Category: narrative

Obama’s problem with white folks

By Alan Bean

A new Pew Poll shows that Barack Obama isn’t connecting with white voters.  This is hardly big news: Obama won just 43% of the white vote in the 2008 election.  But his popularity rating with white voters now rests at 38%.  Even more chilling, if you’re a Democrat, a full 60% of the white electorate backed Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm election.

What’s going on here?  Two things. 

First, as we commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Republican Party is still advertising itself (surreptitiously, of course) as the Party of White.  

In the short run, this makes a lot of political sense.  Baby boomers, the demographic currently controlling American politics, are 75% white.  But the “Party of White” strategy will shortly run out of gas.   From the earliest days of European colonization, America has been a majority white nation.  Not for long.  A slight majority of Americans 18 and younger are people of color.  These rapidly shifting demographic patterns have injected a strong dose of cognitive dissonance into the hearts and minds of white folk.  We feel we are losing control.  We pull the red lever because we hope it will preserve the white-dominated world we were born into. (more…)

Ira Glass exposes the drug war in a small Georgia town

By Alan Bean

If you’re like me, Ira Glass is the seductive, soft-spoken storyteller you occasionally encounter while working in the garage on a Saturday afternoon.  This America Life is captivating radio.  Ira Glass pulls us into a story with unadorned language.  He speaks without exclamation points or rhetorical flourishes, but you can’t stop listening.  The other day I was painting some lawn furniture I had rescued from a neighbor’s lawn (he was throwing it out, I promise!) when This America Life came on.  I was disappointed to learn that Ira Glass had ceded his microphone to a guest storyteller and pictured the unassuming Ira catching a few rays in the Bahamas.  But I was wrong.  Ira was down in Georgia, putting the finishing touches to an hour-long expose of Amanda Williams, a Superior Court judge who suffers from a peculiarly American form of madness.

Here’s a summary of the Part 1: (more…)

Feeding the market for American mythology

By Alan Bean

Two articles grabbed my attention this morning.  The first deals with fairy tales about the Christian origins of America; the second addresses civil war fairy tales (hint: it had nothing to do with slavery).

Every trained historian, regardless of personal ideology, knows that America was founded by Deists and high church Protestants who were desperate to save their fledgling nation from European-style religious wars.  Hence the separation of church and state.

Similarly, you would be hard pressed to find a single person who has studied American history at the graduate level who would argue that Southern slavery was irrelevant to the civil war.  Unfortunately, the sentimental attachment to Christian-America and the confederate Lost Cause is so passionate that elaborate mythologies arise unbidden to satisfy the demand. 

Over at Talk to Action, Chris Rodda begins a jaw-dropping post thusly: (more…)

Stories we believe in: learning from Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm

By Alan Bean

American liberals can’t fathom the appeal of the Tea Party phenomenon.  Here we are, struggling to recover from a recession created by massive tax cuts, military adventurism, and an under-regulated financial sector and what are they asking for: more tax cuts, even less government regulation, and more military spending.

Moreover, this message sells in the heartland, big-time.

By every standard of rationality, progressive politics should be enjoying a renaissance.  The alternative has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  And yet politicians aligned with Tea Party rhetoric are winning elections and shaping the political agenda.  How can these things be? (more…)

Adapting reality to the white viewer

The New York Times recently ran an article lamenting the all-white list of nominees for this year’s Oscars.  Randy Shaw (see below) points out that it ain’t just the movies; television offers few characters or programs aimed at the non-white audience. 

Shaw references David Simon’s The Wire as a blessed exception to the rule and wonders why such a critical success hasn’t been emulated (except by HBO’s Treme, and that show is also produced by David Simon).

It’s simple; The Wire was always more popular with critics than with viewers.  It held its own; but Simon’s programs received only a fraction of the audience that followed The Sopranos, for instance.  Why is that?  

The answer isn’t pleasant.  White audiences don’t relate well to non-white protagonists.

Early on in the Tulia fight, several producers showed a tentative interest in bringing the story to the silver screen.  I didn’t pay much attention to the let’s-make-a-movie phenomenon because we were years away from resolution.  Secondly, I figured the story was too morally ambiguous for Hollywood.  I remember being asked if my family would be interested in playing the starring role in a film.  When I protested that the affected community should be at the center of the movie I was assured that the American viewing public would have little interest in poor black people living in an isolated Texas town. (more…)

Isaiah 58:1-12: a word to the righteous

"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 A new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration must flow from narratives of faith.  Isaiah 58 is a natural starting place. 

The setting for this prophecy is the hard years following the return from Babylonian captivity, approximately 500 BCE.   The people who made the trek back to Jerusalem quickly became disillusioned.  The walls of holy city were still broken down.  Solomon’s glorious temple lay in ruins.  Work began on a new temple, a modest structure a fraction the size of the building it replaced, but progress was slow.

The people had expected more.  Much more.  They couldn’t understand why God was letting them down.  Their commitment to Torah had strengthened considerably during the hard years of exile.  Worship attendance, sabbath keeping and tithing were all way up. 

Still the people struggled.  They couldn’t understand why such bad things were happening to such good people. 

Isaiah’s response speaks for itself. (more…)

Does banning the noose change anything?

For the fourth straight year, Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced an anti-noose bill.  The Noose Hate Crime Act of 201 stipulates that “Whoever, with intent to harass or intimidate any person because of that person’s race, color, religion, or national origin, displays a noose in public shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.”

Hate crimes legislation, though admirable at first glance, raises serious First Amendment issues.  In practice, it will be difficult to prove that a specific noose hanger was motivated by a desire to “harass or intimidate”. 

Jackson Lee’s bill was first introduced as a response to the noose hanging in Jena Louisiana, but I’m not sure it would (or should) apply to that kind of situation.  What would have been gained by locking up the Jena noose hangers for two years?  Would this teach them a lesson they would never forget, or would it simply harden the racial resentment that motivated their act in the first place? (more…)

Pardons in a punitive age

By Alan Bean

‘Tis the season for executive pardons–or at least it used to be. 

The editorial board of the Washington Post is criticizing President Obama for making nine trifling pardons, most of which involve small crimes that date back decades. 

In a slashing opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast questions the prevailing practice of handing out a few scattered pardons like Christmas presents while ignoring entire categories of people who have fallen victim to ill-considered policies like putting non-violent citizens  in prison for simple pot possession.

Meanwhile, NYT columnist Bob Herbert takes a stripe out of Mississippi Governor Hailey Barbour and the political establishment of Mississippi for their shabby treatment of the Scott sisters. (more…)

Clenched Fists and Open Hands: McLaren and Rohr get real about religion

By Alan Bean
I spent last weekend attending a conference on “the Emerging Church” held on the campus of  Texas Christian University.  Below, I have reproduced my noted from three talks, two by Brian McLaren, a clear-sighted Protestant, and one by Father Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic priest dedicated to the contemplative life.  These three talks complement one another and inform our struggle with mass incarceration, but I will leave it to you to make the connections.  My summary is taken from my notes, so, gentlemen, if you read this and think I misrepresented your ideas, I am open to correction. 

Brian McLaren 1: Clenched Fists and Open Hands

Brian McLaren

The world runs on stories, McLaren says. It is the role of religion to provide us with our stories; but what happens when these stories no longer help us address the big issues: poverty, peace and the planet?

The primary religious narrative in Western culture, McLaren suggests, has been the domination story: stories of the clenched fist which could also be called conflict narratives, warrior narratives or sword narratives. Typically, empires appear as the heroes of domination narratives. (more…)

“Support the poor, or go to hell”

Over at Religious Dispatches, Daniel Schultz takes the religious Left to task for being too nice.  Here’s a teaser:

“I’ve been asked a lot over the course of this fall why we don’t have a politically effective religious left in America. The short answer is that there’s a significant trade-off between being nice (or engaging in “civil discourse,” as it’s called these days) and being potent. All the commitment to moral suasion, to building consensus, to reconciliation between political opponents, all the commitment in the world to “speaking out” about your values isn’t going to accomplish squat.”

Pastor Dan’s “support the poor, or go to hell” theme is one of several semi-serious suggestions for giving progressive religious messaging some much-needed bite. (more…)