Friday, March 31, 2017

O'Reilly & Spicey's Uncool Week

Sean "Spicey" Spicer and Bill O'Reilly 
Remember back in the fall of 2007 when Fox host Bill O'Reilly went to the famous Harlem restaurant Sylvia's for dinner with Al Sharpton?

He made headlines when he went on his syndicated radio show and marveled at "the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City...There wasn't one person in Sylvia's screaming, 'M-Fer I want more iced tea.'"

Now there were an awful lot of people back then, of different races and ethnicities, who sort of shook their heads in disbelief and realized that O'Reilly had in all likelihood, never eaten in a room with black folks before.

Of course that was simply O'Reilly's way of trying to be magnanimous in a cultural sense (and it was sooooo awkward).

But the fact that he was harboring the impression that black restaurant patrons who want something else to drink just scream out 'M-Fer I want more iced tea!' to their waitress or waiter offered valuable insight into the mindset of the hyper-conservative Fox News audience.

In particular the ways in which they tend to perceive, and portray African American people.

O'Reilly's comment to 78-year-old Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters during a segment on Fox and Friends last week proved that the prickly curmudgeon hasn't really changed a whole lot in ten years.

Or maybe he's simply feeling more free to tap into his "inner Bill" in the era of Trump when the Republican Party has mainstreamed bigotry and intolerance.

If there's any one trait consistently shared by the leading media or political figures of 21st century American conservatism, it's a startling inability (or unwillingness?) to grasp the basic subtleties of race and ethnicity.

Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters
Based on the smirky O'Reilly's snide comment about Waters' hair looking like a "James Brown wig",  it's painfully obvious that the complex issues surrounding black women's hair elude him.

That's not surprising given that he works in a televised ideological vacuum where he doesn't actually have to confront criticism and controls who gets the chance to question him.

After all let's be honest, at this point O'Reilly is basically Rush Limbaugh for TV.

Now in no way am I suggesting that O'Reilly is under some kind of obligation to understand or delve into the elusive complexities of black women's hair, but if he's going to make outlandish and dismissive pronouncements about a female African American Congresswoman's hair on national television, then he damned well better have some idea of what the hell he's talking about.

Maybe a good start for Bill would be to pop open a cold beer, sit down and watch the brilliant 2009 Chris Rock-produced documentary 'Good Hair' - a fascinating look into the $ 9 billion-plus (yes, $9 billion with a B) black hair industry - and, particularly for black women, how hair style is so closely linked with self esteem.

Or, if he prefers reading, Lena Williams' 2000 nonfiction book "It's the Little Things: The Everyday Interactions That Get Under the Skin of Blacks and Whites" offers some really interesting real-life snippets on the issues related to hair that really set black women off.

Check out this excerpt from the book that was published in the New York Times in 1997.

But I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for O'Reilly to do either of those things, he seems far more interested (and invested) in tweaking the racial anxieties, assumptions and fears of his Fox News audience.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer on the other hand should know better.

April Ryan (left) during exchange with Spicey
On Tuesday he too made headlines when he somewhat rudely talked over African American reporter April Ryan during a White House press briefing.

With the State Department in a state of chaos, rumors in DC are flying that Trump is considering replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with former Bush National Security adviser Condoleeza Rice, Ryan justifiably asked Spicer about Rice's scheduled visit to the White House.

As a article detailed on Wednesday, Spicer got testy and defensive and after sort of talking over Ryan, he then told her to stop shaking her head.

The exchange had clear racial undertones in terms of how it looked - a perception magnified by the tone of Trump's campaign and presidency.

Spicer's comments also must be viewed in the context of the glaring silence from the White House and Trump on the various incidents of anti-Semitism and racism that have taken place across the U.S. since the start of the year.

Trump, who tweets ceaselessly about Muslim terrorist acts, was virtually silent about a 51-year-old white man named Adam Purinton shooting and killing an Indian man named Srinivas Kuchibhotla (and wounding another Indian man and a white man who came to their defense too) in a Kansas bar as he yelled "get out of my country".

Victim Timothy Caughman & James Jackson
When reporters in the White House briefing room recently asked Spicer about 66-year-old Timothy Caughman being stabbed and killed with a sword in New York by a racist killer from Baltimore who'd planned to murder black men to stop interracial dating, Spicer ducked the question by saying "I don't know all the details." 

People around the globe knew the details of that incident - why didn't he or Trump?

Let's be clear.

In 21st century America "I don't know all the details" is not a sufficient answer from the White House press secretary when a deranged racist killer stabs a black man on the streets of New York.

Spicer and his boss still don't seem to have grasped the role of the White House in staking out a clear and defined position on the issues that matter most to Americans.

It was Trump's decision to run for one of the most complex jobs on the planet based on his being an "outsider", and then surround himself with a cadre of senior advisers who have more rigid ideological world views and loyalty to Trump than they do experience in politics.

So in my view, the inability of the White House to stake out some kind of position on anti-Semitism, racism and intolerance demonstrates that they really don't yet collectively understand the role and function of the executive branch of the U.S. government outside of the external trappings and "prestige" of the office.

That's just one of the reasons why the decision to pull the Republican healthcare bill last week was such a rude awakening for the Trump administration - he's so consumed with the concept and appearance of power that he doesn't understand how presidential power actually works.

Will Republicans ever have this kind of cool?
Modern American Presidents like FDR, JFK, Reagan and Clinton and most recently Obama did.

They were all shrewd political communicators who understood that presidential power is a limited mandate rooted in the ability to effectively communicate and persuade the voters who grant that mandate once every four years.

The power of the presidency lies in the bully pulpit and the soapbox - the ability to persuade and move the needle to nudge Congress to act.

Not in sitting in the Oval Office signing executive orders in front of cameras and holding them up to be photographed like a fourth grader bringing home a pop quiz with a star on it from school to show his or her parents.

Like it or not Trump is the de facto head of the Republican Party, his poor communication skills combined with a press secretary who simply doesn't discuss issues related to race or ethnicity because he knows it will come back to hurt his boss, is affecting their ability to get their message out.

When you throw in a guy like Bill O'Reilly making bigoted comments about Maxine Waters' hair on Fox News, it paints the Republican Party and conservatives in general as cultural idiots.

Trump campaigns in Macomb County, Michigan
JFK had a "cool factor". So did Reagan, Clinton and Obama.

As we've seen this week, there's just nothing cool about the Republican Party today.

They just come off as angry, spiteful, denigrating, ignorant and overtly intolerant.

Unwelcoming and hostile to the bulk of the American populace.

As I've tried to understand the toxic hatred they've uncorked, which I experienced in my office first-hand three weeks ago, one of the things that's helped me to understand the mindset of the aggrieved working class whites in this country has been Mark Binelli's recent article in Rolling Stone, "Inside Trump County, USA".

His analysis of why the mostly-white, heavily Catholic Michigan county of Macomb voted overwhelmingly for Trump last November despite the region's strong union ties to Michigan's auto and manufacturing industry, has helped me to gain perspective on what's happening in this country.

At the least, it's given me more insight into who Bill O'Reilly was talking to when he insulted Maxine Waters - and why Sean Spicer is afraid to even talk about race.

1 comment:

Pepper Miller said...

Great article. As always, well written.

I missed these ;last week news events.

Sometimes I have to unplug. Staying too connected makes me weary. This President can lie on a past president, lie to the American people daily about the mainstream media reporting "fake news"; doesn't share his tax returns and dismisses the factual reports about his presidential campaign being linked to Russian -- AND NOTHING HAPPENS TO HIM!!!! NOTHING!!
Loved the description about the Republican Party 'not being cool" and the statement about how political figures don't want to (ever) talk about the basics concerning race and ethnicity. That's America in general. Don't talk about differences, race or ethnicity. It's rude and makes them uncomfortable.