Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The First Casualty of War: Truth

I was teaching a course on the literature of the Vietnam War when the United States invaded Iraq.  Some of the similarities were creepy and disheartening -- making me despair of Americans ever truly learning from their own history.

One example: George Bush's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction that were the excuse for the invasion were eerily similar to Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin Incident -- the mythical attack on a U.S. warship that gave him the excuse to escalate the U.S. military involvement against North Vietnam. 

For some other similarities, read Michael C. Herring's America's Longest War, which was one of the textbooks for my class.  Also, watch the documentary Hearts and Minds and pretend the talking heads are discussing Iraq and Afghanistan rather than South Vietnam.  It isn't hard to do.

This week I was reminded of another similarity.  On I saw a story about the Obama Administration defining any adult males killed by drones as "militants."  This is regardless of who those people might actually have been.  And the media, which is rumored to be liberal, reports the dead as militants without questioning or verifying.

Can you say "body count"?

In the Vietnam War, U.S. officials played a nearly identical game, wherein adult males killed by U.S. troops could be considered fighters for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army -- no questions asked.  The official U.S. strategy was a war of attrition, and so great emphasis was placed on body counts -- the number of enemy combatants killed by U.S. troops.  This gave soldiers in the field motivation to classify anyone killed as an enemy combatant, and it gave U.S. officials incentive to exaggerate numbers.

The game did not end there.  There was what actually happened and then there was the official U.S. version of what happened -- with policy and strategy decisions being based on the official story rather than actual events.

This disconnect between life and language is a major theme of Dispatches by Michael Herr.  He was a journalist who covered the war and produced a book based on his dispatches for Esquire magazine.  He described the daily sessions in which Army officers would give the official description of events, descriptions that frequently had little in common with reality.

Herr wrote: "Nothing so terrible ever happened upcountry that it was beyond language fix and press relations..." (42).  And later: "The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world..." (214).

As they say, truth is the first casualty of war.  Calling anyone killed by a drone a "militant" is an example of "language fix."  Since the only people a drone can kill are militants, then all drone attacks are successful, and therefore the United States is winning the war.  Since everyone killed by a drone is a militant, the United States can worry less about alienating the civilian population and distressing the American population.  But perhaps it should worry more.

The "language fix" is more than simple "spin."  In Herr's time and in ours, too often the U.S. government makes key decisions based upon the "language fix" and not reality.  If we didn't learn in Vietnam that the "language fix" fixed nothing, then we should definitely avoid the same mistake now.  But perhaps it is too late.

Monday, May 28, 2012

I See White People

It seems that the Advertising World is looking into the future, and so far Hollywood is refusing to go along.
Watch commercial here.

This Dodge commercial caught my eye recently, as it features a handsome young white man flirting with his sister's pretty black friend in the back seat of his car.  Great George Wallace's ghost!

And if you look elsewhere in TV commercials and magazine ads, you will see an increasing number of mixed couples.  Meanwhile, prime time television series and even those on "edgy" premium channels such HBO remain rather segregated.  (I know there are exceptions, such as the married couple played by Eliza Coupe and Damon Wayans Jr. on Happy Endings.  And I know past shows, such as Scrubs, have had diverse casts.)

The new HBO series Girls got a lot of press when it debuted, and it also caught some flak.  One of the guests on the NPR podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour (which still has not asked me to be on the show!) put it well when she noted that the part of New York City in which Girls is set had been "ruthlessly whitewashed."

You could argue that the show is simply following in the Manolo Blohnik-steps of Sex and the City, which also perceived NYC to be less like a Big Apple and more like a Hostess Snoball.

Look around the most popular television shows and you will see this whitewashing is fairly common.  For instance, of ALL the women Ted has dated on How I Met Your Mother, how many were not white?  None that had speaking roles (at least that I can recall).  Yet it is set in the same city as Girls.  As far as Hollywood is concerned, New York City is as ethnically diverse as Marshall's beloved Minnesota. 

Yet we live in a nation that becomes increasingly more diverse each year.  The number of interracial marriages is on the rise, and white newborn babies were outnumbered by their non-white nursery mates in 2011.

I do not expect network television to start looking like a Benetton ad, but some more meaningful diversity would be appreciated.  By "meaningful" I am thinking of something other than the one "black best friend" in a cast.

However, I realize I may be idealistic here.  Perhaps America is not as diverse or unsegregated as I imagine.  Many Americans work or attend school in diverse groups but go home at night to segregated communities.  It would be nice if all of those communities were reflected on television, and, for me at least, it would be nicer if those communities were seen interacting on the same show.

Ta-Nehisi Coates  discussed this topic recently for The Atlantic, lamenting the lack of diversity within shows and in TV lineups in general: "It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world--certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists."

Emily Nussbaum discusses race on prime time in a New Yorker article on Scandal, a show with something rarely seen on television: a black female lead.  She cites a show on CW called The L.A. Complex and a scene in which a white female character auditions for a "best friend" role.  However, the actress is told a black woman will be cast to "really reflect reality" -- “I mean, who has a black best friend, right? Like, in real life, if you’re trying to be all authentic?” She turns to the room full of unsmiling black actresses and asks, “Do any of you have a white best friend? No? Right.”

Is it funny because it's true?

I hope not.  In the mean time I hope Hollywood follows the lead of Madison Avenue.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Signs of ImagiNATION

I saw this image last week after a couple of items circulated in blogosphere about the woman pictured in the feathered war bonnet.  She is identified as Queen Chief Warhorse and as Ms. Elwin Gillum. 

When I saw the image of her in that Plains-style bonnet, I thought about Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats.  I thought about how group identities, such as ethnic and political identities, are products of fantasy and imagination – even when the group or a person’s claim to membership is legitimate.

Gillum spoke at the recent Healing for Democracy conference in New Orleans, and the discussions that followed tended to involve whether she was or was not an American Indian.  They concerned the question of who gets to speak for American Indians.  They concerned whether the group she represented had a legitimate claim to tribal status.  They concerned whether questioning another person’s identity was legitimate.  And they concerned the implications that fraudulent claims to tribal status presented to federally recognized tribes and those groups seeking that status.
Indian Country is a complicated place.

I don’t have room here to address all of the issues raised by the blogosphere’s reaction to Gillum.   If you are interested, read about some of those reactions at the blog of my friend Debbie Reese.  What I did want to consider for a moment was Gillum’s “Indian name,” her feathered headdress, and the man standing next to her in neon colors.  What do those things mean?

N. Scott Momaday is a Kiowa writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1969, and he wrote an essay famous in American Indian Studies titled “The Man Made of Words.”  In that essay he poses the question, “What is an Indian?”  He answers it by saying “an Indian is an idea which a given man has of himself.”  Later he asks about a human’s “the relationship between what he is, and what he thinks he is.”  Momaday suggests they are inseparable, that a human’s identity is produced by his or her imagination.

For some people, this seems like a recipe for chaos.  Anyone can be anything he wants to be, anything he imagines himself to be.  Regardless of a person’s lived experiences, she can claim any identity.  
I don’t think that is what Momaday intended.  In the essay he describes the importance of imagining experiences one may not have first-hand access to.  For instance, he discusses the importance of a person’s relationship to the land, but not just the land here-and-now; it is important to imagine the land before you arrived and the land after you have gone.  It is important to imagine the land you cannot see from your current place.  Similarly, he writes that it is important to imagine those ancestors who came before you.  It is important to imagine their sacrifices and successes that made your existence possible.  It is important to imagine them fully, in their complexity and humanity.

More than personal identity relies upon imagination.  In his book titled Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes that nations are built upon imagination.  Nations are built of many local communities, and the greater the distance between these communities the less their members will have in common.  But having a belief, trait, or experience in common is so important for creating a nation that humans will create it if they need to.  And if even if they do not make it up, they still must imagine it.  Anderson describes the importance of the newspaper in creating a nation: people in distant parts of the nation can easily imagine their countrymen reading about the same events and sharing something of a common perspective on them.  “Remember the Maine!”  American Idol results.  Etc.

This act of imagination is so fundamental to nations that Anderson writes: “Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.”

That brings me back to Gillum’s feathered bonnet.  It is initially puzzling because it seems out of place.  She represents a group calling itself the Tchefuncta Nation of the Chahta Tribe.  Chahta is a variation of Choctaw, a tribe of the Southeast United States, and the Tchefuncta River runs into Lake Ponchatrain just north of New Orleans.  Historically, the Choctaw did not wear bonnets like that.  Those were a Plains thing.  So why is she wearing it?   

Is she wearing it because she does not know much about Choctaw history and culture?  Is she participating in a kind of “redface minstrelry”?   Or perhaps she is truly the descendant of Choctaws, but the United States government’s effort to erase Choctaw culture and communities was so successful that she is left to recreate her Choctaw identity out of the bits and pieces she can glean from … wherever.  Including Hollywood.  

If you have read my blog before, you know that I like to entertain the notion of signs – the ways in which humans communicate to themselves and to each other.  I think her feathers could signify “the partial erasure of Indianness” as much as they signify “Indianness.”

However, that bonnet could signal a cultural heritage connected to New Orleans and Mardi Gras traditions rather than to centuries-old Choctaw traditions.  That man standing next to her is dressed as a Mardi Gras Indian.  He possibly is a member of a “krewe” or “tribe” that dances and parades at Mardi Gras celebrations.  These groups elect a “chief” and a “queen.”  When I searched online, I found images of such chiefs and queens, and some of them wore headdresses like Gillum’s. 

The Mardi Gras Indians have their origin in African slave communities in and around New Orleans before it became part of the United States.  Those groups had important links to the region’s Indian communities – through personal and romantic relationships and through a kindred feeling of oppression and resistance.  Their signature flamboyant costumes seem to be an influence of carnival traditions brought by people from the Caribbean.  

Some of the bloggers commented on her name of “Queen” and how this is not a rank bestowed by American Indian tribes.  It was bestowed by Europeans who did not understand how Indian politics and diplomacy worked, who assumed that North America worked as Europe did (or mostly didn’t – Europe was really a mess).  However, Mardi Gras Indians have “queens.”

So, is Gillum imagining herself as an Indian when she wears that feathered bonnet?  Is she imagining herself as “only” an Indian, or is she imagining herself as an amalgamation of African and Indian ancestries and cultures?  The latter makes sense, but when she addressed the group in New Orleans, she emphasized only her Indian identity and ancestry, and she spoke of representing those who were, one could say, Americans before there was an America – but the Africans did not arrive as slaves until after there was an America.

What do her feathers mean?  The answer to that question could be very complicated.

Ding! Ding!
As I said earlier, her bonnet makes me think of the Tea Party demonstrators who wear tricornered hats.  This is their way of signaling their own imagined nationhood.  They see themselves as connected to those Americans who fought against Great Britain in the Revolution – regardless of whether they are truly descended from those people.  Who knows when their ancestors came to the United States?  Whether he is or isn’t descended from some brave Minuteman is not as important as his act of imagining himself to be.  

This connection of the imagination and the past is especially evident with someone like Thomas Jefferson.  Those who argue that the United States is somehow a Christian nation insist upon Jefferson’s implicit Christian leanings, while those who argue for a separation of church and state cite his written sentiments supporting their position.  Each side fights over his ghost, in a sense, trying to imagine themselves as his legitimate ancestor.  It seems hard for humans to imagine themselves in entirely new communities.  They seem to insist on looking for connections to the past, whether real or imagined.

This is not to say that all national identities are merely the stuff of imagination and have no claims of legitimacy.  But all national identities are imagined, and that process of imagining a national identity is intriguing.