On Sports, Academics and  Black Youths  

Posted in Cultural Matters, On Sports! with tags , on February 17, 2015 by playthell

Russell-Wilson V

 Russell Wilson: Seattle Seahawks Quarterback
 An Open Letter To Eric L. Watree
 Dear Eric

I have carefully read your essay and here is my considered response.  I have already addressed most of your concerns in my lengthy essay “On Race, Culture and Sports,” as your argument is essentially the same as that of professor John Hoberman, ” the author of “Darwin’s Athletes,” who presented far more evidence for his argument.   The fact that you read that essay yet make the argument you offer here does not auger well for this discussion.

My first inclination is to simply retire my argument and move on to other pressing issues.  I have more important employment for my time and intellectual energies than to re-litigate an issue on which I have already presented my most compelling arguments.  And if it were anybody but you Eric that is undoubtedly the course I would take. Early on in your essay you make the following claim:

Playthell is a huge sports fan and is of the belief that sports have been invaluable in their impact on helping to move the Black community forward. I, on the other hand, see sports as a two-sided coin. While sports have undoubtedly been of great value in helping many young Black people to build character, obtain an education, and financially prosper, in terms of the overall Black community these people represent a limited few. For the greater part of the Black community, however, the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals.”

 First let me point out that according to the website Inside Higher Ed, in a 2014 article titled More Athletes get to finish Line, the figures show that in 2007, 70% of black male athletes graduated college and 81% of black females.  Among white athletes 93% of them graduated and 85% of white males.  Many of these young people would never have gotten to college without sports scholarships.

However a later study by the University of Pennsylvania put the graduation rates for black male athletes at 50.2%, but the black non-athlete students only have a 55% graduation rate.  No great difference there. I think these young student/athletes should be celebrated for their hard work and discipline rather than besmirched with a bunch of hackneyed clichés that have no basis in reality.

Furthermore, I would argue that there is no question that sports has been “invaluable “in helping to move the black community forward.  We live in a participatory democracy that where black people are concerned has been a “Tyranny of the majority” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French sociologist who produced the first serious study of the American polity in his two volume tome “Democracy in America in 1831.

This being the case, as a minority in America our progress has depended upon the ability to persuade the white majority that we are worthy of inclusion into this society as first class citizens empowered with the full array of rights enumerated in that much celebrated declaration of universal humanistic values announcing the independence of the English speaking colonies of North America from the control of the British Empire, and codified in the US constitution.  It is useless to lament this extra burden placed on Afro-Americans; it is unfair to be sure, but nonetheless true.

I would argue that no group of Afro-Americans has been more effective at persuading the majority of white Americans of our human value – by demonstrating our beauty and genius – than Afro-American athletes and entertainers!  Since you are not inclined to read history texts you are probably not aware of this fact.  It is impossible to calculate the positive effects of Joe Louis’s defeat of Max Schmeling in their second fight, which was billed as a fight between “Fascism and Democracy, but it is enough to know that President Roosevelt publicly told him  “America is depending on those muscles tonight Joe.”  And his Jewish promoter, Mike Jacobs, announced at the White House gathering “Yes Mr. President, Joe Louis will show those NAZI’s who the real master race is!”  It is difficult for contemporary Afro-Americans to realize the importance of such statements in an openly racist apartheid America, but I will be posting a major essay on the importance of Joe Louis in a few days.

However the famous Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson remembers that in the aftermath of that fight “It was the first time a white person called me an American.”  And the legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant says the performance of USC running back Sam “The Bam” Cunningham did more to integrate the University of Alabama than Martin Luther King when he came down there in that football state and ran for 220 yards in a rout against them.  When Jesse Owens set world records while winning multiple Gold Medals at the NAZI Olympics in Berlin it was a mortal blow to the NAZI claim of Aryan superiority and inspired the Jewish people and anti-fascist forces all over the world!

None of these achievements led to instant change, because massive social changes do not occur overnight, especially where there are concrete material interests involved , but I can cite endless examples of the positive effects of sports stars in advancing the race in America and abroad.  One final example.  When I interviewed some participants in the bloody Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine Florida, where I grew up, I asked them how they mustered up the courage to go on a particularly dangerous night march – which has been well documented by the historians Steven Oates and Taylor Branch Heyward Fleming told me: “Well Jackie Robinson came down and marched with us, and when we saw Jackie we knew we couldn’t lose.”  It is instructive to note that DR.MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS ALREADY THERE!  This reverence for Jackie Robinson provides a measure of the importance of Jackie having broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, even though almost 20 years had passed.

Jackie Robinson and Dr. King

jackie_robinson & Martin King

Two Giants in the Struggle

Your comment that “the lure of sports often serves as a distraction that prevents many from investing in their intellectual development and pursuing more realistic goals” is undoubtedly true, but the same thing can be said of those who aspire to be singers, rappers or Jazz and classical musicians.  How realistic is it that one will be able to make a living at any of these occupations?  Furthermore your statement begs the question of what would these youngsters in question be doing if they were not involved in sports?

I think your argument here is based on a false premise: that these young men would be engaged in serious intellectual pursuits if they were not participating in sports.  I see no evidence that this is true, for there is certainly no paucity of failures among those who are not involved in sports.  Alas,  I’d wager that there is a mountain of statistical evidence to demonstrate that impoverished underclass youths and even working class youths who don’t participate  in sports are more likely to end up in jail, dead, on drugs, etc.  That’s because the problem of arrested development is not participation in sports but structural impediments to their advancement and BAD PARENTING!!!!!

There is no evidence of which I am aware that prove sport as such is the main cause of a “lack of intellectual development” in young black males.  If so, would you please acquaint us with it?   Since your essay here is supposed to be a response to my essay “On Race Culture and Sports” I can only conclude that you are not a careful reader.  Since you have repeatedly told me about all of the wisdom you gained from “winos” and other “hood  rats” how could you fail to note this passage about my experience as a devoted football player and the intellectual enlightenment and encouragement that I received from black athletes in my youth:

Hence there was no dichotomy between athletics and scholastics In the black communities I came of age in.  Although I doubt that anyone of my generation loved playing football more than I did, that love didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a symphony conductor, nor diminish my curiosity about the wonders of science, nor prevent me from becoming a civil rights activist – although certain football players at A&M shunned involvement in the movement because they thought it could hurt their athletic careers – nor did it dampen my love  for reading Shakespeare…or later becoming a published Shakespeare Critic. (See: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard” in Othello: New Essays By Black Writers, Howard University Press

I first heard the ideas of European philosophers like Kant and Spinoza passionately debated by local black college football and basketball players like “Bubby Robinson and “Big Bama,” outside of McCall’s barbershop, which became an important center for organizing the civil rights struggle when Martin Luther King came to town in 1964, and one of its proprietors, Clyde Jenkins, became a hero of the movement. And, I might add, another hero of that movement was baseball great Jackie Robinson.”

Aside from ignoring personal testimony regarding my experience as a football athlete and being mentored by older athletes, you repeat that hackneyed cliché about participation in sports as the cause of intellectual underachievement in young black males. Yet this bogus claim was demolished by distinguished scholars from several disciplines who participated in the conference discussed in my essay.  Did you not read this passage?

…even if it’s true that Afro-Americans have a love of sport that amounts to a “fixation,” it is not automatically a bad thing. The most persuasive argument for that point of view was put forth by Dr. Keith A. P. Sandiford, an Afro-Barbadian cricket expert who is a Professor of History at the University of Manatoba, in Canada. ‘Some former colonial societies have succeeded extremely well here by emphasizing the value of education, by arguing that athletic triumphs depend to a large extent upon mental acuity, and by promoting their black, brown, and yellow heroes in all disciplines.’ Hence Sandiford, who pointed out that Barbados has the highest literacy rate in the world, argued that  ‘It cannot be disputed that Barbadian cricketers continue to be lionized by a society still enthralled by the cult of cricket, but the Barbadians (committed as they have traditionally been to  the competing cult of education) have never lost their respect for intellectual genius.  There is, in the final analysis, nothing wrong with the sports fixation itself- so long as it leaves time for other constructive addictions.’”

 Since these passages obviously made no impression upon first reading – which is evidenced by the fact that you made no mention of them – I don’t expect them to have a different effect upon a second reading.  Hence the main reason that I am engaging in this exchange is to educate other readers who may happen onto this page.  But any evidence you have that shows a causal relationship between participation in sports and low intellectual achievement would benefit us all in grappling with this critical issue.

 Russell Wilson and Dad
 Russell and Harrison Wilson
 Athletic and Academic Stars!

You insist that the problem of low intellectual achievement in young black males is due to their participation in sports, yet Russell Wilson has been a sports fanatic all of his life.   Excelling in football, baseball and basketball – he is one of a very small group of elite  athletes to be drafted by two professional teams in sports in history – and all of these men have been wildly successful American icons.  No down side there!  Russell Wilson graduated from a major university in three years while starring in two varsity sports.

His father was a sports fanatic who played briefly in the NFL, then went on to a distinguished career in the law.  Russ’s father’s mother and father, his paternal grandparents hold PhD’s, and his grandfather was a basketball star on the black college circuit when the black schools had the best players in the nation. It was he that turned Russ’ father Harrison onto sports.  Yet Harrison and his brother, who is also a sports enthusiast, went to Dartmouth and Harvard.  Calvin Hill, a former star running back with the Dallas Cowboys held a master’s degree from Yale, and his son, basketball great Grant Hill, graduated from Duke.  Tiger Woods has been obsessed with playing golf since he was three years old, but his father, a former officer in the Green Berets, made playing golf conditional on his getting good grades, so he became the greatest golfer in history and was admitted to Stanford.

Richard Sherman, the best corner back in football maintained a four point average in high school and a 3.9 average at Stanford!  He says the work ethic which made such high achievement possible was inspired witnessing his father rise at four in the morning to go out and drive a trash truck around LA, then come home and work on their house in the evenings. And rapper Snoop Dogg’s son Cordell is on his way to UCLA to play football, a sport his father introduced him to and coached his Pop Warner teams, but the coach says when he met with Snoop and his wife on a recruiting visit “He didn’t talk about football; he talked about educating his son for life after football!”  (See the video clip below.)

If you had been playing football like your LA homies, chances are you would not have been a juvenile delinquent faced with jail or a stint in the Marine Corps!  For instance John Wideman was obsessed with basketball as a kid and remained entranced by the sport his entire life, playing the game until halted by age.  His Brother Robbie however had no interests in sports and decided to become a street player instead, killed a man during a robbery, and  ended up spending his entire adult life in jail…where he will die.

John on the other hand won a state wide competitive Benjamin Franklin Scholarship that provided an all expenses paid education at the University of Pennsylvania, which stopped granting athletic scholarships years before Wideman joined the student body.  And despite having to deal with the racism and elitism of white students he became a basketball star and a Rhodes Scholar. Writing about Wideman in a 2002 paper for the University Archives, Elliot A. Greenwald tells us:

“As a Rhodes Scholar, Wideman was heralded in the national media. Look magazine’s article, ‘The Astonishing John Wideman,’ by Gene Shalit, introduced Wideman to the nation, providing a stylized version of his Penn experience, focusing on how he overcame simple racial differences to succeed. Even though Shalit and others from Look followed the team on a road trip to Yale and Brown and attended Wideman’s classes the article fails to discuss racial issues concretely… Shalit explained, ‘Girls call him up for dates, professors invite him to their homes for dinner…[T]he world is his plaything…Obviously it is not. John Wideman is a Negro….'”

Choosing an academic career over pro basketball  Wideman went on to become one of the most distinguished  American writers on the 20th century, and now has an international community of scholars devoted to the study of his work ( see: The John Wideman Society.”   I would hazard a guess that fascination with street life is a far greater danger to black males than sports!

Paul Robeson starred in four sports yet made the highest score in New Jersey on his college entrance exams, tutored his white classmates in Greek and Latin and graduate Valedictorian of his class at Rutgers –  then one of America’s elite universities.  However Robeson’s father had escaped from slavery and worked his way through Lincoln University – where they studied the same curriculum as Harvard – and thus placed a good education at the top of his list.

Alas, since you have declared on numerous occasions that you are not impressed by elite university educations, the academic achievement in such schools by the athletes mentioned above may  make no difference to you Eric, but for a multitude of people admission to elite universities and earning doctorate degrees are outstanding accomplishments; this writer included.  But you can’t have it both ways Eric, either you are for high academic achievement or not; and if you are for it then how do we measure it?  There are so many examples of black athletes who were high academic achievers that I could  go on ad infinitum; especially if I look at it Globally.

For instance Dr. Bartholomew Naji, who came from Nigeria to attend St. Johns University in New York.  Naji not only set collegiate athletic records while graduating in three years, but went on to take a PhD in Industrial Engineering and become one of world’s foremost authorities in Robotics. His expertise in the field was such that the State Legislature in Massachusetts created a special chair in Industrial Engineering to keep him at UMass.

Despite this effort he has returned to Nigeria and if he can get the politicians to fund his projects we will see some cutting edge ideas coming from Nigeria in computer science and robotics.  I knew him well and he too had parents who demanded that he excel in school.  These examples alone – although I could cite numerous others – leave no doubt in my mind that the parents you get are far more important to success in life than an obsession with sports!

It is interesting that you dismissed this argument elsewhere because you claim that it is based on “anecdotal evidence,” when you have offered NO EVIDENCE for your sweeping generalizations: anecdotal or otherwise!  As near as I can tell, it’s just about how you see things; we should take it on your word.  Furthermore you have a tendency to state the obvious as if it were a profound revelation.  The following statement is a case in point:

 “I view sports much like I do morphine. In small doses it can be of great medicinal value against pain, but if you overdo it, it can destroy your life, and it seems to me that many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.”

 Of course too much of even a good thing can be harmful, too many vitamins can hurt you, but what evidence do you have that “…many in the Black community are about to overdose from a lack of substance as a result of its abuse, both literally, and figuratively.” Have you read sociological studies that demonstrate this statistically?  Or do these bits of wisdom descend into your head from the ether.

I have no way of knowing how you arrive at these conclusions because you have already told me that you believe sociology is a pretentious fraud, mumbo jumbo I think you called it; so how do you know the claims you make about the cause and effect of large scale social phenomena are true?  Or are we to again take your word on this critical issue because you say it is so?   Is it just common sense?  Well I require a bit more persuasion: what is your evidence for these sweeping generalizations?

You tell us with brimming confidence:

“So I’m not against sports, per se, but I do think that sports should be kept in perspective. It’s perfectly natural for kids to want to indulge in games, but while they are indulging in these games it’s very important that the adults in their lives constantly remind them that sports represent the “Toy Department” of life, and that there are many other things in life that are much more important. But due to our mass societal fixation on sports, and the virtual “worship” of sports figures, they’re rarely getting this instruction. As a direct result, we’ve become a society of easily manipulated, undereducated, and totally distracted sports junkies. “

 First of all,  virtually everything you say about sports in this passage can also be said about music and musicians!  The biggest musical acts fill up those same stadiums and the fans get just as crazy…if not worse!  Here again sports is being made a scapegoat for your rightful concern about other societal ills. Furthermore, since you have cited Socrates as your role model, it should interest you to know that his prize pupil Plato, from whose writings we learn most about Socrates’s life and thought, considered music and sport of equal importance in the education of the youth in his ideal Republic. He also thought the athlete was superior to the spectator and poets should be banned from the Republic!  Hence a joker like you, a poet who disdains sport, would not have fared very well in Socrates’ crowd, for the cultivation of mind and body equally is the essence of the Greek ideal of human development.  Remember Eric, it was the ancient Greeks that gave us the Olympics: the greatest sporting event in history!

I would argue that love for and participation in sports has caused many young men to remain in school that might have dropped out, and raised the academic achievement of many other youths: THOSE WHOSE PARENTS VALUE EDUCATION ENOUGH TO MAKE PLAYING SPORTS A REWARD FOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT!!!    I am not guessing about this Eric, that was what me and all of my friends did who had kids that were athletes!  Just like YOUR SON DOES WITH HIS KIDS!   You have no trouble recognizing the good that sports is doing for your grandchildren; so why wouldn’t sport have the same benefits for other youths if they enjoyed the guidance good parents too?

I didn’t tell my children that sport is the “toy Department of life” because that’s not how I see it. I regard your statement as little more than an expression of personal prejudice that bears no observable relationship to the reality of sports in human experience.  And it is certainly at odds with the bulk of the scholarship on the subject.

For instance Dr. Marianne Engle, a professor of Sports Psychology at the distinguished New York University Child Study Center, published a paper in 2004 title “Kids and Sports: Creating a Healthy Experience for Every Child.”  This paper sums up the conclusions of the major researchers in the field of sports participation and human development, and Dr. Engle tells us:

“Participation in sports, whether as an individual or as a member of a team, plays an important role in the social, emotional and physical development of children and adolescents. Successful sports experiences provide benefits – gains in social and interpersonal competence, fitness, health-mindedness, and psychological well-being – that have been shown to last throughout life. As expressed by William Damon of the Stanford Center on Adolescence,” The future of any society depends on the character and competence of its young. In order to develop their competence young people need guidance to provide them with direction and a sense of purpose. They need relationships that embody and communicate high standards. They need to experience activities that are challenging, inspiring, and educative.”

It is an undeniable fact that sports competition is fundamental to all human societies; the more complex and advanced the society, the more complex and advanced the games they play. That’s why football, the quintessential American game, is the fastest most physically and intellectually demanding and complex game in the world!  And I know for sure that whatever a young person wants to do in society – any society in the world – all other relevant factors such as intellect and talent being equal, their chances of success will be enhanced if they are also a great athlete!

I have repeatedly implored you to read “Beyond a Boundary,” by CLR James – an athlete, sports fanatic and one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the 20th century – so you can gain a much broader view of the role of sport in society and how one can share an equal love for sport and scholarship… but to no avail.  It is hard to have serious conversations with you Eric because you do not have a proper respect for intellectual authority; as you have repeatedly told me.  This makes it difficult to build a systematic argument based on that authority and I often get the feeling that I’m wasting my time…..which is like burning money to me.

Far too much of your argument rest on intuition, subjective observations, or outright hyperbole; which as near as I can tell, is totally innocent of facts.   The following passage is a poignant case in point.

“Many in this country can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country, but they can’t tell you who their congressperson is, how they voted, or what they voted on. That’s not good, and it’s having a negative impact on not only the Black community, but the nation as a whole.”

Well, I have been an avid football fan for over half a century and I have NEVER met anyone who “can tell you the starting lineup and various statistics of every football team in the country.” I have a fabled memory, in fact when I was a professor my colleagues nicknamed me “Univac,” after the giant IBM main frame computer: AND I COULDN’T TELL YOU THE ENTIRE STARTING LINEUPS OF THE  NEW YORK JETS, THE GIANTS OR MY FAVORITE TEAM THE SEATTLE SEAHAWKS IF YOU PUT A GAT TO MY HEAD!!!   Frankly I do not believe that such a person as you describe exists accept in your imagination.  As to your point about not knowing who your congressman is, I’ve got news for ya dog: I’ve known highly educated people with no interests in sport who DON’T KNOW WHO THEIR CONGRESSMAN IS!!  I challenge you to present any evidence that sports fans are more politically ignorant than non-sports fans…..this is nothing more than BASELESS CONJECTURE!  How am I supposed to take such arguments seriously?

There are other passages in your essay that sound about as scientific as astrology.  Would you please cite a scholarly source for the following claim?

“What many people fail to realize is how profoundly their thinking can be shaped by social manipulators through the use of sports and other forms of public “entertainment.” The passion engendered through sports allows social manipulators to circumvent an individual’s cerebral cortex, or intellect, and exploit a direct line to the fan’s brain stem, or the most animalistic and condition-receptive part of their brain. That allows manipulators to condition an individual’s thinking and attitudes without  the individual even recognizing it.”

I have a former student who is now a professor of Neuroscience at Harvard, he is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Krolinska Institute in Sweden, where the award the Nobel Prizes for medicine and biology, and he not only played football but considered going out for the New England Patriots as a free agent.  He is a Florida boy and loves football like me…do you suppose that you know facts about these deleterious effects of sports on the brain but it escaped his notice?  Frankly, given your often expressed disdain for intellectual authority and your high opinion of your own intellectual abilities I would not be surprised to discover that you do. But it strikes me as beyond ridiculous.

Surprisingly, you seem unaware that your concentration on sports rather than the “other forms of public entertainment,” such as musical performance, exposes an anti-sports bias that nullifies your pretentions to objectivity.  Since you have openly expressed your ignorance of history and your disdain for sociology, on what do you base the following conclusion:

“But most Americans have blindly accepted the proposition that it’s our ‘competitive spirit’ that makes this nation great. But what evidence do we have of that? How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?”  And why must our national motive be to be “the greatest nation on Earth?” We’d UNDOUBTEDLY be much greater if we’d resolved to compete against who we WERE to become the greatest nation that we can BE. How many minds do we have locked up in the nation’s prison systems who may have the unique intellect to solve the world’s problems? Is it possible that due to this nation’s ‘us against them’ mentality that they might have lynched the very person who might have found a cure for cancer?”

.Unfortunately, sentimental prattle like, “How do we know that we wouldn’t have been even greater if we’d embraced a philosophy of enlightenment and the pursuit of excellence with the same amount of zeal as we’ve pursued the need to say, “I’m better than you?” is not a serious argument!   Maybe in Socrates’s time, when most things were a matter of speculation,  but not now, in the age of quantitative comparative sociology and scientific historical research.  There is a vast scholarly literature on this subject!  Apparently you are unaware that this question has been discussed ad infinitum.

We know that the competitive American system produced the most powerful nation in the history of the world, that’s an incontestable fact, as it the fact that the productivity and efficiency that made the US economy the richest in the world is a direct result of competition between business firms to make a better product at a cheaper price!  Your position on the other hand is baseless conjecture; wishful thinking.  It is your task to convincingly demonstrate that we could have been a greater nation without the American emphasis on competition, not simply pronounce from on high.  That may be enough for you but I am unimpressed.  Your argument denouncing the evils of competition is especially curious coming from a Jazz musician.

One of the most intriguing questions regarding the art of Jazz is “How did Afro-American musicians create and develop an art form that requires virtuosity and originality on the part of every instrumentalist in the orchestra, without the benefit of a formal conservatory?” The answer is to be found in the ruthless competition between musicians striving to be ”the best” on their instruments. Without job security, written contracts, vast financial endowments for orchestras, or retirement pensions for performers, the Jazz world is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where survival of the fittest is the order of the day.  It’s a jungle out there!

The trials and tribulations of the professional Jazz musician are well documented in interviews by the musicians and the writers who covered them.  A poignant description of what life as a Jazz musician was like during the most popular period of modern Afro-America complex instrumental music can be found in “Good Morning Blues,” The Autobiography of Count Basie.” 

Written in collaboration with the great Afro-American writer and cultural critic Albert Murray – author of the classic “Stomping the Blues,”  for my money the best book ever written on Afro-American music – Bill Basie’s autobiography  provides an in-depth look into the world of the working Jazz musician that covers most of the 20th century, when Jazz developed.  It takes us back to a time when Jazz was a new and evolving art, and moves to a time when many big bands worked regularly and some – like Andy Kirk, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, et al  – worked three hundred days a year and could have worked 365 days if they had a mind to.

 Bill Basie
Count-Basie-01_02 
He finally Made the Cut

  There was more work for black Jazz musicians during this period than anytime in American history, but you could only work if you were considered “the best man available” by whatever standard the bandleader wished to judge you – just like today.  So the more versatile and original your sound the better your chances for getting steady work.  And the major venue of instruction in their art was The Jam Session!  The central feature of these events was the “cutting session” in which musicians on every instrument tried to outplay their counterparts.  Basie describes how the competition was so thick for seats in a working orchestra that you could lose your gig from “getting yo head cut” by a musician invited to sit in on your instrument during a gig!

He recalls an incident early on in his career when the band leader gave everybody but him a different time to return from a break, because he wanted to check out a local cat on piano.  Basie says he was outside having a smoke when he heard the band strike up, but by the time he got in the room the cat on piano was wailing.  After listening for a few choruses Basie says he went straight to the owner of the club and asked him for a job parking cars!

That’s how competitive the jazz environment that produced such great musicians was.  And nobody was more competitive that the “Be-boppers” led by Bird and Diz, who took jazz to another level of harmonic and rhythmic complexity.  To get a feel for what this environment was like you should read Ralph Ellison’s seminal essay on the origins of Bop “Things Remembered, Times Past: On Bird, Birdwatching and Jazz.”  Here is a firsthand view live from Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where this new genre was molded in the heat of fierce competition and only the strong survived the savage cutting sessions.

Ellison, a trumpet player from Oklahoma who was studying composition with the famous black classical composer William Dawson at Tuskegee Institute, thought he was a bad man on the trumpet.  But the fierce playing of the musicians at Minton’s scared him.  “They were playing bebops,” he wrote of the horn players “I mean rebopped bebops.”  And he described the drummers as “frozen faced introverts dedicated to chaos.” It was a heroic act to take the stage in Minton’s Playhouse, where the rhythm section often included Theolonius Monk on Piano, Oscar Pettiford on Bass, and Kenny “Klook” Clark on drums!

There are endless stories about the day Bird strolled into that lion’s den dressed like a country boy from Kansas City, whipped out his axe from a raggedy cardboard case, and slayed them all!  Dizzy Gillespie said they had been hearing bits and pieces of what Bop might sound like, but when he heard Bird play “Cherokee” it all came together. Everything about Minton’s was highly competitive – including the gangsters who regularly hung out in there and competed with each other for everything from the flyest cars, to clothes, to girls!

The great Max Roach, arguably the most influential improvisational percussionist of the twentieth century, told me that they had heard about bird from musicians who had passed through Kansas City on tour and came back talking about what a “monster” he was on the saxophone.  “But our attitude was Sheeet, we in the Big Apple baby, ain’t nothing this country boy can play that we ain’t heard before.”  So all the horn players were laying to “cut his head”  and ended up dead…slain by a yard bird from the sticks.

 Bird and Dizzy: Taking no Prisoners!
 Bird and Diz
 Two Innovative Geniuses that Changed Western Music

That was the highly competitive environment in which the fine art of Bebop was born Eric.  Louis Armstrong – a seminal figure in the evolution of Jazz – hated both bebop and the beboppers; the music and the musicians.  He once remarked that they were mean and evil people who just wanted “to carve everybody up.”  He said The music was just a bunch of chords and notes “that don’t mean nothing!”  I have never known a great Jazz musician who was not egotistical about their playing and highly competitive, and I’ve known legions of them over more than half a century. In fact, I don’t know anybody that is great at anything of whom that is not true.

The competitive nature of Jazz as a method of creating a better product is one of the things that makes Jazz the quintessential American Art.   Like athletes, who generally embrace each other after the contest – including boxers after vicious fights – musicians form a unique band of brothers and are generally friendly after the competition on the bandstand.  In fact they embody the highest ideal of sport, unless one’s lively hood is at stake: “It’s not whether you win or lose… but how you play the game.”  And I have never known a great Jazz musician who wasn’t an avid sports fan.

The great Earl “Fatha” Hines says that after his gig at the Grand Terrace Ballroom in Chi Town he and the band members would go play baseball as soon as it was light outside; Louis Armstrong had his own baseball team.  Every chance he gets, the great Wynton Marsalis plays pickup basketball games with the youths in the projects across from Lincoln Center, and is quite proud of his jump shot!  The master percussionist Rachid Ali and innovative trumpeter Miles Davis – a seminal figure in 20th century music – were both boxers and fanatical fans who never stopped going to the Gym until hobbled by age.  Miles was best friends with Sugar Ray Robinson, who also idolized Miles.  The peerless Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, trained to Jimmy Lunceford’s “I’m a Rug Cutter,” and the powerful Sonny Liston trained to Bill Doggett’s “Night Train.”  There has always been a close relationship between black musicians and Black athletes, now it is mostly hip hop, but in an earlier period it was Jazz. So it looks like you are just an odd ball Eric; I’d bet all of these great Jazz musicians would find you as strange as I do.

In its philosophy and practice Jazz successfully embodies the highest ideals that American civilization aspires to but seldom achieves.  It is democratic; prizes individual Freedom; promotes innovation; grooves to the tempo of a machine age milieu, and sharpens performance through fair and open competition.  These are the characteristics that make Jazz the most representative American art.  Frankly Eric, as a Jazz musician I am surprised that you don’t recognize this….but then playing music and contemplating its social significance as art are two different things.

Finally, your above passage confuses  and conflates issues that have little to do with each other. People commit crimes and go to jail in every society in the world, including communal ones where competition is not encouraged.  Contrary to your faith based belief, there is no evidence that the prisons are overflowing with geniuses.  Conversely, there are numerous studies which show that the majority of prison inmates have below average IQ’s, that’s partially why they are in jail in the first place. If you do a Google search of the scholarly literature addressing the correlation between crime and IQ levels you will discover that there is abundant statistical evidence showing that incarceration rates are higher among those with the lowest IQ’s.  This proves true even when the studies are controlled for age, race, gender, and economic status.  There is no debate about this among scholars in the field.

The following passage strikes me as self-indulgent nonsense, a mindless diatribe on the evils of sport  uttered during a public temper tantrum that dramatically fails to rise to the level of what I consider serious argument.  Mostly what it does is expose an embarrassing ignorance of the ideals  and virtues promoted through sports.

 “You see, sports appeal to, stimulate, and feed upon the very worst characteristics in human nature, or what’s referred to as the “Seven Deadly Sins” – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.Each is a form of Idolatry-of-Self wherein the subjective reigns over the objective.” The very point of sports is to prove that “I’m better than you.” Sports also promotes the “Us against them” mentality that’s at the very root of every form of bigotry – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc.”

 If you really believe that this is the Message young people get from sports competition, why do you  celebrate their grandchildren participating in such a nefarious activity?   It would take a deranged person to proudly post their pictures on Face book openly engaging in an activity that by your description promotes ideas that have inspired mass murder!!! Racism and Xenophobia inspired the murder, enslavement and dispossession of black peoples all over the world before any of these sports were invented…they also inspired the Armenian genocide and the German  holocaust in the 20th century.  Will you please present some evidence of the role sport played in these atrocities Eric.  It is POLITICS NOT SPORTS that led to these atrocities!!! This is patent nonsense …foolishness!!

Let me share some real information that you obviously know nothing about, or you would be more careful in your argument.  In his 1986 book  “Jessie Owens: An American life,” the  first scholarly biography by a professional historian on the life of the great Afro-American Olympic athlete Jesse Owens, Dr. William J. Baker tells us how the Germans were so impressed by the athletic grace and prowess of Jesse Owens  and the other black American Olympians, that when they went out to nightclubs in Nazi controlled Berlin the German men and women flocked around them and several German men asked them to dance with their wives so they could take pictures….this was in NAZI GERMANY ERIC!!!!

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long in Nazi Germany

Jesse Owens and Lutz Long

In what arena other than sports could this friendship happened?

Obviously sports worked to alleviate the vices of “racism and xenophobiain Nazi Germany among those who met these great black athletes!  Jesse became life- long friends with the German he beat in the broad jump, and Max Schmeling, who turned up to boxing camp in a NAZI officer’s uniform to train for the second fight against Joe Louis, became his life-long friend after Joe kicked his ass in such fine fashion!!  There is plenty of evidence that sports create friendships among different peoples, often overcoming the imperatives of politics and the preachments of religion to do it, that’s the raison d’etre for the Olympic games…where is the  evidence for your charges; or are we once again supposed to just take your word for it?  Well your argument strikes me as baseless!

Sometimes your arguments contain elements of truth and fiction.  The following paragraph is an excellent example of this.

 “Now, if you’re a lifelong sports fan, you’re probably reading this and saying, “That’s ridiculous.” But it’s not surprising that you feel that way, because your conditioning is so ingrained, and so deeply seated at this point that you can’t even recognize the dysfunction in something that you’ve embraced and loved all of your life. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them. So let me give you an example of how the system works, and how you’re being manipulated.”

 Your lead sentence is undoubtedly true,  because you sure sound “ridiculous” to me.  However your diatribe soon sinks back into the murky pseudo-intellectual quicksand  of issuing wild proclamations without the evidence to support them. You seem to take delight in spouting amateur pop-psychological analysis of complex mass human behavior….something southern California is famous for among  Easterners.  Which is why many New Yorkers refer to it as “LaLa Land.”  Alas, psychological analysis is a highly specialized esoteric practice, and I don’t trust ANYBODY who does not have a PhD to conduct it…just Like I wouldn’t think of going to a brain surgeon who didn’t have an MD.  Hence your Psycho-babble means nothing to me.  Can you cite some scholarly sources for your diagnosis? Otherwise I shall just dismiss it as spurious prattle.

Your comment “. It’s like a religion, or someone raised to believe in Voodoo – sticking pins in dolls seems like a perfectly natural way of life to them,” reveals a shameful ignorance of the culture from which so many of our ancestor came.  Voodoo is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is a polytheistic religion much like the one Socrates grew up in, as opposed to the antiseptic monotheistic religion that you grew up in – from whence your silly idea of Voodoo arises.  It is a religion that produced some of the world’s greatest art, such as the Benin Bronzes. Sculptures produced by the Yoruba people rooted in Orisha Voodoo, inspired the innovations of the creators of modern European Art such as Picasso, Salvadore Dali, and others.

The Voodoo Inspired Art of Benin

Benin--sculpture-queen-mother-benin-bronze

The Brilliance of Benin Bronze Sculpture is widely acclaimed

And by the way, despite your cavalier dismissal of religious belief: THE GREATEST ART IN THE WORLD HAS BEEN INSPIRED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF!   I need only cite the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B Minor Mass, and the Ellington Orchestra’s recording of “Come Sunday, with Mahalia Jackson as soloist, plus any other great traditional African art to end that conversation.

The music of the Yoruba peoples, inspired by Voodoo, supplied the basis for much of the great neo-African music of the America’s when it blended with European music….such as the Afro-Cuban Rumba and Son Montuno as well as Afro-American Spirituals, Gospel, Rhythm & Blues  and  Jazz; musical forms that have influenced musicians  of all races world-wide! The idea of Voodoo as some evil black magic consisting of people “sticking pins in dolls” is a Hollywood fantasy created by ignorant and racist white folks as part of their demonization of EVERYTHING AFRICAN!

Yet contrary to Hollywood’ s depiction of Africans as ignorant savages terrorized by a naked white man called Tarzan, here is a first-hand description of the Oba’s – Divine King – Palace in Benin, the ancient African city that produced the world famous bronze sculptures, written by the Dutch traveler Olfert Dapper in 1668, over a century before the birth of the United States.

“The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries…resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles, and are kept very clean.”

The religion practiced by these people is the basis of what would later be called Orisha Voodoo.  And it makes about as much sense as any other religion in the world, but the emphasis on music and ceremonial objects made it a fertile source of artistic production. You really do need to study some black history and culture Eric.

If you want to learn something about voodoo read “Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief,” by Bolasi E. Idowu;Art and Alters of the Black Atlantic World,” and “Tango: A History of the Dance of Love,” by Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of Art History and Dean of African Civilization at Yale University.  Although you have repeatedly told me that you have no respect for Academic degrees and University affiliations, I am still including them because most people do respect such accomplishments…the present writer included.  For unlike you, I do not consider myself wise or learned enough to comment on the complex problems of the world without constant reference to the work of great thinkers.

Finally, we have trudged to the end of your tortured and curious polemic, only to  find that the contradictions so characteristic of this impassioned tirade persist to the bitter end.  You tell us:

When a fan goes to a football game, what a fan THINKS he sees are two teams on a football field with the coaches and their staff on the sideline. But what the fan’s subconscious and emotions see are two armies on the battlefield preparing to go into combat, with two generals on the sidelines. And that’s not by accident, because the spectacle is DESIGNED to psychologically condition every male in the stadium to be willing to go into combat and sacrifice his life in a blaze of illustrious glory for “The Gipper” – or The Standard Oil Company. The very same is true of the “All-American” pastime of baseball and other sports.”

 Evidently you believe this passage to be pregnant with wisdom. But I’d bet the family jewels that the only spectators who see what you have described have unwisely dropped a hefty tab of acid….it is my fondest hope that you are not among them!    After  reading your essay carefully I am reminded of the man my grandfather says thought he was speeding when he wasn’t doing five miles an hour!   How do you know what football fans think? What studies have you seen that demonstrate this?  Is this another one of your original revelations?  Alas, it sounds like pretentious jibberish to me.   Are you so blinded by ideology that you cannot see that SPORTS COMPETITION IS AN ALTERNATIVE TO WAR!!!!

However  if what you say were true: How did a non-sports fan like you become a gung ho Marine?  Everybody who has seen the Academy Award winning documentary “Hearts and Minds” or read the path-breaking book “Deadly Deceits ” by longtime CIA field agent Ralph McGhee, understands the connection between football training and military training.  Having been a high school football  players was how I was selected for a special unit in the US Strategic Air Command.  But so what Eric?  Every nation has their ways of preparing young men to bear arms in defense of the homeland…why should the US be different?  Are you suddenly a pacifist?  Well for the record, I think pacifism is suicidal in a dangerous world, and evidently so do you; as you repeatedly mention your service in the Marine Corps with evident pride.  Do you want to denounce it now? If not what’s your beef?

However after carefully reading your near hysterical screed, I have come to the conclusion that you understand about as much about sports as a mule knows about playing a saxaphone.  Your essay is full of half-baked ideas based on erroneous assumptions that I found tedious to read and from which I leaned nothing that will have any effect on my feeling about sports.  In regard to the values that sports can teach, well  when my daughter Makeda came to me to ask me if she could join the cheer leading squad in the 9th grade, which seemed like a natural progression for a young lady who had studied ballet since kindergarten, I vociferously opposed the idea.  I was writing a column for the New York Daily News editorial page at the time.  I stopped, looked her in the eye, and said: FUCK BEING A CHEER LEADER, YOU GET IN THE ARENA AND COMPETE!  LET SOMEBODY CHEER YOU!

Well, instead of becoming a cheerleader she took all of that ballet training, joined the Peter Westbrook Foundation, became a student of Peter Westbrook – the greatest American fencer of the 20th century, a five time Olympian  – and became a fencer.  Peter was convinced that the combination of her ballet training and athletic skill – which enabled her to compete in Division I as a sprinter for the University of Delaware, while a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List Student – could make a world champion out of her if he could just get her to devote herself to fencing.  I was interested in my kids participating in the sport of fencing because it was filled with high achievers from many fields.

 Makeda Voletta Dancing in the Ring of Fire

Makeda Dances in Hawaii

Celebrating the Goddess Pele in Hawaii

Today Makeda is a sports scientist, Certified sports nutritionist, a licensed fitness trainer who travels all over the country and abroad lecturing on women’s health and fitness! She also performs and teaches sacred dances from all over the African world, See “Magical Realism” on this blog.  She has thanked me a million times for encouraging here to become an athlete.  Why? Because that’s where she learned to compete on an equal basis with men, since men learn to compete through the games they play.  She also learned hard work and discipline – attributes which all good athletes must have, and she learned how to be magnanimous in victory and Gracious in defeat, she learned that you win some and you lose some battles…just like in real life!

My son also studied at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, where you had to maintain a high average in school in order to compete.  It was one of the best experiences of his life and he could have gone far in the sport if he had not loved baseball so much.  However what he learned about the price of excellence and what could be accomplished from hard work and perfecting one’s skills from Peter was priceless!  If anyone wanted a compelling example of how sports can save a young man from destruction and provide an avenue to the good life it is Peter Westbrooks.  Growing up in the dangerous rough and tumble  projects of Newark New Jersey, Peter was an angry young man who was headed to jail or an early grave.

 Peter Westbrooks

Peter Westbrook

America’s Greatest Fencer

Half Afro-American and half Japanese, he was small in stature and regularly picked on, but being spunky he was always getting into fights.  One day his mother came home, handed him a new Saber,  and said:” If you want to fight, learn to fight with this.  It will introduce you to a noble class of people.”  Peter began to study Saber fencing and began to love it.  He won a scholarship to a Catholic high school  – which has managed to consistently combine high academic standards and great athletic teams – and from there he won a scholarship the New York University from which he graduated with a degree in business.  After making a fortune in commodities trading he decided to devote his time and energies to introducing the sport of fencing to inner-city kids combining high academic achievement with mastery of sport.  He has now sent several of his students to the Olympics, and Keith Smart, who along with his sister Errin, has gone twice and Keith came within a touch of winning the gold Medal in the Peking Olympics: both are college graduates!

The salutatory effect that sports had on my son’s life was dramatic.  As a young kid he was skinny, asthmatic, and kind of withdrawn and timid.  However I would take him over to the park and throw footballs and baseballs with him. Greg Tate, a writer with the Village Voice, was my neighbor and wrote that I was a splendid father citing all the times he saw us together in the park.   However if we are to take you at your word Eric, you must believe I was actually wounding him psychologically, although even you must recognize that sports is good for developing strong bodies.

However in real life experience, as opposed to the ideological drivel of non-sports fans, sports turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to my son.  When he was five the preschool he attended, which was partially funded by the Dave Winfield Foundation, Samori went on a field trip to Yankee Stadium, to watch their benefactor, star centerfielder Dave Winfield  play, he gave Samori a baseball glove and it magically transformed his life.  The Harlem Little League was just forming, and the next year he was one of their players.

Once he made the baseball team I witnessed a marvelous metamorphosis in him.  He became more self-confident and grew steadily stronger physically.  I had no trouble getting him to eat right, and he became very organized, because that’s what it took to excel in a demanding school and play ball…which was contingent upon his performance in the classroom. I hosted an evening drive time radio show on WBAI FM that dealt with a variety of topics involving politics and culture, and by the time he was nine years old he began writing sports commentaries for the radio.

I began to give him the sports section from the New York Times to read to insure that he was reading the best writers, and people of all races remarked about this little kid riding the subway with his head stuck in the New York Times.  And when he visited his Aunt Claudia, an avid sports fan who directed a large job training program in Carlisle Pennsylvania,  her mostly white employees told him how they wished they could get their kids to read a newspaper.  And they were speechless when my sister let them hear his radio commentaries via the internet!

All of this gave him tremendous confidence in himself and his abilities. Then one day the great Peter Westbrook watched him playing baseball and approached me about enrolling him in his fencing program.  Where he was one of the few black kids competing in fencing in New York City.   In his first year of high school he started a Sports News Letter, posting a notice on the bulletin board for potential writers to submit a sample of their writing to him., who as Senior Editor would decide who made the cut.  Samori’s involvement with sports coupled with his studies, left no time for idleness and I never had a moment’s trouble with him during his teenage years despite the fact that we lived in Harlem during the height of crack and gangsta rap!

By his senior year Samori was the Captain of both the baseball and the fencing team…and he was the only black kid on either team.  Both Samori and Makeda, who are twins, graduated with honors from the prestigious Beacon School in Manhattan, a first rate academic school in the New York City public school system.  After a stint at Norfolk State University he would become the Sports Editor of WBAI, the station he read commentaries on as a child, and he is now finishing his degree and an important book on the disappearing Afro-American athlete in Baseball, a book from which you could learn much about Afro-American history.  But I have seen no evidence that you are inclined to read serious books by black authors.

 Intrepid Sports Reporter Samori Benjamin
 Samori and Reggie Jackson
 Interviewing Hall of Fame Yankee Reggie Jackson

 If the past is any guide to the future I suspect that this essay will have no discernable effect on your opinions about sports, as muddled as they are.   I say this because of your response to “On Race Culture and Sports;” I cannot imagine how you could have gotten less from that broadly learned treatise had you not bothered to read it at all.

If you had been assigned to read and respond to it in the Journalism and Media Studies seminar I taught at Long Island University, you would have received a failing grade. But beyond your failure to present a convincing critique that spoke to the arguments in my essay, I am genuinely puzzled at how you fail to see the beauty, grace, drama and prowess in the performance of Afro-American athletes: the greatest show on earth!   Your failure to recognize such magnificence is compelling testimony to the power of dogmatic ideology to distort reality!

It is even more puzzling that you fail to see that the real danger to the survival and progress of black youth are the decadent, self-destructive values propagated through the thug life ethos of certain genres of Rap Music!  By contrast the values propagated through sports are a God send!

Alas, as the old adage reminds us: “There are none so blind as he who refuses to see.” Although I am not in the habit of wasting my time and energy on lost causes, you insisted that I read and critique your essay….now you have it.  I sincerely hope you found it an enlightening read for I gave it my best effort….in any case, this is my last word on the subject.

 *************************

 

*See: “Thug Life,” and “Is Russell Wilson Black Enough?” ( Both on this blog)
** Hear the Coach that recruited Snoop Dog’s Son  http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-videos/0ap3000000469772/RES-Jim-Mora-on-recruiting-Snoop-Dogg-s-son
 Playthell G. Benjamin
On the Road
February 2, 2015

 

What to Do About ISIS?

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On War and Peace in the Mid East! with tags , , on February 5, 2015 by playthell
 ISIS murder of JapaneseAdvertising the murder of Japanese Citizens

 They Must be No Longer at Ease

These days I find myself of one heart with the ancient Roman Senator Cato the Elder, who ended every speech with the declaration: “Carthage must be Destroyed!”   The rational for the Senator’s demand was that the North African nation’s very existence posed a danger to Rome.  After all, Carthage had been the staging ground for the invasion of Rome by the great general Hannibal, who surprised and amazed the Romans by crossing the Alps with elephants. Today a rag tag group of armed Islamic zealots pose a clear and present danger to the international order by carving out a fanatical Islamic Caliphate in the sands of Syria and Iraq that refuse to recognize the legitimacy of international law, or man-made laws of any kind, especially if they are the product of a democratic process.

In their view only Sharia is valid, the laws dictated by God/Allah to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.  If God has given you the law it is perfect, they argue, how can man improve upon it? They see blasphemy in the thought.  Calling their desert stronghold the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq aka ISIS, their supreme leader Caliph Ibrahim, an Islamic theologian with a PhD in Sharia Law, is so convinced that he is carrying out the will of God/Allah he routinely orders gruesome murders of captives – citizens of sovereign states big and small – and films them for display on the internet.  These shocking crimes have provoked a howl across the globe, with multinational voices chanting: “Isis Must Be Destroyed!”

Indeed ISIS has left the citizens of the world little choice.  The pacifist may cry out for negotiation but their pleas are destined to fall on deaf ears.  It is clear to anyone who have been paying attention to the murderous antics of ISIS that negotiating with them is a fool’s errand…a pipe dream induced by ideological opiates.

Alas, one cannot negotiate with people who are led by a religious potentate with a doctorate in Islamic Law, and is convinced that he alone holds the blueprint for constructing the perfect world.  When this belief is accompanied by the idea that the end justifies the means and mass murder is an acceptable process for bringing about the new world order, plus they are recruiting Jihadists from among your populace and training them for attacks on their home land, the international community is left no choice but to destroy the aggressive state or movement.

The belief that ISIS must be destroyed has been declared by no less an Islamic authority than the theologians at the University of Al Azhar in Egypt, the land that gave birth to the modern Jihad. (see: *Of All the Places in the Islamic World, Why Egypt?)  After watching the video of Jordanian pilot Mouath al-Kasaesbeh being burned alive by ISIS militants, Muslim Scholars at the 1000 year old University of al Azhar, the most revered authority on Islamic doctrine in the Sunni world, denounced the Sunni militants in ISIS.

Their statement expressed deep anger over the lowly terrorist act” and called ISIS “a Satanic terrorist group.”  And the Qatar based International Association of Muslim Scholars, led by the widely respected theologian Youssef al-Qaradawi, called the burning a crime and issued this statement: The Association asserts that this extremist organization does not represent Islam in any way and its actions always harm Islam.”

Upon first hearing of these statements I was surprised that the Scholors at al Azhad finally spoke out on the theology of ISIS, as they have repeatedly refused to comment on the authenticity of ISIS’ interpretation of Islam.  Hence I naturally assumed that the issuing of collective statements on behalf of institutions provided a smokescreen by which the scholars could mask their individual identities….and for good reason given the murderous proclivities of ISIS.  However many scholars have courageously stepped forward and issued critical statements in defense of their religion under their own name and authority which amount to scathing denunciations of ISIS; declaring their beliefs and actions “un-Islamic.

First among these is Ahmed al-Tayeb, The grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, who said the ISIS militants ought to be “killed, crucified or to have their limbs amputated.”  Salman al-Odah, a prominent Saudi Imam, called the incineration an abomination and declared: It is rejected whether it falls on an individual or a group or a people, only God tortures by fire.” Most compelling of the condemnations is that of Abu Sayaf, a Salafist Imam from Jordan whose nom de plume among the Jihadists in al Qaeda is Mohamed al Shalabi.

Sayaf is no stranger to militant Islamic activity, having served ten years in a Jordanian prison for organizing an attack on US soldiers, but he views the actions of ISIS as a misrepresentation of Islamic teaching that is destructive to the Islamist movement. Sayaf argues:

“This weakens the popularity of Islamic State because we look at Islam as a religion of mercy and tolerance, even in the heat of battle, a prisoner of war is given good treatment.  Even if the Islamic State says Muath had bombed, and burnt and killed us and we punished him in the way he did to us, we say, ok. But why film the video in this shocking way, the method has turned society against them,’’

The principle theme in all of the condemnations of this type is the vindication of Islam through the rejection of ISIS’ atrocities, which the militants justify through the application of Islamic law.  However they have a big problem: Since there is no central authority that the billion Muslims in the world can look to as the final authority on Islamic doctrine – like the Catholic Pope or the Mormon Prophets – the matter of doctrine is open to various interpretations.  Which allows Caliph Ibrahim, who is an authority on Islamic law, to dismiss his critics as ignoramuses and charlatans, even worse they can be declared apostates and have their heads lopped off with a scimitar.

Apparently anticipating a theological dustup about their public torching of a Sunni Muslim pilot, ISIS issued a Fatwa; a religiously inspired death penalty that can be ordered by a high ranking religious leader against anyone deemed to have profaned the Islamic faith.  The Fatwa placed on the Indian Muslim novelist Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Homeni, leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, is the most poignant case of a condemned man under Fatwa; he is still in hiding and running for his life after two decades!

In the Fatwa issue by ISIS, the theological justification for burning the Jordanian pilot is argued with a scholarly rigor that sets forth chapter and verse.   In a February 2, 2015 analysis titled, Fatwa: How Islamic State Justifies Burning Pilot Alive, written by Raymond Ibrahim, a widely respected expert on militant Islam, we are told:

 “The brief fatwa argues that “the Hanafis and Shafi‘is [two of Sunni Islam’s four orthodox schools of jurisprudence] permit burning’ people.  Next the fatwa quotes the eminent Hafiz ibn al-Hajar (d. 1449) who comments that ‘the deeds of the companions [of Muhammad] evince the permissibility of burning, and the prophet put out the eyes of the men of Urayna with a heated iron [he also cut their hands and feet off], and Khalid bin al-Walid burned some of the people who apostatized’… None of this is surprising…every atrocity IS has committed—whether beheading, crucifying, raping, enslaving, or now immolating humans—has precedents in Islam, whether in the deeds of Muhammad, that most “perfect” and “moral” man (Koran 33:21, 68:4) or his revered companions.”

 No Shame in his Game: Caliph Ibrahim believes ISIS is following Sharia
ISIS Burns Pilot 
The fire this time!

 As we can see by comparing this exegesis on the theological foundation of ISIS’s Fatwa, which justifies the burning of the Jordanian pilot, with the denunciations of the Islamic scholars cited above, there is no agreement on what the correct teaching of Islam is on the critical issue of human immolation.  The obvious consequence of this ambiguity of interpretation is that the preachments of those scholars who oppose ISIS will fall on deaf ears.  And I suspect that after some of these are deemed apostates and murdered it will be harder to find oppositional theologians who are willing to go on record.  All of this leads to one conclusion: ISIS must be destroyed with military might…and the sooner the better!

But how is this to be accomplished when the US President has promised the American people that he will never, ever, ever, send American ground troops to fight ISIS? Whatever solution President Obama decides on it cannot involve American “boots on the ground!”  But even if he were willing to order troops to the area right now victory would not be easily won.

This is because fighting ISIS requires getting involved in a quagmire of conflicting religious and ethnic grievances whose roots lay deep in centuries of tortured Islamic history.  Tom Friedman, the three time Pulitzer Prize winning Foreign Affairs columnist for the New York Times, provides an insightful summation of the problem in a September 2, 2014 essay titled “Ready, Aim, Fire. Not Fire, Ready, Aim.

 To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region — Yezidism, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites. When you have a region beset by that many civil wars at once, it means there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.”

Yet, even so,  given the increasing dangers posed by ISIS to everybody that disagrees with them, American intelligence agencies should be tasked with finding the factions that will work in a coalition with the limited objective of defeating ISIS.  And since bitter experience has demonstrated that giving weapons to any “side” in this complicated conflict usually results in them ending up in the arsenals of the Jidadist, prudence dictates that we seek another strategy. Here is the ideal opportunity to finally take the historic step of removing the restrictions placed on Japan in the aftermath of World War II, which prohibits them from deploying armed forces beyond their borders to resolve international disputes.

Many members of the US Congress have called for the lifting of this prohibition – which was written into their post-war constitution under American direction as part of their “unconditional surrender” after being devastated by American atomic bombs during World War II. And regional Pacific powers such as Australia, feeling threatened by the growing might of China, are also calling for Japan to play a larger military role in international affairs.  It is no secret that this would be to the liking of the Japanese Prime Minister Abbo, who has made no secret of his desire to strengthen Japan’s military posture…even  acquiring nuclear weapons.  The Prime Minister has openly questioned the reliability of the American “Nuclear Umbrella” by raising the critical question of whether Americans whould risk nuclear war with China to defend Japan.  However in my view, any deal that would allow Japan to become a nuclear armed nation would be a dangerous Faustian Bargain and the Devil will one day claim our bodies and souls….it would be just a matter of time.

Hence what I have in mind is a far less grandiose plan.  Although if other nations that are less developed and technically competent than Japan such as India, Pakistan, Israel, South Korea, et al are allowed to build nuclear arsenals it is just a matter of time before Japan joins the Nuclear club….to think otherwise is self-deceptive folly.  But for the time being Japan could supply an affective armed force to confront ISIS on the ground. The brazen public murders of Japanese citizens on the internet while the Japanese government pleaded for their lives as they tried to work out a deal, has created public support for a Japanese invasion force to take the field against ISIS.

They have all he means to do the job and I think this could be their moment to renter the international arena as a military power.  No nation in the world has a longer history of military distinction than Japan, and some of their most influential thought leaders have made it plain that they do not like being known as  “a nation that produces beautiful flower arrangements.”   And they are anxious to remind the world that they are a great warrior nation.  I say let the remind us by taking the field against ISIS and removing them from the face of the earth….with the full backing of the rest of the world!  What to do about ISIS?  Therein lies your answer.

 

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Playthell The Elder
On the Road
February 4, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dream Deferred!

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , , on February 4, 2015 by playthell

Russell Wilson

The Little Big Man Leaves the Field: Beaten but Unbowed

 Reflections on the Super Bowl 2015

“I knew what was going to happen,” “I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. I just beat him to the point and caught the ball.” Says Malcolm Butler.

It was one of the most exciting Super Bowls I have witnessed….and I’ve seen them all.  It was a close game with grand competition and many great plays.  But because sports is what it is, a test of our physical and mental abilities on a level playing field where hard work and talent can’t be denied even by people who set up arbitrary standards for excellence, you can never predict with certainty how a game will end – who will emerge the victor or the vanquished. This is because sport has objective standards for performance and the competition to meet or exceed those standards are held in a public arena where anyone willing to pay the price of the ticket can witness it,  thus preventing foul play by corrupt cabals in back rooms who seek to fix outcomes.   In such an arena, where the pressure to win is unrelenting, greatness can arise from anywhere on the playing field.

This is clearly what happened on Sunday night in Super Bowl 2014, when two undrafted players on both sides of the ball performed on a level that might have won them co-MVP honors.  For instance, Chris Matthews, a 6’ 5” wide receiver who looks like a tight end is a compelling candidate.  Most football fans, including this writer, had never heard of Matthews before he recovered that onside kick which put Seattle in a position to win the game against Green Bay, the game that was the gateway to the Super Bowl.

A Star is Born!

USP NFL: SUPER BOWL XLIX-NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS VS S S FBN USA AZ

 A Saving Grace!
NFL: Super Bowl XLIX-New England Patriots vs Seattle Seahawks
Matthews kept the Hawks in the Game

Then Matthews,   who had never caught a pass in the NFL, came into the Super Bowl – the biggest arena in the world – and became a star right before our eyes.  Catching four passes for over a hundred yards and a touchdown, most of them spectacular, Matthews kept the Hawks in the game.   The way he was used in this game offers yet another example of the tremendous skill and football intelligence of quarterback Russell Wilson.

With his go to receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse covered by the great cornerback tandem of Durelle Revis and Browner, Russell turned his attention to Matthews, providing him to opportunity to make some critical plays.  It was in keeping with Russell’s contention that he functions like a point guard in basketball, whose role is to distribute the ball to the players who are in the best position to make great plays.  Wilson threw the ball all over the field and his only interception was on the final play that cost them the game.

The defensive back that picked of the ball, Malcolm Butler, is another miraculous story.  Like Matthews, he was undrafted and unheralded.  I had never heard of him either.  But if you have ever watched the program “Undrafted” on the NFL Network, you will have some idea of the hellish experience such players go through on their rocky road to the NFL. And the performance of these two players demonstrate the excellent athletic gifts some of the also ran’s possess.  However Butler, a safety on the Patriots squad, thought his career was finished after he was burned on that fantastic catch by Jermaine Kearse that put the Hawks in the red zone.  Butler recalls “I just went up and deflected it. Nine times out of 10 it usually goes away from him but as I was looking, I saw him bobble it catch it. Which was devastating.”

Jermaine Kearse’s Magical Catch

Great superbowl catch by Jermaine Kearse

Kearse’s Circus Catch put Seattle in position to win!

Many Patriot fans began to get that doomsday feeling as they remembered the fantastic catch made against them by a receiver with the New York Giants in an earlier Super bowl that they lost.  However fate would soon present Butler with an opportunity for redemption and he made the play that won the game and ascended to instant superstar status whose name is now recognized around the globe!  He tells us how he came to make such a spectacular and consequential play: “I knew what was going to happen “I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. I just beat him to the point and caught the ball.”  And with that the intuitive Malcolm Butler enters into the realm of Super Bowl heroes whose deeds in that game will last as long as football is played.

                                                                  Malcolm   Butler’s critical interception
Butler Malcolm Super Bowl Hero     
The Safety who Saved the Patriots Season

For Russell Wilson the Super Bowl loss must be especially bitter, although he is taking it graciously despite the fact that some are blaming him for the loss.  Alas, nobody is more dedicated to winning than Russell.  Fans are also second guessing the coach and declaring his play calling “the dumbest play in Super Bowl history,” yet a close viewing of the video of the play reveals that it was a clever manuever against a defence that had stacked the box to stop Marshan Lynch, who every football fan in the world expected to get the ball. But the play was foiled by a ngreat dfensive play….which is how the game goes sometimes. Other malevolent trolls, racist and garden variety haters used Russell’s decision to throw the ball as proof that they have been right along: he just doesn’t have the right stuff to be a pro-quarterback.

Astonishingly, the haters repeat this mindless jibberish despite the fact that Russell played splendidly in this game, putting his team up by ten points in the fourth quarter and coming within a footstep from winning his second Super bowl in two years!  Had Russell made the goaline throw he would have secured an honored place in the pantheon of the game’s immortals and been well on the road to the Hall of Fame.  Once again we see that both success and failure are grand imposters that can switch places in the blink of an eye!  Alas, perhaps the Gods were not with Russell on this occasion….or maybe he is the victim of an incompetent coaching decision as multitudes believe.

Nevertheless Wilson has set exceedingly high standards and lofty goals for himself.  For after all is said and done, in the end he remains the winningest quarterback in NFL history over his first three years. And despite his graciousness in the face of defeat, he hates losing.  The fact that this game was in the pocket can only make defeat worse than it otherwise might have been.   But he kept his chin up, predicted victory next year with complete confidence, then exited the stage beaten but unbowed.

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See Malcolm Butler’s Interception
https://vine.co/v/OtEnVFt1eji 
See Chris Matthews Touchdown Catch
http://youtu.be/nc_SrdjqlO0

How Good is Russell Wilson?

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , , on February 1, 2015 by playthell
Russell-Wilson V
Launching the bomb with his Howitzer Arm

 They Call him Dangeruss!

Every time the question is raised regrding Russell Wilson’s standing among  today’s quarterbacks in the National Football League, whose  teams contain the greatest football players on earth, we get ambiguous prattle that damn him with faint praise like the following comment from football Sean Thomlinson of Bleacher Report: “

The human mind falls victim to recency bias far too easily, so foremost in our memories right now are Wilson’s two overtime throws that sealed an improbable comeback. It’s convenient to forget that until the 3:52 mark of the fourth quarter Wilson had eight completions, and he was the reason a series of miraculous events were needed to resuscitate title defense hopes.”

Sean offers this observation in an article titled “Russell Wilson’s Decision-Making Is a Concern Heading into Super Bowl,” where he also tells us “If Wilson’s decision-making and accuracy don’t reverse course swiftly, the Seahawks could have a repeat performance of the NFC Championship Game, just without the ending.” And to unambiguously demonstrate his point he reminds us that “Russell Wilson had a 0.0% accuracy rating under pressure in NFCCG. Just digest that. 0-of-6 with 5 sacks. Still won.” Wow!  Speak of damming with faint praise.  While the facts speak for themselves, what they actually mean depends upon how the observer interprets them; it’s the old bottle half empty or half full conundrum.

As for me, I think Thomlinson is emphasizing the wrong things.  I watched the game and what left the most lasting impression on me is the fact that Brady threw as many interceptions as Wilson when you consider the fact that two of the picks attributed to Wilson were dead on strikes but were dropped by the receivers.  And instead of overemphasizing the fact that Wilson had a bad first half, I am amazed by his poise under pressure; his never say die attitude; his ability to lift the morale of his players and inspire them to believe they can win, even as all the objective facts suggest that to continue to believe is a retreat into fantasy, and the consummate skills and superb judgment to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and make the plays he needs to make while leading his team to victory!  That’s what left the lasting impression on me in the NFC championship game.

Russell Launches the bomb where only his reciever can get it……
Russell Wilson launching the bomb
………..And Kearse Cradles it for the Win!
Russell puts ball in Kerses arms to win
A Missile from Mr. Magic gets the W!

The more I watch young Russell Wilson the more I am convinced that he is capable of making any play the situation requires in order to win.  In an era of Fantasy Football which is obsessed with personal statistics Russell only cares about the win….which is the only statistic that matters to the entire team.  And, although many fans and commentators alike seem to forget it….winning is why you play the game!  If, as Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells points out, “you are what the numbers say you are,” Russ has got some very good numbers.

In terms of personal records, based on the length of time he has played in the NFL nobody can boast a better one.  For instance, he tied Peyton Manning’s all-time passing record for a rookie, and he set an all-time record by rushing for over a hundred yards and passing for over three hundred yards in a single game.  His quarterback efficiency record in playoff games was higher than Aaron Roger’s coming into the 2015 NFL Championship game; he is only quarterback in the history of the League to start in two Super Bowls during his first three years, and he is the winningest quarterback ever after playing his first three seasons in the NFL.

Despite this amazing record we still have people saying crazy things like he is “just a game manager,” or “he’s not that good a passer.”  Part of this reflects the desperation of disillusioned white guys who are suffering from an overload of black dominance in football.  Like me they have witnessed professional and major college football become increasingly dominated by black athletes.  However the quarterback position – which is equivalent to a Captain of a ship. Or the commander of a combat brigade in terms of his leadership responsibilities in running the operation – remained a white boy preserve long after the other positions were being masterfully and often spectacularly played by Afro-American athletes.

There was a mythology developed around the quarterback position that only Caucasian males had the right stuff – rapid decision making, accurate passing, poise and calm in the face of charging defensive lineman, etc.  – to effectively play the quarterback position.  Fran Tarkington, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback who lost four Super Bowls announced that he though guys with “blond hair and blue eyes” made the best quarterbacks.  He was of course blue eyed with blond hair.

However Dog Williams, a black man of “deepest dye” – as the 18th century Afro-American scientists Benjamin Banneker described himself to Thomas Jefferson in a letter calling Jefferson out about a racist remark he had made regarding Africans – murdered that myth when he humiliated John Elway in a crushing defeat of the Denver Bronco’s by the Washington Reskins in the Super Bowl.  The fact that the big blond blue eyed Elway looked like a Teutonic super hero, proved no advantage as Williams went on the set nine records in the championship game.

By the time Russell Wilson entered the NFL in 2012 black quarterbacks were no longer exotic figures, the lone exception that proved the rule, and rather than denouncing the athletic mobility that black quarterbacks bring to the game, they were being celebrated as “dual threat” quarterbacks – Randall Cunningham, .“Air” McNair, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Colin Kapernick, RGIII, et al.   Ironically, in the contest between John Elway and Doug Williams it was Elway that was the “duel threat” and Williams was strictly a pocket passer who has said “I don’t believe in the quarterback running the ball.”

Yet, ironically, white quarterbacks have always been celebrated for their ability to “scramble” i.e. run away from the defensive players to avoid a sack should the pocket break down before they have an open receiver to throw to without fear of in interception.  Tarkington was famous for his scrambling ability, as was Elway and Roger Stauback aka “Roger the Dodger.”  In fact Bill Belichek, the great coach of the New England Patriots who will oppose Russell in the Super Bowl, and is tasked with stopping him, recently compared Russell to Staubach who is a first ballot Hall of Famer.

The hood wearing Belichek looks like the Grim Reaper in a bad mood and is notorious as a mumbler, a man of few words, who appears to be in pain each time he utters a word, yet he has been effusive in his praise of Wilson.  After studying Wilson on film Coach Belichek said the Seattle quarterback did everything well and “seemed to have a sixth sense about where the defensive men are” and this is what enable him to make spectacular running or throwing the ball.”  However draft “experts,” like the much celebrated Mel Kiper, denounced Coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle GM for drafting Russell Wilson, who they said was a good college quarterback but had about the same chance of surviving in the pros as a snowball in a pizza oven.

Watching video of Kiper and other wise guy naysayers at the time is an unending source of amusement for me.  Especially in view of the fact that some people saw Russell for the great player that he has always proven to be.  One of those who recognized his special gifts was his coach at the University of Wisconsin, Bret Bielema. Having graduated from North Carolina State University in three years, Russell was drafted by several baseball teams and spent a year on a Major League farm team before realizing that he would rather play professional football.  Since he had a year of college football eligibility left Wilson looked around for a team with a pro-style offense then applied to the University of Wisconsin to play his final year of college football.

Aside from their pass oriented pro-style offense Wilson was attracted by their huge offensive line whose shortest member was 6’ 5” and averaged over 320 pounds.  They would have been the fourth largest line in the NFL; hence Wilson would get a chance to show that he could throw the ball accurately behind the kind of huge offensive lineman he would encounter on the professional level.  And the person who had the best view of his performance that year was his head coach Bret Bielema, who had done such an impressive job at Wisconsin that he was being wooed by the Miami Dolphins for the head coaching job.

In a recent interview Bielema say he told the Dolphin management that he would guarantee them a Super bowl victory within five years if they took his quarterback Russell Wilson in the upcoming NFL draft.  The coach recollects what happened next: “

“They all looked at me like, ‘You can’t say that. That’s the difference between college and pro. He’s undersized. He can’t throw.’  I was like, ‘OK, all right,’ and I honestly, that day, kind of pulled myself out of it.”

Russell Wilson at Wisconsin
Russell wilson at wisconsin
Russell had no problem throwing the ball behind this massive line

Bielema was so certain that Russell Wilson was going to be a star in professional football that he turned the job down because he was convinced that they didn’t have the necessary vision to produce a championship team.  Well, history has proved him right.  The dolphins drafted Ryan Tannehill and have come nowhere the Super Bowl, whereas Russell will be starting in his second Super Bowl in three years!!!  One can only speculate about the fallout from the decision to take Tannehill over Russ, the proto- typical tall stiff white guy with a big arm over the smaller dual threat black guy, but I’d bet my bottom there are some hurt feelings and puzzlement over that decision…..and I would not be surprised to discover some heads have rolled.

While Russell Wilson is not the first, nor the most spectacular duel threat quarterback in terms of size or athletic prowess – see: “Is Colin Kapernick Transracial?” on this blog – he has been the most successful.  Wilson is the only duel threat quarterback yet to win a Super Bowl, and now he is poised to do it again. His record in games against the so called “elite” quarterbacks, most of whom have won at least one Super Bowl, is 10-0!  And he may well win the 2015 Super Bowl, which would make him the only quarterback to win two Super Bowls in his first three seasons in the NFL: Russell Wilson is a baaaad boy!  That’s why they call him “Dangeruss.”

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Highlights at the University of Wisconsin 2012
http://youtu.be/B8r7wLnb1xc
Highlighs from Pro Career
http://youtu.be/tdxvM2FySEg
Russell Dancing with Gransma Carroll
http://youtu.be/4SzLD983ovs
The throw that won the NFC Championship
http://youtu.be/MzvsIi7p2-0
Steven A: Damming Russ with faint praise
http://youtu.be/tJMdsoH_1HA

 

Playthell G. Benjamin
Feburary 1, 2014

Reaping What You Sow

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags on January 25, 2015 by playthell
Terrorists shootout in Paris
Islamic Jihadists firing assault rifles on Parisian Street

 Darkness in the City of Lights

If the terrorists attacks that struck Paris recently were not such tragic events, listening to the attempts by western journalists to explain the causes of the random slaughter of innocent patrons in a Kosher butcher shop and the planned assassinations of twelve workers at the Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo that repeatedly published cartoons of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the founding prophet of Islam – which millions of devout Muslims consider blasphemous – their vapid prattle would be funny.  More often than not their explanations boil down to the conclusion that it’s just some crazy Muslim terrorists who fell under the spell of mad mullahs that are jealous of the wealth and progress of western civilization, lost souls wilding on the streets of Paris with machine guns.

According to this narrative the shooters – native born French Muslims of Arab/African origin – are a murderous, misguided lot who are ungrateful to the French nation and people for graciously allowing their parents to settle in the affluent enlightened realm of French Civilization, rescuing them from the backwardness and poverty of their Arab homelands. Even Barack Hussein Obama, the son of an African Muslim, offered a paean to the superiority of French civilization and their “shared values” with American civilization – cherry picking the admirable ideals while conveniently forgetting the values that produced a history of oppression, slavery and genocide against people of color spanning centuries – helping to create the backward conditions in these countries. Viewed from the perspective of western commentators the terrorist actions are inexplicable; there is just no way to explain it logically.  This accounts for the endless stream of confusing prattle that masquerades as serious analysis from government officials and media talking heads.

However it is not ignorance alone that accounts for the low level of commentary, self-censorship is also at play.  For instance, President Obama is a brilliant man who is an astute observer of world affairs and knows this is self-serving BS, but he dare not admit that the Jihadists are motivated by any complaints that reasonable people can understand.  For to admit even the possibility of a rational motive would amount to challenging the master narrative that these terrorists are not inspired by any real grievance against western civilization but are driven to madness by a poisonous irrational Islamic theology.

The news anchors well understand that to admit the Jihadists have any legitimate complaint against domestic conditions in France, or the aggressive foreign policy of western nations against the Islamic world, could quickly end their careers.  Hence self-censorship is the rule…mum’s the word.  If it were not for the independent experts featured on these news shows we would have no understanding at all of what motivates the Paris assassins.

As I listen to the conversation I find myself reflecting on an encounter I had while strolling about the grounds of Notre Dame on a clear February morning during a visit to Paris in 1996, when the city was on high alert for terrorist attacks.  I had come to deliver a lecture on Wynton Marsalis at the Sorbonne.

The Gardens of Notre Dame
Notre Dame cover_image_492
Overlooking the Siene it is one of Paris’ grandest landmarks

As on previous trips I noticed the tentative somewhat downtrodden posture of black Parisians as they went about their business.  There was a kind of “hang dog” attitude that seemed to hover about them which was so different from the bold posture projected by black Americans as they strode about the streets of New York, exuding an attitude of confidence that the streets belonged to them as much as anyone. So when I happened upon a black man in the gardens of Notre Dame, and discovered that he had lived in the city for over twenty years, I pounced upon him with a barrage of questions about black life in Gay Paree.

Having been nurtured on tales about the French fascination with Black American music and dance; their racial tolerance, and the open cosmopolitan milieu of Paris that provided a safe haven for Afro-American artists and intellectuals – Josephine Baker, Sydney Bechet, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, et al. and produced the first black military aviator in the Ace fighter pilot Eugene Bulliard.  A people who cared so little about racial etiquette that the First lady of France had caused a major scandal in the US when she kissed the great Afro-American pugilist and elegant bon vivant “Sugar Ray” Robinson in the 1950’s.  I wondered how much of that racial good will remained.  It was hard to tell in the circles I was moving in because the only blacks I met were academics who dwelled in the rarified atmosphere of the academy.  So I put my questions about how the folk were faring to the brother in the garden.

Like Othello, he told “a round unvarnished tale.”  As it turned out his name was Trevor and he was of Jamaican origin.   He had migrated to Paris from London to pursue his profession as a thespian.  A triple threat actor, singer and dancer he initially found success and had a royal ball.  But then an anti-immigrant sentiment began to grow in France; the more that black Africans from Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Afro-Arabs from Algeria, Libya and Morocco poured into France the more intense anti-immigrant racism became.  He told me that the atmosphere had become so poisoned that he was moving to Berlin.  On the morning that I met him he was just walking about the city conjuring up fond memories before bidding the City of Lights adieu.

Trevor went on to explain that Paris was still a tale of two cities, only now it would have been more accurate to call it a “tale of three cities” because Charles Dickens’ reference in his classic novel was to the class divide; now the city was divided on the basis of class, race and religion.  He explained that you don’t see many blacks on the streets of Paris at night because they lived in the suburbs where the bulk of poor blacks and Arabs lived. They were out of sight and definitely out of mind.  Most had but little contact with the swells, the creme de la crème who dwelled in the city.  And what is worse, even Arabs and blacks who had acquired advanced university degrees in business and the professions often could not find employment commensurate with their training.  The situation sounded a lot what I had observed in London in 1981 (see: “On Being Black in London, ” posted on this blog, which is why Trevor had quit London for paris in the first place.

That same morning I noticed for the first time platoons of Africans in overalls and rubber boots washing down the streets and the monuments that adorn this sparkling squeaky clean city.  In such a social environment, where the life’s chances of young people are circumscribed by race and religion, there is bound to be a critical mass of alienated dispossessed youths seething with anger i.e. social dynamite.  Just nine years later, on October 27th 2005 these suburbs exploded and it took French authorities three weeks to quell the riots/rebellions.

The rioters, who were described as largely unemployed youths from the projects located over two hundred towns and villages ringing Paris, set fire to almost 10, 000 cars and many buildings of all sorts including daycare centers and schools.  Almost 30,000 people were arrested and over 100 policemen were injured.  A year later on October 1, 2006 in the same suburbs, and there have been violent flare ups as recent as 2013.  It is safe to say there will be more.  The poet Langston Hughes asked the essential question here: “What happens to a dream deferred….does it corrode or does it explode!”

What we are witnessing with the rise of home grown terrorists in France is an explosion of pent up anger and frustration whose causes lay not just in local conditions but in their identification with the wider world of Islam.  Hence their anger has taken on a sense of religious purpose which provided inspirational myths of a glorious past and a triumphant future through the establishment of a global Caliphate based on Sharia Law; which is the vision of Al Qaeda and ISIS.   The vehicle by which the New Islamic empire will be brought into being is the Jihad; it is a vision that limitless legions of young Muslim men are prepared to kill and die for.

 Wall Art in the Suburbs of Paris
Wall art in Paris Suburbs
An accurate reflection of the mood of many alienated Afro-Arab Youths

 Consider the statement of Boubakar al Hakim, a French Jihadists who fought American forces in Iraq, given to a French Radio station from the battle front in 2003 and reprinted in the New York Times on January 12, 2015.   “All of my friends…I tell them to come do the Jihad.  All of my brothers who are over there, come to defend Islam.  They are wimps, wimps and buffoons. The Americans aren’t anything.  I am ready to fight on the front line.  I am even ready to blow myself up, to put dynamite and Boom! Boom!  We will kill all of the Americans.  We are the Mujahedeen.  We want death.  We want paradise.”  We hear echoes of this declaration in the statements of the Kouachi brothers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo and announced that they sought “Martyrdom.”  It proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a country with a Muslim population numbering in the millions there is obviously no easy solution to the problem of Jihadists.  The French President Francois Hollande has strongly denounced the terrorists and called for “moderate” Muslim clerics and scholars to repudiate the theology of the Jihadists, and for assimilated Muslims to engage with the youths to show them the error of Jihadist tactics.  Added to the police powers of the state these initiatives represent the core of government involvement with Muslim youths.  Central to their strategy is to vigorously deny that there is a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West; hence they must insist that the Jihadists are misrepresenting Islam.

The problem is that such a strategy has little chance of working with alienated youths fed up with the racism and economic discrimination heaped on them by white French society.  It is a policy that amounts to little more than a public relations offensive but offers no concrete solutions to the real problems faced by Africans and Arabs in France, which are exacerbated by the prolonged stagnation of the French economy and the rising racism expressed as anti-immigrant xenophobia fanned by the far right National Front Party headed by Marine Le Pen.

 Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, National Front Leader
Is She the Next President of France?

During my 1996 visit to Paris I blundered into a demonstration by the National Front at which its founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, called “The Devil of the Republic” by his opponents, was the featured speaker.  It was a raucous affair and the hostility of the stares directed at me and my companion was palpable, because they had no way of distinguishing me from the hated Africans they wanted to drive out of the country.

A former intelligence officer and Paratrooper with battle decorations Le Pen witnessed the collapse of the French empire in Southeast Asia and North Africa symbolized by the French defeats in the battle of Diem Bien Phu and the Algerian War.  He is a ultra-right wing nationalist politician who champions the superiority of French culture and built a loyal political constituency among those who feel threatened by nonwhite immigrants.  Although he fought to preserve the French Colonial Empire he now demonizes their former colonial subjects who have immigrated to France.

 Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie-Le-Pen
Purveyor of a racist xenophobic populist politics of rage

Back then they were a fringe party, now they are the largest party in France by some estimates.  Spurred by the Jihadist assault, a resurgent right wing political force is making their agenda crystal clear; there was no shame in their game.  Angered by not being invited to what many are saying was “the largest mass demonstration in French history,” Marine Le Pen sounded like Sarah Palin – the Alaskan Barbarian who almost became Vice President of the United States.

For instance, casting herself as an outsider, and her disparagement of Paris,  sounds quite familiar.  “Ms. Le Pen’s embrace of exclusion perfectly fits her politics.” Reports the New York Times.*  “Using old tropes of the far right in France, she took pride in avoiding the capital, Paris, which she and her supporters view as the center of political corruption an cynicism, for ‘La France Profounde,’ the ‘real France’ of genuine patriots tied to their land and their provinces.”

It is amazing how the right wing everywhere adopts these silly tropes of the virtuous provincials vs. the corrupt cosmopolites; sounds remarkable like the new Republican Senator from the hayfields of Iowa who delivered the Grand Obstructionist Party’s reply to President Obama – Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, the ultimate cosmopolite!  When coupled with her racist rants against the African and Arab population in France, Ms. Le Pen’s arguments echo Hitler’s appeal to the German Volk.  It’s just new wine in old bottles.

Alas this reactionary attitude will not, indeed cannot, bring peace and internal stability to France.  Confronted with clandestine Islamic Jihadist forces composed of soldiers who welcome death and thus are not deterred by the threat of dying, this is essentially a war of ideas….and Ms. Le Pen is propagating the wrong ideas.  It may make her followers feel good, just like Sarah Palin, but it won’t win the hearts and minds of the alienated Muslim youths of France who are joining the Jihad in increasing numbers.  In fact, should they take power in the next election, as many observers are predicting, Marie Le Pen and the National Front will make a powerful recruiting poster for ISIS.  And they shall reap what they sow.

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Janurary 25, 2014

A Mugging in Jerry’s World!

Posted in On Sports! with tags , , on January 13, 2015 by playthell
Cardale Jones running
The Amazing Cardale Jones: A True Duel Threat Quarterback

 After winning a National Championship Cardale should Go Pro

It is not often that we are afforded an opportunity to witness history in the making; last night was an exception.  For in the National College Championship game played in the billion dollar Texas play pen euphemistically called “Jerry’s World” – because it was built by Dallas Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones – we witnessed the making of history in the event itself and in athletic performance.  There has never been a game to determine the national championship for major college football, and there has never been a quarterback like Cardale Jones.

A month ago he was the third string quarterback sequestered in anonymity riding the pine on the Ohio State bench.  Tonight he became the winning quarterback in the First College championship game when Ohio State mugged Oregon State in full public view.  No quarterback began his college football career as the starter in the Big Ten Championship Game, and none before Cardale went on to beat the #1 team in college football, and then leading the team to victory in the Championship game.

Hence Cardale Jones should turn a deaf ear to all of those who are counseling him to stay in college.  I am amazed at some of the unsolicited advice from so-called football wise guys among sports commentators like Mike Golic, the co-host of the ESPN morning show Mike and Mike, even if they are former pro-players.  For despite their pretentions of prescience in football matters, we have too many examples of when they were wrong about the potential of players to succeed in professional football, and they are most often wrong about quarterbacks.

We need only look at the examples of Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Ryan Leaf, Jemarcus Russell, Todd Marinovitch, RGIII and Russell Wilson, et al.  Ryan Leaf was one of the most heralded college quarterbacks to enter the National Football League, everybody predicted that he would be a sensation, but he was a spectacular bust and is now serving time for having for having turned to a life of crime.  Jemarcus Russell was even more hyped and he too went bust.

In Command at the National Championship
Cardale Jones in championship Game
Cardale demonstrated that he is ready for the NFL

On the other hand Tom Brady barely made it into the league; he was drafted with the 177th pick.  He was not only unsung when he came out of Michigan but nobody expected him to get much beyond the practice squad.  Like Cardale at Ohio State, Brady was a third stringer with the New England Patriots and might never have gotten off the bench in a real game unless both the starting quarterback and the backup were sidelined due to injury, a very rare circumstance; one was just as likely to be struck by lightning.  But it did happen, Brady got a chance to play, and he didn’t lose a game…right up to the Super Bowl and a world Championship.  Cardale Jone’s college career has mirrored Brady’s experience in the pros.  One other notable example of a third stringer who has found even more spectacular success is Russell Wilson, quarterback with the reigning World Champion Seattle Seahawks.

Wilson, a great all-around athlete and outstanding young man who graduated from college in three years, was drafted by three professional baseball teams.  But after playing baseball for a year he decided that he liked football better and went back to college in order to play out his final year of eligibility. He systematically chose the University of Wisconsin because of the huge size of their offensive lineman, averaging 6’ 7” and weighting over 300 pounds.  Wilson’s intention was to answer a pressing question about his ability to perform on the professional level due to his height: the ideal pro-quarterback is 6’ 4” and above weighing at least 220 pounds.  Russell Wilson is around 5’ 11” 205 pounds.  Thus despite an impressive winning record in major college football he was drafted in the third round and destined to play on the practice squad.

However Russell was so impressive when he went to camp with the Seahawks he won the starting job in practice before the season began!   This was unprecedented in professional football, especially since they had just signed Mike Flynn as the starting quarterback for ten million dollars.  Over the last three seasons Russell Wilson has won more games than any quarterback in the history of the NFL over the same period of time.

He has also set some all-time records – such as passing for over 300 yards and rushing for over a hundred in a single game.  Yet many teams passed over him because of his size.  But John Gruden, the former Super Bowl winning coach and astute evaluator of quarterback talent as host of the television show Gruden’s Quarterback Camp, predicted that Russell would be great after working him out and interviewing him to assess his football skills physically and intellectually.  He also predicted that the teams that passed over him would live to regret it….and history has proven him right.

I am going to make a similar prediction about Cardale Jones: If he enters the draft he will be chosen, and when provided an opportunity to play he will emerge as a star in the National Football League.  My certainty on this question stands on firmer ground than that of the Supreme Court Justice who said although he couldn’t define pornography “I know it when I see it.”   In the case of Cardale Jones, I not only know that he is the real thing from just watching him play, I can also define the things that contribute to his greatness.

He is 6’ 5” and weighs between 250 – 260 pounds.  He has such a powerful throwing arm that his team mates nicknamed him “12 gage” because it reminds them of a shotgun.  Not only can he throw the ball 70 yards with the accuracy of a rifle with a flick of the wrist standing in the pocket or on the run.  Hence he is a true “dual threat” quarterback who can tuck the ball away and run with speed, power and elusiveness.  He obviously has a high football I.Q. based on the sound split second decisions he makes about when and where to throw the ball and when to run with it. And his poise in the pocket – i.e. grace under pressure – is worthy of an experienced NFL quarterback.  These are the tools of the trade that successful pro quarterbacks have employed.

Despite these obvious and indisputable assets, there is a chorus of naysayers who argue that Cardale should stay in college.  The reasons they give all sound like spurious nonsense to me.   The least convincing of these is that he should not enter the draft because we have not seen enough of his college play to get a solid sample of his abilities since he has only played in three games.  Here we have serious confusion between quality and quantity. When Professor Frederick Jackson Turner wrote his now famous treatise on the formation of American character “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” the gravitas of his argument was such that nobody was willing to dismiss it because it expressed a game changing view of American society in a paper of only 13 pages rather than a book of a thousand.  Sometimes it does not require an extended view in order to recognize greatness.

When I look at Cardale Jones I think of my grandfather, who was an excellent tailor who learned his craft on London’s famous Saville Row, which is reputed to turn out the best tailors in the world.  He was so good at it that he was in charge of the entire coat making division for Botany 500, which produced the finest suit one could buy “off the rack” anywhere in America.  The fact that he had hundreds of white tailors working under him – whom he hired and fired – in a racist American society where a black tailor could hardly get a job on this level attests to his mastery of the tailor’s trade.   One day he was talking about how he assessed the quality of the tailors who applied for jobs.  “They all think that I make my decision based on how they cut the pattern,” Pop said, “but I can tell what quality of tailor they are by the way they balance the scissors.”

That’s how I feel about Cardale Jones, and talent scout worth his hire should be able to see his greatness on the three games he played in college; if the can’t tell what quality of professional quarterback he will make they should find another line of work.  To those who argue  that he lacks experience and thus is unprepared to lead an NFL team just now I say: so what?  For most of the history of the NFL young quarterbacks were expected to sit and observe a master at work for about three tears; it is only recently that rookies have been expected to start.

Quarerbacks were chosen on the basis of their talent and the potential it represente.  Most of the Hall of Fame quarterbacks did not start as rookies, and a prospect who promised a decade or more as a great starting quarterback is a damn good bet; the kind of pick that could make a coach and General Manager’s career.  Cordale Jones was pitted against this year’s Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota – who was being discussed as possibly the #1 pick in the draft, over the sensational Florida State quarterback Jamis Winston, last year’s Heisman winner and quarterback of the national champions whom the Ducks blew out in the first round of the playoff competitions –   and he looked like a grown man competing with teenage boy.  I believe Jones is a superstar waiting in the wings; he is ready to perform on the big stage in prime time.  Despite what the so-called football wise guys say, I predict that Cardale Jones will be drafted in the first round should he enter the draft.

I am also convinced that he would be one of the biggest fools the Gods ever blew breath in should he return to Ohio State.  There is no upside to it, he has already declared in a tweet that he came to Ohio to play football and he has been here and done that splendidly.  There is nothing more to be gained by staying in college; he can get a degree when his pro football career is over, as he will still be a young man and rich enough to do whatever he wants in life.  Alas, football is a violent and dangerous game in which a career can be ended in a single hit; hence it is folly to play one more down of college football…let alone another season. And if I were Cordale I would throw my hat in the ring, kiss college goodbye – where he is making millions for the colleges and coaches – take the money and run!

 A True Duel Threat.

Cardale Jones - assing

He can sling the ball all over the field accurately
And he is a great runner…
Cardale Jones, Champion 
 That can run around you….or over you!

********************

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Janurary 13, 2014

Reflections on Abraham Lincoln and Slavery

Posted in Uncategorized on January 5, 2015 by playthell

 

Rappin with Robert Allen Jones, Janie Jones and Miss Barbra 002 The First Baptist Church of St. Augustine Florida

 A New Year’s Remembrance circa 2015

When I was a boy the black churches in Florida used to hold a “Watchman” service every New Year’s Eve. As I remember it we would gather in First Baptist Church around ten o’clock, and there would be singing and sermons and communal prayers. At some point the electric lights would be turned off and we would sit by candle light as the preacher would call out “Watchman what time it is!” And the Watchman would reply “It’s eleven o’clock” and so on at various intervals growing shorter as we got round bout midnight until the New Year dawned and the congregation rejoiced in jubilation. Then we would enjoy a delicious repast prepared by the sisters in the basement of the church.

Held in the shadow of the old slave market, whose iron and stone structure was still standing a few blocks away just as it was during ante-bellum times, the Watchman ceremony had real meaning to the people at First Baptist. For unlike today, when young black people talk so glibly about how “nothing has changed” and a New York Times sports writer who ought to know better titles his book about rich black professional athletes “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” there were still people in our community who had been been born into slavery and they and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were among those huddled in the church waiting for the clock to strike midnight.

The Old Slave Market in Downtown St. Augustine

My Trip to florida with Makeda ETC 509

We viewed this as a sobering symbol of how far we had come

 I have no doubt that if these people who carried the memories of slavery in their hearts and minds could hear 21st century Afro-Americans, living in a time when a black family occupies the White House and many other black people doing everything they are good enough to do, comparing their problems to those of slaves they would surely have regarded such words as the mutterings of fools or a scandalous attempt to mock their ordeal in the hell of American slavery – one of the worse systems of human bondage ever devised by the minds of evil men. Harriet Tubman said it was “worse than hell” and Frederick Douglass told a white audience “One minute” as an American slave “was worse than centuries of that which your forefathers arose in armed revolt against.” Hence to anybody that actually experienced slavery – like my Aunts Gussie and Sally, who showed me the lash marks from the overseer’s whip – the casual equations of their conditions with the problems faced by present day Afro-Americans would be viewed as blasphemy.

They would also have looked upon the denigration of Abraham Lincoln’s role in ending their bondage and bringing about the Day of Jubilee, when the Emancipation Proclamation became law, as sacrilegious. The reverence with which President Lincoln was held by Afro-Americans in St. Augustine Florida is self-evident in the name they chose for their community, the oldest in the nation, which before the Civil War was known as “Little Africa,” but after Emancipation was renamed “Lincolnville.” Even Frederick Douglass – who famously spoke in the city after the Civil War put an end to slavery – and was quite candid in his criticism of Lincoln, had this to say about the assassinated president at the Washington dedication of the statue by Thomas Ball known as the “Freedman’s Memorial,” on April 14, 1876:

“We are here in the District of Columbia, here in the city of Washington, the most luminous point of American territory; a city recently transformed and made beautiful in its body and in its spirit; we are here in the place where the ablest and best men of the country are sent to devise the policy, enact the laws, and shape the destiny of the Republic; we are here, with the stately pillars and majestic dome of the Capitol of the nation looking down upon us; we are here, with the broad earth freshly adorned with the foliage and flowers of spring for our church, and all races, colors, and conditions of men for our congregation — in a word, we are here to express, as best we may, by appropriate forms and ceremonies, our grateful sense of the vast, high, and preeminent services rendered to ourselves, to our race, to our country, and to the whole world by Abraham Lincoln.”

Douglass would go on to say: “we, the colored people, newly emancipated and rejoicing in our blood-bought freedom, near the close of the first century in the life of this Republic, have now and here unveiled, set apart, and dedicated a monument of enduring granite and bronze, in every line, feature, and figure of which the men of this generation may read, and those of aftercoming generations may read, something of the exalted character and great works of Abraham Lincoln, the first martyr President of the United States.”

The Freedman’s Memorial

Freedman's Memorial II

A Commemoration by Former Slaves

Having begun by unambiguously enumerating Lincoln’s virtues, Douglass, the most incisive and thoughtful commentator on the great issues of his time, understood that in order to learn from history one had to first tell it like it was. Hence he made no attempt to mask Lincoln’s shortcomings. He told the august gathering:

We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery.

His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity.”

Frederick Douglass

Frederick douglass III

The Wisest Voice in the Nation

Then with his characteristic eloquence and unfailing evenhanded approach to argument, he noted:

“When, therefore, it shall be asked what we have to do with the memory of Abraham Lincoln, or what Abraham Lincoln had to do with us, the answer is ready, full, and complete. Though he loved Caesar less than Rome, though the Union was more to him than our freedom or our future, under his wise and beneficent rule we saw ourselves gradually lifted from the depths of slavery to the heights of liberty and manhood; under his wise and beneficent rule, and by measures approved and vigorously pressed by him, we saw that the handwriting of ages, in the form of prejudice and proscription, was rapidly fading away from the face of our whole country; under his rule, and in due time, about as soon after all as the country could tolerate the strange spectacle, we saw our brave sons and brothers laying off the rags of bondage, and being clothed all over in the blue uniforms of the soldiers of the United States; under his rule we saw two hundred thousand of our dark and dusky people responding to the call of Abraham Lincoln, and with muskets on their shoulders, and eagles on their buttons, timing their high footsteps to liberty and union under the national flag; under his rule we saw the independence of the black republic of Haiti, the special object of slave-holding aversion and horror, fully recognized, and her minister, a colored gentleman, duly received here in the city of Washington; under his rule we saw the internal slave-trade, which so long disgraced the nation, abolished, and slavery abolished in the District of Columbia; under his rule we saw for the first time the law enforced against the foreign slave trade, and the first slave-trader hanged like any other pirate or murderer; under his rule, assisted by the greatest captain of our age, and his inspiration, we saw the Confederate States, based upon the idea that our race must be slaves, and slaves forever, battered to pieces and scattered to the four winds; under his rule, and in the fullness of time, we saw Abraham Lincoln, after giving the slave-holders three months’ grace in which to save their hateful slave system, penning the immortal paper, which, though special in its language, was general in its principles and effect, making slavery forever impossible in the United States. Though we waited long, we saw all this and more.”

The wise and candid Douglass, who had devoted his entire adult life to the struggle for the abolition of slavery, who had rejected the call to African emigration issued by the nationalist intellectuals who opted for “African Redemption,” a euphemism for Afro-American colonization of Africa supported by the white racist in the American Colonization Society, asked if free blacks left America: “who would speak for the millions in chains.” Having been a slave – unlike the African Redemptionist such as Reverend Alexander Crummell, Dr. Martin R. Delany, and Reverend Edward Wilmont Blyden -no one was more emotionally invested in the evolution of the Emancipation Proclamation in a land where the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was a life sentence.   And he provides us moving first hand testimony as to the mood of African Americans on the eve of the Emancipation…the first “Watch Night.”

Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863,” he asks, “when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

Black Folk at Watchman Ceremony

Watchman Service on New Year's Eve

A black southern church in the early 20th century

For anyone interested in a balanced assessment of Abraham Lincoln this speech by Frederick Douglass is a must read; the text can be easily found on Google. But for the purpose of this essay I shall offer but one other quote. It was selected for its clarity in stating a fact that few of Lincoln’s contemporary critics recognize: Politics is the art of the possible! Douglas, astute political analyst that he was, understood that Lincoln was not a king; that his power was checked by two other branches of government, and that powerful members of both branches vehemently opposed any attempt at emancipating black slaves. Given that reality he had to make deals, enter into compromises that offended moral purists. He did not always understand this and was wont to condemn these vacillations, but in the end Douglass saw the light.

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

Alas, as the learned and insightful social/intellectual historian and thoughtful commentator on America politics and culture Harold Cruse has observed: Americans are anti-intellectual and anti-historical. Thus people who regard themselves as well educated enough to post their opinions about weighty historical matters on Facebook – that great unmediated forum of opinion – do not take the time to read what Frederick Douglass thought of President Lincoln, despite the fact that they were contemporaries and Douglass watched his every move because ending slavery was the grand crusade of his life. Instead they seek the opinion of popular historians and magazine writers and swear by them.

Indeed, the raison d’etre of this essay is just such an opinion posted on Facebook. The self-assured commentator is convinced that he has found out “the truth” about Lincoln he feels compelled to spread it with the conviction of a Jack legged preacher proclaiming “the good news,” and with no less conviction.

“Folks really need to read Lerone Bennett’s book on Lincoln, “Forced Into Glory.” the writer tells us, “People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none. But yeah I get the popular mythology of Lincoln”

President Lincoln at Antietam Battlefield

Abraham Lincoln Antietam

The Civil War….and Lincoln’s prosecution of it is no myth

Like most polemics that prize passion over reason this argument misses the mark by a mile.  From the outset our self-styled savant is fatally handicapped by his ignorance of history.    Lyrone Bennet Jr, a friend and respected scribe with whom I shared the podium on several occasions, was a very compelling magazine feature writer, not a professional historian.  This is a distinction that laymen are not equipped to understand but is in a very real distinction nonetheless.

In a nutshell what it boils down to is that historians go to the original records and attempt to present objective arguments based on that evidence regardless of their personal feelings about the subject.  And the work they produce is subjected to rigorous peer review.  Stacking the evidence in order to make a polemical point is called “Special Pleading.”  In its worst manifestation it is called “popular mythology,” which is what magazine writers do.  It is an approach to historical writing that is universally rejected by professional historians, and for very good reason.

Lyrone Bennett was Senior Editor of Ebony Magazine, whose role as stated by its founder and longtime publisher, John Johnson, is to report positive news about black Americans and denounce racist discrimination.  It is a noble goal but it is not what professional historians are about.  The failure to understand this distinction is what led so many black writers to attack Dr. Manning Marable’s book on Malcolm X.  If you really want to understand something about the writing of modern scientific history read my essay “Is Dr. Marable’s Malcolm yet another Reinvention?” on this blog. ( And by the way, if you wish to know what qualifies me to present  this analysis read my resume on this site under “A thumbnail Sketch”)

For anyone to suggest that Abraham Lincoln was a passive figure in the emancipation of American slaves reveals an embarrassing ignorance.  The Emancipation Proclamation was a war time executive order, which ONLY a president could issue.  That way Lincoln could avoid the machinations of a contentious Congress, which would NEVER have voted to end slavery!  Furthermore Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved while he was in office.  When the South started the war he was a “Free Soiler” who mainly looked at slavery as an economic issue, although he personally abhorred the system he was a lawyer who recognized that it was LEGAL and thus had no intention of overthrowing it where it was already established, but he was opposed to its expansion onto “free soil” i.e. non slaveholding states.  However during the war he became a passionate abolitionist who believed that slavery was a mortal sin.

There is no better indication of the depth of his commitment to ending slavery everywhere in the US than his refusal to make a compromise with the Confederates to end the war by allowing them to retain their slaves.  To those that know but little of history this may not seem like a big deal.  However let me point out a couple of facts that should be considered in assessing Lincoln’s opposition to slavery on moral grounds. The US Civil War was the most destructive war in the history of the world at the time, because it was the first war that used modern methods of production, transportation and technology.

Before it began nobody could envision what a bloody affair it would become.  That’s why Lincoln was urged by his closet advisors to end the war by compromising with the Confederates and allowing them to retain their slaves but he refused their advice! This is a compromise that he would have readily made BEFORE the war, but during the travails of war Lincoln spent his evenings reading Shakespeare and the Bible; he came to believe that the horrors of the war was God’s punishment of America for the “sin” of slavery – just as the “Founding Father” Thomas Jefferson, a former president and slave holder had earlier confessed regarding slavery: “I shudder for my nation when I reflect upon the fact that God is just.”   And Lincoln believed: “The judgments of the Lord are always right and just.”

Like everybody that ever lived Lincoln had his contradictions, but for a white man of his time he was enlightened in his view of race, otherwise he would NEVER have invited Douglass to the Inaugural Ball – the first black American to attend that prestigious gathering of the nation’s power elite – and definitely not proclaim him “the most meritorious man in the nation.”  These were radical acts by 19th century standards and cannot be dismissed with simple minded, ahistorical rhetoric based on 21st century standards.  That kind of thinking is mindless propaganda designed to make points in contemporary polemics not scholarly history.

Such tampering with the historical record may help win political arguments but does little to help us understand our past. Of course, I do not expect the average person to understand these distinctions, and thus to recognize their value, but being a compulsive pedagogue who is genetically predisposed to combat ignorance wherever I find it – especially about things that really matter – I feel compelled to offer this explanation of the difference between history and propaganda….i.e. “popular mythology.”

I reiterate: the greatest justification for presenting history based on rigorous adherence to the evidence is that this is the only way for us to learn the lessons it can teach. For instance the criticism made of President Lincoln by our Facebook savant is strongly reminiscent of the criticisms made of his fellow Illinois native Barack Obama today.  When the Facebook savant argues:“People like Lyman Trumball, Wendell Phillips, Thaddeus Stevens, all more progressive than Lincoln on race. Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor and refused to sign two of the Confiscation Acts which would have doomed slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation. And the emancipation thing enslaved a half million black people when it was enacted and freed none.”

In this one passage we can discern the basic themes in the anti-Obama polemics endlessly reiterated by critics among black and white leftists and Black Nationalists, who have accused him of everything from being a tragic mulatto with divided racial loyalties, to “the brown face of American imperialism.” The comparison with Trumbull, Phillips and Stevens with no mention of the powerful opposition Lincoln faced, is echoed in Cornel West’s criticism of President Obama for not being like Dr. Martin Luther King and other “black prophetic voices” of the past. It is an absurd expectation, the product of a mind trained in theology and philosophy and appears to have no idea of the complexities of politics or the different roles philosophers and politicians must play in society – for a thoughtful discussion of this difference see “On Moral Preachment vs. Political Realities” on this blog.

Then there is the ever present problem of “presentism” when layman discusses historical figures.  The charge that Lincoln used nigger more than Richard Pryor “ is a classic case in point.  Our Facebook savant obviously did not take into account the fact that the use of “nigger” to describe black folks was au courant at the time and was used by a wide variety of people of varying political views, including abolitionists passionately fighting to end slavery.  It was certainly not the subject of near universal condemnation as it was when Richard Pryor was using it in his monologues like a stuck record.  Yet there is no one who believes that Pryor’s intention was to insult or injure black people.  Here the commentator does not appear to make any distinction between words and deeds in assessing the intentions of the speaker or taking the measure of a man, only the race of the speaker is considered….and he is totally indifferent to historical context.

Randall Kennedy, an Afro-American Professor of law at Harvard, has made such distinctions in a thoughtful and provocative discussion in his book titled “Nigger.”  Professor Kennedy selects two white American historical figures that made monumental contributions to the political and cultural advancement of Afro-Americans, and thus based on their deeds cannot reasonably be accused of seeking to injure or insult us despite their documented use of the word “nigger”: Carl Van Vechten and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Van Vechten is well known to students of the Afro-American cultural movement of the 1920’s known to history as the Harlem Renaissance,  because he was one on the men who helped make it happen by introducing the works of black writers to major white publishers, and arranging salons in his downtown digs so that black artists could meet and fraternize with the patrons and exhibiters in the downtown art world, etc.    Yet Professor Kennedy tells us “Carl Van Vetchen, for instance, wrote of ‘niggers’ in correspondence with his friend Langston Hughes and Hughes did not object…should he have objected?” asks Kennedy.  To wit he replies “No. Van Vecthen, a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance, had shown time and time again that he abhorred racial prejudice, would do what he could to improve the fortunes of Afro-Americans, and treasured his black friends.”

We see this same  attitude about the use of “nigger” by whites who are considered friends in the position taken by black players on the Miami Dolphins football team during the dispute between the Afro-American tackle Johnathan Martin and the white defensive end Richie Icognito.  When Johnathan Martin accused Incognito of hurling racist epithets at him the black players said it was cool for Ritchie to call them “niggers” because he was “more of a brother” than Martin. While this all sounds crazy to me, because I am not down with any white folks calling me nigger under any circumstance, we can see that other black people view the use of the word by some whites differently.

For Professor Kennedy it is purely the intent of the speaker that matters.  In President Lyndon Johnson he provides another compelling example of a friend of Afro-Americans who used the word “nigger” liberally in private conversation; about as often as Abraham Lincoln is said to have used it.   He tells us “In 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to appoint an African American to the Supreme Court for the first time in American history.  First on Johnson’s list of candidates was Thurgood Marshall – “Mr. Civil Rights” the hero of Brown v. Board of Education and, of course, the man he ended up putting on the Court.  But before he announced his selection, Johnson asked an assistant to identify some other possible candidates.  The aide mentioned A. Leon Higginbotham, whom Johnson had appointed to the federal trial bench.  Reportedly, the President dismissed the suggestion with the comment “The only two people who ever heard of Judge Higginbotham are you and his mamma.  When I appoint a nigger to the Supreme Court, I want everyone to know he is a nigger.”

It ought to be obvious to all thoughtful readers by now that it is folly to equate Abraham Lincoln’s use of the word nigger with a hatred for black people.  And it ought to be abundantly clear that all talk about President Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation having nothing to do with the abolition of slavery is nothing more than ignorant prattle that reveals an innocence of any knowledge of the history of the period, alas.

Those who care to read a biography of Abraham Lincoln that reveals this complex man in all of his virtues and flaws, a man of conviction who vacillated to accommodate the realities of politics, read With Malice Toward None by Dr. Steven Oates.  And for an excellent account of how Lincoln was viewed by the abolitionist movement read Black Abolitionists, by the pioneering black historian and first biographer of Frederick Douglas Dr. Benjamin Quarles.  And finally, whatever contemporary Afro—Americans may believe about Abraham Lincoln, to those who endured American slavery and witnessed the coming of freedom, the people who huddled with their descendants in black southern churches as the Watchman called out the hour of night…Abraham Lincoln was their deliverer. Of this the great Frederick Douglass left no doubt:

Had Abraham Lincoln died from any of the numerous ills to which flesh is heir; had he reached that good old age of which his vigorous constitution and his temperate habits gave promise; had he been permitted to see the end of his great work; had the solemn curtain of death come down but gradually — we should still have been smitten with a heavy grief, and treasured his name lovingly. But dying as he did die, by the red hand of violence, killed, assassinated, taken off without warning, not because of personal hate — for no man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him — but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.

Fellow-citizens, I end, as I began, with congratulations. We have done a good work for our race today. In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator, we have been doing highest honors to ourselves and those who come after us; we have been fastening ourselves to a name and fame imperishable and immortal; we have also been defending ourselves from a blighting scandal. When now it shall be said that the colored man is soulless, that he has no appreciation of benefits or benefactors; when the foul reproach of ingratitude is hurled at us, and it is attempted to scourge us beyond the range of human brotherhood, we may calmly point to the monument we have this day erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
 January 4, 2015
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