The Eyes Have It

I am employed by a college where I teach young people writing and give them advice about navigating life in their chosen fields and, in turn, the world.

I don’t know everything, or sometimes even anything.  But overall, on a given day, I know a lot more than they do.  Certainly, I’ve experienced more.

Me on the first day of class

Contrary to popular belief, the role of higher education is not primarily to be a vocational or trade school.  Of course, we want our students to work and we have an obligation to train them with skills that will allow them to make a living when they graduate.

But if you had a gun to my head, which it often feels like Zooming these days, I’d confess our number #1 job is to teach them how to think.

No, not WHAT to think, just TO think.  For themselves.  

Desired reaction to education #keanuknows

Oh, of course they have thoughts and certainly they process them.  But they’ll need to do more than that in an information age (Note: God how I HATE that phrase) mired in bullshit specifically conceived to convince and convert them to a certain point of view.  Or to bury them in such a load of research that they accept as okay what they know in their guts to be seriously wrong.

If my students can recognize crap excuses, crap rulings and crap pronouncements on just about anything it makes my day.  And when they manage to find a creative way to bust through a crap show and assert what’s true, that’s jackpot.  Game over.  My work is done here.

Me, in the mirror

A current crop of insurgent students now attending the University of Texas at Austin is a case in point.  Somewhere I assume more than a teacher or two in this liberal university town are privately gloating and cheering on the small but powerful way their young people are calling bullshit on the powers that be in control of the university they all pay handsomely to attend.

See, UT Austin’s alma mater song in 2021 is still a little ditty from 1903 called The Eyes of Texas (Are Upon You).  The words of the tune were inspired by the words of a famous Confederate general rallying on his troops and it was first performed at a university-sponsored minstrel show in order to raise money for its track team at the turn of the century. 

The 20th century.

Oh.. I have a feeling this is not going to end well..

Nevertheless, after a many months long study UT Austin president Jay Hartzell, he of the smiling, welcoming tieless photo complete with southern style pocket square, ruled in a terse statement that the songis and will remain our alma mater.

This might not seem like a big deal to an outsider but in higher education life symbols mean a lot.  Heck, symbols and the protests or support they engender help define American life. 

We are a country that loves imagery, from the flag flying above or directly AT and THROUGH the Capitol building on down.  We use our symbols to interpret and express who we are, to the world and to ourselves.

And we call this…

That is why this story of this symbol in this weekend’s NY Times, as well as other writings in such publications as Texas Monthly, caught my eye.  As a college professor it also made me wonder:

If we can’t even bench a minstrel show song at one of the largest universities in the country after a year of protests over the nine minute public execution of a Black man by a racist cop, where exactly ARE we at the moment?

Pres. Hartzell’s pronouncement was in keeping with the conclusions of the 58-page study he commissioned on the subject and was no doubt met with great praise by the many wealthy donors who threatened to cut off the financial spigot to his institution were he to conclude any differently.  No doubt they were also pleased by the words in the report that said the song contained no racist intent.  Ditto earlier pronouncements by Mr. Hartzell that the song should unite us in that it would hold them all to be accountable to their institution’s core values.

Reminder: He looks like this so…

To me, the definition of bullshit is the same as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography:

I know it when I see it.

And trust me, this university president is mired in it.  Well above his kneepads.

Well, clearly someone (nee professors) at UT Austin is doing their job because lots of their students see it too.

Level 5!

Since the Hartzell ruling, half of this university’s hundred or so volunteer student tour guides, many of them white, quit.  These are teens or early 20s who say they love their school (Note: Why else be a tour guide, seriously?) but could not in good faith walk people past UT Austin’s Admissions Center, on which a large plaque with The Eyes of Texas lyrics hangs prominently.

The president of the Texas NAACP and its members agreed and strongly voiced  their opposition at a televised news conference.  Then one of UT Austin’s oldest and most prominent campus service organizations held an online discussion in support of banning the song, which had to contend with a masked attendee with a gun who suddenly and quite purposely showed up onscreen in full intimidation mode.

Meaning, well, all of this is far from over.

I’d say!

The above should be painfully obvious to anyone who has half a brain about the evolution of social change.  Just as the Cleveland Indians has finally acquiesced to change its name and mascot after decades of pressure (Note: To what, we don’t yet know), The Eyes of Texas will at some point no longer exist as UT Austin’s official alma mater.

But this little song, written by one university band member at the request of another who happened to also be the executive director of the school’s annual minstrel show and one quarter of the Varsity Quartet that first performed it, won’t exit the stage willingly.

Then again, neither has the Confederacy.  It continues to live on in the form of this and so many other songs.  Still, this tune does have the distinction of having been featured prominently in such classic Hollywood films as Giant, Viva Las Vegas and The Right Stuff, as well as at the inaugural ball of Pres. Lyndon Johnson and the 2007 memorial service for his late wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

Let’s never forget this either (yikes)

It will also, for the time being, be a thorn in the side of all persons of color who attend the school, and to many others, including some whites, at each university sporting event where it will be very proudly played and sung.

No doubt this will also particularly irk all of the Black legislators who lobbied hard to ban it, people who know all too well that the very nature of a minstrel show in turn of the century Texas means White people dressed in blackface spoofing them as dimwitted, lazy, happy-go-lucky buffoons with bugged out eyes and wide toothy grins.

This is the history they are trying to preserve… really

If they have a kid there, or for some reason find themselves at a game, or another school event where this is tolerated they might even picture those reveling and singing that song sporting any one of the above accouterments while shuffling across the stage.

And we Whites wonder why so many people of color we know are so pissed off these days?  Read the lines to the ditty with everything you’ve just learned (Note: Or better yet, sing it to its tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad) and tell me if you’d feel any other way. 

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the livelong day.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them
At night or early in the morn —
The Eyes of Texas are upon you
Til Gabriel blows his horn.

And if your answer is still yes, be prepared to forever be called out on your BULLSHIT by people far better at it than I.

Dua Lipa – IDGAF

A Tribe Called…

A 2010 gray Dodge Challenger registered to and driven by a 20 year-old Ohio white man at a white supremacist/Neo Nazi rally on Saturday barreled into a crowd and mowed down more than 20 people, killing at least one.

Those white supremacists and Neo-Nazis demonstrated the night before in front of a black church in Charlottesville, Virginia – yelling out the phrases “blood and soil.” This was a Nazi chant – about purity of blood and an ownership of land in the country one was born into.

Torch bearing white supremacists. This is 2017.

The problem is America is a nation of immigrants and no one other than Native Americans were born here. This country is not by birth or ownership inherently white. It is, as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe stated on Saturday afternoon, an ever-evolving “mosaic.”

A few hours after the violence on Saturday, Electoral College POTUS Trump said it was time to heal and that for a long time there has been “hatred, bigotry and violence — on many sides.”

Say whaaaaaat? #twilightzone #TrumpAmerica

Well, actually, not in this case.

These demonstrators, with helmets, sticks, bats and loaded rifles, weren’t doing civil disobedience. They were doing intimidation. And at least one or more did domestic terrorism by getting into a car and using it as a lethal weapon.

All of this because the local city council voted to take down a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee – the Civil War military man who led the Confederacy fight to, among other things, preserve slavery.   Yup, more than 150 years after the defeat of the South and General Lee, a group of American representatives decided that it was finally time to take away the very public honorarium to a man warring in order to preserve the rights of wealthy white landowners to own and beat (and if they wanted to, kill) brown African humans at will.

Bet they are real proud of themselves #toolittle #toolate

What is this world coming to?

Let’s stop pretending that Trump’s qualifiers like on many sides aren’t in the same family as his racist dog whistles of bad hombres and people who come here who don’t speak English and that all of them aren’t a strategy to anything more than this:

A re-whitening of America through government mandated exclusion based on race.

Let’s also refrain from the make believe that his proposed mandate to ban transgender people from the military is anything more than homophobic hate support to mollify those who believe LGBT people don’t have the same rights to their country that they do.

And while we’re at it, let’s additionally not naively believe that because Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and a daughter who converted to Judaism – or a few Black people in his cabinet – that he won’t specifically malign and attack Blacks, Jews or any other race or religion as a whole if a particular member of that group publicly speaks out against him or disobeys a particular type of behavior (nee proposed edict) he wants normalized.

The garden is blooming

To qualify or allow for racism and hate is to lie down with it. To whit – the night before the guy in Charlottesville used the car to plow into the crowd – several hundred other white supremacists and neo-Nazis also assembled on a nearby University of Virginia quadrangle, shouting:

You will not replace us, Jew will not replace us.

When your chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is a man who ran a vast media platform admittedly for the alt right – an invented polite word for white supremacists and Neo-Nazis – and your deputy assistant in the White House is Sebastian Gorka – a man who openly wears a medal from a Nazi-linked Hungarian group to your inauguration – there’s not much left to be said. This is because you’ve already said it by NOT SAYING anything about whom you’re associating yourself with and what you’re enabling.

This reference never gets old.

Tribalism is not pretty but to some extent we’re all guilty of it. Meaning – we are all a part of something even if we don’t want to be or forever, to the nth degree, choose to be. This starts with family and continues or discontinues up or down depending on your point of view.

This week I found myself binge-watching all three seasons of Amazon’s acclaimed series Transparent. Yeah, you’d think I’d have seen it already and been a big fan.

I mean, I’m a gay Jewish guy from a family with more than its share of scandals and the fictional Pfeffermans in Transparent are a scandal-ridden Jewish family with not only a transgender patriarch but two lesbian sisters (well, maybe bi but one leaning far towards lesbian).

the real “modern family”

Still – full confession – after watching the pilot when it first appeared three years ago – there was something about this family that I SO DID NOT want to be a part of. I mean, they were too selfish, too neurotic and way too privileged for my taste. I mean, I grew up middle to lower-middle class and knew exactly who these people were despite the gay and the Jewish parts of them. They were the very people that, all through my life, annoyed the hell out of me. And looked down on me. I mean, I couldn’t..can’t…bear people like them.

Well, suffice it to say I was WRONG.

Because to some extent, yeah — they are me – or parts of me – no matter how much I may have wanted to run away from it.

Pretty much.

There is something about their cultural Jewishness – even with them being from affluent Pacific Palisades and me from middlebrow Flushing, Queens – that was undeniable in the bagels and shmeers and overwrought over-intellectualizing.   My family may have been far less outrageous sexually (well, that I know of) but we made up for it with other outrages of taboo behavior that I will save for another time.

As for neurosis, privilege and sheer self-involvement, they slowly became only a mere artistic exaggeration of behavior I had always known, too often exhibited and too often chose to forget, the more I watched. This was my reality, no matter how much I didn’t ever want it to be. And I sort of loved them for it, and in spite of it.

Now I’m not saying Trump or anyone in his White House should take a hard look at Saturday’s alt right (ahem) Neo Nazi demonstration of death and embrace that part of them the way I’ve done with the Pfeffermans. First of all, that analogy wouldn’t be fair to the Pfeffermans, even though I’m sure at least one of them would think nothing of pushing the same metaphor, and even worse, on you about me if they were real and I was fictional.

ahem…. Ali

What I am proclaiming is that each and every one of us – from every possible family and ethnic group there is – every last one of us – do that work for each and every last one of them. Make the analogy, claim the metaphor and push daily the very truth we see before our eyes in the White House and its association with the alt right/white supremacist/Neo-Nazi groupthink.

Trump rose to power and is now the president of American racism and Neo-Nazi/white supremacist behavior. So it behooves us all – every last one of us – who do not want this to continue to be our familial reality – to speak out against IT. Every day. Maybe even more than once a day. Before we no longer have the chance to safely do so.

Cher – “Half Breed”