Thursday, January 29, 2009

Digging deeper, seeing wider

I was recently in an online discussion about the NBA dress code and its racial implications. As it addresses a broader issue of seeing only personally important issues in larger issues, something I find in all manner of discussions (religion and politics being two), I think my response bears repeating here. Additionally, I hope you find the information I have gleaned about the subject matter itself, information that while readily available seems unknown to so many people, to be interesting as well. The assertion was that the NBA's dress code was based entirely upon racism. Here is my response:

In order to adequately address your points, it is important to discuss both the advent of hip hop fashion, as well as the state of the NBA when this fashion reached it’s crescendo there. I will start with the former: 

The genesis of hip hop fashion (baggy pants, over-sized, un-tucked shirts, etc.) is actually a Mexican invention, not a black one. It originated in the California penal system. Mexican gangs devised this style of dress as a way to stamp their identity onto prison issue uniforms. Given that all the uniforms looked the same (OK, that was pretty obvious), going for larger sizes and un-tucking them created a unique and identifiable look. 

Since most gang leadership was and is in a constant state of migration to (and often from) prison, and given the fact that leaders often retained their posts during incarceration (in many cases, they were and are revered for their “martyrdom”), the fashion on the inside soon passed to the outside. This was abetted by the fact that this “uniform” was ideal for concealing weaponry. Of course, on the outside, variations in color as well as other items not available to prisoners rapidly were added to the uniform. 

At some point, and as there is very little authoritative documentation, I will leave off a description of how and when, this style was adopted by black gangs as well. They in turn added their own symbology, including ostentatious jewelry, sports jerseys, and basketball sneakers (more on this shortly). 

What moved this into the mainstream was the rise of gangster rap. Its acts were members of, associated with, or at the very least identified themselves by gang culture, primarily LA gang culture. Thus the style of dress in this culture was a prominent part of their video image (along with guns, drugs, and “ho’s”). It is interesting to note that the fast and wide spread of this style was due in large part to the backing of (white) music moguls and clothing designers (Tommy Hilfiger being probably the most influential), who saw the marketing potential, and the profit to be made selling this narrow urban slice to a wide sector of bored, affluent, and yes white, suburban teens. Hilfiger reckoned that rock and roll didn’t reach these youth anymore, since their parents approved of rock and roll, the kiss of death in teen fashion. To paraphrase, he (correctly) noted that both the music itself and the style of dress/ lifestyle associated with it were guaranteed to piss suburban parents off, thus guaranteeing appeal among young, testosterone-laden white males. This was to be a goldmine of marketing possibilities, where album sales were just the leader into apparel sales. Along the way, tragically, this entire mélange of accoutrements and violent, misogynist lifestyle became accepted as a (the?) legitimate representation of black culture (but that is an entirely different discussion), and ultimately overshadowed the musical art-form it co-mingled with. 

Now to the NBA. At this time, the league was engulfed in two distinct problems. Both of them are tied to Michael Jordan. 

The first problem was the game itself. Given that the league had almost wholly abandoned it’s rivalries and stars theme for a one-star-to-rule-them-all system, and given MJ’s unrivaled prowess, teams led by coaches such as Mike Fratello, Pat Riley, and Jeff Van Gundy began devising defensive schemes designed to reduce the game to a slow-down slugfest, the better to try to nullify MJ. The game became quite an ugly thing, bearing little or no resemblance to the beauty of the game a decade earlier. The product was becoming boring. It was also devolving into a partisan dichotomy of Jordan lovers and critics, with less and less of the old rivalries and regional potency. 

The second problem, related to the first, was marketing. MJ was the greatest pitchman Madison Avenue had ever seen (check out the stock market plunge when he retired). He brought about the first piece of marketing gold, the uber-star shoe. No shoe (or any other article of apparel) before or since has matched the Air Jordan in market share or category creation. This shoe (and the ones to follow), along with the subsequent jersey phenomenon, was very quickly adopted by the burgeoning hip hop/ gangster rap scene. Thus the marriage between basketball and hip hop fashion was cemented. The galaxy of lesser stars also put out shoes, and marketed them through hip hop channels. “Street cred” (loosely translated as being or at least appearing “hard”, gangsta-ish, and yes, at least a bit dangerous) became a ubiquitous phrase, and an NBA baller had to have it in order to move merchandise. 

The NBA was very aware of this marketing phenomenon. They also profited greatly from it. A whole new group of people were avid fans, and their tie to it was hip hop fashion and lifestyle. So you began to hear hip hop at games. Of course, for the most part these fans weren’t the big-dollar ticket base, but they were filling the coffers from apparel sales. 

With the retirement of Jordan, the league found itself in tremendous peril. The game wasn’t as good, the rivalries and multi-star system had been abandoned, so there was a huge vacuum. With television and other basketball-related revenues struggling, the league scrambled to find its next MJ. Unfortunately, its MJ-centric system had left it with no heirs, merely a slew of hip-hop-oriented apparel salesmen. But at least apparel brought money, so for a time the league hitched itself strongly to this identity. The problem with this was that these stars, personified by Allen Iverson, turned off basketball purists as well as the older, monied mainstream fans who the league relied on for the basketball-related revenue. Was there a racial component? Sure, but to limit it to race is to deny an entire panoply of related issues. 

The league adapted, slowly but surely. It changed and re-changed rules in an effort to bringing back the free-flowing, offense-oriented game. It began (in deference to the success of the NFL) to try to return to teams, rivalries, and parity. It also realized that while hip-hop was now an integral part of the scene, it couldn’t be the sole, dominant face (as an aside, I think this explains the league's fascination with and support of the Spurs. Smaller market, fundamental, older style of play, and Robinson and Duncan were the antithesis of the AI-style persona, while also being black). 

The dress code was simply one in a long line of things the league did (including broadening the music, marketing in Asia and Europe, among others), to broaden and mainstream its appeal. You can define this strictly as racial politics, but to do so, you have to ignore a mountain of other things…

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


"We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Nine Important Words

Recently, I sent an e-mail to the Obama campaign, requesting that in his inaugural address, the new president include the words, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help".

Many of you will remember those famous words, uttered by President Reagan. Of course, he preceded them with the phrase "...the nine most terrifying words in the English language are...". In my mind, that was the seminal moment of the movement that has given us the deep economic morass we currently find ourselves in.

True, there has always been a tension between belief in, and fear of, the government, just as the question of a reasonable size and scope of government has been with us from our founding, actually before it, if you read the many discussions that our founding fathers engaged in. But it was Reagan who gave the anti-government folks a populist platform, with that one silly statement. Virtually every current supply-sider views those words as holy, and given the inevitabilities of corruption and ineptitude, it has become somewhat of a maxim for a disaffected, disenfranchised, and ignorant populace.

What exactly did Reagan mean? Given his war on drugs, his positions on state mandated morality, his cold-warrior status, and his heretofore unheard-of budgetary excesses, it's hard to say that Reagan was any real enemy of big government. In fact, the size of the federal government swelled under Reagan in a manner not seen since the days of FDR.

It would seem that Reagan's anti-government philosophy was in fact limited to economic matters. Reagan, like many before and after, believed in an economic form of Darwinism, where the role of government was to stay out of the way of the market. He was a proponent of lower taxes, primarily in the upper brackets and capital gains sectors, slashing regulations that reduced profitability, and generally staying out of the market wherever possible (with the odd exceptions of corporate welfare and union busting), believing that such behavior would spur the economy as a whole, and that such growth would feed down to all sectors,the famed "trickle-down" economic theory.

There were, however, three large problems with the theory:

1. The belief that the free market economy was a (the) central pillar of our nation, and that government and economic prosperity were natural enemies. Obviously, economics had a lot to do with our revolution, but it was more about taxation without representation than about the market free of government. In fact, many of our founding fathers opined about the tyranny of the monied elite, and our revolution was by no means a referendum on replacing the king's hereditary aristocracy with that of the local wealthy. Many, especially Jefferson, feared the rise of corporations and wealthy elites as a new set of tyrants who would strip our fledgeling democracy of its equity as much as they detested the monarchy. The very system of democratically elected, representative government was designed to protect the common man from such eventualities (or inevitabilities, per Jefferson). Belief in the market without government involvement is belief in football without rules or referees to enforce them.

2. Belief that the market is self sustaining and regulating. If history has taught us anything, it is that devoid of government intervention or regulation, the free market leads inevitably to monopolies, economic collapse, or both. The "rising tide" that lifts all boats theory summarily ignores the ultimately minute number of boat owners, as well as the fact that a healthy middle class of consumers is required to fuel those boats.

3. The belief that Capital is more important than Labor. Quite simply, an imbalance in either wreaks havoc, but the economy of the late 20th century and the early 21st has been an orgy of worship to capital, at the expense of any form of egalitarianism. A system geared toward capital equates to "one dollar, one vote", and will inevitably spell the end of peaceful democracy.

At the end of the day, the legacy of the Reagan revolution was the sale of religious ideology (a subject for another day) and fear of the government (on both real and imagined, paranoiac grounds) to the common man, the better to enlist his service in denying the one form of redress he had.

Personally, I have no interest in supporting people who have no use for the government, especially in running it. When we the people no longer have an interest in the organ that binds us together, we deserve whatever befalls us. In reality, government is part of the problem, but the ideology of abolition cannot and must not replace the idea of reform. Perhaps we can keep the baby and merely change the bath water...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is for the moment my favorite author. He's one of those who inspires me to keep at it if only to be half as good a writer as he is. Pratchett tosses off lines that are so obviously clever, yet never in a million years could be produced by anyone else.

The other day I learned he has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. This news was a bit shocking to me in several ways. First, it broke my illusion that things like this don't happen to people like Pratchett who utilizes his brain at a level above and beyond that of normal people. I've always clung to the theory that if you use it, you have a better than average chance you won't lose it. I should know better. When I was younger, my parents took in a brilliant classical pianist, head of the piano performance department at U.S.C., when she fell prey to dementia. I watched with a bit of disdain as Lillian Steuber, one of the premier performers and educators of her time, slipped away from reality. The sad thing was, that of all the people who surrounded her in health, few besides my parents seemed willing to support her in her fall.

Second, like so many others I'm sure, I fear the day when Pratchett is no longer able to produce more books. When this day comes, the Universe will mourn. Certainly, this brings to mind the same sense as when Magic Johnson announced he had the HIV virus; a devastating day for all of basketball, especially those of us who live and breath Lakers basketball. I only hope that Pratchett, like Magic, finds the right prescription to beat the odds and keep functioning at a high level for years to come.

The following is a transcript of his announcement taken from his website (I love the references to snake oil and L. Ron Hubbard).

My name is Terry Pratchett, author of a series of inexplicably successful fantasy books and I have had Alzheimer's now for the past two years plus, in which time I managed to write a couple of bestsellers.

I have a rare variant. I don't understand very much about it, but apparently if you are going to have Alzheimer's it's a good one to have.

So, a stroke of luck there then!

Interestingly enough, when I was diagnosed last December by those nice people at Addenbrooke's, I started a very different journey through dementia.

This one had much better scenery, interesting and often very attractive inhabitants, wonderful wildlife and many opportunities for excitement and adventure.

Those of you who's last experience with computer games was looking at Lara Croft's buttocks might not be aware of how good they have become as audio and visual experiences, although I would concede that Lara's buttocks were a visual experience in their own right.

But in this case I was travelling through a country that was part of the huge computer game called Oblivion, which is so beautifully detailed that I have often ridden around it to enjoy the scenery and weather and have hardly bothered to kill anything at all.

At the same time as I began exploring the wonderful Kingdom of Dementia, which is next door to the Kingdom of Mania, I was also experiencing the slightly more realistic experience of being a 59 year old who finds they have early onset Alzheimer's.

Apparently I reacted to this situation in a reasonably typical way, with a sense of loss and abandonment with an incoherent, or perhaps I should say, violently coherent fury that made the Miltonic Lucifer's rage against Heaven seem a bit miffed by comparison. That fire still burns.

I want to go on writing! Admittedly, that means I have to stay alive.

You can't write books when you are dead, unless your name is L. Ron Hubbard.

And so now I'm a game for real. It's a nasty disease, surrounded by shadows and small, largely unseen tragedies.

People don't know what to say, unless they have had it in the family.

People ask me why I announced that I had Alzheimer's.

My response was: why shouldn't I?

I remember when people died "of a long illness" now we call cancer by its name, and as every wizard knows, once you have a thing's real name you have the first step to its taming.

We are at war with cancer, and we use that vocabulary.

We battle, we are brave, we survive. And we have a large armaments industry.

For those of us with early onset in particular, it's more of a series of skirmishes.

My GP is helpful and patient, but I don't have a specialist locally.

The NHS kindly allows me to buy my own Aricept because I'm too young to have Alzheimer's for free, a situation I'm okay with, in a want-to-kick-a-politician-in-the-teeth-kind of way.

But, on the whole, you try to be your own doctor.

The internet twangs night and day. I walk a lot and take more supplements than the Sunday papers. We talk to one another and compare regimes.

Part of me lives in a world of new age remedies and science, and some of the science is a little like voodoo.

But science was never an exact science, and personally I'd eat the arse out of a dead mole if it offered a fighting chance.

Fortunately, I have the Greek Chorus to calm me down

Soon after I told the world my website fell over and my PA had to spend the evening negotiating more bandwidth.

I had more than 60,000 messages within the first few hours.

Most of them were readers and well-wishers.

Some of them wanted to sell me snake oil and I'm not necessarily going to dismiss all of these, as I have never found a rusty snake.

But a large handful came from 'experienced' sufferers, successfully fighting a holding action, and various people in universities and research establishments who had, despite all expectations, risen to high places in their various professions even while being confirmed readers of my books.

And they said; can we help? They are the Greek Chorus. Only two of them are known to each other and they give me their advice on various options that I suggest.

They include a Wiccan, too. It's a good idea to cover all the angles.

It was interesting when I asked about having my dental amalgam fillings removed.

There was a chorus of ? hrumph, no scientific evidence, hrumph???., but if you can afford to have it done properly then it certainly won't do any harm and you never know.

And that is where I am, along with many others, scrabbling to stay ahead long enough to be there when the cure, which I suspect may be more like a regime, comes along.

Say it will be soon - there's nearly as many of us as there are cancer sufferers, and it looks as if the number of people with the disease will double within a generation.

And in most cases you will find alongside the sufferer you will find a spouse, suffering as much. It's a shock and a shame, then, to find out that funding for research is three per cent of that which goes to find cancer cures.

Perhaps that is why, for example, that I know three people who have successfully survived brain tumours but no-one who has beaten Alzheimer's???although among the Greek Chorus are some who are giving it a hard time.

I'd like a chance to die like my father did - of cancer, at 86.

Remember, I'm speaking as a man with Alzheimer's, which strips away your living self a bit at a time.

Before he went to spend his last two weeks in a hospice he was bustling around the house, fixing things.

He talked to us right up to the last few days, knowing who we were and who he was.

Right now, I envy him. And there are thousands like me, except that they don't get heard.

So let's shout something loud enough to hear. We need you and you need money. I'm giving you a million dollars. Spend it wisely.

Good luck Terry.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Defying Gravity from Wicked

Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith are amazing talents.