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October 17, 2016

Filed under: culture»america»usa

Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em, by James McBride

"Can we hit it and quit?"

When it came to rhetorical questions, nobody beat James Brown. And the more you learn about him, the more layered his shouts during "Sex Machine" become: behind the "unscripted" banter, he was a harsh and unforgiving despot to his band, driving them relentlessly through a tightly-rehearsed show. No wonder their answer is always "yeah!" Yeah, you can hit it and quit. Whatever you say, James.

It is hard, as a white person born in the 80's, to fully appreciate the impact that James Brown had on America. Michael Jackson is easier for me to grasp: I grew up in a poor, racially-diverse neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and I can still remember going over to a friend's house with my brother and seeing portraits of Jackson on the wall, in much the same way that the father in The Commitments keeps a picture of Elvis hung in the living room (right above the pope). James Brown was before my time and out of my sphere, so my appreciation, while sincere, is always more cerebral than heartfelt.

But if you want to get a little closer to understanding, this decade has been a good one for books about the Godfather of Soul. R.J. Smith's endlessly quotable The One came out in 2012, and now James McBride has tackled his legacy with Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em. Despite McBride's background as a musician, this isn't a deep dive into soul music. It's also not really a biography, in part because as McBride discovered, James Brown didn't let anyone into his confidence. He kept everyone at a distance, both fans and friends. The title is a quote, from Brown to the Rev. Sharpton: "kill 'em and leave 'em," he'd say, before slipping out from his shows, unseen by the fans waiting outside.

McBride interviews everyone he can find who knew Brown, ranging from his distant cousin, to his tax lawyer, to Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis, the bandleader during Brown's greatest hits. Many of them are reluctant to talk about him, either because the memories are painful, or because he kept them at arms length, or both. Instead, what emerges is a kind of portrait of how James Brown left his mark on American culture, by way of his friends, family, and business partners.

It's a tribute to McBride's skill that he's able to weave these disjointed, scattered viewpoints into a compelling narrative. But part of what makes the tale so gripping is that unlike a traditional biography, McBride doesn't stop with his subject's death. In his will, James Brown left millions to fund education scholarships in South Carolina and Georgia, but not a dime was spent: lawsuits from disgruntled family members, and interference from the South Carolina government, immediately tied up the fortune and eventually all but depleted it.

Before he died, Brown told his friends that they wouldn't want to be anywhere near his estate when the end came. Indeed, the fallout was colossal. His attorney and accountant, both men who had helped haul him out from under IRS investigation, were ruined in the process. For all his faults, Brown deeply cared about giving poor kids like him a leg up, and to watch the estate disintegrate this way is painful. It's a tough pill to swallow at the end of a biography.

But let's be clear: any biography that claims to frame its subject neatly for the reader is kind of a fraud anyway. Who was the real James Brown? I don't think McBride really knows — I think he'd say that nobody really knew, not even the man himself. More importantly, he hints that it may be the wrong question to ask. Kill 'Em and Leave 'Em chronicles the impact that James Brown had on those around him, how that rippled out through communities (black and otherwise), and how it continues to inspire Americans today. James Brown is gone, McBride argues, but he's still telling our story.

June 20, 2016

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

Under our skin

This week, we've launched a major project at the Times on the words people use when talking about race in America. Under our skin was spearheaded by a small group of journalists after the paper came under fire for some bungled coverage. I think they did a great job — the subjects are well-chosen, the editing is top-notch, and we're trying to supplement it with guest essays and carefully-curated comments (as opposed to our usual all-or-nothing approach to moderation). I mostly watched from the sidelines on this one, as our resident expert on forcing Brightcove video to behave in a somewhat-acceptable manner, and it was really fascinating watching it take shape.

February 17, 2016

Filed under: culture»pop»comics

Excelsior?

Marvel Comics has a digital subscription service called "Marvel Unlimited" that's basically Netflix for their comics: access to most of their archives online for ten bucks a month or so. I decided to give it a shot after Ta-Nehisi Coates kept singing its praises. I buy a few trades a year, but don't always keep them on my shelf, and I figured this was a good chance to go trolling through a few classics that aren't collected in print anymore.

Is it worth it? Well, usually. It turns out that Marvel's back catalog is hardly immune to Sturgeon's Law: most of it is crap. It doesn't help that it's almost all superhero-flavored, which is fine in small doses but starts to feel a little ridiculous when you're exposed to literally thousands of titles and they've all got capes: really, this is all you have? Sure, it's Marvel and that's what they do, but knowing that there's a broad range of other stories being told in this medium makes their genre limitations feel all the more jarring.

Marvel's other bad habit, which only seems to have gotten worse as far as I can tell, is the "special events" that make it impossible to just read through a single storyline. For example, trying to read through the new X-Men titles is an exercise in frustration, since they keep being interrupted or pre-empted by crossover stories from other books. As a way to sell comics to a hardcore faithful, it probably works pretty well. But as a relative newcomer, it's disorienting and irritating, as though a medical drama came crashing into your favorite sitcoms at random intervals.

As a result, it's not surprising that my favorite series to read so far have been either standalone humor titles or oddball takes on the genre. Dan Slott's 2004 run on She-Hulk (often referred to as "Single Green Female") is more legal workplace drama than anything else, and while it sometimes got too clever with the meta-humor, it delivers a nice, funny, self-contained story arc. Ditto for The Superior Foes of Spider-Man, which ran for 17 issues and follows a set of petty, incompetent super-thieves who get in way over their heads. X-Men: Legacy is another short storyline focusing on Charles Xavier's son, David, who has some legitimate disagreements with his "peaceful" father's violent vigilante organization. With its frequent trips into psychic psychedelia, it makes a great case for the infinite effects budget that comics so rarely exploit.

On the other side of the coin, I went trolling through Walt Simonson's tenure on Thor, which ran back in the 1980's and often gets mentioned as a stellar example of classic comics writing. It's pretty good! But it's also a decidedly-weird artifact: while there's overlap with the rest of the Marvel universe from time to time, most of the story is a kind of bonkers faux-Norse legend, with characters taking oaths of honor, pursuing doomed love, and striking off on various quests. The most impressive thing, from a modern perspective, is how many storylines it manages to juggle per issue. There's A, B, C, and sometimes even a D plot, all playing out in 30 page chunks.

But by far my favorite discovery has been the original reason I signed up: Priest's late-90's Black Panther, which is a really fascinating, thought-provoking bit of work. While parts of the art and dialog have not aged gracefully, a lot of it continues to feel very current, both in terms of topic matter and storytelling.

As early as possible, and throughout the rest of the book, Priest emphasizes that T'Challa (the titular Panther) is not just a vigilante out to fight crime, like other superheroes. He's the king of a country — a legitimate state power with an entirely different set of priorities and concerns. To drive that point home, Priest frames the narrative as a series of progress reports from the US liason to T'Challa, Everett Ross, a move that turns out to be an elegant narrative hat trick:

  • Being a white State Department functionary, Ross can explain the political element of the books and serve as an audience surrogate for the largely-white readership.
  • He's useful as comic relief, which is good, since the story arcs themselves revolve around political coups and international sovereignty, and can get a little byzantine.
  • He's a terrible narrator, which starts a running gag where each issue starts disastrously in media res and then unshuffles itself as Ross is forced to double back and explain the situation.

It's a comic book, so of course there are goofy action scenes, and much like the current crop of comic-inspired movies, these rarely rise above "vaguely interesting." But when I think back to the most memorable pages, it's mostly quieter or more subversive scenes. Most of the real plot happens in dialog: negotiations between the Panther and other governments, discussions of succession and history, sarcastic asides that mock the standard superhero schtick. Along the way, Priest is happy to extend a scene for either pathos or awkward humor, to undercut his own pretension, or let characters react to The Black Panther's quietly revolutionary core — an African nation that's portrayed as a technological superpower of its own. As Coates says, when talking about his own plans to write for the character:

It's obviously not the case, but T'Challa — the Black Panther and mythical ruler of Wakanda — has always struck as the product of the black nationalist dream, a walking revocation of white supremacist myth. T'Challa isn't just a superhero in the physical sense, he is one of the smartest people in the world, ruling the most advanced civilization on the planet. Wakanda's status as ever-independent seems to eerily parallel Ethiopia's history as well as its place in the broader black imagination. Maybe it's only me, but I can't read Jason Aaron's superb "See Wakanda And Die" and not think of Adowa.

Comic book creators, like all story-tellers, get great mileage out of myth and history. But given the society we live in, some people's myths are privileged over others. Some of that is changing, no doubt. In the more recent incarnations of T'Challa you can see Christopher Priest invoking the language of the Hausa or Reginald Hudlin employing the legacy of colonialism. These were shrewd artistic decisions, rooted in the fact that anyone writing Black Panther enjoys an immediate, if paradoxical, advantage: the black diaspora is terra incognita for much of the world. What does the broader world really know of Adowa? Of Nanny and Cudjoe? Of the Maji-Maji rebellion? Of Legba and Oshun? Of Shine? Of High John The Conqueror? T'Challa's writers have always enjoyed access to a rich and under-utilized pool of allusion and invocation.

It's a proudly Afrocentric (and Afrofuturist) book, way ahead of its time, and put out by a major comics publisher. I imagine there are a lot of people for whom these throwaway, cheaply-printed comics were profound experiences when they were young. It's hard to imagine how much of that material can translate through to the eventual movie version, even when directed by a thoughtful and talented filmmaker like Ryan Coogler. But kids who go looking for the originals after they see it in theaters are in for a real surprise.

October 8, 2014

Filed under: culture»internet

Serious (Pony) Business

There's nothing I'm going to write this week that's as moving, as horrifying, or as important as Kathy Sierra's take on trolls and being trolled. Sierra, who was seriously harassed and abused by Andrew "weev" Auernheimer, writes about how awful this harassment was, how common it is, and devastating it was to see Auernheimer's history of sociopathic trolling dismissed after his (admittedly flawed) prosecution for "hacking" AT&T.

But you all know what happened next. Something something something horrifically unfair government case against him and just like that, he becomes tech's "hacktivist hero." He now had A Platform not just in the hacker/troll world but in the broader tech community I was part of. And we're not just talking stories and interviews in Tech Crunch and HuffPo (and everywhere else), but his own essays in those publications. A tech industry award. His status was elevated, his reach was broadened. And for reasons I will never understand, he suddenly had gained not just status and Important Friends, but also "credibility".

Did not see that coming.

But hard as I tried to find a ray of hope that the case against him was, somehow, justified and that he deserved, somehow, to be in prison for this, oh god I could not find it. I could not escape my own realization that the cast against him was wrong. So wrong. And not just wrong, but wrong in a way that puts us all at risk. I wasn't just angry about the injustice of his case, I had even begun to feel sorry for him. Him. The guy who hates me for lulz. Guy who nearly ruined my life. But somehow, even I had started to buy into his PR. That's just how good the spin was. Even I mistook the sociopath for a misunderstood outcast. Which, I mean, I actually knew better.

And of course I said nothing until his case was prosecuted and he’d been convicted, and there was no longer anything I could possibly do to hurt his case. A small group of people — including several of his other personal victims (who I cannot name, obviously) asked me to write to the judge before his sentencing, to throw my weight/story into the "more reasons why weev should be sent to prison". I did not. Last time, for the record, I did NOTHING but support weev’s case, and did not speak out until after he’d been convicted.

But the side-effect of so many good people supporting his case was that more and more people in tech came to also... like him. And they all seemed to think that it was All Good as long as they punctuated each article with the obligatory "sure, he’s an ass" or "and yes, he's a troll" or "he's known for offending people" (which are, for most men, compliments). In other words, they took the Worst Possible Person, as one headline read, and still managed to reposition him as merely a prankster, a trickster, a rascal. And who doesn’t like a "lovable scoundrel"?

The whole post is well worth reading before Sierra possibly takes it offline. And who could blame her? Even as she was writing this, the #gamergate movement on Twitter has literally harassed women out of their homes, and yet (in an echo of weev's "hacktivism") still insists that they're all about "ethics in journalism."

For most, that's an obvious smokescreen — a way to cloak their behavior in respectability while planning their next attack. For those who claim to actually believe it, that's a declaration that writing about videogames is more important than hurting women in the worst possible ways. And there's the problem: you don't get to claim the moral high ground when you got there through the pain and suffering of other people.

July 9, 2014

Filed under: culture»internet

Outward Facing

Hey, remember that huge Facebook controversy? No, not when they tried to emotionally manipulate thousands of people for a study of dubious worth. Also not when they leaked random purchases to all your friends, thus exposing your secret SexyKiltsAndHikingBoots.com purchases to the world (what? It's a Seattle thing, all right?). Probably not when they complained about the news culture that they themselves had created. Maybe it was when Facebook removed privacy options (or just changed them around in one of the site's near-constant redesigns).

Actually, I'm not really sure what I'm talking about either. To put it in the Upworthy headline-speak that clogs your news feed until you sigh and grudgingly switch it back to "most recent" mode again, "This social network has a bad habit of treating its users like lab rats. You won't believe how little they care!"

At some point, I resigned myself to the fact that I'm not going to quit Facebook anytime soon, no matter how bad their behavior is. Most people won't. In my case, even if I don't use it often, it's the only place where local dance events get publicized — without it, my ability to participate gets curtailed sharply. For other friends of mine, Facebook messages are a primary means of communication, over e-mail or even SMS. It's how we keep in touch with each other, even just in an ephemeral, transitory sense.

You may remember, however, that when Facebook first started along the path of "we know what you should see better than you do," there was a scrappy crowdfunding effort in response, for a decentralized social network run by users, for users. Diaspora took in a huge amount of money, showed no progress for a couple years, shut down, open sourced itself, and is now puttering along with roughly 15 thousand users. Which is, to be honest, what most reasonable probably saw happening anyway, but we live in a world where people collectively donate $30,000 for potato salad, so maybe a little perspective is in order.

Even though this is all fairly predictable, as someone with some interest in self-hosted versions of cloud services, I'm intrigued by the question of why we don't have a popular, decentralized, open-source alternative to Facebook. I don't think it's a difficult question to answer — rather, it's interesting because there are actually multiple reasons that it doesn't happen, and they point out bigger problems with cloud-based computing for everyday people. Facebook is a great case study for this, because many programmers have a habit (particularly when a little tipsy) of pointing out that they could write a simple Facebook clone in a weekend. This is both true, and entirely missing the point.

To see why, we have to look at a seemingly unrelated incident: Facebook's $1 billion purchase of Instagram. Why so much? It's not because it was an equal competitor: filtered photos don't compete with the Facebook news feed directly. But it had a hook that would pull users — easy sharing using your phone camera instead of a keyboard — and once the audience is there, upgrading to a Facebook-like feature set is easier. In other words, Instagram wasn't valuable because it was like Facebook. It was valuable because it was different enough to get users' attention, but close enough to serve the same social needs.

Every existing competitor to Facebook has a compelling hook. If Instagram has sharing, Snapchat has its (supposed) privacy features, and LinkedIn has a ton of annoying recruiters sending e-mails to random users. Unfortunately, open source is not good at figuring out product hooks — it tends to excel at imitation and evolution. An open-source social network would probably be better written than Facebook, but without that showcase feature, nobody will join. And a social network with no people in it is worthless. Lesson one: find a hook that's not "is open source." I suspect gaming is a possible contender, but it's proven elusive so far (both for small players like OpenFeint and the big vendors).

Assume we have our hook: how do users join up? Other social networks are free, they have nice onboarding procedures, and they don't require you to do any deep thinking about anything other than your relationship status. By contrast, when you join Diaspora, you need to choose a "pod" based on its physical location, size, and software version before you're allowed to sign up. I am shocked — shocked — that this has not taken off.

Home-built social networks tend to be decentralized, and they're often proud of that fact: letting users choose where to put their data, and how it's used, is a huge win for privacy. But decentralized services are more complicated, and require more work from their users. It's even worse if people are expected to actually self-host: the most successful self-hosted web app on the Internet today is Wordpress, and yet being forced to install Wordpress on a cheap, randomly chosen hosting provider is punishment for shoplifting in some countries. Lesson two: web app installation shouldn't be a trial.

There's a lot of thought going into this problem — Docker, for example, is a system for baking web apps into "containers" that can be installed and uninstalled almost like mobile apps. These containers travel with all their dependencies, and configuration, so there's no need to worry about what your host does or doesn't support, or what their particular weird setup is. But until then, the answer for most people tends to be "use a hosted solution a la Wordpress.com," which tends to the defeat the purpose of decentralized software.

Without learning these lessons, cloud computing stays out of the hands of regular people, and the hope of a personal Facebook with it. Of course, they're hardly a panacea, and they're certainly not a solution for social networking anway. At this point, it almost doesn't make a difference what Facebook does, or how badly it abuses people. I think this is part of why people get so angry about it: that feeling of helplessness. We can't code our way out of this problem, or leave our friends and family behind. All we can do is hold our noses and soldier on.

October 15, 2013

Filed under: culture»internet»excession

Hacker No

A few years ago, I started blacklisting web sites that I didn't think were healthy: gadget sites, some of the more strident political sites, game blogs that just churned crappy content all day long. If it didn't leave me better informed, or I felt like my traffic there was supporting bad content, or if the only reason I visited was for the rush of outrage, I tried to cut it out (or at least cut it down). All in all, I think it was a good decision. I felt better about myself, at least.

This week, I added Hacker News to the list of sites I don't visit. HN is the current hotspot for tech community news--kind of a modern-day Slashdot. Unfortunately (possibly by virtue of being run by venture capital firm Y Combinator), it's also equally targeted at A) terrible startup company brogrammers and B) libertarian bitcoin enthusiasts. Browsing the links submitted by the community there is kind of like eating at dive restaurants in a new city: you'll find some winners, but the price is a fair amount of food poisoning.

For a while, I've been running a Greasemonkey script that tries to filter out the worst of the listings (sample search terms: lisp, techcrunch, hustle). This is not as easy as it sounds, because HN is written using the cutting-edge technologies of 1995: a bunch of nested tables with inline styles, served via Lisp variant that causes constant timeouts on anything other than the front page. But even though I had a workable filter from a technical perspective, at some point, it's time to hang up the scripts and admit that the HN community is toxic. There's only so long you can not read the comments, especially on any thread involving sexism, racism, and other real problems that Silicon Valley would like to pretend don't exist.

For example, here's some of the things I've been trying to ignore:

  • Women don't want to be in tech, just like they didn't want to be doctors or lawyers just don't want to be in tech, any more than they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or astronauts.
  • Literally blaming women for being sexually assaulted at tech conferences
  • It's great to be homeless, and by "homeless" we mean rich.
  • My favorite: Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, admits that he won't fund people with an accent. Here's the fun part: Graham is one of the "major contributors" to FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg's self-serving immigration reform lobby group. In other words, foreign labor is welcomed, unless they want to start a company.

The tech bubble isn't just financial: these are signs of a community that's isolated from difference — of gender, of opinion, and of class. The venture capital system even protects them from consequences: how much money will Twitter lose this year? The fog of arrested development that hangs over Hacker News is its own argument for increased diversity in the tech industry. And it affects more than just a few comment threads, unless you also think the best use of smart people's time is the development of a $130 smoke detector that talks to your iPad.

Leaving a well-known watering hole like this is a little scary — HN is how I've stayed current on a lot of new developments in the field. It's frustrating, feeling like good information is being held hostage by a bunch of creeps. But given a choice between reading an article a couple of days after everyone else or feeling like I constantly need a shower, I'm happy to work on my patience.

April 25, 2013

Filed under: culture»internet

Network Affect

A couple of years ago, I spent the money for a subscription to Ars Technica, because I really liked their Anonymous/HBGary reporting, and wanted the full RSS feeds. Along with that, every now and then they'll send out a message about a coupon or special offer, which is how I ended up with a free account on App.net, the for-pay Twitter clone. Then I forgot about it, because the last thing I need is a way to find more people that annoy me.

And then someone linked me to this blog post, which made my week. It's a pitch for App.net in the most overwrought, let-them-eat-cake way. I'm going to excerpt a bit, but you should click through: it's better when you can just soak up the majesty of the whole thing:

The difference between a public and a private golf course is so profound that it's hard to play a public course after being a member of a private course. It's like flying coach your entire life, and then getting a first class seat on Asiana — it's damned hard to go back.

That's the difference between Twitter and App.net to me. Twitter is the public golf course, the coach seat. It's where everyone is, and that's exactly the problem. App.net is where a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service, go to socialize online.

[paragraph of awkward self-promotion removed]

Welcome to the first-class Twitter experience.

I actually don't know if I could write a parody of upper-class snobbery that good. If you hold your hand up the screen, you can almost feel the warmth of his self-regard--but not too close! They don't let just anyone into this country club, you know.

Seriously, though: while I've amused myself endlessly trying to come up with even-less-relatable metaphors for things ("Twitter is the black truffle, as opposed to the finer white truffles I eat at my summer home in Tuscany"), one random doofus with a blog is not cause for comment. Silly as it is, that post made me reconsider they way I look at internet advertising and ownership--if only to avoid agreeing with him.

In general, I'm not a big fan of advertising or ad-supported services. On Android, I usually buy apps instead of using the free versions, and I believe that people should own their content on the Internet. But let's be realistic: most people will not pay for their own server or software, and many people can't--whether because they don't have the money, or because they don't have access to the infrastructure (bank account, credit card, etc.) that's required. Owning your stuff on the internet is both a privilege and a visible signifier of that privilege.

This creates heirarchies between users, and even non-savvy people pick up on that. When Instagram finally decided to release an Android client, the moaning from a number of users about "those people" invading their clean, tasteful, iPhone-only service was a sight to behold. The irony of Instagram snobbery is that the company was only valuable because of its huge audience. It only got that userbase because it was free. Therein lies the catch-22 of these kinds of services: the scale that makes them useful and valuable also makes them profoundly expensive to run. Subscription-based or self-hosted business models are more sustainable, but they're never going to get as big.

Meanwhile, the technical people who think they could do something about these problems--"a few people that are invested in the product, its direction, and the overall health of the service"--are off building their own special first-class seating. Not that I think they'll make it, personally--it's a perpetual tragedy that the people threatening to Go Galt never do, since that would require them to stop bothering the rest of us.

I often see people expressing distaste for ad-supported sites with the oft-quoted line "you're not the customer, you're the product." That's nice when you have the option of paying for your own e-mail, and running your own blog, in the same way that minimalism looks awfully nice when you have the credit rating to afford it. People without money have to live with clutter. If we're interested in an internet that offers opportunity to everyone, we have to accept a more forgiving view of ad-supported business, and focus on how to make it safer for people who have no other option. Otherwise we're just congratulating each other on getting into the country club.

May 3, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»usa

The One

One of my favorite sections in The One is when author R.J. Smith tells the story of James Brown firing his backing band and hiring Bootsy Collins' band, the Pacesetters, as a replacement (renaming them the JBs). The JBs are rawer, less tolerant of his fines and his abuse, but they're also talented and on the cutting edge of the new funk sound. Few artists would have had the nerve to make such a huge change--particularly few artists whose music was so dependent on the sound of their backing players. But the change revitalizes Brown: the result is the classic "Get Up (I Feel Like Being Like A) Sex Machine (Parts One and Two)."

Byrd grunts "Get on up!" like a hog hot on some truffles, and then the guys enthusiastically second the boss--yes, as a matter of fact, a sex machine sounds like an excellent thing to be in the present situation. The brothers are laying down a whole new sound: Bootsy's bass a flickering, alive thing, [guitarist] Catfish evoking the metallic chank of Nolen but lighter, freer. Brown spontaneously sat and decanted a little aromatic piano. Two takes and they were outta there. Seeya.
Or maybe my favorite section is when Smith describes Brown's habit of shooting up clubs in Georgia:
In the emergency room, a witness remembered the scene as nothin' but "Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"Who shot you?" "James Brown."

"And who shot you?" "James Brown."

One person came in who was stabbed. "Who cut you?" "James Brown."

He was a bad, bad man. But then again, since I was reading a biography of the original b-boy on the way to the International Soul Society Festival, I also loved this passage near the end of Smith's book about the qualities of Brown's dancing:
He is more than good enough, an embodiment of what Zora Neale Hurston called "dynamic suggestions," a quality she considered the essence of black dance. However explosively or fiercely he moved, Brown telegraphs that there's more we don't get to see--his actions exert maximum impact with a minimum of exertion (coolness), a withholding that compels the viewer to follow the gesture through in the imagination. His dance wasn't supposed to be appreciated with detachment. It was meant to pull you over to where he was, to engage you in the act. You can't sit still.

Asked to demonstrate the boogaloo by a TV show host, Brown danced around a Hollywood soundstage in a way that looked exactly like a boxer throwing punches and owning the ring. To Brown, dancing was competition--"Can you jerk? Watch me work/Can you do the slide? Then watch me glide..."

I could quote this book all day. It would be hard to write a boring book about James Brown: the hardest working man in show business, his drive and temper were both legendary. The great strength of Smith's book is that it's based on an enormous number of interviews dating back to Brown's childhood friends and family. As a result, we not only get a ton of great stories like the ones above, but it also makes a strong case for why James Brown was who he was. A man who grew up in a constant blur of conflict and motion, he didn't know any other way to be: when his younger band members thank him one day for pushing them to be more disciplined, Smith writes that Brown's reaction was one of surprise, as if the concept of a relaxed workplace had simply never occurred to him.

Smith's book is roughly chronological, but he still finds ways to give each chapter an approximate theme. Some of these are more interesting than others: the chapters midway through the book that examine Brown's complicated political views and alliance with Nixon are particularly fascinating: Smith notes that "Say It Loud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing" were recorded only a few months apart on opposite sides of the election, forming a bizarre diptych. But later, as Brown's music falls out of style and his work ethic begins to exhaust even his energy, Smith turns to darker subjects, like Brown's abusive relationships with women, his shaky financial arrangements, and his use of PCP before his death in late 2006.

Today is James Brown's birthday, and it's hard to think of many people who had such a tremendous effect on popular music. Rooted in gospel but (more importantly) riding on that always-important downbeat, James Brown's music was a worldwide sensation that influenced musicians from Atlanta to Africa. It was the soundtrack to the early hip-hop movement (literally!). It kicked off careers ranging from Parliament to Al Sharpton. That's a lot of ground to cover, and The One does it well--even if, as Smith told NPR, there are still stories from those interviews that remain untold. And maybe it's best we don't know quite everything. He was super bad, that James Brown. Say it loud.

March 21, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

A Life of Reinvention

When I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat, or a Republican... I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who have — who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy; we’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy. And the generation that’s coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.

--Malcolm X
I have always found Malcolm X fascinating, even before I had any idea of who he was beyond that of a Black Power boogieman. The Autobiography of Malcolm X sits on my shelf of favorite books--ironically, right next to Gene Sharp's Politics of Nonviolent Action trilogy. Obviously, though, I never lived during Malcolm's actual lifespan. I never experienced the political environment and struggle of his times. So it's easy to be more taken with the legend than with the actual person. It was with that in mind that I devoured Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention these last few weeks.

Reinvention opens with a description of Malcolm's assassination, then jumps back to tell his story from the beginning, from his family's Garveyite black nationalism through his criminal youth, joining the Nation of Islam, and then his protracted shift into independence and orthodox Islam before his death. Marable draws extensively on historical documents and interviews, which sometimes reveals interesting new angles on his subject: although the evidence that the young Malcolm may have had sex with an older man for money has gotten a lot of attention, the most fascinating tidbits may be those that explore his relationship with his wife and children, which was often contentious and distant (or contentious because of his distance). Marable is also able to produce a detailed portrait of Malcolm's complicated dynamic within the Nation of Islam, which bloomed under his attentions but also continually worked to rein in his political ambition.

Marable describes his book as a "deconstruction" of the Autobiography, and I think that's a fair description. Haley and Malcolm's narrative is that of an acutely intelligent man struggling from low beginnings to enlightenment. Marable's digging does not contradict this, but it exposes a more complicated story: as he points out, Malcolm and Haley both had their reasons to exaggerate the arc of redemption, Malcolm for the purposes of legend-making and Haley (as a liberal Republican) to drive it towards an sensational, integrationist conclusion. The Autobiography thus tends to play up Malcolm's criminal youth (which was never really that criminal), and it short-changes his organizational struggles with the civil rights movement and with his own independent groups, the MMI and OAAU (not to mention his Nation of Islam connections with white-supremacist groups like the KKK). That filling in these details does not diminish the man is a tribute to both Marable's skill and the force of Malcolm's character.

In his epilogue, Marable looks for the core of Malcolm's impact on America--as he puts it, "the social architecture" of his subject's life:

There is now a tendency of historical revisionism, to interpret Malcolm X through the powerful lens of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: that Malcolm was ultimately evolving into an integrationist, liberal reformer. This view is not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin. King saw himself, like Frederick Douglass, first and foremost as an American, who pursued the civil rights and civic privileges enjoyed by other Americans. King struggled to erase the color bar of stigmatization and exclusion that had relegated racial minorities to second-class citizenship. As in the successful 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, King wanted to convince white Americans that "race doesn’t matter"—in other words, the physical and color differences that appear to distinguish blacks from whites should be meaningless in the application of justice and equal rights.

In striking contrast, Malcolm perceived himself first and foremost as a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen. This was a crucial difference from King and other civil rights leaders. ... Malcolm perceived black Americans as an oppressed nation-within-a-nation, with its own culture, social institutions, and group psychology. Its memories of struggles for freedom were starkly different from those of white Americans. At the end of his life he realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system. But he always thought first and foremost about blacks’ interests. Many blacks instinctively sensed this, and loved him for it.

The Malcolm that Marable reveals was a charismatic leader and an intriguing thinker, but a mediocre organizer and an absent family man. He spent his entire life struggling his way free of one toxic system, often only to fall headlong into another--too big to fit within the apolitical confines of the Nation of Islam, while unable to completely grow beyond its restrictions. His story is in many ways a tragedy, and like the best tragedies it was partly due to forces beyond his control, and partly built on the strength of his own principles. Marable explores how time and time again, Malcolm reinvented himself, but couldn't completely shed the legacy of prior reinventions.

Historical revisionism has served to sanitize both X and King--the latter's history as a strong anti-war speaker and a controversial advocate for social justice has been nearly erased in favor of a bland, easily-appropriated anti-racism. Malcolm, meanwhile, is often reduced to a double-sided parody: either the straight-laced, separationist Muslim in a suit and bow-tie, or the militant Black Power revolutionary held aloft by a new generation. The truth as Marable shows it is more shaded, more imperfect, and more difficult to reduce to a single ideological point of view. It's always better to see our heroes as people, not as cartoons, but for Malcolm X it's in line with the sum of his life: a constant demand for complexity and engagement. In this, Marable's book is sometimes unflattering, but it also represents a deep respect for its subject, one that leaves readers more admiring of the man than the myth.

December 28, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

The Social Net Work

Moving all the way across the country, I'm finding social media invaluable for maintaining connections with my friends back in DC. It's no substitute for actually being there, but it's not supposed to be: instead, I get peeks into the life of my coworkers, the other members of Urban Artistry, and my other East Coast friends--just enough information that I still feel like I know how they're doing (and, hopefully, vice versa).

But which social media? I'm active on at least three, all of which I use (and compliment this blog) in different ways:

  • Twitter typically takes the place of a linkblog. It's where I post quick, hit-and-run content that I find interesting, but not enough that I want to comment on it at length. I follow more people who don't know me on Twitter than I do anywhere else.
  • Facebook is not my preferred social network, because they've shown again and again that given the option of maintaining my privacy or selling me out, they will reach for the check every single time, and they don't seem to understand why people get upset when they do. But all my friends are on Facebook, and therefore so am I.
  • Somewhere in the middle is Google+. They've made missteps (no pseudonyms) but the basic idea is good. I like the way G+ is built for short-to-medium length writing: I don't want to write blog posts there, but it gives me enough room to tell a decent joke. Unfortunately, most people still haven't moved over, and there aren't any desktop clients for posting.

Of course, this is not a battle to the death. I don't have a problem picking the right place to post something (in fact, I kind of welcome the audience segmentation). But it's such a hassle, switching between windows or re-opening old pages to check for updates. What I really want is a single method of subscribing to updates from all of these services (and more) and optionally posting to them from a single box--what Warren Ellis calls One Big Thing Everywhere.

But that isn't something that the people developing social networks seem to be interested in facilitating. You can't get a decent RSS feed from any of these services anymore. And even building such a thing myself would be prohibitively difficult: Twitter's API is increasingly dense, Facebook's is notoriously hostile, and the G+ API is practically non-existent.

This is not a coincidence, of course, just as it's not a coincidence that Facebook has removed RSS as an input option and that Google recently integrated Reader directly into G+. My personal opinion is that these companies are working hard, both directly and indirectly, to kill decentralized syndication standards like RSS in favor of gateways that they can control.

All of which is the kind of thing that I shouldn't have to care about. But these days, as Lawrence Lessig observed in Code, we're writing our social and legal values into software. In this case, it's the software that helps me keep in touch with my friends and family back on the East coast. That's more than just inconvenient--it's a disturbing amount of power over our personal connections. Ironically, it's only when I use social networks the most that I seriously consider giving them up.

Future - Present - Past