01 March 2004

Tycho Brahe, we feel your pain

Jacob Holdt, a Danish self-described vagabond, gave an interminable intriguing
slides-and-narrative presentation in McCosh 50 this
evening. Drawing from his photography during years as a drifter in
the U.S., he aimed to stir up the humanist passions of the audience
by calling attention to the racial injustice and oppression in
modern America.

Such is the official line. The actual presentation was first and
foremost one thing: overlong. Very overlong. Excessively
overlong. Overlong to the extent that after sitting through the first
half and twenty or thirty minutes into the beginning of the second, I
walked to the Dinky station with href=“http://www.princeton.edu/~akazazis”>Alex, chatted with him
until his train left, walked to Frist, had a slice of pizza, chatted
in the computer cluster, walked back to McCosh, and discovered that it
was still going on. The presentation started at 7 p.m.; it was 11:30
p.m. when it finally finished.

The content was a series of slides (shown in pairs, often with
captions overlaid), with a prerecorded voice-over, intercut with
excerpts from taped interviews and with music.

The music was the worst part of all. At far too many points in the
presentation, Holdt would run out of words but not of
pictures. Keeping his frame rate constant (about one image every ten
seconds, with two images displayed at once), he would spend three,
five, perhaps even seven minutes playing a washed-up folk song (my
personal favorite was Whitey on the
). Everything
in me was screaming Filler! Filler! And it continued in that vein
—- commentary interspersed with interminable musical interludes —-
until Alex and I left. (I came back just before the end.)

The commentary was decent —- no better or worse than I would have
expected from the presentation, considering the group that href=“http://www.princeton.edu/~justice/”>sponsored it. The
sections on race relations, as far as I could tell with my limited
knowledge, were reasonably accurate for their time. Of course, much of
their time was still in the 1970s.

This underscored a crucial flaw of the presentation: the most recently
datable material in the slides was from 1990 —- based on
billboard advertisements in Harlem. Between 1990 and 2004, New York
had the good fortune to be cleaned up by one Rudy Giuliani. I can’t
speak to much of the poverty-related or race-relations-related
material, but I tend to doubt that.

There were a few (rare) items that were absolutely incorrect —- for
instance, the assertion that the U.S. was alone among developed
countries in retaining a death penalty (Japan, South Korea, and
Taiwan, to name a few, are apparently below his development
standards.) And there were many more that were quite suspect:

One, repeated several times, was that there were more black people in
prison than in college. Well, let’s see: according to the Sketchbook
of Criminal Justice Statistics (on
jails and
prisons and
juvie), there were
255,100 blacks in jails, 42,963 in “juvenile residential facilities,”
and 587,300 in prisons in 1999 — for a total of 885,363. The Census

indicates that in 1999, 1,998,000 blacks were enrolled in college.

Well, he was only off by a factor of 2.

That wasn’t the only outlandish claim. Others included:

  • Our violence against the third world kills more people each year than did World War 2.

  • 10% of the population of Washington, DC is addicted to drugs

...and so on.

But keep in mind that I was scribbling notes in a darkened
auditorium. Maybe I mis-scribed him. Fortunately, he put some of the
most egregious examples on his href=“http://www.american-pictures.com/english/show/excepts.htm”>web page:

Students in black universities often laugh at the Klan speech in my
show, for they know all too well that their pain and exclusion is not
caused by a few hooded nuts out in the woods, but by us – the great
majority of “good” law-abiding citizens – who are today silently
forcing millions of blacks into ghettoes, isolation, despair – and
finally prisons and death.

In our white guilt from not living up to our own lofty democratic
ideals and Christian values we escape into Bill Cosby shows to cover
up for our ultimate crushing of the black family.

Today more than 70% of black children grow up without a father and one
in ten without either parent – twice as many as when I first came to
America – and three times as many as under slavery.

. When I got up today, I checked my href=“http://www.nybot.com/reports/dailyVolume/report.asp?reportType=futures”>cotton
futures and noticed that I was going to take quite a hit. As I
showered, I called my trusty overseer, Cyrus, on the speakerphone and
told him that if he didn’t start putting his back into the whippings,
he’d soon find himself on the receiving end. As I dressed, I
fired off an email to the principal of my former href=“http://barillari.org/glenoak-views-webpage/”>high school,
advising him to start quietly discouraging black students from
enrolling. They’d just bring down the test scores, I told him. Later
that morning, I replied to a voicemail from a friend who’s in the
crack-cocaine business. He was curious if I could suggest any new
customer bases for his product, which was rapidly reaching market
saturation. I suggested selling it in majority-Black elementary
schools, an idea he’d never considered, and for which he thanked me
profusely. Sometime that afternoon, I answered a pharmacist friend’s
voicemail, advising him to stop offering the morning-after
to black women, because their
illegitimate children formed the basis of my sharecropping holdings in
Mississippi. It was then that I went to lunch at my favorite
whites-only lunch counter—-

—-or not. I would like to know how what I actually did “today
silently forc[es] millions of blacks into ghettoes, isolation, despair – and finally prisons and death.” Or, for that matter, what my role is
in the “ultimate crushing of the black family.”

His thesis —- as best I can describe it —- was that the racism of
American whites was due to nasty childhood experiences (e.g., racist,
abusive parents) and the degradation of American blacks was the
consequence of an internalized racism that sprung up after the death
of Jim Crow laws. While I am sure that both of these are true to some
extent, I fail to see how they explain everything —- or, for that
matter, what solutions we might devise for them.

But the aim of the talk didn’t seem to be about solutions —- Holdt
presented himself as a modern-day Jacob Riis, providing “shock therapy”
for the limousine-liberal set without any practical suggestions. As I
understand, there’s a “workshop” tomorrow that will provide some
insight into that matter. The last slides encouraged us to attend it,
otherwise, the slide indicated (I kid you not) the material we saw
might make us into more sophisticated racists.

If that’s what it costs me to avoid spending more time on this
presentation, so be it.

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