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Archive for February, 2011

Click to watch the film Welcome to North Korea

This documentary, filmed in 2001, is a rare look into the world of North Korea.  And while the documentary has some fascinating footage into the lives of North Koreans, it continues to have a distancing gaze at the people.  Rather than looking into how people have such fervent leader worship, and to what effect that such leader worship is ideological, it continues the line that North Koreans have been brainwashed.

The narration states, with no sense of irony, that the North Koreans believe that Kim Il-Song had magic powers.  It seems strange for us to think of a people who believe their leader has supernatural powers.  When he died, the cult of Kim Jong-il was started, equating the son with the father’s abilities.

But is it really so strange for North Koreans to accept this doctrine as believable?  It’s not without precedent.

So to repeat, North Koreans truly believe that their leader had supernatural powers, and when he died he left for them his only son to lead them through to a righteous life.

But is this really such a fanciful idea and should we really be so quick to condemn North Koreans as ignorant?

It seems to me there is another, larger group on this planet who also believes that their leader had supernatural powers and he too left to us his son to lead us into the correct path.

That group, of course, is Christians.

Of course, Christians don’t just believe that the father had supernatural powers.  They’re quite sure that Jesus’ dad was God, the creator of all life.  And Catholics continue to believe that their spiritual leader, the Pope, is God’s representative on earth.

And while 100 million North Koreans must be wrong, are a billion Christians so firm in their own convictions?

My point is, we are quick to judge North Koreans as having been ‘brainwashed’ for their incredulous beliefs, while refusing to recognize the same belief in a spiritual father who has left his only son to guide a people through life, as being along the same lines as most religious belief systems.

Religions must start somewhere, and while I’m not for a second stating that Kim Jhong-il is ‘like Jesus’, I am arguing that we should have a more nuanced and sympathetic approach to North Koreans, for they are afterall, human, and humans are prone to believe in all kinds of crazy things.

The film can be watched online at the Internet Archives

http://www.archive.org/details/WelcometoNorthKorea

 

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In this episode I look at the question of race.  There are claims that this is now a post-racial society, a claim that is pure nonsense.  Because we have been a racist society, we cannot ever move beyond a question of race.  Film and media too often uses the stereotype as a shorthand for creating texture to a character, but casting characters with certain iconographies, media ‘fleshes out’ a character very quickly.  However, the stereotype is so prevelant within the collective unconscious, that as soon as any character exhibits qualities of a type, it immediately evokes our racist past.

If we take reality television as a very easy example, a show like Jersey Shore has selected characters that fit snugly into an established racial type – the ‘guido,’ and any challenging to that type is immediately countered with the supporting casts’ flak.  For example, in the ‘guido’ type, men are supposed to exhibit agressive masculinity in contrast to women as objects.  If any of the men exhibit characteristics of femininity (delicacy, taste in clothing, consideration for others) they are immediately berated as ‘unmanly’ or as exhibiting homosexual tendencies.  This then, serves to reinforce the known stereotype as being racially (shared by all with Italian American heritage) driven.

Such typing is far more insidious with African American characters who are still positioned in very limited roles:

The Uncle Tom:  An educated paternal figure a la Bill Cosby, Bernie Mac or the dad on Fresh Prince

The Buck:   the agressive sexually active young man – 50 Cent, most rappers.

The Step-and-Fetchit:    A stupid side kick, generally useless but often played for comic value, often portrayed as lazy and conniving.  D.J. Jazzy Jeff played this role on the Fresh Prince, but this character while used less, is still a main figure of much black entertainment programming.  (Chris Rock show had an interesting reversal of this, with Chris’ white friend playing the side kick.)

The Mammie:  (who has often morphed into the Sassy Aunt or, the loving, wisecracking elder woman) Tracy Jordan’s wife on 30 Rock.

The Promiscuous woman.  While much white entertainment plays to the idea that women are sexual objects, the narratives generally demonstrate the women as desirable but sexually unavailable (think of Rachel on friends – sexy, but always slightly out of Ross’ reach, and while often dating never constructed as promiscuous).  The beautiful black female roles are usually shown as not only sexually desirable, but also sexually available, their promiscuity being a part of their sexualized figuration.

And that’s it.  In 50 years of ‘progress’ black characters are still easily slotted into these five figures.  Three men, two women.

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There has been a lot in the news lately about two major incidences of changing language of past texts.  The first is the Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn Nigger fiasco, and the second involves the music by Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits song ‘Money for Nothing’ which has the word faggot.  Both works have been censored recently, and the offending term removed.  The argument is that we are in a post-racial world and such out dated pejoratives are discriminatory and offensive to contemporary sensibilities – they have no place in contemporary society.  A noble sentiment indeed, but what is the significance of removing these terms from historical works.  Aren’t we in danger of forgetting about our racist and homophobic past?  Don’t we have an obligation to keep these works, offensive terms and all, in our collective imaginations so that we do NOT forget that we have until very recently been hateful bigots who promoted ideologies of racial segregation, forced labour, beatings and rapes?  Our past was brutal and as shameful as it may be to us in our contemporary ‘post racial’ enlightenment, don’t we have an obligation to always remember that past, scars and all?  By removing the language of oppression from our historical texts, we are refashioning history into a new model wherein violent and brutal oppression did not exist.

The argument has been made that it is difficult to teach Huckleberry Finn, because it is hurtful for students to hear the word nigger.  That may be true, but language is potent, and sometimes hurtful but it can only be made less hurtful when appropriate measures are used to make amends for that hurtfulness.  And amends can only be made when one is aware of the potency of language.

However, the alternative – removing the offending word – also removes the requisite need for making amends.  Removing the hurtful term negates our society’s need to apologise for past transgressions.  But surely we have an obligation to continue to acknowledge and grieve the sins of our past.  Of course, this raises the question of ‘white man’s burden,’ and many argue that we’ve atoned for our sins and that we are in a post racial society.

Oh really?  Do we really no longer benefit from a past history of violence?  Is there no such thing as the inherited benefits of whiteness?  The truth is that families that benefited economically from slavery passed that wealth down through generations, and white society continues to out earn and out spend all other racial groups in America.  It is not coincidental that while only 15% of habitual drug users are black and 77% are white, African Americans are four times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.  It is not coincidental that it was predominantly the poorest of the black neighbourhoods in New Orleans that were most devastated by Hurricane Katrina and it is because of the simple fact that poor neighbourhoods are in more volatile areas, and tend to be over represented by racial minorities.

But to get back to Twain and Huck, what is the harm in changing a word in a novel?  Well – it changes the meaning of the text, for one thing.

To begin, it changes the unequal relationships between dominant white and subjugated black, to a capitalist inequality of rich ownership and poor subject.  It denies that race is even a contributing factor to the relationship, and instead changes it to one of haves and have-nots.  Of course Huck is a member of the poor whites, and even the poor whites expressed dominance over the blacks.  But changing ‘nigger’ to ‘slave’ changes the history of racial oppression in America to a history of economic inequality.

Secondly, in Huck Finn, Jim is Huck’s friend.  And yet, even their close, familial relationship is still tainted by the inherent prejudice in Huck’s language.  Even though he loves Jim, he can only refer to him in a pejorative way, always reminding the reader of the inherent racial barrier between them.  And while Huck is a child and Jim an adult, Huck’s language positions him above Jim – they cannot escape their racial identities and their racist society, even when alone on a raft.

But also, I’m a firm believer in the adage ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.’  So we are obliged to remember what we have been capable of doing, lest we do it again.

But are we really in a post Racial world?  While our cartoonish images of Blackness have been diminished (although not removed entirely – reality television and rap music continue to predominantly present the spectacle of blacks as volatile, violent, sexually promiscuous and lazy), we have continued the use of the stereotype to construct other races.

 

The image of Kim Jhong-Il continues to use the archetypes of the Attack the Jap propaganda of the second world war.  ‘See the crazy tiny Asian man with the penchant for violence,’ the ads scream.

The image of the Islamic in contemporary media, is often reduced to a cartoonish scimitar wielding madman intent on violence.

 

Are these really the hallmarks of a post racial world?

We have a duty to remember the sins of our fathers and continue to address and keep striving to remedy our continued inequalities.  And yes, these terms are hurtful, they were hurtful when originally used.  But to remove the offending terms is to begin to erase our history of violence and is a means of promoting the lie that we are currently beyond prejudice.

 

So here we are, in our post racial world, and yet surrounded by the stereotyped image of otherness and so totally blind to these images as racially driven and promoting ideologies of hatred, fear and intollerance.  The lesson learned?  We can’t publish the word ‘nigger’ as it appeared in racist texts because it’s offensive, but to depict Arabs as crazed ‘rag heads’ is perfectly acceptable.

Post-racist my lily white ass.

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