Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Pinter Slags US/UK + Stepin Fetchit Bios + Chile's New Leader?

The most recent Nobel Laureate in literature, British playwright, screenwriter, poet, and actor Harold Pinter, slams the US's and UK's governments' lies to launch the war in Iraq and American powermongering in his Nobel Address, which he had to deliver today via video because of his recent ill-health. It's hardly surprising that Pinter has scathing words for the US and UK leaders; he has been criticizing W since the 2000 Supreme Court coup, and US actions in world affairs for decades, but in Nobel Addresses even the most overtly political artists (Neruda, Grass, Fó) have usually muted direct criticism of political opponents in favor of more general, often poetic critical rhetoric. It appears that Pinter starts in that vein but then goes for the jugular(s). The speech, "Art, Truth & Politics," is online in video and text format at the Nobel Prizes website. Here's one excerpt:

I know that President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive, a man's man.

"God is good. God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden's God is bad. His is a bad God. Saddam's God was bad, except he didn't have one. He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don't chop people's heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian. I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy. We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it."

"You see this fist? This is my moral authority. And don't you forget it." That perfectly describes what lies behind Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's appalling pre-trip commentsEl Masri to the Europeans concerning the secret renditions and prisons, where torture is allegedly occurring, scattered across Central Europe. Despite her half-decade of pathological lying, she appears to have done an about face by admitting that in fact the US did mistakenly abduct a German citizen is denying that the US made a mistake (though Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, is saying she did admit it), in abducting 42-year-old Khaled el Masri (pictured at left), who was barred from entering the US to give a press conference on his treatment. She "clarified" the US policy on torture. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the CIA over the rendition policy, and an Australian, Mamdouh Habib, also caught up in the rendition web, has also come forward to describe his four-year imprisonment and brutal torture at the hands of the Egyptian government.

The GOP's immoral FIST punches on, whether in domestic or international affairs. They think can beat you into submission, Democrats, Republicans, foreign countries, allies, enemies, that's what it all comes down to.

Fetchit in Carolina

John Strausbaugh pens an interesting article in today's New York Times about one of the most ingnominious figures in American and Black American entertainment history: Lincoln Perry (photo at left, better known as "Stepin Fetchit." In the piece, "How a Black Entertainer's Shuffle Actually Blazed a Trail," Strausbaugh reviews two new books on the late performer and Hollywood's "first black megastar" who was known as "the laziest man in the world," Mel Watkins's Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry (Pantheon Books), and Champ Clark's Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit (iUniverse)*. I learned a few things from it. First, I never knew Fetchit's real name; I hadn't realized that though he was born in the US (in Key West), he was of Caribbean ancestry (his mother was Bahamian, his father Jamaican), like the great vaudevillian Bert Williams (the subject of Caryl Phillips's new novel, Dancing in the Dark); that his "penchants for drunken brawls and teenage girls made lurid tabloid copy and earned denunciations from black civic and church leaders"; and that by 1936, his Hollywood career was effectively over.

Strausbaugh asserts that both books attempt to read Perry's life in a new light; Watkins discusses his outspokenness with directors and the broader effects of his success for Black performers, while Clark attempts to view him as a "trickster" figure. Strausbaugh also notes that after banishment from Hollywood, Perry mostly acted in "race" films, and died fairly bitter at how his career had turned out. Both also note the elements of irony and resistance in his performances, which dramatize racialized social performances that had been occurring since colonial times.

Nevertheless, it's undeniable that his Stepin Fetchit characterizations helped to cement in the American consciousness the notion of Blacks being lazy--an idea that persists today, despite the fact that Black Americans have been central to American labor since first reaching Virginia in 1619--shiftless, duplicitious, and buffoonish. Such ideas are still being reinscribed and recapitulated today, not only in the US, in popular culture, but elsewhere (think of those Mexican Memin Peguin stamps, or Black and blackface depictions on Spanish-language channel comedies), though without the blackface he originally started out using. I can vividly recall the currency of the rhetoric of Black laziness and ignorance during the Reagan and Bush I eras, and even Democrat Bill Clinton trafficked in it at times, particularly with his welfare reform legislation. We saw some of it yet again in the post-Hurricane Katrina commentary (why weren't those underprivileged people working? why didn't they heed the warnings? Why were they so poor?--when in fact most were working....) On it goes, as do the negative, destructive ramifications for the American and African-American psyche, for our public and private psychic lives, for American society and global society.

Though I find it physically painful to watch Fetchit's performances (and others like them), I definitely want to read at least one of these books when I can find the time.

*It probably isn't the first time, but I was pleased to see an iUniverse book reviewed in the Times.


BacheletChile has often been extolled as a model for Latin American governments. Its economy has been growing for years, its transition from the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship to democracy has gone fairly smoothly, and its democratic governmental system has not bogged down in corruption, acrimony or scandal. And now, it is set to become the first country in South America to elect a woman to its presidency. Michelle Bachelet, from the center-left leaning coalition known as Concertación, which has governed Chile continuously since Pinochet stepped down in 1990, is leading the polls.

Bachelet, a single mother, doctor and health minister, and self-proclaimed "socialist," has been active in leftist politics since the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. Her father was an Air Force general who opposed the coup and subsequent military government, and as a result died in prison. She secretly joined several groups, and eventually was held with her mother in prison, tortured, then allowed to leave the country in 1975. Her two major challengers are a Conservative former president candidate, Joaquin Lavin, and a right-wing billionaire, Sebastian Pinera. Unlike her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos, she appears to be much more willing to discuss her politics. As she says in the BBC News report:

"I would say I am a socialist, of course, but I wear many hats," she said.

"I was not a minister of the socialists, I was a minister of all the Chileans. And if I am president, I will be president for all the Chileans."

The broader context of her victory would be to underline the ongoing appeal of left-leaning governments in Latin America after decades of horrible dictatorship (the 1960s and 1970s) and failed neoliberal policies (the 1980s and 1990s). Currently the entire southern cone--Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile--all have decided Left governments, as does Venezuela; the leading candidate in Bolivia, a Native American union leader, also is on the Left. Bachelet will have several major issues to deal with. One concerns the former dictator, Pinochet, who faces prosecution in the US, Chile and elsewhere for his human rights and financial crimes. There is also the issue of his receiving a state funeral, given that he was a former leader--if illegally so--of the country. The other is a border dispute with northern neighbor Peru. The countries have had skirmishes over the years, including a war (also involving Bolivia) from 1879-1883 which gave Chile Bolivia's access to the Pacific. Peru is facing internal instability, so diplomacy will be of the essence.

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