Our place in history ...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


(Alternate title: Obama and the 2008 Presidential Election, Babel and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… Also, thoughts on Superbowl XLI, as well as Latinos and racism in the United States of America)

On February 4, 2007 an African American head coach, either Tony Dungy, or Lovie Smith, will hold up the National Football League’s Vince Lombardi championship trophy for the first time in the history of the sport. Several weeks ago an NPR essayist contended that America’s love affair with Barack Obama stemmed from his status as an African immigrant’s son—a success story focused solely on tomorrow—as opposed to an African American directly connected to the legacy of slavery in the United States of America, unable to escape the past. The other day an LA Weekly contributor stated his concern that Latinos were replacing whites as the “faceless oppressors” of African Americans in California, and used the example of those who procure extra, better quality salsa utilizing Spanish language and familiarity on a daily basis and remain silent while African American customers are mistreated. Last morning, Salma Hayek read the names of Penélope Cruz, (Best Actress) Adriana Barraza, (Best Supporting Actress nominee) Guillermo del Toro, (Best Original Screenplay & Best Foreign picture nominee) Alfonso Cuarón Orozco, (Best Adopted Screenplay nominee) and Alejandro González Iñárritu, (Best Director & Best Picture nominee) alongside those of my personal favorites Rinko Kucuchi (Best Supporting Actress nominee) and Forest Whitaker (Best Actor nominee).

My fear at this point in time is that in 20007, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (or their supporters) will destroy one another in exactly the same way that Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean destroyed one another in 2003, thus making all this talk about a “first woman President” or a “first black President” moot. For the record, let me state that I am a huge fan of Senator Obama, and have been since his keynote address brought me to tears during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It was hot and humid to the point of sticky, as it is every summer in Boston. Yet and still I felt chills. Big ones. All the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up and a single tear streamed down my left check. Good public speaking means a lot to me. Its absence upsets me tremendously. George W. Bush is a horrendous orator, but the contrast between Bush and Gore or Bush and Kerry was obviously not tremendous enough to shake up the stalemate in either contest. Of Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tom Vilsack, John Kerry, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, Wesley Clark, Al Gore, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton, and Bill Richardson, Obama is the only one to thus far make me weep and fill me with the intoxicating hope that makes all great things seem possible. As the child of Mexican immigrants I feel an undeniable bond with Richardson, but a tremendous kinship with Obama as well. He is the product of a Kenyan father, a mother from Kansas, and friendships formed during formative years in heavily Asian and Native American Hawaii, and Islamic Indonesia, (Jakarta). His family cannot be defined without moving beyond borders and boundaries; his American identity rooted in an experience of return to a place of sameness through diversity, after an experience of witnessing sameness through homogeneity overseas. It is not that Obama is free from the baggage of domestic history that makes him appealing. It is that he is uniquely equipped to navigate the history of the world. He wants to author chapters in which the United States is victorious because the international public face of America accurately reflects its residents and the light emanating from all peoples, toiling and striving to thrive, regardless of identity, or the location of their homelands around the geopolitical globe.

Obama is to the 2008 Presidential Election as “Babel” is to the 2007 Oscars. The story of the Tower of Babel is popularly interpreted as an indictment on man’s unwavering unity when possessed by the arrogant belief it could climb to the divine place beyond the skies. In this reading, God creates division and confusion, the Tower comes down, and future highway-to-heaven schemes are forever thwarted. This movie's multiple, multicultural storyline approach, works because it successfully communicates a sense of irony to an entertained movie audience—engaged by much more than the occasional reading of subtitles when confronted with a language they do not speak. Those who argue that those (monolingual) directors who built their careers on the intertwining of tales on film, have more often demonstrated a mastery of depicting coincidence interwoven by violence than successfully fully developed Aristotelian tragic heroes (undermined by their own hubris) are correct. The Bible’s Tower introduces us to such characters. Alejandro González Iñárritu depicts them thoroughly in his Babel. Human beings are tremendously gifted, brilliant beings who can construct complex cultural identities and helpful power structures around commonalities. God doesn’t take this away from us. We take it away from ourselves. When compassion dies, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett find their greatest challenge is not receiving help from resource-poor, isolated Moroccans, but acquiring support from fellow well-resourced, well-traveled English speakers. When compassion dies, Adriana Barraza is forbidden from attending her son’s wedding by parents who leave their children behind while they casually cross the globe; she is endangered by her own flesh and blood through drunk driving and abandonment in the desert after a failed attempt to flee border patrol agents; she is berated, humiliated, rejected, and deported by representatives of the only country she believes in, loves dearly, and considers home.

Compassion is the language of human understanding. Everything else is just window dressing. It is both the irony of the divine punishment ascribed to the Tower story, and the point. Without a plurality of languages, cultures, nationalities, et cetera we manage to sabotage ourselves via our inability or unwillingness to demonstrate compassion for those we are able to communicate with sans translator. Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid play two adolescent boys at the center of a global incident authorities in Morocco take as pretext to harass, torture, terrorize, and even murder their own people. We know they are deserving of a compassion they do not receive at home, in their homeland, or worldwide. The story of the Tower proves the Bible is not intended for literal reading from start to finish. Babel, the film, is demonstrative of the idea that when God leaves things alone, we still derail as a result of the chaos produced by not listening to anything but our own shortsighted desires. We are quite capable of overcoming racial, linguistic, cultural, and other differences, and do so daily in sports and game venues, as well as via academic, marketplace, diplomatic, and interpersonal exchanges. It is not (as a literal reading suggests) that our languages are confused that prevents our actualization. Even critical, postmodern, deconstructivist views of human communication resist positing this. Quite simply, we do this to ourselves. In Babel, the very lives of individuals depend on the competence and compassion of those seeking or already assuming authority. We seek power for the sake of survival because we are at the bottom, because we are narcissistic and wish to make it to the top/remain there, yet not often because we are motivated by a calling—an altruism inspired by a disembodied love beyond description; a virtue higher than humanism or any form of religion. If the actions of those in power are the deciding factor in the outcome of a given situation, then all of us are responsible for making the world wholly grotesque or change it from being so, but some of us are entrusted with an even greater burden. (To whom much is given, much is expected—Luke 12:48) In illustrative fashion, the central characters resist easy pigeonholing and challenge clichés and stereotypes. As a result, some pop culture critics accuse the film of being preachy and manipulative—especially with respect to its largely sentimental treatment of the hot button issue of undocumented immigration. But the conclusion must be another:

Babel, like the very world we occupy, invites us to analyze and systematize, yet remains infinitely more than merely the sum of its broken down, itemized, individuated, and dissected parts. The film shows us our disjointed and dismal reality. Things are going wrong and have strayed far from the ideal represented by the creation story found in the first pages of Genesis. Communication and understanding are signposts for the pain of isolation felt in words and silences, a lack of uniqueness and the difference of “otherness,” abilities and disabilities, difficulties gained via physical/emotional access and the perpetual prohibitions of access barriers. More than the metaphoric diamond of hope abandoned in an otherwise empty Pandora’s box, the film’s conclusion is a beautiful and tangible template for compassion. Without saying a word, or covering her any part of her naked physical or emotional frame, Rinko Kucuchi’s vulnerability no longer seems to express itself in a way that makes others uncomfortable. Kucuchi’s portrayal of a teenage, deaf-mute, wealthy, Japanese girl in search of a cure to the angst of existential crisis, oscillates between common ennui and the desperation the loss of her mother serves to accelerate and exacerbate. Whatever the background of the viewer with whom I have discussed Babel, Kucuchi’s is the first character people want to talk about. In my eyes, this is single handedly the bravest performance ever given by any actor—regardless of personal identity or artistic venue. This human being’s otherness is greater than that of any individual featured in the film, yet our connection with her, and compassion for her are without rival. It is her choice to refuse suicide that wells our eyes up with joy and fills our torsos with hope (and the desire to wrap our arms, legs, and entire bodies around those we hold most dear). We identify with Kucuchi even though on the surface we have almost nothing in common with her. This was likely the intent of the writers, producers, and director, but it is Kucuchi’s genius that engenders this irony and makes it palpable.

I spent this most recent Saturday morning in a classroom leading workshops for high school students seeking the tools, resources, and networks to make a positive impact on their campuses and in their communities. My friend Shakari and I have been imagining and actualizing this Youth Empowerment Conference on behalf of District 1 Board Member, Marguerite LaMotte, since last year. Since Mark Ridley-Thomas’ 15th Annual Empowerment Congress (for adults) occurred concurrently on the other side West L.A. College’s campus, student participants earned an opportunity to meet State Senator Ridley-Thomas, as well as listen to a speech by his keynote speaker, Dr. Cornel West. Now, I love Cornel West. Love him. Anyone who knows me knows that. If I had the necessary student profile and academic rigor, I would enroll in a PhD program at Princeton and do any and every possible thing for him to serve as my advisor. These students on Saturday knew nothing of Cornel, but he won them over. And he challenged them all to realize themselves in cohesive communities as unique individuals. Although not intended for my adoption, the challenge is sticking with me. Am I now (have I been) living up to the potential demonstrated by the 19-year-old Unai who wrote the following for the United Nations’ Voices of Youth during World Summit for Social Development?


“The problems of poverty, pollution, health care, and education are problems which are both international in scope and in implication. There is no country in the world which can claim for itself total enlightenment in any or all of these areas.

The simple reality is that the allowance and acceptance of the belief that poverty is either a lifestyle choice, or an inevitable truth of this world, breeds the apathy that does not allow for progress in this area. Unfortunately, this belief that the conditions of people will not change, regardless of the goodwill and efforts of citizens around the world, affects progress in all other international issues as well.

There must be an establishment of the legitimacy of international law. People should be charged with and punished for their specific violations of the UN Declaration of Rights. It is no longer enough to say that such and such a nation violates Rights. It has become overwhelmingly clear that only cases successfully brought against individuals will set the precedent for future attempts to enforce international law. Only when we are able to prove that all citizens of the world are responsible for respecting one another will we truly have a world in which anything is possible.”

(To Be Continued…)


  • I must state upfront that I am a Hilary advocate, quickly turning Barak fan. As I question why my allegiance is shifting (beyond the scope of pure political stances), I keep thinking of last season's Survivor. Glued to the television, my mind could not escape the thought of how this game mirrors so much of what I see each day in human interactions. There is a formula to this game, you see. Typically, the old, overweight and unattractive people are voted off first (save a few outliers who have managed to be savvy enough to last). Then the socially awkward get the boot. Next, the ones who thought they could skate by from just being quiet. And lastly, it comes down to the top competitors. What differentiates them and who wins? Examine Yul and Ozzy, the finalists last season. Both Yul and Ozzy are very good-looking and make strong teammates for life on a deserted island as far as physical strength is concerned. Ability must be a given for all finalists. Ozzy, however, was more physically agile than Yul, worked the hardest, gathered the most food, swam the fastest, etc. The tribe won challenges many times simply because of this one man. Turning to Yul, he was strong as well, but he had that something extra. People wanted to be around Yul. He had great stories, seemed to be an amazing listener, and possessed a non-threatening demeanor. Yul is the guy you want to be next to on the airplane. And because of this, he won.

    I see Hilary and Barak along these same lines. They are both very smart, hardworkers, good-looking, strong presence, credible, etc. But Barak is the Yul in this story. Hilary is a GSD-er - Get Stuff Done. I don't know if anyone works harder than her, except maybe Ozzy. And that is awesome if I am hiring a financial analyst or a corporate attorney. But the President is also the persona of this country. I want to hang out with Barak. His wife and I need to be BFFs! I look at him and I am reminded of how much I enjoyed listening to Clinton invoke such confidence and calm in this nation about our future. Barak is the Yul in this tale. In the end when tribal counsel had to vote, they gave the trophy to Yul although they sang Ozzy's praises. Being physically capable was a given. The winner needs more than that. Hilary is intellectually more than capable, but Barak is cake with icing. I can't wait to see if my theory plays out in 2008...

    By Blogger Candy Lynn Robinson, at 9:44 AM  

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