Creative Tension in the White Imagination

selma_to_montgomery_marchesTension Isn’t Usually Pretty

A Facebook video shows a deputy sheriff getting in the face of a young black protester attempting to access the courthouse lawn in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The young man keeps his cool, insisting their intentions are merely to pray peacefully, but the deputy isn’t interested. He just wants them to leave.

“You take your prayers back to your church,” he sneers. “That’s the proper place to pray.”

I’ve been thinking about creative tension. Not because I’m into conflict; I’m not—particularly when it comes to the self-righteous rhetoric of our polarized politics.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of creative tension, he meant the kind of existential social crisis that prophetic actions can produce. He meant drawing out latent aggressions and biases by peacefully holding the higher moral ground. [Read more…]

The Arab of the Future

The Arab of the FutureI snuck into a chair while a friend was describing how growing up under a repressive regime infects and perverts children. He wasn’t talking about his own life; he was commenting on the selection for our graphic novel reading group—a program of our wonderful Evanston Public Library.

I was late, and I hate showing up late, so I sat down and listened to try to catch up. I didn’t want to be that guy who makes everyone repeat the stuff he would have heard had he been there on time.

But, of course, they were just moving on from the main question I had hoped to discuss, and I wasn’t comfortable trying to guide us back myself. I didn’t know how, as a white Western male, to ask if a book by a half-Arab author could be racist against Arabs.

The book was The Arab of the Future, originally published in French and recently available in English. In it, Riad Sattouf tells the story of his life from ages two to eight, during which time his father, a Syrian who met Riad’s French mother while studying at the Sorbonne, moved the family first to Libya, then to Syria. [Read more…]

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

Rosenthal image

Underlying what’s wrong with this picture is where it resides. Not in a museum of racist caricatures. No, it’s on the popular Dentzel Carousel at Ontario Beach Park in my city: Rochester, New York.

The carousel is a special treasure. Built in 1905, it’s now one of only fourteen operating antique menagerie carousels in the United States; it’s also one of only a few that remain in their original location.

Dentzel Carousels, created by the Philadelphia firm G.A. Dentzel, were famed for their delightful range of animals to ride. Our city’s carousel offers not only the usual horses, but also cats, ostriches, pigs, rabbits, plus a deer, a giraffe, a goat, a lion, and a tiger.

When my granddaughters were young, I took them to ride the carousel. They had fun choosing which animal to climb upon. Did they notice the cartoon-style pickaninnies painted on one of a circle of panels topping the carousel?

Maybe not. Maybe so. Who knows what images a child absorbs unconsciously? And if that child is African-American?

So, what’s wrong with this picture? [Read more…]

Charlie Hebdo and the Inner Soul of Humor

16246547072_48798fd8a5_m (1)My friend Justin Smith recently wrote a piece for Harper’s Magazine. Justin is a brilliant guy, a philosopher and historian of ideas who also happens to write well and think clearly. Those things do not come together all that often. He’s been teaching for the last couple of years in Paris, at Université Paris Diderot-Paris VII.

This put him at Ground Zero, more or less, on January seventh of this year when the Kouachi brothers entered the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. [Read more…]

Never Again: Netanyahu’s Holocaust Cliché

16072485443_38e6ec0e06_oIn the air, on the air, tunneling through cables, conquering newsrooms, occupying the mouths of pundits, settling in the vacuous chambers of the minds of senators and congressmen, securing and challenging the border of church and state, opening the addled heart and vault of Las Vegas: Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.

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I could tell you how uncomfortable—appalled, sickened—I was as I watched the short man enter the once hallowed halls of Congress and inch his way, from handshake to handshake, down the aisle to take his stand where democracy should stand, where truth should stand. But I won’t.

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As I write this, it’s been two weeks since the speech, which, in the temporal context of news, is an eternity. As I write this, it’s election day in Israel. You already know, if you follow Israeli politics, the outcome. [Read more…]