BlacKkKlansman

~SPOILERS AHEAD~

I watched BlacKkKlansman a few nights ago. Briefly, it’s a film that tells a story that we need to hear. It’s a well executed film with some moments of artistic flair. It’s got a pithy script brought to life by an excellent ensemble cast.

Early on, there’s a really neat parallel of minimizing potential violence in the group that you more closely identify with. This theme continues, forming part of the central message. Ron (John David Washington) goes undercover to a speech by Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), who tells him, among other things, to get a gun. In the debrief, the other officers, all white, make a big deal out of this, but Ron thinks it’s just big talk. Later, Flip (Adam Driver) meets with the Klan pretending to be Ron, where he hears talk about a possible bombing attack. Similarly, Flip tries to downplay the seriousness of the threat, using almost the same language.

During Kwame Ture’s speech we see shots of the faces of the black people in the crowd. The faces show the sparks of inspiration firing as Ture talks along lines popularized by Malcolm X, the rhetoric imploring black people to refuse to play the game of self loathing imposed by the white world.

Flip has to face his own identity as a Jewish man while he pretends to be joining the Klan. Ron also faces an identity crisis as he develops a relationship with Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union, a group that detests police officers.

The critical sequence of the film is a concurrent following of events at two locations; the full ceremony of the Klu Klux Klan meeting and the meeting of the Black Student Union with Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte). We cut back and forth between the two scenes, sometimes with Turner’s narration over the solemn rituals acted out by the hate group.

The climax is executed wonderfully, in a way that is at once dramatically satisfying and tragic. Ron tackles Connie (Ashlie Atkinson) after she’s planted a bomb on Patrice’s car. At the same time, two white police officers show up, see a black man accosting a white woman, and instantly make the wrong judgment. Only when Flip shows up do the officers listen and release Ron from custody. I feel like this might have been dramatically exaggerated from real life, but also that they could have gone much further; beaten Ron more severely, apologized profusely to Connie, even as her murder attempt is in progress.

But the good guys win, more from the baddies committing an own goal than from any direct intervention, but it’s clear that the investigation helped to thwart the Klan’s hateful actions throughout.

The end of the investigation, where Ron is instructed to destroy all his files and cease all contact with the KKK, is, in my opinion, the real tragedy. This is a gut punch to the heroes, turning their win into a Pyrrhic victory.

This is the message of BlacKkKlansman: these stories need to be told. We need to hear about these hate groups and what they are doing, what they’re capable of, and what methods they employ in recruiting. To neglect to tell these stories is to open the door to future extremists. The identity crises we see Ron and Flip (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the police force) go through are what we as a people need to do; we need to realize how much a part of us these hate groups really are.

Not long ago, I watched Oklahoma City on Netflix, a documentary about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The film gives a great amount of detail regarding the extremist right wing groups that helped spawn Timothy McVeigh. It also explains Waco as part of the inspiration for the attack. As I think back on my experience as a high school student when the news of this bombing broke, I don’t remember much being made of the extremist groups and their influence. Then again, I wasn’t paying much attention, being a dumb ass high school student.

The fact that this investigation was shuttered and all the reports shredded, represents the basic attitude of most Americans toward these hate groups. Their presence is not a blight on society so much as they are themselves society. We’d much plug our ears and go “lalalalalalala,” when it comes to these groups because to face their existence means to confront our racism in a way far too personal for most.

Think of the uber-patriotism that was abound in the aftermath of 9/11. We were all unified against a common enemy. Chief among that enemy’s attributes was that they were outsiders. There was no similar gung-ho feeling about hunting down the people responsible for OK City, especially when it was revealed that the calls were coming from inside the house, so to speak. The enemy, in that case, were Americans, fueled by an extremism that was American in character. True, there were a variety of differences in the two attacks that have nothing to do with who did it. To compare the two attacks is very much apples to oranges.

The film ends with real life scenes of Charlottesville, tying the above tragic covering up of this story to the outcomes that we’re seeing today. Membership in hate groups is surging as they haven’t in half a century. These groups didn’t go away, they just went underground. They cleaned up their image. David Duke (Topher Grace) talks about optics in the film, and today we have Richard Spencer and other alt right figures living up to that description.

Because this story wasn’t told 40 years ago, the hate groups got to rewrite their own narrative. They got to keep telling their twisted story to initiates in their living rooms, pool halls, and shooting ranges. And there was nothing to counter it.

Trump supporters and “enlightened centrists” will likely howl about the subtle and not so subtle nods to the current administration. Of note is Duke basically invoking the MAGA slogan, just slightly changing the words; in another scene, klansmen chant, “America First!” It’s a shame that most of that crowd will give this one a pass based on reviews and the plot synopsis. If there’s anyone that needs to hear what this film is trying to tell us, it’s the Trump supporter who insists that he (and it’s definitely a he) is not racist.

Advertisements

Thoughts on Clint Dempsey’s Retirement

This man is responsible for many of my absolute top soccer memories. Winning the Supporter’s Shield, the record setting goal against Ghana, the go-ahead goal against Portugal, the run and attempt against Algeria, saved and slotted home by LD (arguably the greatest single USMNT goal ever). All those cheeky as fuck plays (who was doing Rabonas in MLS before him?) with Oba, Mauro, Pappa, Nico, JMo, Ozzie, and everyone else. One of the first real-deal in-his-prime transfers to MLS. His move started a trend that raised the profile of the league and US Soccer in ways that we’ll be seeing for decades to come. The face that became a Fathead. The heart. The comeback.
Image result for dempsey face
The Red Card Wedding. My son got his first ever yellow card a few years ago in an indoor game for what could be called a tactical foul. After getting it, he looked up and mimed tearing the card, smiling. I know it’s not Clemps’ proudest moment, but we had a laugh over it. This moment shows the extent to which Dempsey lore had permeated our soccer lives.
His story is one we hear from soccer greats all over the world, but far too seldom in the US. Humble beginnings, playing for nothing but love of the game. A family making huge and real sacrifices to pursue his dream. We desperately need to remove barriers to entry such as prohibitive cost to our higher level soccer programs if we want more Dempseys. And we definitely do want more Dempseys.
Thanks for everything, Clint. Thank you Seattle Sounders FC for signing him. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

Thoughts on NFL Protests

A friend posted a question about the NFL protests on Facebook and I decided to tell the story of my evolving position. I’ve written about this before in my post on Melissa Schlag, but this is less about the players and more about my experience with the story.

First Response: Emotions and Common Narrative

My initial hot take of the situation was, “you can do it, free speech and all, but you oughtn’t, see, because the flag symbolizes the more perfect union we’re all striving for, and not any particular individual/group in power at any level.” I formulated that opinion without learning anything about Kaep’s purpose or the data that informed it. If I recall, most of the media stories were about the outcry to the protest rather than the conditions being protested. Those stories would mention that they’re protesting Police Brutality without going into it.

The outcry really is the story because of how sacred we hold the ritual of standing and placing hands over hearts during the anthem at sporting events. Most adult Americans have formative experiences of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in school, another custom that is officially not required but unofficially mandatory. Cold War era propaganda has worked very well on these generations: people who claim they wouldn’t hurt a fly stand up and cheer at viral vids of children attacking other children for sitting during the Pledge, or adult men assaulting people for disrespecting the flag. To be honest, I couldn’t resist having a little emotional reaction when I first heard about people not standing during the anthem.

My understanding of Police Brutality or systemic racism at the time was kind of both-sidesist; sure there were a few bad apples in law enforcement, but there were plenty of black criminals that were making destructive choices, and what could you do? Cops have to protect themselves, right? Also, there were a number of black people simply playing the victim card while not examining the behavior in their own community. This understanding was shaped by consuming mass media and a few rational skeptic/enlightened centrist voices on YouTube. In short, it was very surface, very low effort, and it also let many off the hook. Still, I supported the idea of doing a protest, misguided though I felt it was.

After forming my initial opinion, I defended their right to protest without seeking out new information. To those who wanted to make standing mandatory, I said, “is it patriotism if it’s forced?” and I congratulated myself for protecting free speech.

Look Deeper

Eventually, I learned more about things like redlining, mass incarceration, even eugenics programs that took place in the US as late as the 1970s. I started seeing that the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, while significant, were not total. The documentary 13th on Netflix gives a good introduction to many of these things, particularly mass incarceration. Only after starting to understand that systemic racism is a thing did I go back to look up Kaep’s statements about the protests and his contributions off the field, which are numerous. My opinion of the protests was drastically changed from this new information.

Conclusion and Hope

For me, it was extremely roundabout. To a neutral observer, the protests can be seen as another manifestation of the “conversation about race” we’ve been clumsily trying to have forever. For those who are not super into the social/political/cultural conversation and who are super into NFL football, this might be the push that starts them learning about these things.

The way it went for me, and the way I hope it goes for others, is as follows:

  1. Initial, emotion driven reaction
  2. Information gathering
  3. More informed opinion
  4. Talk to others, repeat 2 & 3 as needed

It’s frustrating that I’ve moved past #1 while many others are stuck there, seemingly permanently. I understand that people have that emotional reaction, I had an emotional reaction as well. Compare this to some other issue. The emotional take is a starting point. It’s your gut, your heart, the quick and dirty assessment that you can offer with only your pre-existing set of experiences and knowledge. Unless you can just magic up a nuanced, complex take on a subject, you probably need to get some new information before you form a concrete opinion.

On the subject of the NFL protests, I think that if people take a detailed look at history, they will see that systemic racism is real and massively impactful to people of color. NFL players are using their place in the public eye to draw attention to these problems, risking popularity and perhaps even their extremely lucrative careers to do so.

Taking The Knee With Melissa Schlag

Thanks to Haddam, CT, Selectman Melissa J. Schlag, we’re having a conversation about protests again. By taking the knee during the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of a meeting on July 16th, she has gained fans and critics. She’s also caused a resurgence in people engaging in a particular bad faith argument: criticizing the form of protest rather than the substance of it.

Initial Reactions 

“Show some respect!” “What about the veterans!”

This is often the first and only critique made by opponents of this kind of protest. I kind of understand having an emotional reaction, our culture of worshiping the flag and the troops make such protests really stick out. I don’t begrudge anyone having an emotional reaction when they first hear or read about these kinds of things. However, I would ask that people develop a better understanding of the situation so that they can have a better informed opinion.

When I first heard about Colin Kaepernick sitting during the anthem, my reaction went something like this: standing for the anthem is something we ought to do because we’re not respecting any existing government structure or figure; rather, we’re paying homage to the idea of America, the unreachable ideal represented in our founding documents. I felt that people should stand, but that we shouldn’t force anyone to do so, because if you’re being forced or even coerced or socially pressured into doing patriotism, can you really call it patriotism?

Is That It?

That was my first reaction, my hot take after hearing about it and thinking about it a little bit. I didn’t know what motivated it or what information influenced Kaep. I didn’t exactly go seek out this information; I had kind of already decided that he could do it, but that it was rather unpleasant. Eventually I found out quite a bit about Kaep’s cause. I learned more about Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and much more about systemic racism from a film called 13th, lectures on YouTube, and many more sources. Every so often I’d encounter one or another of the things I’ve just linked here and it added up over time. I didn’t marathon a bunch of this content and have like a Road to Damascus moment. It was very gradual. Now I understand where Kaep and everyone is coming from and I think they’re doing a good thing to shed light on some very real injustices, of which most people are unaware.

Failure to Engage

Many of the responses to Kaep’s protest are examples of people failing to engage with the substance of a protest. Here are a few, along with responses.

  1. “Stop whining! You’re rich, what do you have to protest about!” I guess compassion for those who don’t have what you have isn’t a thing. This is honestly the stupidest complaint I’ve seen. Anyone making this argument is not operating in good faith and it’s probably on purpose.
  2. “It’s disrespectful to the flag/veterans/troops!” Kneeling was actually a compromise. Remember, the protest started off with just sitting. According to the story, Kaep got the idea of kneeling from talking to an Army veteran. He’s made it very clear in public statements that his protest was not against the military, active or otherwise.
  3. “Well, I think it’s disrespectful and I have a right to that reaction!” This is another attempt to avoid talking about the substance of the protest, and kind of a childish one at that. You’re basically saying that Kaep or Schlag’s stated purpose do not matter. It also smacks of the “just your opinion v. my opinion” non-starter that Creationists/Intelligent Design and other dishonest interlocutors trot out. Like, yes, you poor thing, you’re entitled to your opinion, but what’s your basis for it?

Evaluating Opinions

I told the story of my evolving position to show the way opinions can change with information. Look again at my initial reaction. I was not engaging with the substance of the protest. My take had everything to do with the form of the protest. Most others have stayed right there. They stayed there all through the rest of Kaep’s NFL career and they’re staying there now with regard to Melissa Schlag.

Everyone’s got an opinion, and they’re entitled to them. Pointing this out is boring and obvious. Instead let’s look at how they differ in terms of the information that you’re basing your opinion on. About any given topic, there’s a variety of information out there with varying degrees of relevance. The greater the quantity, quality, and relevance of the information you have, the more likely you’ll have a well informed opinion. It gets a little tricky when you realize that things like relevance are subjective and therefore can be thought of as opinions themselves. You very quickly get into an infinite regress of opinions about aspects of opinions. When you consider that people can differ widely in something like opinions on relevant facts, it’s expected that people get so frustrated when encountering those different worldviews.

If you are continuously talking about the act of kneeling or otherwise not participating in the patriotic display rather than looking into the reasons why, you’re not engaging. Your opinion, while valid, is failing to take relevant information on board and is thus less informed than it could be. Your opinion is based on emotion rather than an attempt to understand the other position.

Melissa Schlag

In the case of Melissa Schlag, she posted an open letter to Facebook explaining her reasoning. She was reacting most strongly to the recent meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin. Her letter also mentions the Zero Tolerance immigration policy which has led to the separation of so many children from their families, and the general behavior of the president.

There are probably honest criticisms of her position. For example, even though Putin is a murderous dictator with a tendency to kill journalists and a government that would like to exterminate all LGBT people, there are reasons to pursue diplomatic relations with him. As a general rule, I’m in favor of diplomacy rather than not-diplomacy.

However, this Trump/Putin meeting has a lot of other shades to it that make her criticism understandable. First, the press conference where Trump basically took Putin’s side over his own intelligence community. This looks really bad, but it kind of fits the overly-accommodating stance Trump has taken with Kim. He’s really trying to charm when he does this. There’s probably some behind-the-scenes stuff where Trump is like, “hey, remember I had your back in front of the cameras, your people see how well I respected you, now you should help me out, right?” or something like that.

The whole 2016 election hacking thing is another complicated story. On one hand, DNC emails revealed how they had their thumb on the scale for Hillary. To me, I don’t care where these came from, if it’s true, then we should know about it. On the other hand, the perhaps more worrying part of 2016 was the bot farms spamming the shit out of social media with memes and posts promoting Trump. When one side can just inundate people with arguments, it doesn’t matter if they lie or make bad faith arguments. The scary thing about it is that not only is it difficult to fight, it’s something that I could be an unwitting victim of and not even know it.

Conclusion

Melissa Schlag is doing an extraordinarily brave thing. She doesn’t have millions of fans or dollars and will likely pay the political iron price for her protest. By taking a stand, she’s showing cojones that I don’t think we’ve seen in an American politician, maybe ever. Her disgust at the Trump administration is well founded, particularly when you consider Zero Tolerance, a policy that may have officially ended, but continues to affect thousands of families.

You Had to Be There

Disclaimer: I’m a US Navy submarine veteran and the following is partially about that experience in my life. Regardless of what I say, I really had some wonderfully unique and amazing times and I don’t regret a second of it. 

When people say, “you had to be there,” after telling a story they intend to be funny about something that happened during a tough situation, say an underway.

Underway stories are never as funny on retelling primarily b/c the experience of the circumstances. Going underway is stressful in ways that we don’t care to admit, but we do our best not to let it get to us. The thing is, the heightened level of stress is revealed in the amount of enjoyment we get from hi jinks. Jokes and pranks and other funny games just send us to the moon in ecstatic laughter.

The most complete laughing fits I’ve ever experienced, or probably will experience, had to be from underway silliness. Laughs going beyond just a good gut-buster or belly laugh. Laugh-gasm is not that much of a hyperbole. Look at any boat that still has the balls to observe halfway night with any semblance of a fun-loving spirit and what do you see? There’s guys doing insane things to one another, putting on crazy costumes, straight acting a fool in myriad ways. I don’t think I want to really catalog it all as I think it might spoil it for anyone who was there.

But even if I did I don’t think it would capture it. I think if you described these antics to anyone who hadn’t been there, they would shake their head and think you were describing people who can’t explain their actions. In a word, crazy people. And they would be right in a way. The stress of underway literally drives a person crazy. The halfway night games and other assing off can be seen as a way to try to regain sanity, or to relieve some of the pressure that everyone is under. If you can laugh, you must be safe, so laughter allows us to temporarily drop the lizard brain fight or flight instincts that we struggle with every minute of being underway and feel like we’re safe, we’re loved.

When you re-tell that story, none of those circumstances are in play, and you don’t account for them in the telling other than to mention, “we was underway.” When you just say that, you gloss over a major explanatory factor as to the humor of the situation. But that’s not how you remember it, to you the funny thing was the look on dude’s face when he saw his rack. You were primed to experience a slightly amusing thing as every laugh in Airplane! at once. Your nervous system was screaming for some kind of comfort since all the comforts of home have been cut off from you.

I am kind of loath to admit that this is so traumatic, because in a way that is me admitting some kind of victimhood for myself. But I’m no victim. But I don’t think it’s healthy to look at the experiences I had through rose colored glasses. There’s also the chemical composition of air underway. It could be lower in oxygen than on the surface for extended periods of time, then the boat does an O2 bleed, raising the level to much higher than you’re used to. When you’re used to lowered levels of O2, it can be a real jolt. It raises everyone’s energy level, so they love to do this right before All Hands Drills or Field Day. It can also make you giddy af and much more likely to lose your mind laughing like a jackass at the slightest thing.

When you tell that funny story, you never mention the oxygen levels or the other psychological factors that made your experience so much funnier than it objectively was. This is not because you weren’t or aren’t ever aware of them. I think it’s something like what Gazzaniga calls “The Interpreter.” The interpreter is a function in your brain that rationalizes your actions and forms a narrative that things can make sense around. In his lecture he talks about his work with split brain patients and how their left and right brains can be shown different things with a different image in each eye, then asked to respond to some kind of stimuli. The different ways to respond can only be done by one half of the brain, and depending on which half gets to answer, the answer will be based on whatever image was shown to that half’s eye. After that, patients are asked to explain their choice of answer. This is where the interpreter comes in. Instead of simply saying, “well it was that half of my brain that saw the Popsicle, so I chose Popsicle,” for example, the patient will say, “I saw the knitting needle and yarn, but it was in a shape that I thought looked like a Popsicle, so that’s why I chose Popsicle,”  or some other narrative to explain the choice, regardless of how silly it may be with respect to other possible choices.

The Interpreter is what’s making you think that your story is funny because of the things that happened rather than the psychological and/or chemical factors at play. In fact, I can’t imagine someone trying to tell that story with any expectation of getting laughs. “We were underway, so we were all, to varying degrees, deeply aware of the possibility of not coming home and fearing the prospect of drowning or worse. We had all gone weeks without meaningful romantic physical contact, not just sex but even a sincerely felt hug or caress from a loved one. We were constantly aware of the fact that we had not seen the sun or felt natural atmosphere in weeks and this was a massive departure from our normal experience of the world. We had been stripped of many of the other enjoyable things. These factors wore on us all, making us crave something to distract us for this torment. The oxygen content of the air was much higher than it had been in recent days, raising our heart rates and energy levels almost to the point of giddiness. So of course we laughed like hyenas when Shulz tripped and spilled pudding on McCullough accidentally.”

It’s Britney, Bitch

Recently, this vid was posted to /r/PlayItAgainSam, a subreddit dedicated to clips that have to be watched more than once to fully appreciate. I admit I only needed to watch this one once to get what was going on and laugh, and I recommend any one do check out the link. It made me think of the following story from around 1997:

I’ll never forget the first time I’d seen this whole “shout a question to which the next lyric is the answer” thing. It was the late 90s and me and my bros went to a show with a triple bill, Bad Company, somebody else, and Foreigner I think. They were all bands that peaked in the 80s, so these bands were all doing late career, yeah-there’s-a-new-album-but-everyone-is-here-for-your-old-hits type of tours. Image result for bad company concert poster

Anyway, we were near the front of the lawn seating section and these two older guys (we were teenagers, so these guys were probably in their 30s or something) were right nearby. This one guy, I still remember he looked like Ben Stiller’s orderly character in Happy Gilmore with a manscaped handlebar moustache, he would do the shouting thing ahead of every lyric. I can’t even remember the songs exactly, other than being quite surprised that Bad Company had many more hits than just Bad Company.

Image result for ben stiller happy gilmore

This guy, but in a t-shirt, denim vest, and bandanna, hoarsely shouting questions at the stage.

It would go something like this:

Singer: Johnny was a schoolboy/ When he heard his first Beatles song

Guy: What song was it and how long did it take?!

Singer: ‘Love Me Do’ I think it was/ And from there it didn’t take him long

Guy: What did he get and how often did he play it!?

Singer: Got himself a guitar/ Used to play every night

Guy: What’s he in now and how’s everything?!

Singer: Now he’s in a rock and roll outfit/ And everything’s all right/ Don’t ya know

Image result for bad company setlist

Don’t remember the setlist they played that night, might have been something like this.

You could tell this guy lived for this shit and that he was not ready to let go of a time in his life that had clearly passed him by. We got great laughs from this and started doing it from time to time as a goof, but never with this guy’s level of passion. For Bad Company. Who gets super-passionate about a mid tier 70s/80s cock rock band?

Racists Are Emboldened

Imagine a sequence of events like this. I wrote this with the San Bernadino attack in mind:

 

People do attacks like San Bernadino.
People admit they were nervous about the attackers before, and think they could have prevented the attack if they’d reported.
People didn’t report out of fear of being branded racist.

~Fast forward a few years, Trump elected, alt-right is a thing, neonazis ranks swell (not that those things are all directly related, but there are connections that aren’t hard to notice)~

People call the cops or ICE (or threaten to do so) on people of color doing nothing wrong.
People do this at least in part b/c they remember the Monday morning quarterbacking of San Bernadino.
People remember those attacks and say, “not on my watch,” or some heroic phrase, and speak up, sensing their moment of greatness.
People correctly publicly shamed for being racist.

~future~

People stop reporting things out of fear of being the next viral racist sensation.
People do attacks like San Bernadino.
Repeat…

I don’t think the ending would be just like that, it’s all a bit too /r/im14andthisisdeep. But where do we go from here? I have to say, these viral vids of racist people are very entertaining, and they should carry a message of caution to people everywhere: you don’t get to call the cops on people just because you don’t like someone’s skin color. Hopefully the fools these people have made of themselves will be a deterrent to future would-be crusaders against people of color going about their business.

But we still need to talk about that other thing. The actual situation where people are actually planning to do a killing spree. As with everything, there is no simple solution. Setting the bar for what it should take to alert the authorities will reveal counterexamples that disprove it. For example, say you want the new rule to be, “people moving duffel bags that appear heavy” as a sufficiently suspicious activity. It might be that heavy duffel bags contain an arsenal of guns or incendiary devices, but let’s look at it. Heavy is relative. Duffel bags could contain lots of things. On the other hand, clever attackers would find ways to evade this rule. There’s a point where anything short of seeing people with guns in their hands would be considered rude or racist.

The real answer is that there is no. Bad people are going to do bad things. I don’t want to make this about gun laws, but, let’s be honest, there are gun laws that could definitely make it harder for bad people to get so many guns. Aside from that, there’s not much to say except some mealy mouthed shit like, “know your neighbors” or, “talk to your children.” Which is not to say that those things aren’t good, but they’re not public policy.

It should be noted that, while San Bernadino is the attack I referenced at the top and I claim that it’s at least part of the reasoning of the current crop of racist cop-callers, it’s rather unique in that the attackers were not white. Most of the other mass shooters have been white males. The only other notable exceptions are Omar Mateen and the Virginia Tech shooter.

Why is this significant? Why you pointing out race, man, isn’t that racist?!

It’s significant precisely because it gives the lie to this idea that these people calling police really think they’re stopping a major tragedy.

I’m probably wrong about this connection. The people calling the cops on brown people not doing anything wrong are probably just shithead racists who have been emboldened by the alt right and Trump. And there’s no question that right wing media has helped.

Image result for not racist but number one with racists