Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Accidental Racist

"And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American Way." - Toby Keith, The Angry American

"I'm just a singer of simple songs, I'm not a real political man.
I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference 'tween Iraq and Iran." - Alan Jackson Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)


There were a lot--a lot of a lot--of emotions coursing through this great land in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  They're captured in the two songs I've quoted, briefly, above, in addition to quite a few other works of poetry and songwriting.

Neither song, as much as I personally like them both, is likely to win a prize for demonstration of philosophy.  The work by Alan Jackson sent an arrow straight into our guts, pointing out rather eloquently that in that moment our worlds, our activities, our focuses shifted. But c'mon--he doesn't know the difference between Iran and Iraq?  Seriously?  One was (most of) ancient Mesopotamia, sometimes thought of as the cradle of civilization, and the other the birthplace of the mighty Persian Empire.  You knew that, right?  Just a couple of years later I was one of the lone voices saying "no, we shouldn't go into Iraq--it's too much like Vietnam (in terms of lack of military objectives and political structure)" and being answered "nuh uh--Vietnam is all jungle, and Iraq is all desert, duh."  Why didn't we go into Iran instead if we didn't know the difference, or at least venerated the song that suggested such things weren't important?

Yeah, I'm taking the "logic" of the song too far, as did those who strongly objected to Toby Keith's suggestion that "a boot in your ass" is "the American Way."  Frankly, I admit to feeling exactly as Toby Keith described, but I see the other side too.  All that said, though, a country song is just that--a country song.  It's not intended to pass through the peer review process for any journals in philosophy.  Instead, the good ones reach into our cores and affect us right there.

Poetry is the same thing.  In fact, writing poetry and songwriting are nearly identical; the only difference I can see is that in writing poetry you're moving the reader along to a beat that you have to create with the syllabic structure, while in songs the beat is in the music.  The idea is the same, though.  The "equivalencies" (philosophy-speak for what we writers call metaphors) don't have to be perfect.  They just have to be powerful.

All that above is why I don't "get" the strongly negative reaction I'm seeing to Brad Paisley's The Accidental Racist (done with LL Cool J).  Sure, the do-rag and the Confederate flag aren't equivalent symbols, nor are many of the back-and-forths.  The gold chain vs. iron chain link is pretty weak, too.  Who cares?

Here's my take on it.  Racism exists.  Right?  You have to know it exists, still today.  I've seen it in forum discussions, I've seen it in web content and on Facebook, and I've seen it in all sorts of other places.  It exists at several different levels and in several different contexts.  You could write--people have written-- volumes on the topic, most of them too boring for the average person to consider reading.  

And racism is bad, right?

But here's the thing.  Merely saying "it's bad" and moving along to that important discussion of the weather isn't going to help anything.  Is it always bad?  Does it matter which direction it goes?  Does the reason behind it matter?  We just saw on the news where a group of schoolkids in Georgia decided to have a racially integrated prom for the first time.  Yes, check your watches--it's still 2013.  The story, as presented by the media, is a beautiful one of teenagers coming together across racial boundaries.  Still--why'd it take this long to do so?  I know, there's a story there that can be told of people resisting change, resisting acceptance of differences, etc., but the underlying issue has got to be that nobody really sat down and talked about it in all the years of segregation.

Is The Accidental Racist a wonderful essay on the ills of racism?  Absolutely not.  Is it the best country song I've heard ever, or this year, or even this month?  Nope, I can't say that either.  None of Paisley's songs are, really, though all the ones I've heard make a point in a sideways kinda way.  This one makes a down-to-earth point, setting a sort of ugly, crumpled banner in the sand at which to start a discussion on a topic that, 150 years after a disastrous war, still lingers in our politics, our business, our education, and our lives.  Frankly, what we need to be doing, if we're ever going to rid ourselves of the racism bug once and for all, is finding a spot from which to start a discussion and talking to each other about it.  Hiding behind our own ideas, beliefs, and dogmas does nothing to ferret out the ideas and concepts that cause the problem.   

In my opinion, slamming on someone's sincere attempt to start a conversation is the best thing you can do to forward the racist banner.  

So don't do it.

One amusing thing about the panning of the song, by the way, is that nearly every site I've seen that talks about what a horrible song it is provides a link to the song on YouTube and/or the written-out lyrics.  As my own brush with bad publicity proved (back when I caught heat for refusing to abandon my publisher till I'd seen evidence of missteps in my specific case), bad publicity really is very nearly as good as, if not better than, good publicity at driving traffic to you.  Lesson to those who would be critical, then: slam without providing search engine optimization to that which you're slamming.

Speaking of links, here's a link to the song on YouTube.

Here's the link to Brad Paisley's reaction to some of the panning.

And a final humorous quote: "The reason I'm not Tweeting about 'Accidental Racist' is the same reason Brad Paisley shouldn't have written it." - Damon Lindelof, who just proved that it's still possible for us humans to try to make a point about not doing something while doing it to show that we're not doing it.  

Below are the lyrics to the song.


To the man who waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan

The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant
In the corner of the South
And I just walked him right in the room

Just a proud rebel son
With an old can of worms
Looking like I’ve got a lot to learn
But from my point of view

I’m just a white man
Coming to you from the Southland
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
But not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me to rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between southern pride
And southern blame

They called it Reconstruction
Fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still sifting’ through the rubble
After 150 years
I’ll try to put myself in your shoes
And that’s a good place to begin
It ain’t like I can walk a mile
In someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m just a white man
Living in the Southland
Just like you, I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from
And not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me to rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
Than a bunch of folks made
Long before we came
Caught somewhere between southern pride
And southern blame

[LL Cool J]
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re living in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold, but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new-fangled Django dogging invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you forget my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
(Can’t rewrite history, baby)
Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixing’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly, I’m a black Yankee, but I’ve been thinking about this lately)
I’m a son of the New South
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)

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