Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Troubled Politics: Kanye and Bush

We all remember Kanye West, wearing a striped T-shirt, staring at the camera with the same look of disbelief as Mike Myers standing next to him, maybe not sure if he actually just said what he just said. Mike Myers wished he could suddenly be back in Canada where things are calmer. We all knew West was right, even those who claimed to disagree with him, feeling sorry for themselves and their guilty consciences.

Out of all the things that happened to him in office, the worst thing, Bush said, the single hardest thing for him to cope with, was Kanye West calling him a racist on television.

The interviewer corrected him: "well, Mr President, he said you didn't care about black people, not that--"

Bush interrupted, "yeah! He called me a racist! I am not a racist and I have never been one..."

The interviewer pushed him: "are you sure that this was even worse than all the lives lost and livelihoods destroyed in Hurricane Katrina...?"

Bush waffled..."of course that affected me deeply..."

So far this is a typical Bush strategy. Act like a deer in the headlights. In the War on Terror, he's Dirty Harry, ready to smoke the enemy out of his cave, but right now, he's a doe in a pasture, good mood crushed by the thought of someone calling him the supposed "worst epithet in a multicultural society"--a racist.

It looked like his feelings might actually have been hurt. His face trembled with the anxiety that came with any of his talking about issues not related to bombing the shit out of Arab countries. He said that he was hurt by West's comment and did not appreciate it one bit. It's not difficult to call his bluff: there were so many other scandals, with stakes so much higher than this minor incident, and Bush was so good at selling a man-of-steel, shoot-first-ask-questions-later image to his white constituents with a careful, thorough pride.

Sincerity aside, Bush supplemented his vulnerable admission with a phrase lifted from Ebonics (via a hard-working PR intern?)--"I'm not a hater though." He didn't seem to be using the phrase right (being a hater usually implies jealousy), but it's the idea that counts: he's extending the olive branch to West, in his very own native tongue, no less! He's a hep cat! Maybe he actually came across this phrase all by himself (his daughter reported that he listens to Lauryn Hill).

So here's where the Twilight Zone begins: Kanye West apologized to Bush. "I would tell George Bush, in my moment of frustration, I didn't have the grounds to call him a racist," he said to Matt Lauer. "But I believe that, in a situation of high emotion like that, we as human beings don't always choose the right words."

West could have chosen a better platform than the middle of the pledge drive, so that he might have been able to elaborate, to point to some tell tale signs. Under Bush, a drastic expansion of the size of the federal government and the national debt through military and incarceration spending, combined with thorough destruction of many social services and other public programs creates a situation where the rate of poverty for black children is actually higher today than it was in 1968, and there are fewer black senators now than there were in the late 1800s. If one were to take social conditions as one's evidence, and not famous names and faces, it would not be difficult to conclude that George Bush doesn't care about black people.

This statement does not mean, Cornel West said, that Bush believes that every black individual is inferior to every white individual, or that he cares any more about poor people of any other color. Bush has no problem accepting that there are exceptional black individuals, because this is America, where anyone can succeed. But this has nothing to do with justice for a people. And all of the non-black, mostly poor folks who were paralyzed in Iraq or lost their homes to shady unregulated mortgage deals were just as short-changed as poor black folks.

What's most thought-provoking about this apology is that it raises the possibility that Kanye West might care a little bit less about black people than he thought he did. Or that he would rather feel safer by retracting a statement that he felt like he couldn't afford to have made. Or, perhaps most likely, that the increasing division between wealthy and poor Americans, the splitting of society under the dogma of finance profiteerism, is wrenching a small elite of blacks from even the symbolic possibility to make political statements, because they feel that too much is at stake. See, for instance, the interesting, but quite unexpected, shouting match between Cornel West and Al Sharpton on MSNBC regarding Obama's political commitments, or lack thereof.

We are going to see more Clarence Thomases, and perhaps more John Browns. The real possibilities lie in setting aside our common cowardice about saying "love" in a political way, saying that we can love one another in a revolutionary sense.

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