Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sir Charles

DI: Just to avoid any undue confusion from casual surfers with this title, I’m not looking to talk about the recent royal wedding; I wanted to bring up Charles Barkley (and the Round Mound of Rebound sounded a bit too dirty, to me).

B: I shudder to know why.

DI: Because he was quoted by the Washington Post, specifically talking about gays in the locker room. It was itself a reaction to Rick Welts, the President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, coming out in a New York Times story.

B: Yeah, I know Rick. Socially, though- not personally.

DI: But, and given the general abrasiveness of Barkley’s persona, maybe this will come as a shock, but he didn’t really care about it. He even said he knew at least two of the three teams he played for had homosexual players, and still had excellent chemistry, excellent morale and played decently well enough. Barkley specifically said he was less critical of good gay players than he was of bad straight ones.

B: That’s very enlightened.

DI: He also mentions that he gets irritated when ESPN says that players can’t come out, that there would be open hostility to gay players in the lockers rooms. And that he doesn’t like being told how he thinks or feels. He knew there were gay players. And it’s unfair, maybe even stupid, to assume that most athletes couldn’t handle that reality.

B: You know, there’s something to that. In the League, some of the guys you’d think would be the most sensitive to the subject- or even the most hostile- were the ones who’d say, “So?” I think it’s just one of those things, where the first time someone showers in the same room as a gay person, there can be tension, and they’re a little leery, but as time goes on and nothing untoward happens, they get used to it. It becomes less of a thing.

DI: They acclimate.

B: Right.

DI: Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as acceptance.

B: Exactly. Even understanding. I remember, and I won’t say his name, but a member of our League had a very outspoken reaction to one of our colleagues coming out. So outspoken, that he was almost sanctioned for it.

DI: Sanctioned? What would that have entailed?

B: Basically we told him that if he couldn’t at a minimum keep what amounted nearly to hate speech in check, he wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the League.

And we kept him away from any of the known homosexuals, anytime we had missions. It’s one thing to ask someone to be civil, another entirely to put him into positions where he wasn’t comfortable. But on some of our bigger disaster responses, there’s no way to keep teams or individuals separate. So he ended up working with homosexual heroes in the field.

And last year, he ended up in an altercation, where a group of men were harassing a gay hero. And he intervened- loudly- on his behalf. He was very passionate. He’s got an explosive temper, so that’s maybe not surprising, but just being around gay people had helped him see that there wasn’t anything to hate there. And I’ve seen the same with Muslims, Jews- even women, actually, if you can believe that, in this day and age. People are uncomfortable with the unknown- until they get to know it. Then it becomes part of their experience, and mundane.

DI: To get back to Barkley just a moment, I think it all comes down to the locker room question, whether or not people feel comfortable showering around someone who thinks of them as a viable romantic candidate. Surely you’ve dealt with that in the League.

B: But that question itself is problematic, because inherently it implies that homosexuals are more promiscuous, to the point of pouncing on straight people without regard for the inappropriateness of a locker room come-on.

DI: But aren’t homosexuals more promiscuous? I mean, you’re probably a bad example, because when you were dating women you were a man-whore, and it seems now you’re more reserved, but in general, or maybe statistically.

B: But the statistics aren’t really the issue. Even if, and I don’t know that I’ve seen an untainted study to that effect, homosexuals are more promiscuous, that isn’t the same as being inappropriately sexually aggressive. And promiscuity likely comes, in part, from lacking the same kinds of social norms. Straight people are raised with the idyllic fairy tale of the picket-fenced house, the family with two and a half kids, and the virginal wedding. Gay people can’t have those things- though there are some available facsimiles like civil unions and adoption. But we’re still in the process of building the gay American dream.

But even beyond that, promiscuity isn’t the same as hitting on people in the restroom, or the showers, or the changing room, at work. And while we’re on the subject of inappropriate sexual expression, promiscuity and homosexuality are not the same as pedophelia, either.

DI: Whoa. I might play devil’s advocate, but I wasn’t-

B: You might not have been, and you’re likely smart enough not to, but the conflation can and does happen- far too frequently for it to be just a mistake. But for clarity, I’m going to say it again: being gay, even being gay and promiscuous, is not the same as inappropriate sexual expression. I understand that some people disagree with homosexuality, and might even consider it divergent, but even to them, it shouldn’t be hard to see the difference between divergent sex between consenting adults on the one hand and sexual molestation and harassment on the other.

DI: Trawling TNR, I came across more coverage of Barkley. I didn’t know he’s been mulling a Gubernatorial run in Alabama. He’s colorful, but I was actually a little surprised, I know, stereotyping athletes, but surprised at how wide and varied his ideas about politics are.

B: Yeah. Charles is an interesting and articulate guy.

DI: Throw in bright and clean and you can be just as offensive as the Vice President.

B: Please. Biden’s word-choice was problematic, but there wasn’t racial coding there.

DI: So one old white guy wants to give another old white guy a pass?

B: And the young white guy wants to get his ass kicked by an old white guy? If you give Biden reasonable doubt, that the meaning of clean was supposed to either imply clean-cut or to not have the baggage of a Jesse Jackson, then no, I don’t think it was racial coding. Joe doesn’t come from 1950s Mississippi, he’s from Delaware.

And what I’ve always taken away from the statement was him saying that Obama was a different kind of African American candidate- as opposed to Jackson or Sharpton- who wasn’t just running on a civil rights background; I think that was always the inherent issue with their candidacies- and by extension the candidacy of any mostly single-issue candidate.

DI: Though civil rights and race is more a point of view about issues than a single issue itself- but if you’re running as the African American candidate, who has fought for civil rights in your community, it does make it harder to win over voters outside of that group- especially when other groups often view civil rights as a zero sum game, where advancement for one group is at cost of another.

B: In that same ballpark, I assumed, back in 2007, I think it was, that Obama was sunk after people started openly questioning whether he was black enough.

DI: So do you think he is?

B: I think it’s an unbelievably stupid question. For one, any kind of a reductionist litmus test is absurd; it places a positive value on adhering to a stereotype. Am I rich enough? White enough? Gay enough? All pretty ludicrous questions.

DI: Then why were you concerned that the question was being asked about Obama?

B: Well, at the time he was still a relative unknown, politically. He’d only been on the national stage for three years. He’s a gifted speaker, and seemed like a smart enough guy. But if he couldn’t even solidify support amongst African Americans- a stronger voting bloc for the Democrats there isn’t, and who in the primary at least would have been more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt- I didn’t think he would be able to overcome Clinton. Of course, I now realize that was naïve. I was still giving the media more credit than it deserved for being relevant.

DI: So you’re saying the media isn’t relevant anymore?

B: I’m saying that its old position as a gatekeeper of information is no longer relevant- and that particularly today they aren’t even very good at it, anymore. The media has two basic goals in reportage: to inform and entertain. Both can get you ratings, though I think it’s fair to say entertainment value is king. But increasingly, media outlets chase entertainment like greyhounds after an electronic rabbit- and information is largely left to fend for itself. So the fact that a few people questioned Obama’s blackness- it was anecdotal, and in no way indicative of the general mood of African American voters- which meant it was even less relevant as a gauge of American voters in general.

DI: I want to go back, because as a journalist it’s always fun to accuse somebody of racism in the form of a question [with all due serendipitous apology to both David Gregory and Newt Gingrich]: why would you think African American voters would have a biased affinity for a black candidate?

B: Because statistics don’t lie: voters want to vote for people like themselves. This is true of race. Of gender. Of class. Even personality, to an extent. If Al Gore had been as personable as George W. Bush, he would have been President- way beyond the margin of a few hundred contested votes from Florida.

It’s not the only factor. Policies matter. Experience matters. Name recognition matters. But if a voter can connect themselves with a candidate, everything else is easier. And for African Americans, the pulled up by his bootstraps Obama from relative poverty and obscurity is certainly more relatable than the white-privileged Southern lawyer who stuck by her cheating President husband. Demographically, if Obama couldn’t win over African Americans, he could never have beaten Clinton, and would have fared even worse in the general. Not because African American votes are that large a bloc, but because if he can’t connect with those most likely to relate to him, then the chances of his relating to anyone are lower.

DI: And that’s not racist?

B: No, it’s evolutionary. We like people like us because those like us were more likely to help us survive. Those who didn’t group together fared poorer; those who grouped well thrived. But the easiest grouping, the most comfortable, is the familiar. You can trust them because they’re like you, and from nearby, and want similar things. It’s just a look back into man’s evolutionary history. Perhaps it’s a little… vestigial, at this point, but it doesn’t make it any less real.

And at the same time, in this country, it’s impossible to recognize that there are differences to growing up black in this country as opposed to white. It’s still fair to say there’s a black experience that, at least generally, differs from the white experience in America.

DI: But isn’t a lot of that the same kind of liberal apologia that you hear about African American crime rates?

B: There are no excuses. None. For going into crime. But it’s short-sighted and foolish not to look at the circumstances that create crime, and try to mitigate them. Because fighting crime is a losing battle. I’ve done it for years, and barely made a dent. But the work I’ve done with the poor, with youth centers and charities, with organizations that provide scholarships and educational resources- that work has done more actual, measurable good than all of my costumed exploits. Eight years ago I actually ahd Oracle start tracking the statistics, so I can say this is a fact: depriving crime the fertile soil of poverty in which to grow is the best way to stop it. Period. Whenever there’s need, there’s going to be crime.

DI: But also wherever there’s greed.

B: That’s true. But greed’s a tougher thing to stamp out; and ironically, greed is often what creates need in the first place. And greed is something for law enforcement to cope with; need is something we can all impact.

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