Nevertheless, in a post-election CNN column Zakaria wisely observed we should not "shy away from a conversation about race."
I add: especially now.
* * *
I seen fellas like you before.
You ain’t askin’ nothin’; you’re
jus’ singin’ a kinda song.
-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath* --
Do you find those two words just plain ugly?
Look at them again. Do you feel your breakfast start to warm?
Then you know how I felt hearing them 5-6 times a day when I was growing up in the South.
I was born in the Midwest. My mother worked, so during the day I was in the care of a housekeeper. Mazy was part of the family. By virtue of being an adult, she was in charge.
Adult says it all. Toddlers divide the world into adults/children. As a pre-schooler, I had no awareness she was Black. Racism has to be learned; we will see how in a moment.
I remember when my family drove south for the first time. We stopped in a huge supermarket in Kentucky. Like weeds, "White" and "Colored" signs flourished up and down the aisles, restrooms, checkout counters.
My 10-year-old boy´s attention focused on a "Colored" drinking fountain. What happens if I drink from it?
After a few seconds of consternation, it dawned on me what they were talking about.
Two questions instantly followed:
(i) Who invented this stuff?
(ii) What are they trying to prove?
Fuckin´ niggers! Over the years, hearing those words over and over from people who were not "bad" people, I came to a certain conclusion ...
A random circumstance provided the opportunity to test it.
Driving south from college at Christmas time, we stopped in Alabama. There they were again; the gas station attendant was muttering them.
"I want to see something," I told my companions.
I got out of the car.
"You know," I suggested in a casual way, "I don´t think you really mean what you are saying."
He snarled. "Oh yeah? Then why am I saying it?"
"It´s just a song you like to sing."
He instantly stopped cleaning the windshield.
Two buddies armed with Eskimo Pies hurried over.
"You know, that´s ... the damnest thing I ever heard!" He laughed.
Damnest thing: his buddies´ heads moved up and down like fishing bobbers teased by unseen minnows.
A lively dicussion ensued.
The attendent: "We white Southerners can except THEM as individuals -- all of us know at least one good one -- but never as a group. Never! Northern Whites, on the other hand, can accept THEM as a group but not as individuals."
His pals´ heads nodded in enthusiastic accord.
I asked him to clarify.
"Northern whites love to talk about helping negroes. Equality, justice, all that shit. But when a negro wants to move in next door, my god! -- how those whites piss and moan about their precious property values."
You, dear reader, may now find your head nodding in enthusiastic agreement.
I know mine did.
* * *
An unabashed, unabridged inability to make a certain distinction permeates America:
2016 American presidential campaigns furnished a trainload of cases of confusing a person with a song that person sings.
For an example, click here. The Trump supporter chants at reporters "Jew S.A.!," not "U.S.A.!" Both CNN and Trump´s campaign manager instantly write the man off as a deplorable.
The consequence of their ad hominem focus was that the Trump supporter´s song went unattended. That is the real point.
America doesn´t have the foggiest idea how to handle racism. Never did; I doubt it ever will.
The best the United States has come up with to combat racism is ... racism. The result is the worst of all possible worlds: the problem has infected the solution.
As with Typhoid Mary, the carriers of the disease -- we will meet one in a minute -- appear to be in perfect health. They always refuse any examination. They furiously reject any suggestion that they might somehow be responsible for more infections and even deaths.
Racism is the crack in the diamond of the United States. It cannot be undone with an eraser or fixed with scotch tape. A new approach is needed -- starting with a new awareness. More on this subject below.
Why racism is deadly to America:
Castes have birth as their identifying characteristic. Classes, on the other hand, in our era are based primarily on wealth.
Race is a characteristic of birth. That means ...
No -- no way! It cannot be! Americans instantly and automatically associate the word caste with India. Faraway. Poor. Foreign. Thank god, it can´t happen here!
In reality, not only can it happen here, it did. In fact, it is happening as you read these words.
Remember Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be Black? The national outrage and enrage, the resounding unanimity of condemnations of Dolezal brought America´s caste system boiling to the surface.
You are either born Black or you are not. If you are not, you cannot be Black. What you say or feel or think about it makes no difference.
By classifying a person by what -- not who -- he is, the caste system and the racism associated with it are eternally, viscerally anti-democratic. Any live-and-let-live modus vivendi between caste and democracy cannot endure. Eventually, one destroys the other.
For a sterling example of fighting barbarism with barbarism, of racism with racism, click here. In claiming that Hillary got it right -- that Trump supporters are indeed a "basket of deplorables" -- the Washingtonian, hairshirt-liberal journalist Dana Milbank perpetuates the very thing he despises.
Or says he despises ...
Back when the earth was still warm, I worked for Milbanks´ employer, the Washington Post. Decades have not altered my first impression on entering the newsroom and seeing editors lapping up the latest edition of their styless and guileless crosstown rival, The Washington Star.
That initial impression: impoverished thinking.
It has persisted to this day thanks to a daily revitalization by the oh-so-politically-correct Dana Milbanks of this world.
The Washington Star fell to earth. The Washington Post scarfed up the leftovers. When you suffer from impoverished thinking, you resort to imitating a failed model. It is the only one you feel comfortable with.
Impoverished thinking is no mere academic or philosophical issue. It accounts for why the Washington Post is an economic basket case.
Rich richer, poor poorer, middle class smaller: America as a nation is caught in the same loser spiral, and for exactly the same reason.
* * *
Fuckin´ niggers! Fuckin´ niggers!
An unlikely person confirmed our racism-as-song thesis:
George Wallace, former governor of Alabama.
Who can forget his signature song? "I say segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever."
In the mid1970s Wallace was traveling America, contemplating another presidentical run. He came to our fair state, and wanted to talk to Democrat candidates for major offices. One of my clients strongly "suggested" I pay a courtesy call; we had a close election coming up and could not afford to alienate Wallace´s followers.
I gutted it in and drove downtown to the Hilton Hotel.
I was totally unprepared for what I saw ...
Wallace was alone in a big conference room. No security guards anywhere. He was sitting behind a long table. Wallace was much smaller in stature than I had expected. But what shocked me was his face: it radiated excrutiating pain from the 1972 assasination attempt.
I told him I had spent a lot of time in the South and understood southern politics somewhat but, well, wasn´t standing on the school house steps in 1963 to stop Black students from enrolling a bit too much?
Wallace readily agreed. "I repudiated everything I ever said or did in favor of segregation. I also apologized to Black people. Thomas, you have to understand that I am a Christian. I did not want to go to my grave with all that on my mind."
Wallace publicly rejected his segregationist stance soon after he was shot, so there was nothing new there. What was new was his tone. If granite could talk that is what it would sound like.
I suggested in so many words that maybe his past, die-hard racism had been just a song he was singing.
Wallace didn´t miss a beat. "I grew up hearing it. That´s the way it was in Alabama."
I told him I had experience in election campaigns and also in hospitals. "Your face shows you are in great pain. You can´t hide it even if you try. For your sake, I hope you do not run again for president. Please, go home and be with your family."
Wallace definitely heard me but did not reply. I waited for him to blink; granite doesn´t blink.
To sum up: everything -- and I mean everything -- about George Wallace was hard. His words were hard; his feelings were hard. His life was hard. He was even hard to look at.
Almost as hard as the words fuckin´ niggers!
We shook hands. As far as I was concerned, an error sincerely acknowledged is an error abolished. ´Nuff said.
I never saw him again.
In June 1976, Wallace quit the presidential race.
Wallace´s father unexpectedly died in 1937; his mother had to sell the family farm to pay off mortgages. He flew combat missions over Japan in World War II.
No silver spoon anywhere.
Which brings me to this point:
I cannot help but wonder if Trump has it in him to sincerely repudiate the hurtful remarks he made during his campaign. I wonder if he is comparable to George Wallace.
* * *
Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts.
Everybody acts ... It´s hard to imagine anyone
surviving in our world without acting ...
We use it to protect our interests and to gain
advantage in every aspect of our lives, and it
is instinctive, a skill built into all of us.
Whenever we want something from somebody
or when we want to hide something or pretend,
we´re acting. Most people do it all day long.
-- Marlon Brando, Songs My Mother Taught Me --
Was Trump all along only acting? Were his hate-inciting comments just a song he was singing -- or are they something else?
The title of Brando´s book shows Brando viewed acting and songs as interrelated.
The power of music has been recognized for over 2,000 years. Plato wrote that “when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”***
Music is more powerful than acting. Music is primarily auditory; acting, visual. Neurological factors come into play. More on this crucial difference shortly.
In 1995, I started writing a book, The Musicology of Persuasion. It investigated how music -- tones, rhythms, notes, frequencies, timbres, cords -- overrides reason, common sense, moral precepts, education.
How is music so persuasive?
If you, dear reader, investigate that question, at the end of the road you will find a neurological answer.****
I junked the book. Based on the emails I was receiving from Japan and elsewhere, it became apparent that the only beneficiaries would be governments and ad agencies.
However, if you want a taste of what is involved, my work The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion analyzes how ideology and music are inseparable. The musicology of socio-economic and political phenomena is a whole new field of inquiry waiting to be developed. It will solve mysteries, e.g., why is racism still with us?, that have haunted mankind for millennia.
Reading it over today, Source said simultaneously too much and too little about how music persuades beyond all judgment, outside conscious reflection.
Fuckin´ niggers! Fuckin´ niggers! Racism will never be understood, much less effectively countered, until its musical components are acknowledged, understood.
So, how can democracy win and the caste system lose?
It is not so much a question of inventing and applying new things, as of re-ordering old ones ...
We all know that music -- especially popular music -- changes. How? And how do those changes cause changes in a society´s culture, beliefs, biases, e.g., racism? Those questions are not being asked anywhere.
You ain´t askin´ nothing, John Steinbeck´s character in The Grapes of Wrath declared. Indeed, not asking is part of the song.
A crucial part.
We end with our question:
They´re killers, rapists: was Trump jus´ singin´ a kinda song?
In a clumsy and naive display of over-compensation for their astonishingly biased treatment of Trump during his campaign, mass media commentators are now busily discussing how brilliant Trump is.
We say the secret to his election last month lies elsewhere ...
"Politicians are our most flashy and worst actors," Marlon Brando observed.
As noted above, people feel more comfortable imitating a failed model. Millions of them picked Trump because he is a worse actor than they are.
A worse singer, too.
* * *
What has been said about racism applies equally to xenophobia and misogyny. They, too, are songs people sing -- songs that pervade American politics.
I guarantee that the most striking thing you will discover within days, if not hours, of being a political insider is how the adolescent fraternity boy subculture pervades not just Washington but state capitols, county commissions and city councils.
Pussy, piece of ass: if we could charge elected officials one dollar every time they used Trump´s words in the infamous sex tape, plus all the other vulgar terms you know about, we could pay off the national debt in one month.
To start the ball rolling:
Oh Barack Obama, you guardian of sacred family values and of basic human decency; of Western civilization; of America´s morality; of the sanctity of motherhood; of adolescent girl purity; of fatherly responsibility -- in addition to being an erstwhile church-goer and fire-breathing foe of Trump-like crude and lewd discourse:
"Mother fucker´s never happy."
Barack, toss $1 in the kitty.
*John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Penguin Books, New York, 1976, p. 163.
**To the contrary of CNN, we rigorusly oppose making taboos of anything, including the "n-word." A taboo only increases the magic, hence the power of the tabooed item.
***Plato, Plato’s Republic, translated by B. Jowett, Random House, New York, undated, p. 135. (Book IV, subject 424). Exhibit #1 for the United States: the undeniable impact of Little Richard and other black rock and roll musicians on racial segregation.
****Music convinces by traveling along neurological circuitry formed for a purpose far removed from enjoyment: survival.
Daniel Levitin, a neurology scientist:
"In cats and rats, animals whose auditory systems are well known and bear a marked resemblance to our own, there are projections directly from the inner ear to the cerebellum ... that coordinate the movements involved in orienting the animal to an auditory stimulus in space. There are even location-sensitive neurons in the cerebellum, an efficient way of rapidly orienting the head or body to a source. These areas in turn send projections out to the areas in the frontal lobe that my studies ... found to be active in processing both language and music — regions in the inferior frontal and orbitofrontal cortex. What was going on here? Why would the connections from the ear bypass the auditory cortex, the central receiving area for hearing, and send masses of fibers to the cerebellum, a center of motor control (and perhaps, we were learning, of emotion)?..."
Music, an auditority phenomenon, directly enters the brain, bypassing neurological centers of rational perception and evaluation. That bypass is necessary: to repeat, the underlying purpose of the ear-cerebellum circuitry is survival. If a lion roars nearby, there is no time for analysis. Involuntary reflexes take over.
But why are auditory phenomena especially powerful?
"Our perceptual system is exquisitely tuned to detect changes in the environment, because change can be a signal that danger is imminent. We see this in each of the five senses. Our visual system, while endowed with a capacity to see millions of colors and to see in the dark when illumination is as dim as one photon in a million, is most sensitive to sudden change. An entire region of the visual cortex, area MT, specializes in detecting motion; neurons there fire when an object in our visual field moves ... But sounds typically trigger the greatest startle reactions [sic]. A sudden noise causes us to jump out of our seats, to turn out heads, to duck, or to cover our ears. The auditory startle is the fastest and arguably the most important of our startle responses. This makes sense: In the world we live in, surrounded by a blanket of atmosphere, the sudden movement of an object—particularly a large one—causes an air disturbance. This movement of air molecules is perceived by us as sound." Daniel J. Levitin, This is Your Brain On Music, pp. 180-1.
Neurology explains why racism as song has proved to be impervious to what your mom and dad and little league coach and preacher and favorite high school teacher and role model university professor told you; to anti-discrimination laws and regulations; to billions of dollars in government expenditures; to thousands of programs both public and private; to speeches and articles like this one.