After Ferguson, Is Violence An Answer?

50 years later and we’re still holding the same signs. (Credit: Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

For my initial commentary on the killing of Michael Brown, see my earlier piece, “No Escape: The Realities of Living with Police Violence.”

I watched the post grand jury decision protests in Ferguson morph into a riot on live television, and by the time a police cruiser went up in flames my blood was boiling. I was afraid, but there was more than a little excitement coursing through me, too. I could hear the part of me that I usually don’t bring to dinner parties whispering, “Take this to Clayton. Take it to Ladue. Take it to the suburbs that white folks actually care about.” And it was that small, dark prayer that led me directly to a question: Can violence in any way help Black America in its struggle for justice?

As those thoughts crawled around my head, I tried to squash them. They embarrassed me. I knew that, one way or another, rioting would inevitably produce innocent victims. Still, I’ll be damned if watching it all unfold didn’t make me feel alive on a day in which the central message appeared to be that, at any moment, I could be killed with impunity. After a few hours though, I made an uneasy peace with that surprising sense of vitality. In so doing, I realized that I was actually entertaining the possibility, no matter how distasteful or remote, that rioting might have a role to play.

A protest is a sternly written letter to the management. 21st century America is immune to them. You can march until your feet bleed, but unless you and your faithful companions are playing bagpipes or holding a string with a colossal, inflated cartoon character at the end, you will most likely fail to capture the American imagination. Violence, however, seems to work like a bloody charm. It’s in our national DNA.

In 1773, a group of American patriots demonstrated their displeasure with a certain British tax policy by dumping what would be the equivalent of over $1.7 MM in corporate property into Boston Harbor. Less than 100 years later, 11 southern states snatched a page from their colonial forbearer’s playbook and took up arms against the U.S. government, resulting in 620,000 deaths and an estimated $1.5 B loss in Southern physical capital alone (not to mention the billions in other direct and indirect costs on both sides), and that’s in 1860 dollars: it would be more like $39 B today. The slavers lost, but they’d made their point, and after a few short years they succeeded in resetting the clock on their social and political dominance of Southern life. Fast forward one more century and the American Civil Rights Movement, the very campaign created to counter the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, was relying on violence for its effectiveness, too. Oh, it’s unequivocally true that Martin Luther King, Jr. appealed for non-violent action by protestors, but he knew very well that every blow from a policeman’s baton in Selma was worth 10,000 renditions of “We Shall Overcome” on national television. Police held those nightsticks, but they were King’s weapons.

I realize that burning and looting, even if executed in a tactically sound way, is a far cry from the noble social jujitsu that King et al. practiced. I’m not attempting to suggest otherwise. I am, however, suggesting that they both spring from a recognition that the only means of affecting change in a corrupt system is to dismantle it, either in whole or part. That process is chaotic and violent by its very nature.

If you believe that a solid proportion of your fellow citizens are aligned with your cause, no matter how quiet they may be, you might be encouraged to press forward with less aggressive displays of frustration, hopeful that those demonstrations will turn silent supporters into active advocates. On the other hand, if you find that despite crying out until your voice is a memory, most of your neighbors are either apathetic about your cause or worse, antagonistic, it becomes more difficult to trust that signs and songs will save the day.

And it in fact, it does seem as if we’ve reached a point at which learning that unarmed black people are being beaten, gassed, and killed, even when the acts are perpetrated on camera, no longer elicits a sympathetic response from much of White America. Case in point, only 15% of whites agree that Darren Wilson should’ve been charged with murder for the killing of Michael Brown—not convicted, mind you, charged—as opposed to 59% of blacks. Then, just nine days after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision, we were told that Eric Garner’s killer wouldn’t be prosecuted either, despite the fact that millions of us watched the life get choked out of him needlessly, over and over again on YouTube and the news. How can you find common ground with someone when you apparently live in entirely separate dimensions?

Here’s to hoping that this image is the first word in an answer to my question. (Credit: Johnny Nguyen)

It should be apparent that I have no answers to present here. I don’t fancy myself a revolutionary. I’m certainly not foolhardy enough to think that any sustained violent interaction with the police or other authorities would ever lead to the establishment of a somehow more just regime in our country. And I’m loath to picture an America where destructive clashes with the powers that be become as common here as they are in…well, much of the world touched by European colonialism. Yet I now find it difficult to rid myself of this question of violence, and I’m a thirty-something MBA who’s a product of prep school and the Ivy League.

Many of the people in my circle share similar pedigrees, and I’ve been shocked at the number of them who’ve almost squealed in agreement when I’ve relayed my dismaying thoughts about the Ferguson riots. We are not disaffected urban youth with nothing to lose. Not by a long shot. We’ve got careers, and summer shares, and kids. And still, here we are, basking in the televised glow of a burning cop car, asking ourselves whether launching a brick through a window might bring us at least some small measure of psychological relief. It’s a question we don’t want to ask, but it’s becoming difficult to avoid. And that should scare America to death.

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Holleration and Harassment on the Streets of New York

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh/Huffington Post

There are men who believe that come hither witticisms such as, “Must be jelly, ‘cause jam don’t shake like that,” “You’ve got a great future behind you,” and “COTDAMN THEM SOME BIG ASS TITTIES,” might actually induce a woman to produce a bodily fluid other than vomit. Most of us know that they’re wrong. The thing is, fellow penis-pushers, “Hi, how are you?” and “Good evening, beautiful,” are now considered cringeworthy microaggressions, too.

That’s the major lesson I gleaned from the Hollaback street harassment video that’s been bouncing around for the last few days. It’s bad news for regular cats like me who are only occasionally creepy and who really try not to contribute to women’s sexism-related stress. Heaven knows y’all have enough going on as it is, what with trying to figure out what shade of lipstick goes best with your new Givenchy Antigona bag and all. Unfortunately, Hollaback makes no distinction between what’s complimentary, neutral, or offensive, so we can only assume that everything that they show is presented as an example of gross male behavior.

Lucky for you, being the good little amateur social scientist that I am, I took a closer look. I watched the video at least 10 times, carefully tallying each statement that I heard, assigning them to positive, neutral, and negative categories. In the end, I came up with 45 separate statements, classifying 18 of them as positive, 3 as neutral, and 24 as negative. (If you want to nitpick the spreadsheet I used to log each statement then be my guest, hotshot.) While 24 sexist comments are about 24 too many, the fact that I would characterize nearly half of the statements as non-problematic kind of disturbed me. Are some women overreacting, or am I just being phallically insensitive?

I ended up concluding that both answers are likely true.

I find it hard to believe that anyone could paint those 21 comments I labeled positive or neutral as sexist in good faith. On Facebook, a woman commented that “all that false politeness is definitely swaghili for ‘Hi, you want some dick possibly maybe?’” First off, “swaghili”? Second, here’s a newsflash: 90% of the compliments a woman has ever received from an unrelated man about her nice dress, great hair, or perfect face were preceded by a fantasy of removing said nice dress, pulling said great hair, or twisting said perfect face into an ecstatic grimace. Still, you can’t punish a person for thoughtcrimes—yet—and besides, there’s nothing wrong with sexual desire in and of itself. If a woman is offended just because she can sense that a man is turned on by her, it’s not his fault. Right? Well, no, but, I can understand why she might feel that way.

Unfortunately, it’s become difficult for a lot of women to differentiate between kind words from an admirer and the prurient drivel of a sleaze: the din from the latter is simply too deafening. Shit is so out of hand that some women are compelled to question not just the motivation for advances, but the very nature of communication from any unknown man. It’s as if the invisible expanse that transmits positive energy from man to woman through good game, which I’ll call The Hollerational Field, has been unnaturally warped by bad actors.

Instead of seeing a colorful pitchman for a shady money lending establishment, we see a weird old dude flagrantly objectifying a passing woman. (“I just found a thousand dollars,” he says as he holds out what looks to be money at 1:15. Found. Not saw.) At 0:50, instead of seeing a polite young man bid an attractive lady good morning and continue on the path along which he already happened to be walking (this “scene” starts and ends with our heroine and her would-be antagonist walking east on 125th St.), we see a male threatening a female by invading her personal space for five scary minutes. Either classification could be true, but an anger that has been honed to a fine point by fear presses hard into women’s backs, nudging them toward the harassment side of the room. The good guys didn’t contribute to this development, but if we care about our sisters then we do have to shoulder the burden of the existing reality.

So, I try not to stare. (Waiting until she can’t see me and then rubbernecking until I almost run into a street sign doesn’t count as staring, by the way.) If the power of the gonads is just too difficult to resist and I find that I absolutely must compliment a woman, I raise my voice like 1.5 octaves and smile like a Mormon. And if I’m in a bar and a woman asks me to pretend like we’re together in order to throw off an unwanted pursuer, I do it…even if she’s not cute. It’s all in an effort to balance the scales.

The good news is that there’s still some room for wholesome street-level holleration. A few years ago, I saw a bombshell walking down a busy New York City street and let her pass me by. As luck would have it, I peeped her again the very next day, and wasn’t about to let history repeat itself. I literally ran half an avenue block to catch up, calling out to catch her attention. When I reached her, I looked her in her big, brown eyes and told her she was gorgeous, amongst other things. Not wildly inventive, true, but I delivered it with Clintonian conviction, and we ended up dating for almost two years. True story. Then again, she broke my heart, so maybe I should’ve just asked if she had a mirror in her pants and kept it moving.

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Why I Keep Talking About Janay Palmer

The longest walk: Rice and Palmer hold hands on the way to court.

The longest walk: Rice and Palmer hold hands on the way to court.

My mother taught me a basic moral imperative before I even entered Kindergarten: Unless you’re defending yourself from someone who continues to attack you, don’t hit people. Having said that, it should be clear why I was appalled at Ray Rice’s behavior in the recently released casino footage. He not only hit his fiancée twice, but once she was out cold, he also dragged her and prodded her body with his foot the way one might handle a neighbor’s dead Golden Retriever. None of his actions were based in self-defense, and many were quick to point out his unjustified viciousness. I fully support this.

I was struck, however, by the almost utter absence of condemnation for Janay Palmer, who is now his wife. She incontrovertibly engaged in physical violence with Rice that night, and she acknowledges it. Journalistic sources acknowledge it. It’s a matter of record. It’s there for anyone to see, and based on the basic moral principle I outlined above, I say her behavior is worthy of some outrage, too. My opponents disagree, and their dissent takes three major forms.

First, there’s the argument of moral superiority. Some say that though they were both wrong, Rice was tremendously wrong, thus Palmer’s behavior doesn’t deserve much, if any, scrutiny. The problem with this thinking is that it sets a post hoc minimum threshold for moral indignation based on the relative severity of participants’ actions. In other words, do anything you’d like to do to another person; as long as the stench doesn’t reach a level to be determined later, and the other person’s foulness rises even higher than yours, we’ll look the other way.

This is indefensible. We have the capacity to direct moral outrage at both participants in an altercation while simultaneously acknowledging that one participant may have acted worse than the other. Bigger wrongs don’t need to blind us to smaller ones.

And speaking of size, it’s also wrongheaded to hold men to a higher moral standard than women just because men are generally capable of causing more harm. That’s the essence of the argument from physical relativism, and it basically states that bigger adults have a responsibility to act more ethically than smaller adults. A variation of this idea relies on the same fundamental assumption about the impact of size and gender to accuse me of blaming “the” victim.

I categorically reject the notion of one victim here. Two people victimized each other, regardless of the fact that one’s savagery was more complete. Rice is larger than Palmer, and most men are stronger than most women. Unfortunately, self-control isn’t doled out in proportion to size and strength. At the same time, decreased potential to inflict as much harm as your adversary due to differences in stature, strength, or skill doesn’t negate accountability for your actions toward them. Solange deserved universal public humiliation for her attack on Jay-Z in that other infamous elevator incident, regardless of whether he was ever in any “real” danger; instead, Solange got a magazine cover and Jay-Z got mocked. While total physical equality between the sexes is a fantasy, total moral equality shouldn’t be. Men and women must be judged equally for the pain and suffering that they inflict or attempt to inflict upon each other.

Finally, we come to the most dangerous argument against my rebuke of Palmer, and that’s the argument from moral necessity. The thinking goes something like this: Calls for disapproval of Janay Palmer are morally irresponsible since they shift the focus away from Rice’s actions and distract the public from the larger issue of male-on-female domestic violence. It’s an attractive point of view, and its allure flows from the appeal of its core truth: domestic violence is horrible, usually perpetrated by men toward women, and only a villain would derail efforts to eradicate it.

But therein lies its perniciousness. I’m not obfuscating Rice’s guilt, nor am I painting Palmer in the worst possible light so as to diminish his foulness. I’m shining a light on the darkness of the entire situation, and I can do that without negating the sheer ugliness of what he did. Despite the fact that female-on-male violence almost assuredly happens much less frequently than its opposite, if a woman puts her hands on a man and she’s not in clear and present danger, she’s wrong. No amount of lamentation regarding the state of violence that women in the world endure can make the case against that any stronger. When a victim becomes a victimizer, it doesn’t negate their former status, it just adds more tragedy to their story.

My stance is an utter refutation of domestic violence in all of its forms. We must condemn Rice, vividly illustrating why what he did was so far beyond the pale of acceptable behavior. Simultaneously, we should condemn Palmer in a manner proportional to what she did. Women need to know that physical weakness cannot be used as a shield or as a weapon when it comes to domestic violence incidents in which they’re perpetrators or participants. If we don’t do that, we’re sending mixed signals regarding our views on brutality, and that’s irresponsible.

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No Escape: The Realities of Living with Police Violence

Throw ya hands up.

Throw ya hands up. (You may still die.)

For my commentary on the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury decision, read my subsequent piece, “After Ferguson, Is Violence An Answer?

It was a sweltering summer afternoon in 1993 in St. Louis, MO, and I was 16 years old. I was walking to a friend’s home about 10 minutes away. As I made a right turn up a street on a hill, I noticed the sound of a car creeping behind me. I kept my stride and waited for it to pass. It didn’t. I risked a quick glance and realized that the good news was that the vehicle wasn’t filled with thugs. The bad news was that it was a police car, and it was pulling up beside me.

To understand my mind state then, you need to know that upon reaching adolescence, my family had imparted a concept to me that went something like this: If you’re black, no matter what else you may be, you’re always a suspect. Until then, it was an abstract nightmare. But at that moment, the nightmare was eyeing me from the window of a Crown Victoria.

Fortunately, after complying with the passenger’s request that I empty my pockets, he flashed a smile like he’d just eaten a few shit-glazed donuts, wished me a nice day, then motioned to his partner. Off they went, leaving me to stumble through a daze of shock, anger, and shame.

The next summer, while riding with a friend and some acquaintances, police ordered us to exit the car and walk into an alley. One officer demanded that we pull down our shorts and underwear; he checked us for drugs as his partner combed through the vehicle. By this point, I wasn’t even surprised. I’d come to accept that potential police harassment was just a part of life in the ‘hood, like liquor stores and food deserts. The ghetto offered no escape. If I wanted to be free from it, I reasoned that I’d have to leave the ghetto behind forever.

Of course, I now realize that there was absolutely nowhere to run.

During Freshman Week at Harvard, a group of police approached me and a few other friends, insisting to see our IDs. There were dozens of other potential targets for their suspicion standing around…but none of them were black. Classes hadn’t even started and we’d already learned that even Ivy League walls weren’t tall enough to shelter us from the prejudicial attitudes that lead to harassment or violence at the hands of police. Later, the police shooting deaths of Amadou Diallo in New York City, Ronald Madison in New Orleans, Oscar Grant in Oakland, and Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina became further testimonies to the irrelevance of geography in the equation.

Innocence and guilt are also inconsequential. Some who fell victim to police brutality, like Diallo and Ferrell, are universally acknowledged as having done nothing wrong. In contrast, others have been assigned post-hoc backstories that color them with just enough guilt to be somehow less deserving of human rights.

NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo stood a few feet away from witnesses and choked the life out of Eric Garner. Garner was rumored to have been selling unlicensed cigarettes prior to his homicide. Michael Brown fell at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO, less than 30 minutes away from my own first encounter with the police, and was left to lie like carrion in the street for hours. A full six days later, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson informed us that Brown was suspected of stealing cigars, only to confess hours later that Officer Wilson was unaware of the alleged theft when he confronted Brown for walking in the middle of the street.

Friends, tobacco may indeed be a pernicious drain on society, and we’ve all felt the sting of a jaywalker’s heinous disregard for the law, but I’ve got trouble believing that summary execution was in order for either of those men, even if the accusations against them are true. But the truth isn’t important either. Perception is everything, and if you’re black, the perception is that you’re a threat.

That fact stands even when the victim is a cop. Just ask the father of William Wilkins, an Oakland police officer killed by so-called friendly fire in 2001, or the widow of Omar Edwards, an NYPD officer who met the same fate in 2009. For too many police, black people can no more rid themselves of suspicion than they can rid themselves of their skin.

This could be every night, in every city in America if we're not careful.

If we’re not careful, this could be every night, in every American city.

Unlike fellow St. Louisan Michael Brown, I’ve been able to walk away from my run-ins with police with nary a scratch. For that, I’m thankful. But despite leaving the ghetto I grew up in, attending world-class academic institutions, and calling one of the most cosmopolitan cities anywhere home, I have never been able to escape the shadow of police violence, because even when unnecessary police aggression produces no physical damage, it creates psychic wounds.

These wounds serve to keep one in a perpetual state of low-level fear, and when you’re afraid, you’re malleable. It increases the likelihood that the next time you’re in a similar situation, you’ll be more willing to follow orders, regardless of their justification. Today, that might mean surrendering your ID for no apparent reason, or allowing unwarranted access to your car. Tomorrow, it could mean surrendering freedom of the press and facing indefinite, illegal detention. For decades, many Americans have seen police harassment and brutality as a black issue, but if we continue walking the path toward authoritarianism, black people won’t be the only ones searching for an escape.

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Beyoncé, Booty, and Feminism

Close-up of Beyoncé

1990 Madonna called. She wants her whole steez back.

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Beyoncé is a superb entertainer. One minute, her voice is the piercing blare of a trumpet and the next, it’s the gentle lilt of a cello. Of course, her body is equally as flexible, just as exquisitely crafted, and almost as thrilling to witness. Unassailable talent allows her to occupy an enviable position at the peak of pop culture, and she’s used that lofty site as a promontory from which to speak directly to the hearts—and importantly the egos—of millions of females who have come to see her as the embodiment of the ideal woman: talented, strong, and sexy. Queen Bey is a feminist icon, and she deserves to be one. However, there are those who would have us believe that BEYONCÉ, her latest album, marks her biggest step thus far in a retreat from the forefront of the feminist movement.

I say that those people are either overwrought feminist pedants or overly inhibited conservatives. Or they’re idiots. ‘Cause you know, there’s always that element.

I mean, look, the woman made some songs about being a strong woman. OK, she made quite a few of them. Hooray! Also, she’s managed to have a ridiculously successful solo career for more than a decade, when most acts appear and then disappear so quickly that you wonder if that’s why they call it pop music. Hooray again! Oh, and she’s seemingly happily married to a really rich and famous guy and has a cute little daughter, too. So now all of this somehow makes her a standard bearer for modern feminism? Or at least modern black feminism?

I’m sorry, but no. All it means is that she is a woman who has lived the kind of self-determined life that the foremothers of women’s equality envisioned for their sisters and daughters…and that she’s aware of that fact. I don’t doubt that Beyoncé honestly wants to encourage girls and women to think of themselves as self-sustaining, dynamic beings who are fundamentally equal to any man, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton she ain’t.

Perhaps a parallel example will assist in illustrating my point.

After he helped invent gangster rap, but before he started making feel-good movies, Ice Cube made a lot of passionate, pro-black music. Was I disappointed as I gradually watched Cube melt deeper and deeper into Hollywood, to the point where he’s actually game to do comedy bits with Conan O’Brien, possibly the whitest looking dude ever birthed? Not no, but hell no, ‘cause I never once got his vaguely menacing, yet somehow cherubic visage confused with that of Stokely Carmichael’s.

In the same way, members of the Yoncé Ate Sasha school of thought need to relax and understand that by releasing this album and the accompanying videos she didn’t forsake some kind of feminist mission, because dude, she never had one. Beyoncé doesn’t owe little girls, working mothers, the queens at the MAC store, or anybody else anything except good music and a good show. To the extent that she chooses to inspire a sense of inherent beauty within young women or to write lyrics that help generate female self-confidence of any kind, it is a good thing. Her decision to tilt the content of her art a little more towards sex in the bedroom…or the kitchen…or the limo floor…does nothing to negate her expressions of feminist positivity.

I fail to see why anyone’s in a tizzy over Yoncé’s sexy lyrics and skintastic videos at all in the first place. Curse words. Who cares? Bathtub intercourse while inebriated. Zzzzzz. Fleeting shot of supermodel’s tongue grazing the upper half of Beyoncé’s right mammary. Yawn. Allusion to oral sex and errant ejaculate (see Lewinsky, verb). Getting there, but let’s not phone the Thought Police just yet. Multiple potential references to anilingus…OK, sure that’s freaky. But hell, it wasn’t even explicitly stated. That’s just my interpretation. Other artists get far nastier on a regular basis, with no playful metaphors or euphemisms acting as prophylactics during their aural sex romps, so the only thing I’m left with is the idea that this new album is shocking folks only because Beyoncé’s behind it.

That begs a question for all of you grooooown women out there: What’s worse, a sexist man who won’t let you fully realize your multi-faceted identity or a feminist woman who doesn’t want you to display more than one side of it? Recall Yoncé’s sample of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminding us of exactly what a feminist is:

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

So, even if Beyoncé isn’t leading the vanguard of 21st century feminist freedom fighters, forsaking her because she’s being just as loud about her sexuality as she’s been about female empowerment is unnecessary and unfair. In the end, it’s perfectly fine for her to sing of self-determination while shaking her fine ass in peek-a-boo shorts. After all, she woke up like this.

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You Ain’t Got the Answers: Part Two

What's a king without a crown?

What’s a king without a crown?

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In my last post, I ended with a reference to Kanye’s um…somewhat emotional interaction with radio host Sway. And when I say emotional, I mean fucking Megatron is reincarnated and he’s looking for Starscream. Seriously, you could’ve heated like 20 working class Chicago homes for the winter with the fire coming outta Yeezy’s nostrils during that interview.

That brings us to writer Christiana Mbakwe’s take on the Kanye Problem. First, let me say that she at least treats her subject with enough respect to acknowledge his positive attributes and the potential value that his recent protests can provide. Still, she argues that this positivity is being obliterated under the weight of his woes, the origin of which lies in some type of mental disorder, whether it be autism, PTSD as a consequence of his mother’s death, or heck, even drug addiction. Yes, you read that last one right. To Ms. Mbakwe, that Hennessy botttle at the Taylor Swift incident and subsequent behavior over the years are signs that he’s “unravelling” and desperately in need of a therapist. This makes me wonder how often the British Ms. Mbakwe gets to party with Afro-Yanks. If she did, she’d know that when celebrating, some brothers hug a bottle of Henny harder than they hug their girl…even if she does look like Amber Rose.

But hey, maybe dude is a little mental. So am I. And so are you. Psychological scars are the cost of living. I have no doubt that the death of Donda West still affects Kanye deeply, and anyone who doesn’t allow him that either grew up on Vulcan or got the wire hanger treatment one two many times. However, when we leap past acknowledging emotional difficulties and their concomitant bad behavior all the way to diagnosing someone as mentally ill—based solely on cherry-picked media moments in a life lived in public—we head into dangerous territory. At that point, it becomes all too easy to marginalize a person with unpopular views. Just label them a ranting madman and POOF! Watch all of their credibility slide away like so much blood on a leaf.

Seriously kids, there’s just insufficient evidence to say that Kanye is crazy. Does he have anger management issues? Yes. He should learn to contain and focus it because, unfortunately, many of us can’t see past the rage to glean the truth and significance of his words. Does he declare his own genius too often? Probably. While I’m totally on board with reminding these muphuckas of who the hell they’re dealing with, if you overdo it you chafe their delicate little egos and trigger widespread outbreaks of Tall Poppy Syndrome. This explains why folks get so up in arms when Kanye compares himself to heroes like Steve Jobs. What the detractors can’t seem to understand is that when Kanye likens himself to those people he’s not literally saying that he’s just as great or has done anything that’s just as important as any one of them per se, but that he dreams in the same expansive way and needs someone to help him realize his vision.

Steve Jobs (and Steve Wozniak AND Ronald Wayne) got Apple’s first computers built with financing from a vendor who took a leap of faith and filled their order for crucial components based solely on the word of a would-be first customer. Even then, Jobs was eventually booted out of the company in disgrace and didn’t reappear at the forefront of business for a decade. His return to reshape the consumer electronics industry only happened because Apple bought NeXT, his struggling company, and brought him back home with it. Likewise, you might not even know the name Michelangelo today if it weren’t for the rich and powerful Medici family who gave him commission after commission from the time he was a young man. Jesus of Nazareth was scorned, homeless and executed as a criminal, but now his worldwide faithful call him the King of Kings. He owes that not to a miracle, but to his follower Paul, possibly the best marketing guru ever, whom he never even met.

Each of these men displayed varying degrees of talent for their chosen vocations at the onset of their moments of truth. It ranged from undeniable in the case of Michelangelo, to unproven in the case of Jobs, to still disputed in the case of Jesus, but they all eventually succeeded in making a legendary impact. Without major support however, their visions would have withered and died and their names would have crumbled in the unrelenting winds of history.

The notion of getting it done yourself is a fantastic motivational tool, but it’s just that: a fantasy. No one gets it done by themselves. The idea that great entrepreneurs are self-made is a myth that’s central to the American consciousness, but to take a large scale commercial vision from concept to reality in an insular, exclusive, and capital intensive industry like fashion requires a patron. Kanye is searching for that patron. Should he find one, he may succeed in breaking down walls and democratizing high fashion. Or, he may just break down. We’ll never know unless somebody helps him do his thing, just like somebody helped Steve Jobs and Michelangelo. Oh, and Jesus, too.

Amen.

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You Ain’t Got the Answers: Part One

"Who gone stop me, huh?"

“Who gone stop me, huh?”

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A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece on Kanye West and his frustration with his inability to break into the fashion world. I thought that would be that. In the last couple of weeks however, I’ve watched the anti-Yeezus stream grow into a river threatening to flood the internet. The deluge has consisted of nasty one-liners, thoughtful psychological profiles, and everything in-between, but it’s all had one thing in common: overwhelming negativity.

The Wall Street Journal’s Christina Binkley seemed to delight in underscoring just how hard of a time Mr. West is having. While her scathingly sarcastic piece took pains to underscore just how unimpressive Kanye’s designs have been thus far, she largely chalked up his failure to penetrate fashion’s inner circle to his inconsistency. “In order to be sold, clothes have to be produced,” she reminded us.

I’m no expert on the fashion industry. I mean, I don’t know Ricardo Tisci from fucking Ricardo Montalbán. Still, to these eyes what Ms. Binkley conveniently seems to be overlooking is the fact that for clothes to be produced, one must have access to a means of production. In addition, once the clothes are successfully produced, one must have access to a means of distribution. The fashion industry is not the technology industry. You can’t just rent office space, buy a couple of computers, put up a site and start looking for yacht club memberships. Producing a fashion brand at the level Kanye desires requires substantial capital and, apparently, some imagination on the part of the investor. No offense to the relative success of Pharrell Williams’ Ice Cream and BBC lines, but if I hear one more comparison between Yeezy and Skateboard P’s fashion pursuits I’m gonna pop an ollie into a boardslide…on somebody’s fucking head. Pharrell’s joints are streetwear brands. I’m sure Kanye could get the money to start one of those faster than you could say “cultural ghettoization,” but our boy is aiming for Ralph Lauren style and status.

So, in order to achieve the consistency Ms. Binkley chides him for lacking, he needs a shit ton of support from one of the handful of people who controls the gears of production and distribution…and he’s not getting it. That’s why, after rather cogently and calmly answering the question of why he can’t just do it himself on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, Kanye went BANANA NUT APE SHIT on radio host Sway’s show when asked the same thing.

I’m publishing the second part of this piece on Friday. Press the little button up there on the right and subscribe to make sure you get the whole story!

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