Monday, July 1, 2013

All the News That Causes Fits

For news junkies like me, last week was an embarrassment of riches.

At least, in terms of the quantity of major news stories.  Not the quality of their contribution to our national discourse.  While I understand that compelling news usually involves conflict of some sort, the only thing last week's headlines accomplished was to reinforce long-standing divisions in our society.

Take the George Zimmerman trial, (please!), that got under way in Florida, reminding us all of the bitter racial divide that ricocheted across the country last year.  When a black teenager was shot to death by a white community patrol volunteer, the distrust, resentment, and disdain simmering at low boil across our national consciousness soon frothed anew from Maine to Hawaii.  We can all remember how polarized our nation quickly became as blacks closed ranks around the deceased teenager and his family, while whites were baffled by the media's vilification of Zimmerman.  It was dismal and ugly.

Things began heating up again last week with the cross-examination of the state's star witness, a surly young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin as he encountered Zimmerman that fateful night.  It seems many blacks held their breath apprehensively as Rachel Jeantel mumbled her way through two days of petulance on the witness stand.  Whites, meanwhile, found her credibility significantly tarnished by, among other things, her admission that she can't even read the hand-written account she purportedly wrote of the evening's events.

Turns out, she'd asked a friend of hers to write it out for her, while she dictated it, and her friend happened to write it out longhand in cursive, which Jeantel had never learned.  The lie this admission exposed, combined with Jeantel's ambivalence about using the derogatory term "cracker," plus questionable ways lead attorneys for both the prosecution and defense are conducting their questioning, have made for hollow judicial theater so far.  About the only truth we've learned is that both races have pretty much picked up where they left off while this case has dragged its way into the courthouse for the past year.

That ain't a good thing.

Last week's second major headline came Tuesday, when the Supreme Court announced a verdict regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Depending on one's perspective, the Supremes either upended decades of civil rights advancements, according to liberals, or returned 10th Amendment rights back to the states as they run their elections, according to conservatives.  Once again, battle lines appeared to be drawn based on race, since the Voting Rights Act was created to make sure blacks were not discriminated against at the ballot box.

However, it is hard for anybody to prove that times have not changed, and that people of all races are able to vote freely now all over the country.  And to the extent that our laws need to change with the times, conservatives were cheered by the SCOTUS ruling that now allows, for example, things like photo identification to be mandatory in states like Texas, whose attorney general announced the state's implementation of its voter ID law the same day as the court's ruling.

Speaking of laws changing with the times, how SCOTUS was able to cheer conservatives on Tuesday disappeared in a tidal wave of angst the very next day with two rulings regarding gay marriage.  Even though SCOTUS did not flat-out rule that gay marriage is the law of the land, which various legal experts feared could have been one possible outcome between the two cases, we're now living in a country where gay marriage is no longer ignorable or implausible.  Your state still may not allow gay marriage, but the more conventional an idea gay marriage becomes - or at least, the more non-threatening it becomes - what's to stop this tide of change from slowly redefining matrimony even in politically conservative parts of the country?

At least our nation's reaction to Wednesday's SCOTUS rulings is not the stale, bitter racial acrimony that pelted our consciousness on the first two days of the week.  Indeed, in demonstrations during arguments before the court earlier this year, people of many races and ethnicities were picketing against gay marriage, a fact that the mainstream press tried to gloss over.  Reuben Diaz, a Democratic state senator from New York City, brought 32 bus loads of heterosexual marriage supporters to one of the main rallies.

No kidding.

Also last Tuesday, the filibuster-that-wasn't took center stage as midnight loomed over the Texas state capitol in Austin, as Republicans tried to silence liberal state senator Wendy Davis during her marathon filibuster of a pro-life bill.  While many journalists and pundits have been flat-out wrong in their assessment of the night's events, crediting the unusually boisterous crowd in the chamber's gallery for disrupting the vote, the publicity has helped keep international attention focused on this conservative state, where today, the second special session called by our governor got underway.  Briefly, at least.  State legislators voted to take a Fourth of July holiday and reconvene next week.

Then there's the leftover relish from two Friday's ago.  Popular chef Paula Deen's marketing empire continued to unravel after news emerged that she'd admitted to having used the "N"-word earlier in her life.  It hasn't been the black community calling for corporations to divest themselves of her merchandise and endorsements, however, but the corporate entities themselves.  It's political correctness run amok, even though the general public isn't calling for it.  I've never seen her on TV, and barely knew who she is and how much of a following she's amassed on cable TV's foodie shows.  But the fact that corporate sponsors are dumping her in droves seems to be highlighting a new exasperation with the public's tolerance of political correctness, even among many blacks, whom Deen's advertisers have hoped to appease by their knee-jerk firing of her.

After all, how many 60-year-old-plus people from Georgia have never used that objectionable word in their lifetime?  As I understand it, Deen was answering questions posed to her during a deposition in relation to a lawsuit regarding workplace bias in one of her businesses, and she was asked if she'd ever used the term.  But how germane was that question to the case at hand?  In hindsight, Deen probably realizes it was a loaded question, and she should have demanded that it be re-worded to reflect a timeframe more pertinent to the case.  As it is, corporate America, having become paranoid of anything about which any political subset of our society might complain, can't realize that they're the ones making this story so potent.  And it's not Deen whom the public is castigating, but her (former) corporate sponsors.

Both Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter, of all people, have come out in her defense, but corporate sponsors kept defecting in what could become a mockery of the civil rights these companies think they're defending.  It's not as though Deen is either advocating the use of that despicable word, or professing to continue using it today.  There's also the unresolved reality of blacks themselves being able to deploy that word against other blacks with relative impunity, which creates an uneasy double-standard nobody really wants to address.

So much news, reflecting so many complexities, promising so few resolutions.

Isn't it amazing how the world's largest economy and most influential society can find cohesion and camaraderie so elusive?

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