Friday, April 12, 2013

A Well-Intentioned Accident

Lately, the tubes of the interwebs have been packed by criticism of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.  I have been surprised how suddenly everyone is an expert not only in race relations but also Civil War history, country music, Confederate symbolism, and urban poverty.  Here at Artery Bloggage, I try to avoid the topical in favor of the timeless.  The reason is that every controversy that sails across the internet passes and I know better than to "feed the trolls."  Yet I can't help but tackle this one head-on.  After all, I find it somehow heartening that discussing Southern identity will still ignite a firestorm 150 years later.

Above: A previous firestorm of Mason-Dixon controversy.

For those not in the know, country music star Brad Paisley released a song called "Accidental Racist" last Monday, featuring rap by LL Cool J.  The song is a plea for reconciliation and understanding between rural Southerners and urban blacks (and potentially Yankees given some of LL Cool J's lyrics).  The song has sent shock waves across the cultural scene, making headlines across the internet and even getting discussion among the talking heads on CNN, among them my favorite NYT columnist Ross Douthat.  This should probably be taken as evidence not of the song's offensiveness or impact, instead only that North Korea hasn't been rattling their sabers for at least forty-eight hours.

Nevertheless, real issues are at play simmering underneath the veneer of yet another country song.  So is the song a defense of white Southerners, the Confederate battle flag, redneck culture, or under-dressing for pretentious baristas?  Let's have a look:

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the South
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an 'ol can of worms
Lookin' like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view
Now this is a bit jumbled and doesn't make our analysis any easier.  All of these themes seem to be on display.  Still, the key line "the elephant in the corner of the South" indicates that yes, the Confederate battle flag is the main issue (bringing worms into a Starbucks notwithstanding).  Yet I feel it necessary to parse these issues out which have been lumped together.  After all, I lost family fighting for the Confederacy.  I actually like the Confederate flag and own several.  Unlike Mr. Paisley, I am not an avid fisherman (the only thing which revolts me more than worms are fish), I am a Skynyrd fan but don't think Skynyrd paraphernalia requires wearing a rebel flag, and don't display the flag in public.  I could write a book on the history of the symbolism of the Confederate flag, but someone already has.  

Paisley goes to great lengths to argue that no modern-day Southerner is responsible for the flag's offensiveness.  He believes that is primarily the result of slavery and secession.

Our generation didn't start this nation
And we're still paying for the mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
Corski argues in his book that the Confederate flag became a symbol of the South more broadly during and after World War II.  I would argue that World War II and not the War Between the States is the most transformative event in Southern history.  For many poor white and black Southerners, this was their first time traveling abroad, interacting with men from other states, and serving toward a common goal with Yanks and Westerners.  The flag emerged as a symbol of Southern units.  And while the use of the flag as a symbol of the South certain did not begin with the war, World War II cemented its place in the popular consciousness of the nation generally.

It was not until Brown v. Board in 1956 that its symbolism became sinister.  Unbeknownst to nearly ever commentator on the display of the flag, the KKK did not use the flag in their rallies until segregation was challenged.  There were two simple reasons for this: 1) they considered the flag sacred (they are all supposed to be Confederate ghosts, remember?) and 2) they wanted national, not just regional, appeal.  The Klan made strident gains in New England and the West at its re-founding in the 1920s by broadening their "hate-appeal" to Catholics, Jews, Communists, and evolutionists instead of merely "uppity" blacks.

So what?  Well, Paisley is flat-out wrong when he asserts that we are simply living with the consequences of our ancestors.  Like they did with cheap ghost costumes, the Klan has also fairly well ruined the rebel flag.  While no one was alive to have owed slaves or have been a slave before the Thirteenth Amendment, many people are still alive who opposed segregation and used the flag to threaten and intimidate young black Southerners who wanted equal access to education.  So the worst aspect of "Unintentional Racist"--even worse than the musical aesthetics--is that it introduces big topics without really understanding or seeking to resolve them.  For Paisley and LL Cool J to issue a mutual "judge not" on doo rags and rebel flags glosses over the visceral issues afflicting race relations even today.

It is ironic to consider because in many ways rural whites and urban blacks are more similar than they are divided.  Both are cultures which struggle with educational access.  Both have been known to ostracize those who leave the community for education opportunities.  Both communities deal with poverty and discrimination; "Cletus" and "Rondell" may find their résumés in the trash can or judged ignorant by virtue of their accents.  They are both geographically-isolated from a more affluent bourgeois culture.  I don't mean to say that one has life any worse than the other, though both would probably dislike being at all compared with the other.

Yet in spite of all this, I really won't join the din of self-important online pontiffs decrying the latent racism of the song.  They tried.  It was woefully inadequate, sure, but did we really expect a pop country-rap collaboration to complete the work of Martin Luther King Jr.?  And should we really expect a bunch of WASPy NPR Yanks to understand race relations on cotton soil?  The most vocal critics of the song seem to be those farthest outside the intended audience.  So let's leave the Ivy League to complain and moan while we Southerners deal with an American problem on the ground.  How can we preserve Southern pride while also acknowledging Southern sins?  And is there some way to create a symbol and a culture with black Southerners--a pan-racial Southern identity--without devolving into feel-good sentimentality?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Natural Self

(With regards to Walker Percy.)

Why the Self feels Synthetic and finds Food Erotic

Thought Experiment: The Sexy Chef and the Organic Store

Imagine you have chosen to visit a popular organic supermarket.  You are trying to avoid chemical processes, refinements, and additives for their unhealthy and overall negative influence on your nutrition.  This particular location is the only one in town which carries corn chips for your all-natural Southwestern salsa accentuated with homegrown black beans and pico de gallo (confident as you are that each ingredient has been shipped directly from their respective soils with no preservatives).  You have brought your reusable burlap grocery bag, stylishly embroidered with verdant leaves on a khaki background.  Looking at it reminds you of the quaint, simple days on a farm you wish you'd grown up on.  You wander the aisles with an intentional aimlessness, drifting through each as you snatch a head of all-natural lettuce and a cut of grass-fed beef.

Somewhere between the Fair Trade coffee beans and the sugarcane soft drinks, you spot a popular Youtube chef.  This particular man's channel is less about guiding the audience through follow-along steps and more about the audacity of the dishes.  On one episode, you watched him and his Canadian cohorts buy dozens of cheeseburgers from local fastfood restaurants and layer them as a giant dish of lasagna, separated by a sheet of bacon strips woven together.  A calorie, fat, and sodium counter ran on the bottom of the video; at the end of two minutes detailing the preparation, the calorie counter was over 16,000.  Each video concludes with the Canadians drizzling the concoction in Jack Daniels whiskey and tearing into each dish as hedonistic gluttons.  As they cook each dish (with names like "Bacon Fortress" or "Meat Salad"), triumphant orchestral music swells from the first slab of bacon-wrapped steak to the last sloppy bite oozing down the sides of the Canadians' mouths.  It is shameless in its recklessness to the point of absurdity.  Each episode you have watched has evoked laughter, disgust, and excitement with such mastery that you cannot rightly express your fascination with these epic meals.  You are riveted by each and every episode.

You are understandably surprised to see the Canadian chef in a socially- and health-conscious market like this one.  The Canadian politely asks a stock boy which are the strongest coffee beans.  The stock boy--his name tag reads "Scott"--answers, "Probably the Ethiopian dark roast.  It has rich body flavor and is guaranteed grown without pesticides."

The Canadian takes one look at the price and balks.  "I think I'll just go for Folgers.  Where's that?"

"Sir," Scott replies too pleasantly, "you won't find Folgers here.  Their product has not been guaranteed chemical-free or Fair Trade."

"Does that explain the pricetag?  I need four pounds."

"Four pounds?"

"Yes.  I need four pounds of coffee beans."

"Buying for the office, huh?"

"No.  We're making Atomic Slam Breakfast."

"Atomic Slam Breakfast?"

"That's right, sissy-pants!"  The Canadian suddenly adopts the swaggering intensity of a Pentecostal minister or a drill sergeant.  "First, we take three dozen eggs.  Throw those chicken fetuses in a bowl!  Then we beat them eggs... spatula's too small... better use the shovel!  Next we brew that coffee double-strong!  We gonna drink it?  No way, granola-munch.  We pour that **** in a pot for marination!  Next we add bacon strips.  And bacon strips.  And bacon strips!  Strippin dat bacon... for dat coffee meat we makin'!!!

"Next level: sausage drizzled in bacon grease!  Two pounds enough?  Better make it three.  Pancakes with bacon bits?  Smart!  Glaze it with whiskey, bread it all over!"  At this point, you can almost see the calorie counter running higher and higher.  "Deep-fry them pancakes.  Coat it with syrup and Mountain Dew!  Marinated pig is done... fry up that coffee-bacon!  Throw some scrambled eggs on that plate... add habanero peppers for complete morning energy!  Finish it off with a tall glass of orange-flavored energy drink!  Combat that scurvy!"

Scott's face is glistening with Canadian spittle as the chef concludes.  His shouts ring out like a Mongol warlord down a Serbian valley.  "Now we got all that coffee and Irish cream, we got them habanero eggs, we got that caffeine-bacon and those Mountain Dew, deep-fried pancakes!  We gonna eat that ******!  And then we stay awake for a three weeks."

The Canadian's eyes are wide with fire, his beard dripping sweat and saliva.  His face is flush with blood as he leers the stock boy in anticipation, waiting for Scott to respond to the apocalyptic meal the chef has prophesied.  Scott's face is twisted in equal parts bewilderment and indignation.  He finally stammers, "How can you be like this?!!"

"Like what?" asks the Canadian, his demeanor abruptly calm.

"How can you eat like that?  How can you be so indifferent to your health?  That kind of eating will kill you!"

"We're professional chefs.  We only eat like this once a week.  We exercise regularly.  Most of the time we eat normal meals.  We do this for our webshow, Epic M-"

"I know who you are now.  That doesn't excuse what you do!  You blow hundreds of dollars on a single meal while people the world over starve and you fuel the unjust systems which perpetrate the oppression of foreign workers by shopping at discount supermarkets!  You glorify unhealthy eating in an age where obesity in this country is epidemic!  You bring in attractive women and exploit their sexuality to increase your viewership!  Your only appeal is your oafishness, a caricature of a barbaric relic!"

You are uncomfortable in the silence which follows.  The Canadian has a confused expression on his face.  He finally manages, "Last year we cooked for a homeless shelter.  A whole episode devoted to feeding the poor."

"You fed them one of your characteristic dishes?"

"Well, yeah.  The guys at the homeless shelter loved it."

"I'm sure they did," Scott snaps.  "They had a month's worth of calories in a few minutes.  That's to say nothing of the preservatives and growth hormone in the beef you stuffed them with!"

"There's no growth hormone approved for beef cows."

"Don't pretend like you're a part of the solution!  You're a part of the problem."

"Is obesity really that big of a deal?  It seems like a problem most people throughout history would have liked to have."

"You mean in the Dark Ages?  When people didn't wash their hands or bathe?"

"Life expectancy has never been higher."

"So people live longer, more miserable, obesity-laden lives before they become bedridden and die from complications from that obesity!  Huge improvement there, buddy.  Heart disease is the top killer in this country and your meals revel in it."

"Healthy eaters die in bus crashes."

Scott is befuddled.  "Excuse me?"

"Yeah.  You can eat healthy or gross and still get hit by a bus or shot or stabbed or fall off a bridge..."

"Don't be ridiculous!  Heart disease is preventable..."

"Everybody dies sometime.  Something has to kill you," says the chef calmly.

Scott sighs as the teacher defeated by a defiant child.  He resignedly returns to stocking the shelf.  "You do so much to keep these big food companies afloat that you may as well be their spokesman.  You're a champion of regression.  Wal-Mart may have some discount coffee.  Good luck with your show."

Other shoppers have been casually eavesdropping on this rather heated exchange.  As the Canadian strides out of the supermarket, you cannot help but notice their reactions.  Some look back after him in shock and shake their heads in disapproval.  Some of the women seem drawn to his swagger and reckless allure.  Some of the men nod subtly to acknowledge his manly superiority.  All shoppers are awestruck and some stride proudly behind him like the disciples of an Old Testament prophet.  You too find that you cannot take your eyes off him until the automatic doors slide shut behind him.

Question I: Why do you have such a strong reaction to the Youtube chef?

(a)  The Youtube chef is a dangerous radical who encourages people to continue in uncritical and unhealthy eating at the expense of human suffering in America (in the form of obesity) and abroad (in the form of supporting unjustly-low wages.  His cavalier attitude toward the health and safety of his audience is indicative of the apathy endemic to the greatest accomplices of injustice.  "All it takes for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing."

(b)  The Youtube chef is an entertainer.  While he eats poorly, he is fundamentally a businessman.  His livelihood comes from his show.  No one forces to anyone to watch his show, they do so by choice.  Just because someone watches his show about epically-sized meals does not mean they will eat that way.  The show is funny, well-edited, and the chefs are professionals.  No one in their right mind saw Evel Knievel jump the Grand Canyon and tried to replicated it.  People are free to get fat and die as they please.

(c)  The Youtube chef is a sinner under God's condemnation, glorying as he does in gluttony.  God's Word says, "(For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.)" (Phil. 3:18-19, KJV).  Other passages condemn this man (Prov. 23:2, 20-21; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Deut. 21:20; Jug. 3:19) as indulgent in the lusts of the flesh.

(d)  The Youtube chef is a man you can follow.  Men and women flock to his channel because he stares certain death in the face and does not blink.  His eating is edgy--sexy even--and the babes who attend reinforce this.  I mean, if he was just good with the ladies that would mean nothing (since he must practice safe sex).  But there are no condoms for the tummy and this man don't give a four-letter word! Given the chance, you would join his team and chow down along with them... provided you could quit your job, relocate to Canada, toss caution to the wind, exercise to keep the weight off...

Question II: Why are you at this organic supermarket anyway?

(a)  I have done extensive research into the health benefits of organic supermarkets.  I studied nutrition in college, designed several experiments, and gathered numerous data to indicate that the additives and preservatives endemic to the mainstream food industry are the direct causes of obesity, cancer, birth defects, and diminished quality of life in the West (especially America).

(b)  I have it on good authority that mainstream supermarkets are untrustworthy.  My friend passed me this article from a nutrition magazine that said that people who eat processed food are consistently fatter.  I read one facebook post which said that brominated vegetable oil is used in Mountain Dew and is also a flame retardant chemical used in plastic toys. Pesticides on fruits are specifically designed to kill bugs. How could they possibly be good for my baby?

(c)  I am here ironically.  This is so the opposite of who I am.  I usually stuff bacon down my gullet like the Jewish Devil.  Bumping into a fellow organic-hater slamming knowledge on that hippie twerp was the highlight of my week.

(d)  I came for the same reason I have a farm-themed tote.  I would never admit it, but I live rootless in a hyper-connected world.  I have lived in six different cities, never been back to my roots because I have none, never run in large enough social circles to be truly known by anyone.  I have a synthetic community through social media, synthetic friendships through workplace networking, synthetic identity through my ironic wardrobe and 90s pop culture references.  Even my love life is synthetic since the love and lovemaking in movies or pornography somehow seems so much more real and tangible than the mere pleasantries I get in real life.  So is it so much to ask that even the food on my plate--the one thing left that reminds me that I am more than just a disembodied consciousness--be something rooted and real and dirty from the ground and coated in the sweat of a real farmer with dirty hands and a place in the world?