Post-racial America

Mixed in with all the recent news about the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates are a lot of references to “post-racial America.” Many of those references imply that Barack Obama’s presidency is already a failure because racial and racist events still take place in the United States.

Um. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but President Obama has only been in office for six months. Six months! You don’t “undo” 400 years of racial and racist culture in six months.

“Post-racializing” is a long and slow process marked by bumps, leaps, and zig-zags. It started with the Emancipation Proclamation. Its wheels were greased with the “mainstreaming” of “colored music” in the 1950s by the likes of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. It took a big leap forward during the civil rights movement. It hit some serious bumps with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the  Rodney King debacle. (Rodney King’s simple comment “why can’t we all just get along?” should be up there with Dr. King’s “I have a dream” in the canon of anti-racist quotables.)

The election of Barak Obama to the office of President is a huge and elegant capriole across an enormous chasm. But it won’t end the racial and racist culture in the United States. Furthermore, Barack Obama is not personally responsible for — nor capable of — ending racialism and racism all by himself.

It’s coming, but it’ll be a long time coming. It’s a matter of generations, not months or years before the U.S. is truly “post-racial.” That doesn’t mean you should give up your Barack Obama-inspired hope (although it would do to let go of the Hope™.) Embrace your hope, and mix it up with positive action, good intentions, and realistic expectations. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all going to go away, overnight, because of some magical election in 2008.

Regarding Michael Jackson

It gives me no pleasure to speak ill of the dead. Yet, amidst all this gushing hagiography I feel I have to say something about Michael Jackson.

I’d like to point out that Michael Jackson hasn’t done a single interesting thing, creatively speaking, for 20 years. His recent recordings were bland, over-processed, and derivative. His famous dancing, which set the world alight in the 1980s, didn’t change a step since then. But so what? Many people peak early, and the body of work from his early years is truly impressive.

Then there’s the weirdness. There’s the excessive consumption — it’s reported that he spend on average $30 million per year more than he earned, and this went on for a decade. There’s also the identity issue, made highly ironic and even offensive in the face of his “Black or White” song. And of course the allegations of child molestation.

Those are just the obvious things, and again one could ask “so what?” Michael Jackson had no monoply on celebrity weirdness. Heck, for the most part I admire famous people who are able to live strange and unusual lives (RIP, Hunter S. Thompson).

Where it’s different in the case of Michael Jackson is the extent that his weirdness directly affected other people. Namely, the trio of Fauntleroys that are generally referred to as his children.

I cringe every time I see a photograph of Jackson with his gauze draped kids, and I wonder what kind of mental development issues arise when you’re brought up by a self absorbed Peter Pan who has, at best, a faint grip on the reality of everyday life. Here is a “parent” who repeatedly shows no understanding of financial, personal, or any other kind of responsibility, charged with raising three children without another parent on the scene to try to balance things out. It takes more than hugs and cookies and Coke cans filled with wine to raise children.

As the fans and the media continue to gush, I keep coming back to those kids, and my feeling that maybe now there’s a chance they’ll have something resembling a normal life.

Charter for Compassion (Part II)

Loyal readers will recall my blog post from last March in which I presented a TED video of Karen Armstrong and her “Charter for Compassion” lecture. I said then:

… Armstrong discusses the idea that what lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions is the simple notion of the Golden Rule: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.” (…) She argues that the nasty aspects of religion that we’ve become so familiar with in recent years are a function of ego and human nature, not something within religion itself. Rather, the core of religion is human compassion as expressed in the Golden Rule.

Apparently, one of the goals of TED lectures is to enable the granting of “wishes” for particularly good ideas. In this case, a few soon to be more highly taxed wealthy folks in the crowd took her words to heart and have created a web site to collaboratively write the charter. The web site,, invites regular plugs like us to contribute to the project, which is in progress over the next few weeks (up until December 4, 2008).

It’s a nice idea that even we secular folks should be able to get behind (just interpret the “do onto others” thing as “don’t be such a douchebag”). Hey, if it leads to less bickering and more people getting along, I’m all for it.

The Walrus Turns Five

The Walrus, if you don’t know, is a Canadian magazine that likes to be invited to the same parties as Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and The Atlantic. It specializes in long-form journalism from a Canadian perspective, which generally means it is doomed. Yet it has managed to hang on for five years and seems to be going strong, which for a Canadian magazine should be interpreted as “is four issues from bankruptcy instead of the usual two.”

I’ve been a subscriber to The Walrus since the first issue. Some issues are better than others, which I suppose can be said about any magazine, but when it is good, it can be very good. I subscribe not only because it’s a nice and welcome package of good reading that shows up at my door once a month, but because I’m one of those people who will occasionally put my money where my mouth is. If I want to support Canadian publishing and journalism then it shouldn’t kill me to shell out a measly $29 a year to be able to do so with authority.

But there’s one thing about The Walrus that doesn’t always thrill me; the covers. Some of the covers are brilliant. Most are fairly forgettable. And some are just awful.

Sadly, the current “fifth anniversary issue” has the worst cover I’ve ever seen. It was designed by Douglas Coupland and is a mélange of scraps torn from covers over the life of the magazine. Nice concept, but the result is ugly. It looks like some trashy thing made in an elementary school art class circa 1972. It doesn’t even have “retro” caché; it’s just ugly!

Douglas Coupland's cover for The Walrus

October 2008 edition of The Walrus.
Cover by Douglas Coupland.

Oh, but it’s by Douglas Coupland! It even says so, right there at the top. (The Walrus, for some reason, is inordinately proud of its covers, going so far as to offer prints of them for $99.) Sorry, but I’ve never been a member of the cult of Douglas Coupland, and this magazine cover is a perfect example of why I’ve resisted. Yes, he’s written some very popular novels, and yes he’s issued a number of “kitchy-chic” books on weird Canadiana, but I have never bought into it.

It’s true that I enjoyed reading Microserfs about a million years ago, but that was primarily because I worked at the time for a highly successful and very innovative software company, so I could relate to the characters in the story. I could also see, and was slightly irritated by, cases where Coupland was blatantly exaggerating for effect. Pardon me, but “exaggerating for effect” has never been my favorite narrative device when it comes to reading novels.

Regardless, I will continue to subscribe to, and read, The Walrus, and I encourage you to do so as well; that is, as long as your attention span has not been completely ruined by reading online. After all, it takes a bit of stamina to get through 10 or 15 thousand words on a topic. But I can assure you that the magazine has high editorial standards, so it’s not like reading a 10,000 word blog post.

Just don’t judge the magazines by its covers. Especially this month.