culture, music, and identity politics musings from a 20-something Australian-Asian living in Washington D.C.

Media Populism, Lou Dobbs and hatemongering September 8, 2007

Filed under: Race,Society — itslateagain @ 5:18 am

The last mention of China I glimpsed before departing the United States was unintelligible. This is just as well, because I’m sure it would have made for a decidedly bitter parting note. It was a ‘news’ story on Lou Dobbs’ nightly transmission of hateful populism, part of an ongoing segment entitled “Red Storm Rising,” which charts the apparent threats of China’s rising economic influence upon the American middle class. The television was muted and, without text to replace Lou and his team of vigilant reporters’ voices, I was unable to catch the quality reporting on display, balanced and ideologically neutral as it surely was.

I sincerely hope you caught the sarcasm in that last statement. Fox News, our current era’s globally-acknowledged founder and continuing leader of broadcast media populism brought tongue-in-cheek irony and the steadfastly literal uneasily close together with its slogan: “fair and balanced.” For this charming institution, whose role in the video game-stylized lead-up to the Iraq invasion and consequent events cannot be underestimated, we have a septuagenerian Australian to thank named Rupert Murdoch. His company, News Corporation, possesses holdings which include British rags such as the Sun, the majority of Australian media, and most recently, the Wall Street Journal. Lou Dobbs, then, is only the little chubby kid on the block compared to Godfather Rupert, one major difference being that Dobbs’ station, CNN, in supporting his evolution from favored CEO pitstop to self-righteous middle America blowhard quickly blurred what little distinction in journalistic integrity it might have once claimed over Fox.

Dobbs’ weekdaily program spends much of its hour discussing “The War on America’s Middle Class.” I can’t claim to have watched with particular frequency, but enough to be slightly unnerved by the tone in which he demanded an Asian interviewee use “plain, Anglo-Saxon” language and the thinly veiled disgust with which he refers to Central American illegal immigrants. I can practically hear the hateful slurs being thrown around living rooms across America, a giant churlish chorus of the disgruntled and distrusting, egging ol’ Lou on. The swarm are surely no less forgiving in regards to the “Red Storm Rising”, particularly given the recent explosion of xenophobia-propelled, if not unwarranted, health fears regarding products manufactured in China.

I find this particularly disturbing because I spent much of my life on the wrong side of populist sentiment. It was a rare week in which I wasn’t on the receiving end of a “Go home boat boy” from a passing car–having been mistaken as Vietnamese–or “Chink” or “Gook” slur dropped as I walked around the shops. Certain events will remain crystal clear. My father’s rare, unbridled furious riposte towards the man in a motel elevator who asked about eating dog meat; the seemingly tireless slanted eye/flat nose face-warping fellow elementary graders paraded before me. Far more consequential, however, was the persistent feeling of being wearily observed and judged. Mine was an Anglo-Australian town of such singular cultural hegemony, multicultural rhetoric as myth, that if anything, I’ve over-compensated for my yellowness. I couldn’t just be familiar with cricket, I had to know more of its history than anyone else. I couldn’t just celebrate this year’s Australia Day in Washington in private, so I co-organized the city’s expat gathering and convinced the pub owner to make meat pies.

This identity is forged, perhaps more than anything, out of the ignorance and mistrust of others. There are innumerable things about Australia which make me proud to tell others of my nationality; cultural tolerance just doesn’t happen to be one of them. I didn’t choose my hometown; rather, my parents leapt at moving there, over the far more publicly sanctioned anti-Sino climate in Malaysia. Which is why I felt something internal click when an acquaintance joked: “Wait…Mark’s Asian?” It’s also why I offer no platitudes when my students ask me why I don’t speak Chinese. I’m yet to meet an African-American whose family speaks Wolof or Yoruba at home. Clearly, my situation was dramatically less severe, but the same no-leeway mandate of “assimilate or suffer” ruled the roost.

So assimilate I did, to the point where one day during high school I partook in the same anti-Aboriginal humor my classmates learned from their fathers, something I had never done before. It was only when I was chastized by my best friend from early childhood, whose parents are South African, that I felt the circle closing:

“Hey. That’s not funny.”

I looked at him, his skin as brown as that of the people I’d just slandered at the cheap cost of earning some acceptance points, and knew exactly what he meant.

It’s why I find the lightly coated populism, and yes–racism–that Dobbs’ program issues forth so despicable. Perhaps he got tired of his corporate suit buddies and wanted to try on a more blue-collar hat. Or, perhaps it’s all one giant power-tripping guise, an elaborate response to tiring of the people who manufacture his goods or cook his restaurant meals. Who knows, he might actually care about the economic future of middle-class Americans, to which I say “very well” and hold no qualms. But international trade is an inherently political issue, and very often the ethnic or nationalist (or as in this case, both), “Us versus Them” card is simply too lucrative to turn down. CNN certainly didn’t. News Corp built its empire off of it. It bears little repeating, but last century ably displayed its utility for any aspiring Fascist movement. However, as the saying goes: you can’t have your El Salvadoran-cooked double cheeseburger and eat it too. Nor can you continue to buy the dirt cheap Chinese goods that fill your home and bite the hardworking hands that assembled them.

In my brief existence, I have personally heard enough slurs to fill a thousand bathroom stall walls: Australians slighting Irish, Chinese slighting Malays, Jews slighting Arabs, everybody slighting Jews, Indians slighting Bengalis, African-Americans slighting Africans, Africans slighting African-Americans, lesbians slighting gay men (but that’s another story), ad infinitum. St. Augustine once wrote that the world is a book and that those who don’t travel “read but only a page.” Well, I’m not sure what book he was reading but most of mine wouldn’t make for pleasant reading. I’ve been blessed to live with and visit a number of dissimilar people, fully aware that it’s an opportunity the vast majority of the world does not have (and that some, alas, have no interest in). Each country I visit, each culture I begin to understand, only reinforces my belief that people are, in essence, all the same.

This has meant for me that people are compassionate towards others, devoted to their children, and often friendly and generous, perhaps in varying degrees but never to the point of untruth. It also means that people are easily swayed by media and hearsay, largely ignorant of other people, and pointedly ethnocentric. Such aspects of our character manifest in qualities of hate, distrust and fear, all traits that politicians have utilized for millennia towards mostly destructive, ultimately worthless causes. We Western republicans entrust so much faith in democracy largely only because of the degree to which we distrust and fear despotic rule. As we commonly say: it is the least bad of our governing systems. But if anything, we have too much faith in pluralism as an end in itself, leaping blindly into its savior arms without considering preconditions to its success, such as an educated populace, an influential middle class, the rule of law or minority safeguards.

The purest vision of freedom I’ve seen played out in reality is the same one the United States has so neatly co-opted (like, as Neruda acknowledged, it’s own name). The American Dream, so to speak, is the globalized 21st Century Dream. It’s the reason that desperate young folks from countries like Guatemala or Honduras die each day in the hope that they can work washing dishes in a Georgetown restaurant; it’s the reason all of my friend Lang’s Chinese classmates have taken the GRE (over 90% of whom score an 800 on the math section, he mentioned). Without doubt, it’s the only reason I’m writing these words. When the government of New Zealand gave my parents an opportunity to attend university, even if it was motivated by economics, it epitomized a marvelous idea: that my parents would be judged and rewarded duly based on the merit of their work. Populism in democracy, more often than not, relies not on the merit of the idea and its logic, but by how many people happen to believe it. Good journalism serves its citizens by informing and enlightening their beliefs and public judgments, not by playing to the most base and vicious of human tendencies for popular or commercial favor.

I hope more Americans consider this as they go about purchasing their General Washington’s chicken (proudly China-free) at the local take-out. Smart Americans know that there’s more to the most populous country in the world than some Communist totalitarian state and over a billion poor, oppressed masses churning out their Nikes and contaminated toys. The stability and health of our tenuous Sino-American relations will depend on it. The Chinese seem capable of distinguishing between political regimes and their citizens, a skill which the Lou Dobbs’ of our media seem incapable of.


Q Radio: A Collector’s Edition ITSLATEAGAIN Podcast! June 12, 2007

Filed under: DC Sceneism,Music,Podcasts,Race,Society,Uncategorized — itslateagain @ 12:48 pm

7QWelcome to Q Radio: a Special Edition from ITSLATEAGAIN: The Podcast Series!

Q Radio is not a traditional podcast, or online radio show. Rather, it is a series of vignettes from various characters living around Q Street in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington D.C. Shaw has become a highly controversial battleground in recent months for the ongoing gentrification debate that permeates new developments in the district. Gentrification, the process in which lower cost neighborhoods undergo physical renovation and increased property values, and more importantly: an influx of wealthier residents who often push out the previous, poorer residents.

Q Radio is the word off the street, where the conversations get ugly, the race and class lines are clearly drawn and hostilities are shared against the backdrop of rising gang violence. But the voices of Q also offer glimpses of hope: unlikely friendships are formed, visionary young go-getters continue to inspire.

There’s Daniel, an Ethiopian immigrant whose perspective on being black in America is being reshaped through his daughter. Tony, the doubting patron of a local church accused of “slumlording.” And that’s not to mention Mel, the guilt-tripping young professional and Gustavo, with worries regarding MS-13 and human traffickers. These, and other characters, provide insight into the diversity of walks of life in Shaw, soundtracked by a groove-centric collection of songs and beats.

Look for tracks from Amon Tobin, Royksopp, Fujiya and Miyagi, Sam Cooke, Spank Rock, Talib Kweli, Andrew Bird and Mbongeni Ngema, among others.

I recently moved out of Shaw, and so would like to dedicate this pod-story to the kids at Kennedy Rec. I played ball there a number of times, and after breaking the ice, found many of them to be fun, good-natured young adults.

Collector’s Edition: Q Radio: Voices from Shaw

FascadeNB: All characters in this pod-story are fictional.

NNB: In the rare chance that you belong to a large music company and do not appreciate hearing particular tunes in this pod-story, do let me know and I’ll be sure to take it down, sans lawyer.


Date Me, I’m Asian! December 22, 2006

Filed under: Dating,Race,Society — itslateagain @ 4:09 am

I found this article from an Asian-American interest site very true-to-form. Originally published in the Harvard Crimson, it discusses the role of media and traditional racial preferences in contemporary dating preferences.

This article, also on ‘Model Minority,’ features a fascinating running discussion on the theme of Asian female/White male dating, offering a broad spectrum of dissenting opinions which range from “stick to your own” to “look only at the individual and past media stereotypes” to all-out angry White man bigotry.

It calls to mind this interesting discussion on why Aussie girls don’t often date Asian men, which came up in the Age. Upon reading it, the entire blank catalogue from my Australian high school dating career came flooding back to mind.

From my own experience, I’ve seen very few East Asian and Black couples. In fact, I can’t remember the last one I did see. This leads me to think that Asian parents (and their children) from my own generation still have a long way to go in re-evaluating their misbegotten perceptions of people originating from Africa.

And yes, I think it remains far more common and acceptable for an Asian woman to date a white man than the other way round.

Asian men, it is often asserted, are placed at the bottom of the gene pool for most women, behind Blacks, Latinos, and Whites. I’m not sure how we fare next to Arabs or Native Americans in this country, nor whether my South Asian brethren have my measure. But a quick tour of current DC Craigslist personals (don’t ask me how I ended up there) is filled with BBWs (Big Beautiful Women) looking for Black and Latin men. Dating sites that cater to a general (read: white) clientele that allow individuals to set racial preferences offer similar results.

Is this racism? And do I feel outraged as an Asian man, getting slighted by the whims of racial and gender stereotypes (the Kung Fu fighter or the angry shop owner, for example)?

Well, I can’t say I love the situation that I find myself in. But at the end of the day, I try and take my old roommate’s advice (he is Indian) and convince myself that the right girl won’t be worried about what colour my skin is. Though I agree with him, this fact only offers so much solace after a year of non-opportunity.

I’ve spoken to many friends about this particular topic, but after much pondering, am still quite puzzled as to my inability to befriend East Asians. It’s sad to feel estranged from young people of your own race or cultural heritage, but at this point, that’s how things are with me. Growing up in a white-bread town, not being either completely Asian nor American, not Asian-American…whatever the reason, I’m looking forward to the day that this country can really move forward on race perceptions.

But boy, do we have a long way to go.

And that, my friends, is one of the reasons why Barack Obama offers so much hope to the United States, as well as the world. After all this, I will be deeply disappointed if the man doesn’t run.