Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE EVOLUTION OF BRANDON (2.0) aka "Goodbye Prolonged Adolescence..."

I've long believed that the real problem with the modern world stems from prolonged adolescence. A marked inability to accept the fact that we can't be perpetually frozen in the zeitgeist of low responsibility and sexual abandon of our early twenties.

Men and women unwilling to move beyond shallow and superficial definitions of career and culpability. Folks that blame the bad economy for having to live with their parents or be unnecessarily focused on narcissistic worship of social media technology. Where previous generations had the guts, ambition and desire to achieve despite the odds, many today regularly drink from the bottomless well of excuses enabled by like-minded bloggers also caught up in their own whirlwind of self-deprecation.

You see it everywhere, especially within the geek community where pangs of nostalgia are masking the fear and contempt of adult responsibility. I know this because I was one of those people. I spent my college years gripping the fond memories of watching Saturday morning cartoons so tight that my proverbial fingers and knuckles turned white from the pressure. 

I spent my post-undergrad years chasing the remnants of 1980s pop culture via cartoons, sitcoms and movies. As I used to be one of the World's Biggest Transformers Fans (tm), I slavishly tracked down other devotees via Usenet/Deja newsgroups and felt arrogantly vindicated by their existence. To justify my childish obsession, I'd point to other fans and say, "See! If you think I'm bad, look at what that guy does." In reality, I was shifting reasonable critique of my unhealthy preoccupation with a line of kids toys to someone just a few degrees crazier than myself. 

This could have been me... sorta.

My infatuation with Transformers was so intense that it damaged a romantic relationship and cost me a couple of good friends along the way. Of course, after several hard, cold slaps in the face by the demands of a regular sex life, I slowly moved beyond my "hardcore" phase into a manageable, respectable "old school fan" phase where I champion the inherent genius of the Generation 1 line of Transformers toys and pretty much ignore everything else. 

In other words, I'm still a fan, but I've got it under control. 

I actually don't like GEARS OF WAR!

As this time of year is a natural breeding ground for both positive and negative manifestations of nostalgia, I wonder if being stuck in nostalgia inhibits our natural progression into adulthood? My grandfather, a Black man who fought and served in World War II, used to tell me of the nonsense he endured and how hard he had to work to achieve a zero sum. 

Then I think of my own life and how I began working at the age of 15 and then had to leave my family's care at the age of 16.5 and then pretty much being on my own by the age of 17 and I wonder if my own Peter Pan complex was caused by my premature entry into the world of adult responsibility - in essence, an attempt to find a safe harbor in the tempestuous ocean of antipathy. 

I've often remarked that I was a supreme naive idealist; fundamentally believing in the inherent "goodness" of humanity and that all it would take for peace was people sitting down together and discussing their differences. I had no idea how much of this world was dominated by avarice, gluttony and deliberate attempts to disenfranchise the weak and the poor. 

Growing up in Baltimore during the emergence of the crack epidemic still wasn't enough to change my naivety. What did change me was a series of experiences at Ithaca College where I was one of maybe fifty Black men (total) on campus. I was exposed to rich kids - the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers all of whom came from towns where Black people simply didn't exist.

This wasn't just a racial thing, but more like an intersection between race, class and gender. I was not only Black but ridiculously poor (and when I say poor, I mean poor, as in not being able to afford winter boots in a place that used to be covered in ten inches of snowfall from October to May). I began to realize that other Black folks weren't necessarily my "brothers and sisters" just because of our melanin content. Issues of economic class and regional upbringing drove deep wedges between us and at the time, it was one hell of a wake-up call. 

The thing that stands out to me, even now, is that few of us were capable of existing in a state of prolonged adolescence. This was before the explosion of geekdom when a public discussion of comic book storylines or Japanese animation design would get you labeled as a "nerd" - which was every bit as offensive as the other N-word as far as I was concerned. Human nature dictated that I rebel against the prevailing doctrine of behavior - so I continued to dig deeper and further entrench myself in the cloth of geekhood. 

However, the one shining, glorious, fantastic thing I took from all the negative experiences I had at Ithaca College was my exposure to non-fiction literature. As a sociology major, I became fascinated with the "hows?" and "whys?" of human socio-political interaction. Reading certain texts forever changed my life and obliterated my previous and pathetically limited understanding of the global political-economic scene. I began to reconcile how racism, sexism, homophobia and classism affected everyone regardless of their station in life. 

I'd like to share some of these books with you. Most of them skew to the left (as we define the political spectrum in the Western World) but all of them offer a unique perspective on politics, economics, race, class, pop culture and how we've all been molded by the forces of history and our peer group. I must stress that I get no money from Amazon for suggesting these to you, I'm including the links in case you decide to take my recommendation and read these works for yourself. 

These are presented in no particular order and I'll explain why these books had such a profound impact on my psyche. 

DEMOCRACY FOR THE FEW by Michael Parenti

FROM THE BOOK COVER:  "DEMOCRACY FOR THE FEW is a provocative interpretation of American Government. It shows how democracy is repeatedly violated by corporate oligopolies, and how popular forces have fought back and occasionally made gains in spite of the system. By focusing on the relationship between economic power and political power, discussing actual government practices and policies, conspiracies, propaganda, fraud, secrecy and other ploys of government and politics, this book stands apart in its analysis of how US Government works."

My Take: This book opened my eyes to how multi-national corporations, lobbyists, Wall Street mega banks, the Federal Reserve and private corporate interests took control of the U.S. Government and managed to convince Americans that it is not only the standard operating procedure, but also is the right thing to do. A massive wake-up call for anyone under the delusion that democracy is a spectator sport. It challenged me to stand up and protest, vote, help draft legislation and participate locally. Rips the blinders off and burns them. 4.5 out of 5 stars

THE CULTURE OF FEAR by Barry Glassner 

FROM THE BOOK COVER: "In the age of 9/11, the Iraq War, financial collapse, and Amber Alerts, our society is defined by fear. So it’s not surprising that three out of four Americans say they feel more fearful today then they did twenty years ago. But are we living in exceptionally dangerous times? In The Culture of Fear, sociologist Barry Glassner demonstrates that it is our perception of danger that has increased, not the actual level of risk. Glassner exposes the people and organizations that manipulate our perceptions and profit from our fears, including advocacy groups that raise money by exaggerating the prevalence of particular diseases and politicians who win elections by heightening concerns about crime, drug use, and terrorism. In this new edition of a classic book—more relevant now than when it was first published—Glassner exposes the price we pay for social panic."

My Take: As a large Black man, I regularly deal with people's apprehension with my presence. There's been a ton of books about this, tons of Black male celebrity essays, tons of talk show episodes, etc. To this day, I wonder if some White folks can tell the difference between a Black gangbanger and just a regular Black dude going about his day? Judging by the body language I read on a daily basis, I'd wager that they cannot. Getting to the root of media-hyped fears, The Culture of Fear explains how the news media operates, how they structure what you hear for maximum impact and what the real problems are in our society that get completely ignored (i.e. the looming fresh water crisis, health care inequity, etc.). 

A society that is constantly afraid will not stand up as their rights are taken away under the guise of "security." Americans are terrified of each other. People walk around under the assumption that "something bad" is going to happen to them despite the fact that roughly 300,000,000 Americans get up every day, go to work, school, the gym, fast food restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters, gas stations and walk their dogs and pretty much NOTHING happens. Reading this book helped me to understand why people are afraid of everything except the stuff that actually can effect their lives. 4.5 out of 5 stars

TOMS, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES AND BUCKSAn Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, Fourth Edition by Donald Bogle

FROM THE BOOK COVER: "Completely updated to include the entire twentieth century, this new fourth edition covers all the latest directors, stars, and films including Summer of Sam, Jackie Brown, The Best Man, and The Hurricane. From The Birth of a Nation--the groundbreaking work of independent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux--and Gone with the Wind to the latest work by Spike Lee, John Singleton, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Will Smith, Donald Bogle reveals the ways in which the depiction of blacks in American movies has changed--and the shocking ways in which it has remained the same."

My Take: The holy grail of film analysis as far as African-American imagery is concerned. This book confirmed many of my thoughts about how Blacks were presented in American movies. As a kid, I'd watch movies with my family and laugh at the openly racist characters back in the days when they'd still show un-ironic blackface on TV. Bogle takes us back to the earliest days of cinema and breaks down the depictions of Black people that have rained down through the decades and still haunts pop culture today. 

For the first time in my life, I'd realized that there was someone else out there who saw the world like I did and had the academic cache to be taken seriously. Anyone who loves cinema should read this book immediately - especially those writers out there who are concerned about how they might portray Black characters in screenplays and graphic novels. 5 out of 5 stars

FROM THE BOOK COVER: "Spike Lee wrote, directed and starred in She's Gotta Have It, the independent-film success story of 1986. Shot on a shoe-string budget of $175,000 in black-and-white 16mm, the film was made with Spike Lee's persistence and talent plus the help of family and friends. It grossed $8 million at the box office and proved to be a major hit with both critics and audiences. Now Spike Lee reveals how he did it, mapping out the entire creative and production processes-from early notebook jottings to film festival awards. Spike Lee's Gotta Have It is a unique document in film literature - it's funny, absorbing, and fresh as the hit film itself."

My Take: I never saw Spike Lee's first movie when it released in art houses across the country in 1986. I was a bit too young and the story was far too adult for me. However, when I came of age and watched SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, I was blown away by the quality of the work as well as the incredibly complex examination of 80s-era Black sexuality. The very fact that Spike got a movie made that centered around a Black woman's sexual awakening and experimentation during a time when there were relatively few Black movies on the scene at all was extraordinary. 

Spike tells a fascinating, but frustrating, story of trying to produce a feature-length independent film about Black subject matter with a microscopic budget. He details the process from scripting to casting to fundraising to production to begging for money to editing to getting a distribution deal to marketing the movie to the eventual release and reception. A bible for indie filmmakers. While the technology has changed considerably, the independent spirit of hustling for an artistic project is timeless. Before I read this book, I had no idea how movies were physically made. I also had no belief that I could make a movie myself but after reading Lee's words, I suddenly realized that the only thing that stops us from creating anything is usually the person in the mirror. 4.5 out of 5 stars

FROM THE BOOK COVER: "Howard Zinn infuses the often-submerged voices of blacks, women, American Indians, war resisters, and poor laborers of all nationalities into this thorough narrative that spans American history from Christopher Columbus's arrival to an afterword on the Clinton presidency.
Addressing his trademark reversals of perspective, Zinn--a teacher, historian, and social activist for more than 20 years--explains, "My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)--that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth."
My Take: It is said that history is written by the victors. That's certainly true for American history as the accomplishments of straight, White, Christian, conservative males have been trumpeted to the heavens; many of those said accomplishments being outright lies or based wholly on the blood, sweat, tears, rape, murder, torture and subjugation of men and women of color, White women, the poor, the working classes, the gay and lesbian. 
Zinn's book is an antidote to the endless rhetoric regarding the "fathers" of our nation. It presents extensively cross-referenced material the enriches the stories about American history going back to the Columbus expeditions. You get a much better understanding of the bloodier side of our formation as well as the behind-scenes-reality of the Revolutionary Era, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Industrial Revolution, the birth of American Empire, the Great Depression and everything up til the Clinton Administration.
Reading this book gave me a proper understanding of American society and my place in it. Instead of making me less proud of being an American, it gave me hope that we can make this democratic experiment work in the future. It taught me that everyone who ever set foot on this land - by choice or by bondage - contributed to the tapestry of the U.S. and their stories have to be acknowledged. It would be impossible to walk away from this book with a simple-minded right-wing belief system regarding American history unless you were trying to remain ignorant on purpose. 4 out of 5 stars
You may wonder what any of this has to do with my initial thoughts on prolonged adolescence? 
Without exposure to these works, my universe was no larger than the periphery of my vision. Until my resolve was tested, I defaulted to a narrow-minded narcissism reinforced by a culture interested only in celebrating petty indulgences. That was in the late eighties-early nineties before the advent of social media and smartphones came along and distracted us from basic human communication. 
In the 21st century, I've watched two generations become socially awkward ghosts, eyes glued to plastic touchscreens, moving past each other through the mists of slick-but-empty Hollywood blockbusters, horrible electronic dance music, materialistic rap and a reality-television-fueled-expectation of celebrity entitlement. All of which has led to a population unwilling and/or incapable of perceiving the need for increased (not decreased) democratic engagement. 
I remain naive enough to believe that these folks are worthy of saving because without their assistance, our world will continue to spiral toward a permanent feudal state with the richest of all lording over the programmed and drugged masses. 
Prolonged adolescence is a dangerous phenomenon that plays into the hands of those determined to keep the wealth gap between the elites and working classes growing larger than it already is. Watching a generation bury their heads in the dirt like ostriches, while exposing their asses to the wind, is a horrifying thing. When I pulled my head out of the ground and took a look around, I didn't like what I saw, but afterward, it was impossible for me to bury it again. 
Is the fear of adulthood really the fear of pain? Growth hurts like a motherf--ker. I mean really hurts. When you avoid pain, you might be happy for the short-term, but you don't learn a new survival skill that aids in your evolution as a human being. 
On the recent Doctor Who special, one of my favorite lines was: "Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. Whatever the cost." 
My fear is that the "lesser men" (and women) will forget how fires are forged.