When Your Choices Are Someone Else’s

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a helicopter ride over Boston. Apart from being super fun, the trip, riding high above my usual haunts, gave me a different perspective on the world I live in every day. In my normal existence, I do things you might do: I go to work, I get the items I need to eat and live, and I make an effort to get off the beaten path and enjoy nature.

What I saw from the air was that every livable space was designed, pre-planned. Every place where I could take a step had been planned and designed for the movement of humans and human activity. There was no “free” space, no place that I could go that someone else–a thousand some one else’s–hadn’t already gone. I experienced my day to day world as a place where I decided where I would go, but in fact, my space, like my activities are programmed and structured by any number of systems and institutions around me. What I experience as freedom is really just a very large maze designed to engage me in pro-social choices, like going to work, buying consumer goods, and contributing to the tax base.

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It was with this fresh in my mind that I read an article about black women’s bodies by the fab Gail Dines. The article is a solid review of the “issue” of the black booty, placing hypersexual images of black women’s backsides in a historical context.  But Gail reports that the push back to her article comes from third wave feminists– women who care deeply about women’s rights and who believe it is a woman’s choice to use her body freely in any way she chooses, including using it in hypersexual displays, pornography, commodification, etc. Women do have the right to express themselves as they see fit. But critical thinking requires that we examine the result of that expression–especially when done in public for money.

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Can’t you just break out it of the chains of narrative and do what you like? Of course you can. You can do anything that you want. But while you are yelling, “Yolo!” and waving your shirt over your head–why not? you have the right to!–consider that if you do it in public–say, on camera–and you do it for money you have gone from just expressing your self to being a part of the massive chain of production that is media. And you don’t get to decide alone how people who see your tape will make sense of it. Mass media uses all kinds of visual and verbal codes to tell stories, frequently shuffling out old ideas from history dressed in new duds. Just like those paths I saw from the sky, we should understand that media messages travel along lines planned out before we were even here, referencing–and reinforcing– history, symbolic codes and dominant ideology.

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When it comes to Nicki Minaj, or any other recording artist for that matter, we have to remember that “she” is not simply the human born as Onkia Maraj , she is the commodified, processed version of herself, created by a multi-pronged corporate team and packaged for mass consumption in order to make a profit. Sure Onika is some part of that construction, but she and hundreds of other pop stars are part of a very large system, one designed for the primary purpose to make cash.

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The surest way for the pop industry to make money is to stick to the low-hanging fruit–sex, scandal, salaciousness. We are cheeky monkeys after all. When we see Nicki posing butt out, its not because her label said, “We want you to explore the deeper aspects of your sexuality in a way that gives voice to your womanhood.” They said, “Sex sells.”

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Her displays are calculated business maneuvers designed not by Minaj alone but by a team, one which she herself has said is mostly male. In fact, when the initial cover for her latest single Anaconda was released many were shocked, and Minaj tweeted out that the cover art would be changed. Hmmm, just like when Kanye West leaked his Monster video–where Minaj guest-spit–only to add a disclaimer to it after everyone was shocked by the content. Artistic freedom? Nope, just a clever marketing strategy to drive eyeballs pre-release.

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No doubt Nicki is an interesting artist and we can’t dismiss all of what she makes as sheer profiteering–but that Roman phase, tho, dismiss dismiss!  She is not always bubble gum barbie, and love her or hate her she is engaging to watch and super creative.  Beyond the mass marketed hits we occasionally glimpse other dimensions to the character Nicki Minaj, some unexpected, like this sweet video off her upcoming album The Pink Print with The Game.

Most of what we see from Minaj, though is hip-pop designed to reach a massive audience for maximum profit complete with wild outfits and an over the top persona.  What makes her popular is her mashed up expression of contemporary cultural tropes–sex, barbie and bubble gum raps

Think of this horrible idea for comedy: Russell Simmons produced this sketch where Harriet Tubman agrees to sleep with master in trade for cash. Hey, it was just an humorous expression playing with the narrative of slavery and redefining it, right? Nah. The skit was roundly condemned, and even Hustle had to apologize.

Propagating idea that slaves had agency in their own oppression via mass media is tricky to say the least:  even if you have the artistic right to play on old tropes, to do so for mass entertainment in a era still so rife with racism, keeping the old narrative alive in new clothes, is calculated profiteering at best and racist at worst.

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Leaving slavery days behind, we can look at our own post racial still racist world. Black women are free, have the vote, and are the fastest growing demo in college. Sounds pretty free right? The legacy of racial oppression in this country persists, despite the good news.  Nickki Minaj is popular in part because she represents typical media representation of black women–hyper sexual, wild and unpredictable.

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Few casual fans will even dig deep enough to find a more complex expressions of Nicki Minaj, leaving us simply with her most visible incarnation-a new era Jezebel.  Even as she talks about her new natural look, she reveals the calculated way that she thinks about her image, and that her previous incarnations are not a reflection of her playing with power, but masking insecurities.

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We black women are treading paths that have been set up in this country for centuries. Even as we choose new destinations, and walk with more power in our stride, we still live in a country rife with racial inequity. While many of us as individuals may have freed ourselves from slave mind, we live in a country where the image of blacks has been deeply carved in a fresco of oppression from slavery, through Jim Crow to our own modern, sublimated Jim Crow 2.0. We’re individuals and we live in a culture and are a part of democratic and capitalist systems at the same time. We can’t ignore the ways those levels constantly interact.  While the power of the individual has primacy in our culture, taking the macro view to better understand the paths that we’re treading will allow us to move off the paths of the past and blaze a truly new future.

My Brother’s Reaper

Picture this: you are walking down the street of your hometown, having just done a good deed when you are surrounded by police officers who demand you drop to you knees. You protest your innocence; they are unconvinced. You see yourself reflected in their glasses, your eyes wide like frightened prey as the pack of cops closes in. One grabs you from behind in a chokehold and brings you to the ground. You can feel his arm around your neck. You gasp out that you can’t breathe until you can’t even do that. It’s not supposed to be this way, you think, …your spouse, your children, and then nothingness.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before–oh but of course you have. Another summer, another incident of police brutality state sponsored murder. Just about a year after President Obama declared Trayvon Martin could have been his son, NYC police killed Eric Garner, a 43-year old married father of six on the street like he was nobody’s son. Despite our declarations to do better by those taken too soon, we have not done better as a nation: no new national gun laws; no overhaul of police procedures; no national examination of the massive inequities in the justice system.

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Here is the great irony: we are safer now than we have been for some time. National violent crime rates are dropping and homicide is approaching a 60 year low– that’s right 6-0.

violent_rateCrime stats are complex, and maintained in ways that sometimes make it hard to compare, but by any measure, violence is down. Theories abound over why it’s down, including a very interesting link between reproductive rights and violent crime made here by Freakonomics.

Even as violent crime has plummeted, fear of violent crime has continued to rise. Many Americans believe we live in a dangerous world, peopled with hood wearing thugs at every corner. Older generations pine for the good old days, that apparently we’ve washed of the violent crime that happened. Just like Shakira’s hips, stats don’t lie.

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Media plays a significant role in making people think the world is more violent than it is. A quick look at the prime time line up shows us hours upon hours of crime dramas. From the local news, to the most watched cable series, crime is literally everywhere, and that affects how we see the world. There’s even a name for it–mean world syndrome. George Gerbner’s theory goes like this: say you love CSI– in the world of CSI, violent crime happens 100% of the time. In the real world, violent crime happens .01% of the time. The more television we watch, the more likely we are to believe that what happens in TV world also likely to happen the real world. With so much violent content on TV, people that watch TV are likely to think the world is a mean, violent place.

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When we think violence is more prevalent, we support policies and spending to get tough on crime. Take a look at your own town’s police force:

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Yeah, just rolling to the Happy Bee

 

More than likely, they are more well equipped than ever, with SWAT resources

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swatBefore you give the build up of of police forces credit for the drop in crime, let me inform you that studies show crime has dropped both in towns that spent massive amounts on arming police and in those communities that didn’t do that.

Money is an object–and objective in this arms race. According to Business Insider: the over $34 billion in grants has given rise to a growing concern that some police officers are looking less like civil servants, and more like soldiers on the front lines in Afghanistan.

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Those who spend and make the money–from outfitters, to trainers, weapons manufacturers and gear houses are unlikely to tell us when to scale back. So who does this spending serve?

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It’s didn’t serve Eric Garner. SWAT expenditures were not enough to save 26 people–mostly children– in Newtown or the people killed by gun violence in the 74 school shootings since Newtown. Anticrime spending is a civil arms race where Americans are increasingly falling victim, from bad stop and frisk to death by police warrant, and of course, old fashioned police brutality.

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There is no greater drama that life and death, so crime is an easy go to to grab viewers eyeballs. When we let the stories affect our real world security, it’s time to use some media awareness and think critically about violence on and off the screen.

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Our real world can only enjoy lower crime if we hold police to the task they are charged with: protect and serve the people. We are Trayvon, we are Eric, we are our brothers and sisters. None of us can be safe in a world where police routinely kill people of color with no consequences. That’s the world we live in now. Use your voice and your vote. Time to be the people we promised ourselves we would be.

Get Down with OPP: Other People’s Progeny

The last week has been a never-ending loop of two terrible stories filling the news channels: the crisis at the American Border and the violence between Israel and Hamas. I know it’s summer, and hopefully you’re out catching fireflies, but it’s my job to let you know its time to pay attention here. Give me 5 minutes, and I’ll help keep you human.

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Already this year 57,525 unaccompanied minors have been detained crossing the US’s Southwest border. This large flow of children into the US has created a crisis at the border, with a steady flow of minors being detained and warehoused in poor conditions as they await deportation with no independent adult representative.

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Many of these children are fleeing violence in their home countries. Honduras is the current murder capital of the world, with a murder rate of nearly 91 per 100,000 people, compared to the United States overall murder rate of 4.2 per 100,000. Honduras is six times more deadly than Chicago, our own violent nightmare.  The number of murders in all three countries is actually higher than the rate of Iraqi civilian casualties during the Iraq war.  Escalating gang violence coupled with police corruption mean families must choose between fighting or flight.

61-15-AbdR-A-04What would you do if children were being killed on the streets of your city? What if you thought your child would be admitted to the United States, their very lives saved if you could just get them over the border? What if your other choice was waiting for the local gunmen to mow your child down in cold blood?

PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-ATTACKHalfway across the globe, Israel and Palestine are going toe to toe in the Gaza Strip. The feud is not new, but violence has intensified since the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, with shelling happening on both sides. Hamas has fired over 1200 rockets into Israel with 38 falling in built up areas, and Israel’s Iron Dome defense system stopping over 200. But not all, with one death of an uninvolved Israeli citizen.

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Israel has been doing plenty of shelling of their own with more than 1800 rockets fired. Don’t worry, even though Gaza has no Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel is kind enough to “knock on the door” to warn people before they bomb–and when they say knock on the door, they mean dropping a few rocket-propelled dummy shells on your roof. I guess not everyone got the memo, as 214 of people have been killed by Israel, including 77 women, children and elderly.  Things reached another more terrible level today when 4 young boys were killed by a rocket while playing on a Gaza beach .

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What would you do if they were shelling your neighborhood, with your baby crying and the power cut off?
In America, we shout about how much we love our kids. We even love other kids, like these kids:

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And we even love these kids!

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Hmmm, so we love our kids, and cute kids, and even kids in need….as long as they don’t come here.


“Not our kids, not our problem,” can be no less than the first step on the road to losing our humanity. Caring for the youngest and most vulnerable of the species is a fundamental part of the human animal and seems like the least that we in the US, strongest and richest country in the world, can do.

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Or we could just wrap them in Red Cross blankets and let them sleep on overcrowded floors until we put them on a plane back to countries in crisis. Or we could defend the right of countries to perpetrate political violence even if it is sure to result in the death of innocent civilians.

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To be sure, both of these situations are complex, long ranging with no easy answer. We cannot simply sweep in as dysfunctional rescuers and airlift kids into paradise. But one universal human truth is that we all care about our offspring, no matter where we live or the circumstances of our lives. When we see kids in crisis, we need to ask how to support not just them but their parents and their communities that want, like us, to keep their kids safe, and give them a chance at becoming an adult.

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One more thought if you still think it’s not your problem: climate change is real. Severe storms are on the rise. Scientists estimate hundreds of millions climate refugees worldwide in the next century. Can we be sure that we will never need a place to go? Can we be sure that our great-grandchildren, like some of our great-grandfathers who immigrated to this country, won’t be fleeing towards life?

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Whatever your stance on immigration, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remember you are human first. You live in a world more connected than you may think, and your survival, depends on humanity. Don’t give yours away for politics or for partisanship.

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So while you are at the beach this weekend, unafraid of rockets falling and smiling at the toddler tottering across the sand, think of a toddler trekking through the Mexican heat, or waiting fearfully for a “knock on the door”. They’re all our kids. Get involved, tell your friends, call your senator and remind people that other people’s progeny are part of our human family.

Nah Fique Triste, Brazil

Brazil is not having a good week. After a humiliating defeat at the hands feet of Germany, Brazilians are left to pick up the tab for the big party. The World Cup brought tens of thousands of tourists to Brazil, but with a price tag over 11 billion dollars, persistent protests, rampant sexual harassment in the streets and now an L before the finals, no wonder fans look like this.

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Perhaps Brazilians designer Carol Rosetti could make them feel a bit better. Carol has been inking some great illustrations that aim to help people feel less funky about themselves.

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These delightful drawings go beyond assuring women that they are okay. Her clever script reminds us not to overlook but embrace all the parts of who we are.

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The positive messages may help sad Brazilians feel a bit better, and maybe help remind their fellow countrymen that a woman’s body is not your blank canvas.

I Scream for Direct Marketing!

Marketing is everywhere, from the label inside your panties to the 1600+ ads you see–or barely notice–each day.  To break through the clutter, advertisers have found new and even more invasive ways to market to us.  But every once in a while, an ad gets it right.

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These guys, Good Humor guys complete with red bow ties, walked up and down the beach on this blisteringly hot weekend with armloads of product giving out free ice cream!  Yes, Good Humor, I do now have a positive impression of your company, and an ice cream stain on my shorts.  Well played, ice cream guys.