rich people be the only ones to send their children to private school?” when the answer is so plainly that they have the money. So serviceable, in fact, is this answer that for the edification of these bewilderingly bewildered millionaires I offer it also as the clear explanation to the centuries-old riddle of why only rich people own Sargent portraits, vintage Daimlers, and beachfront property.

These black parents are decoys, to distract your attention from what the Voucherites are doing—which is lowering taxes. School vouchers are advantageous because they would result, ultimately, in no public school system at all—there’s no free lunch in the totally free market. School vouchers are, for the readers of such a magazine, about lowering taxes. Life, for these readers, is about lowering taxes. They look constantly for the cause of taxes the way oncologists look for the cause of cancer, and, like surgeons, cut them out wherever possible, even at the expense of what you might previously have thought of as a vital organ. The public school system—what an obvious cause of taxes, what a drain it is on our hard-gained capital.

Not to mention that even among not-so-rich white people there is a sizable constituency for the notion that the public schools attended by poor blacks are useful only as a source of professional basketball players—so, conceivably, one such school would really be sufficient. Perhaps I am judging them too harshly and what they are really doing is at long last making good on a very old promise: 40 Lakers and a school.

Why are there so few black writers?

There aren’t few enough. There aren’t few enough white writers, either. One thing we desperately need in this country is fewer writers of every color.

What do you think are the most virulent stereotypes held by blacks of whites and by whites of blacks?

All stereotypes held by all people are equally virulent—it’s just that some are more fun than others. People hate the bad ones but love and even cultivate the good ones, despite the fact that they are imprisoning and diminishing to the same extent. Both pride and prejudice should be individually earned because allocating them at a group rate is, in fact, the very definition of racism. I say this even though I myself am guilty of taking pleasure—even sustenance, on those days when nothing else is going right—in thinking: Donald Trump is still not Jewish.

There is a lot of opposition to affirmative action, even among liberals. What do you think is the basis of this?

Well, some of it is simple racism and some of it is complex racism. By complex racism I mean the kind that argues for the color-blind society—the kind that is mendacious, that is corrupt, that harbors a little white lie. First of all, it is disingenuous at this point in time to equate race with mere color. The opportunity for that is long since gone. Initially, it was true that the only difference between blacks and whites was skin color, but the experience of centuries of racism has made that idea utopian.

Second of all, it should be more than apparent to anyone who has ever had occasion to observe the travel attire of the average American family as they snack their way toward the departure gate that a color-blind society is something we already have. A race-blind society is something we don’t.

And since we don’t, we need some kind of affirmative action. I am suspicious of the insistent and incessant focus on the exceptional. The endless discussion of law-school applications. The ceaseless debate regarding admission to medical school. Always the attention is placed on the gifted black person. So whites can point to these people and say, Yes, there’s been historical progress. Yes, it is true that 50 years ago a black person with the I.Q. of Isaiah Berlin would have been a janitor, and now look: we’ve solved the problem of what to do with the black geniuses—they have the same opportunities as the white geniuses. But we don’t need affirmative action for these people and we never did. The problem of the talented tenth was actually solved by the civil-rights movement. It is to create parity between the untalented 90th and its white counterpart that we require what are perversely called racial preferences—I say perversely because surely we all know which race is genuinely preferred, talented or not. We will have equality when dopey black people get into Harvard because their chair-endowing grandfathers went there. We will have equality when incompetent black people buy their way into the Senate. We will have equality when larcenous black union plumbers start not showing up in greater and greater numbers. We will have equality when the unjust deserts and ill-gotten gains are spread around impartially. One Clarence Thomas is not enough.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Case for Travel

I’m at an airport right now so hence the delay. That’s a poor excuse though. I have been so checked out of doing this thing. Can you blame me? Does anyone care? I don’t but hey, I guess this is the yoke that I keep choosing to wear.

I just went to Oaxaca. It was nice. I have been thinking about the idea of traveling, moving lately. Many of my friends are moving in some way or another. Well I guess more correctly, another grouping of them are. The longer you stay in one place, especially New York, the more you get used to people leaving.

Friends are moving for work, life, art, love, family…All the things that matter in some way. Others move to get fresh starts. I did that a bit ago and I miss that sense of newness. I guess that is why we travel. To get a reset of the lives we live. To get some sort of contrast, separation or distance to the realities we build.

Traveling makes time different. It pulls it out and also makes it feel so full that it seems astonishing. The landscape of newness makes tired eyes and dulled default patterns shimmer and break.

But it can be exhausting and lonely too. But that’s a sensation that I also think is beneficial to feel. Homesickness or even just home appreciation can make you feel a part of something even if it is at a distance.

When people travel and move away it’s not a death of course but there is always changes to relationships. Proximity creates an intimacy. The constancy of the mundane, the moments of unplanned and impromptu memory making are grounding posts to mark the trails of friendship.

Going away makes you more mysterious though. The alteration of your life in this way is also an alteration of narratives that you can create for yourself and what others create for you. It is a freeing and thrilling thing to be able to do especially today. The re-creation of ones narrative is a form of power and safety as well.

Moving and travel is an exhausting act but its returns are many times for seeking rest or peace or renewal. This might sound too romantic, I know that movement and travel when under certain circumstances is the least wanted or enjoyed thing, but the form of chosen, selected movement is what I refer to.

Mobility of our bodies is a translation of mobility of our minds. Seeking the new, the different, things that are outside of out comfort zones always teach something, even if it’s only the desire to return home.

When thinking of all my friends to who are transfiguring themselves and starting new beginnings, I feel such a sense of pride and excitement but I also feel a loss. I guess I wish that I too was making these sort of big journeys, big choices, that I too was embarking on a change that would accelerate the quest of person-hood.

But those that you love who are in other places are like little stars with little strings attached to them. And you can still sense them and know that they are there and you can tug them closer to you if you need.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Trend Forecast: Fall 2018

I was talking about trends in art vaguely the other day and it seems like a quick exercise that I can do for this thing today. I am sooo on vacation mode so sorry everything has been so phoned in but moop, it’s August. Everyone needs a break!

So in no particular order and in no particular sense, here goes some things I think may be in our out in the coming months.

In – Babies:  Everyone is having babies. Or maybe I am just at that age range, or maybe artists who I know are. Anyways, it’s cute, I hope that the mother artists won’t fall off or decline. Fingers crossed.

Out – Dystopia:  Okay, okay we get it, things are super dark right now, duh, and I think it was good that artists took some time to delve into that (and they still should) but we need a bit of a breather and some levity. Not escapism per se (because that’s another form of distraction/oppression) but just ease up and make some light in all this darkness.

In – Flowers:  Well, I think still-lifes in general. Flowers, fruit, all the venitas stuff. A good way to be both symbolic, highly skilled and frankly pretty.

In – Vegetarian:  Never really out but sometimes it swings more and I think it’s due time again. It’s about the environment ya’ll.

Out – Alpha Males:  Hahahahaha.

Out – Group Shows:  I think they have truly become the cliché that they are and now they know better then to exist. Now, it’s the two-three person show max sort of vibe.

In – 2000s:  I am too old for these trends (I lived it mannnn!) but it’s sorta funny. Like how, why, did Sketchers become ‘cool.’ I die now.

Out – Institutional Racism:  Still happening, will be for maybe forever but it suckkkks and at least people are like, yup, that sucks.

In – Color:  Will Black and white ever be out? NEVER! But color is back! In art, clothes, all of it.

In – Works on paper:  Watercolors, drawings, even dare I say, printmaking, is in-in-in. Or will soon be popping again. I feel like people don’t have the urgency to prove things in scales and materials in the same way and that’s a good thing, or at least refreshing.

Out – Resin:  It’s bad for you, and there is just too much of it. I mean, there are a handful who work with it really well (continue please) but for the rest of you, please stop!

Out – Intellectual Snobbery:  Being like actually smart is so always in but being quotational is so passé and eye-roll. Like does anyone even metion e-flux anymore? Haha. But seriously people, be smart, read.

In – Privacy:  So much is exposed these days that privacy is really hot.

In – All Things Asian:  Very partial about this one (duh) but yeah, Asia is where it’s at and it is seeping (slowly) into mainstream and it will change everything.

Out – Podcasts:  I do one but yeah, I know the end is nigh.

Out – Tattoos:  Sorry kids but ya just did it too darn much.

In – Body Hair:  Gals, let those pits and legs fur out!

Out – Saddies:  We get it, your sad. Use it as source material or shut up about it.

In – Voting:  Took a long ass time but finally, voting may actually be seen as cool and hopefully everyone participates.

Out – Toxic Masculinity:  We know you are a victim of the system as well but jezz! Get your shit together and wake up!

Out – Victimization: Sort of the same as the above but flipped. Empathy is a two way street.

In – Venmo:  Or other apps to pay/request money. Hello micro-entrepenurs and the end of cheap ass friends who dip on the bill.

In – Alice Aycock:  And her ilk. Just you wait and see!

Out – Decadence:  We see you. We all see you.

Out – Judgement:  Open minds, open hearts.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Love as the Practice of Freedom - bell hooks

Oh my god, I completely forgot to blog on Monday. Forgive me. I’m off work, in vacation mode and I’ve been reveling in my lack of structure.

Below is something to fill in space till next time. Happy summer.

“Love as the Practice of Freedom”
bell hooks

Social commentator, essayist, memoirist, and poet bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) is a feminist theorist who speaks on contemporary issues of race, gender, and media representation in America. Her many books include Ain't I a Woman (1981), Talking Back (1989), Killing Rage: Ending Racism (1995), Outlaw Culture (1994), and Remembered Rapture (1999). In Black Looks (1994), she writes, "It struck me that for black people, the pain of learning that we cannot control our images, how we see ourselves (if our vision is not decolonized), or how we are seen is so intense that it rends us. It rips and tears at the seams of our efforts to construct self and identify." In Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (1994), hooks advocates a "progressive cultural revolution" by means of repudiating all forms of domination in a "holistic manner." In order to decolonize our minds, suggests hooks, we must begin to "surrender participation in whatever sphere of coercive hierarchical domination we enjoy individual and group privilege." In the essay that follows from that book, hooks proposes an "ethic of love" as the means by which we might be guided to turn away from an ethic of domination.

In this society, there is no powerful discourse on love emerging either from politically progressive radicals or from the Left. The absence of a sustained focus on love in progressive circles arises from a collective failure to acknowledge the needs of the spirit and an overdetermined emphasis on material concerns. Without love, our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.

Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination—imperialism, sexism, racism, classism. It has always puzzled me that women and men who spend a lifetime working to resist and oppose one form of domination can be systematically supporting another. I have been puzzled by powerful visionary black male leaders who can speak and act passionately in resistance to racial domination and accept and embrace sexist domination of women, by feminist white women who work daily to eradicate sexism but who have major blind spots when it comes to acknowledging and resisting racism and white supremacist domination of the planet. Critically examining these blind spots, I conclude that many of us are motivated to move against domination solely when we feel our self-interest directly threatened. Often, then, the longing is not for a collective transformation of society, an end to politics of dominations, but rather simply for an end to what we feel is hurting us. This is why we desperately need an ethic of love to intervene in our selfcentered longing for change. Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.

The ability to acknowledge blind spots can emerge only as we expand our concern about politics of domination and our capacity to care about the oppression and exploitation of others. A love ethic makes this expansion possible. The civil rights movement transformed society in the United States because it was fundamentally rooted in a love ethic. No leader has emphasized this ethic more than Martin Luther King, jr. He had the prophetic insight to recognize that a revolution built on any other foundation would fail. Again and again, King testified that he had "decided to love" because he believed deeply that if we are "seeking the highest good" we "find it through love" because this is "the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality." And the point of being in touch with a transcendent reality is that we struggle for justice, all the while realizing that we are always more than our race, class, or sex. When I look back at the civil rights movement which was in many ways limited because it was a reformist effort, I see that it had the power to move masses of people to act in the interest of racial justice—and because it was profoundly rooted in a love ethic. The sixties Black Power movement shifted away from that love ethic.

The emphasis was now more on power. And it is not surprising that the sexism that had always undermined the black liberation struggle intensified, that a misogynist approach to women became central as the equation of freedom with patriarchal manhood became a norm among black political leaders, almost all of whom were male. Indeed, the new militancy of masculinist black power equated love with weakness, announcing that the quintessential expression of freedom would be the willingness to coerce, do violence, terrorize, indeed utilize the weapons of domination. This was the crudest embodiment of Malcolm X's bold credo "by any means necessary."

On the positive side, Black Power movement shifted the focus of black liberation struggle from reform to revolution. This was an important political development, bringing with it a stronger anti-imperialist, global perspective. However, masculinist sexist biases in leadership led to the suppression of the love ethic.