Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Makes America Great

Editor's Note: This is a poetry blog about politics and popular culture. Today's post, however, is written as a column. The topic I wanted to address is too unwieldy to contain in a poem. There are two possible reactions to this: 1) Tony, stick to poetry or 2) Tony, write some more prose.


In 2010, a group of Muslim students at the University of California at Irvine heckled the Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Long story short, these guys from the Muslim Student Union were tried for conspiring to disrupt a public meeting. They were convicted and fined but sentenced to probation. As you might imagine, the whole shebang caused quite a hullabaloo.

On "Real Orange, a Southern California local news show, Mark Petracca, Chairman of UCI's political science department, had a particularly good take on this incident. He, if memory serves, said the students did have a right to their free speech at this event. This doesn't mean, however, that he agreed with them. What bothered him was the students being upset that they'd been charged with anything. Petracca recalled Dr. King often being hauled into jail for civil disobedience and noted that he never complained about being arrested: that was part of the whole arrangement. The UCI students felt their cause was bigger than existing laws. Sorry, guys, but that's not the way we roll in the U.S. of A.

All of which brings us out of politics and into show business. At the last New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner on January 6, Steve McQueen --- the distinguished Black director of "12 Years A Slave" --- was heckled. The director was called a "garbage man" and a "doorman" and the heckler was also heard saying, "F _ _k you. Kiss my ass."

Who was responsible? A Black film critic named Armond White whose outburst wasn't the first at such gatherings and whose fondness for contrarian views label him a first-class attention whore or perhaps just an attention slut.

Unlike the Muslim students in Irvine who admitted shouting down the Israeli ambassador, Armond refuses to own up to what he did and has even played the race card as a reason for his later being thrown out of the New York Film Critics Circle.

This incident bring to mind an earlier case of similar heckling but on an even larger scale. Five years ago today, President Obama's State of the Union speech was interrupted by a congressman who yelled "You lie!" at one of Obama's statements. A congressman from South Carolina, one of the most racist states in America. A congressman who was very fond of Strom Thurmond and initially argued that Esse Mae Washington-Williams did not have an illegitimate child with the legendary lawmaker. A congressman who later reluctantly admitted Williams did have a child with Thurmond but insisted that she should not have spoken about this because it tarnished the senator's legacy.

It would appear that White and Wilson have things in common: a fondness for rudeness in public and trying to embarrass Black men more acclaimed than they are.

Mr. White, who I gather is a conservative, may I suggest you contact Mr. Wilson and offer up your services as a speechwriter? I'm sure you're way smarter than the various Bubbas currently being paid to put words into Wilson's mouth.

White has been defended in some quarters by right-leaning critics who cite his being victimized by having "spoken truth to power." It's more like yelling insults at the powerful, which is not quite as noble an activity.

Both White and Wilson fail to grasp what it is that defines our country. It is not the right to worship as we wish or speak what's on our minds.

What makes America great is that we talk behind each other's backs.

No, this is not enshrined in any documents that were written by the founding fathers.

It's simply a de facto truth about our society. Talking behind backs allows a politeness to flourish that enables democracy itself and life as we know it to properly function. Without it, we have anarchy or, even worse, a modern world that resembles talk radio or cable TV news shows. Nobody really wants a steady diet of that.

Finally, I want to point out that White's insults in public also include saying "F_ _ k you!" to activist filmmaker Michael Moore at another New York Film Critics Circle Award dinner. Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Democrat and was a huge fan of Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." Armond, I have two words to pass along. The second is "you." The first is "thank." You see, ever since Moore supported Ralph Nader which helped Bush beat Gore, I've despised him. Good on you for giving him a hard time, even though writing a column about your dislike of Moore would (obviously) have been the more appropriate way to go.

Rodney King was onto something: maybe we can all get along.

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