Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Saturday, May 15, 2004  

Reading: Gaude pens ancient message for modern times

A book by respected French author Laurent Gaude has been translated into English. It is The Death of King Tsongor, which won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. The short (130-page) novel explores big themes in a small structure. Gaude succeeds in communicating a message that has resonated through the ages.

King Tsongor has established a vast and impressive empire the usual way, through conqest and subjugation of other peoples. In his old age, he decides to expand his empire even farther by marrying his only daughter to an emir from another dominion. But, on the eve of the wedding, an unexpected complication arises. The princess, Samilia, promised herself to her childhood sweetheart. That man has reappeared and is demanding that she wed him, not the suitor her father has accepted for her. The king is weary of war. Rather than be part of the clash between Kouame, the chosen groom, and Sango Kerim, the returned beau, he takes his own life that night

However, Tsongor still has two goals he wants achieved. He orders his youngest son, Souba, to build seven tombs at various sites in the empire and choose one for his entombment. Tsongor tells his faithful retainer, Katabalonga, to withhold the coin he will need to pay the boatman to cross into the land of the dead until the tombs have been constructed.

So, the king's body decays as his still alive spirit observes the destruction of his legacy. The two suitors, too proud to cede Samilia's hand to each other or to leave her single, as her father requested, wage years, perhaps decades, of war. But, their power is to destroy each other's forces and the capitol city of Massaba, not to prevail. Three of the king's sons become part of the war, on opposing sides. Meanwhile, Souba travels the land building tombs and learning what it means to be a Tsongor.

One of the poems I learned as a child that has stayed with me is Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias." You may recall that it describes a once imposing statue of a revered ruler.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing besides remains.
Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

King Tsongor gets what that fabled monarch did not -- an opportunity to see the evil his bigger than life existence has wrought. He must weigh the harm done against the fleeting pleasures of having gotten his own way.

I have one criticism of Gaude's book. It is being promoted as an African novel, perhaps in a bow to multiculturialism. Though some of the descriptions of the variety of warriors who participate in the carnage, and some of the geography, is from the continent, The Death of King Tsongoris not an African novel. It doesn't bear any resemblance to a particular African culture. And, in its translation into English, at least, the people described are quite Eruropean.

The novel is an insightful examination of the human heart. In this time of at least partly imperial war, we would do well to heed what Gaude has to say.

What's the art?

A detail from a statue of Ramses II.

posted by J. | 10:15 PM

Tuesday, May 11, 2004  

Opinion: Starbucks bombing bombs

I am not about to take on the issue of class warfare at ten o'clock on a Tuesday night. Or, perhaps, any night. That's too much heavy lifting for a petite person. However, I do want to say a word or 1000 about an episode with wider implications that arose in my backyard yesterday. As I was ambling to Starbucks for a rather late latte last night, a friend of mine, Norman, greeted me with the question: "Did you hear about Starbucks getting bombed?" From there, the conversation went something like this.

J: You must be kidding.

N: No. I'm not. One in Southeast Portland was firebombed. Twice.

J: Seems rather excessive.

N: Hmmm.

J: This was the anti-corporate people, right?

N: Yeah. Anti-corporate like me.

Let it be known that Norman is a middle-aged, middle-class guy who would probably never do anything to endarger his home ownership or his retirement plan. Furthermore, he drops into Starbucks just about every night. I guess he likes imagining himself a young radical.

The Associated Press has the details of the attack on Starbucks.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Coffee giant Starbucks has been trying its best to promote socially responsible corporate policy on grower rights and environmental ethics, but it apparently fell on deaf ears in a neighborhood where devotion to social causes runs high.

Arson investigators were called to a new Starbucks store after three windows were broken by some kind of incendiary device shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday.

The flames were out by the time fire crews arrived and minor damage was estimated at about $500.

A Starbucks spokeswoman emphasized "this type of incident is extremely rare."

Similar acts have occurred here. One involved an effort by McDonald's to open a store in Hawthorne, a neighborhood where patchouli and tie dye are still current. The hostile reception drove the burgermeister away. You may also recall that the anarchists who have disrupted events such as the world trade talks hail from the Pacific Northwest, particularly Seattle, Portland and Eugene.

I am as opposed to exploitive behavior by corporations as any progressive, but I have serious doubts about the efficacy of firebombing a Starbucks. Doing so does not draw attention to any reprehensible acts the java giant may be involved in. Nor does it have any lasting impact economically since the buildings are insured. Furthermore, the persons who engage in such actions assume everyone agrees with them. What if some residents of that Southeast Portland neighborhood want a Starbucks there? They also seem to assume that people who frequent Starbucks are 'the enemy.' It is completely possible that a patron of Starbucks is someone with progressive views. I know that because I frequent the cafes. Many a blog entry has been written while sitting at a table, sipping a latte, listening to my iPod and accessing Blogger via T-Mobile's WiFi networks at Starbucks.

The reporter for AP let the dissidents to have their say.

"There are a lot of people who don't want Starbucks here," said Lynn Hanrahan, owner of Mirador, a neighborhood gift shop just across the street from the new outlet for the Seattle-based company.

Despite a contribution to a new playground in the Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood, the reception for Starbucks has been cool, residents say.

A young man who identified himself only as "Spark" said he has lived in the neighborhood for the past three years and was one of the leaders of the effort to block Starbucks. "We didn't want Starbucks - we wanted a local business instead," said Spark, who works a few blocks away at the People's Co-op, a grocery established in the early 1970s.

The word that best captures my sentiments about the people who firebombed Starbucks is 'presumptuous.' I believe they are assuming far too much about people without a firm foundation for doing so. The most effective ways to oppose corporate misbehavior I am aware of are publicizing concrete and specific incidents of wrongdoing, and, protesting at shareholder meetings or as shareholders. Throwing a bomb, which could hurt Norm or me, is not a reasonable way to achieve the goal of corporate accountability.

posted by J. | 10:56 PM

Monday, May 10, 2004  

Blogosphere: White blogger assails black pride

I became aware of this controversy by way of Blunted Reality. After going on 17 months in the blogosphere, the utter insensitivity of some of the people here still appalls me. A white blogger, in an all too typical show of arrogance and ignorance, has taken a black blogger to the woodshed for daring to say he is proud of being African-American. The white blogger seems to savor his role as arbiter of what African-Americans have permission to think and say.

Anyway, Earl Dunovant is black. He's not black like some people I know, who simply have a black skin; Earl is a self-professed "black partisan" who has a strong black identity. He quotes Malcolm X: "Who taught you, please, who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin, to such extent that you bleach, to get like the white man? ... Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate, the race that you belong to?"

Now, Malcolm X is an interesting figure. Reverse everything he says - i.e. replace white with black, etc. - and you get something that David Duke et al would say. What I quote above is pure, unadulterated racism; if a white person talked to the same extent about a "white identity" and "getting like the black man," he'd be correctly branded as a total racist. But I know that few people will say the same thing about similar statements when made by black nationalists.


If you're oppressed, end the oppression and move on, but for fuck's sake, don't consider yourself different than whoever oppresses you because you have a different skin color. And even if you are different, due to, say, sexual orientation, or social class, then don't think for a moment that being a minority or just plain oppressed makes you somehow better. When your oppressor does that to you, you rightly accuse him of bigotry; and yet you applaud such behavior when you do it.

This kind of blathering is the norm for any discussion of race in the blogosphere. Intelligent discourse about race is basically not allowed. Engage in it and you will find yourself blacklisted, with people told not to link your blog. But, say things that make no sense about race and other bloggers will rush to support you. Bigotry and the blogosphere walk hand in hand.

The blogger who made the comments we are discussing is Joe Taylor of Open Source Politics. Let's examine the excerpt I've borrowed.

First, Taylor asserts there are black people who are not effected by race. Not in this country. There are no black people who are black in skin color only. Every person of West African ancestry in the country has experienced the oppressive legacy of that descent. Yes, that includes African-Americans who wish they were white and even those who can pass for white. Immigrants don't have a legacy of slavery and discrimination in America, but they 'inherit' that legacy by coming from the same continent or resembling the people who do.

The disparities between being African-American and white in America impact just about everything that matters, from education to health to economics. Show me an African-American and I will show you someone who most likely lacks any financial resources beyond one or two generations. That is because until relatively recently, black Americans were not allowed to accrue the kind of financial equity that white Americans take for granted. A Joe Taylor will respond to this information by pointing to an African-American who appeals to conservative white people. Say, Condoleezza Rice. Yet, if one examines her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama, there is no chance of mistaking what she experienced for what a white person of the same age would have. A child of segregation, Rice knows the difference deep down. She may choose to identify with white Right Wingers for reasons of expediency, but her life has been shaped by forces they were not subject to. At least not on the receiving end.

Next, Taylor tells us that if we reverse everything Malcolm X (pictured) said, we will get what white supremacist David Duke says. Not at all. Malcolm X was trying to instill self-respect in a people that had been stripped of its humanity. He was saying 'you are fine, not an inferior being as you have been brainwashed to believe.' Duke is encouraging white people to believe that they have a 'natural' right to abuse and exploit the rest of the world's peoples even more than they have. There is no comparison if one has any real understanding of European and American history.

Nor does Taylor's claim make any sense when applied to the direct quote cited. White people have not been taught to hate themselves for being white. Nonwhite peoples have been taught to hate themselves for not being white. Removal of the double lid of the Asian eye is one of the most common cosmetic surgeries today. 'Correcting,' Hispanic, black and Jewish noses is also a significant part of that market. Meanwhile, fair-skinned whiteness is still promoted as ideal the world over. If anything, Malcolm X was prescient, as well as accurate.

Not content with having proven himself not to have even a glimmer of insight into race in America, Taylor shoves his foot deeper into his mouth.

. . .even if you are different, due to, say, sexual orientation, or social class, then don't think for a moment that being a minority or just plain oppressed makes you somehow better.

Notice how he has turned the nature of oppression upside down. Suddenly, the oppressed are the oppressors. They believe they are better than the people who have marginalized them in society.

This is the kind of sophistry that passes for discussion of racism in the blogosphere. The message from a Joe Taylor is: Shut up about the reality of race in the American past and the American present. We don't want to know about that.

I also dropped by Byte Back today. I discovered a blogger was retiring after two years in the blogosphere. Howard Owens says he is leaving blogging because "It was a distraction from more important things. " Andrew seems puzzled. But, I can relate. From time to time, I will see someone promoting the blogosphere as a good source of information. My response is to say it is absolutely, incontrovertibly not a good source of information. That is because much of what passes for information in the blogosphere is just plain false. I must direct people to scholarship, usually books, when they ask me for superior sources of information. Only a small minority of weblogs are reliable. Which brings us back to Joe Taylor. Nothing he says in his entry about black partisanship is accurate. Instead, it is the product of someone who either doesn't know European and American history or who chooses to ignore the facts if he does. Furthermore, it is an attempt to silence honest discussion of race and to punish Prometheus 6 (Dunovant) for having engaged in such discourse.

Blunted at Blunted Reality reaches a conclusion that shows there is hope for reason in the blogosphere.

Joe, the reality of this situation is not as you see it. The entire reason that we have such seperation of the races is because of the acts of racism perpetrated by Europeans. Yes, racism in any way, shape or form is wrong, but in the 1960's, I can fully understand why Malcolm X would have felt the way that he felt. Ever heard the phrase "the hate that hate made"? Besides, anyone willing to criticize Malcolm must be familiar with the change in his beliefs that led to his untimely death... right?

We are NOT a color-blind society. Many conservatives talk down about "group identity" and promote something they call "individualism", when they don't realize that the segregation and racism in this country have created the phenomenon. It's a lot easier to be an "individual" in a country where white people are recognized as seperate from the whole, but blacks & other minorities get painted with numerous stereotypes. I don't pretend to know the solution to this, but abrasively telling people to "get over" a problem that still exists is hardly the answer.

Here's hoping that more white bloggers will begin to confront the truth about race in America instead of continuing their policy of denial.

posted by J. | 9:42 PM