Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lessons in Privilege: Initiatives, Black Power Mixtape and Moneyball

credit: Meme generator. Funny stuff.
I'm helping a group of associates here in Berkeley investigate the initiative process toward participatory budgeting, whereby everyday people will have a direct say in where tax dollars will be spent, and, by implication, oversight of the process. Like the foregoing run-on sentence, it's a long slog, but that's the nature of the fight.

Recently, several of this group attended an event organized by Zocalo, who I know a thing or two about as they've been churning in LA for some time. When I learned of this event, I thought of my past experiences with Zocalo, a group given to theory and not unique in that respect, but with a fine veneer of polish.

The first thing that struck me upon looking at the Zocalo panel assemble on stage was that 1) They were all white, 2) upon looking at their credits, they were all wonksters in one form or another.

I braced myself. Expectations were lowered, expectations were met. It's my own personal coping mechanism.

Subsequent to that event, a participatory budgeting group member forwarded an announcement about another event with the theme of "slow money", which piqued my interest, given my stake in researching and keeping abreast of EM08, the economic meltdown of '08. Then I noticed that the lowest entrance fee was about $600.

So, in light of these developments, I think keeping in mind the history of the way the so-called left has consistently been shot through with privileged values should be talked up.

Those "thought leaders" that are Zocalo or the slow money event permeate just about everything in our society, from new media to, yes, resistance movements. It's one of the reasons, for example, when someone starts waxing poetic about ted conferences I inwardly roll my interior eyes. Or when Esther Dyson begins one of her diatribes about the Net, let alone when Paul Krugman pontificates about economics.

One key thing to remember is that this is nothing new. Power in whatever form obviously has a generative goal which implies surviving and prospering. The history of the left is ripe with internal strife and infiltration, but an important distinction must be made; just as the NOI or the BPP were infiltrated and disrupted, it's impossible for, say, my group of everyday people to infiltrate the board of Goldman or B of A, much less to monitor them at a level that would make us satisfied. Right now, a group of protesters is "occupying" Wall Street, and it's gone viral. Will it reach Goldman's board room? I'll give 3 to 1 on that not happening.

This means it's important for everyday people to keep in mind that the struggle for fairness is triangulated; Zocalo convening an all white panel to speak about their experience is no more realistic of my colored world than Goldman's is. How many would be shocked to learn that, as recently as ten years ago, Native American Women were completely absent in prime time television? Their genocide has been surgically thorough; they walk the earth as ghosts, not just apart from Zocalo's panel, they may as well be on Pluto, because at least on Pluto their odds of finding someone who cares about them go up.

If it's one thing I've learned it's that framing conveys a lot, and I don't just mean rhetorically. The Zocalo event was a "serious" environment, just as any large college lecture hall is. "Real" thinking happens there, and if knowledge springs forth from the streets, well, how can those who "know" pontificate, theorize and profit? More, how can those who "know" take seriously those from the streets? Finally, why should those from the streets take what those who "know" seriously? It's an assumption at best to even think that those in the barrio take seriously those who "know", and yet, those "knowers" act as if it doesn't matter because of the privileged places they occupy. In other words, the "bubble of knowing" accords insulation; they have certainty that the evil empire they are (ostensibly) fighting up above is a noble if not strategically and morally correct fight, and since "they know" are only doing what's best for those who do not know below them.

Over the weekend I saw both Black Power Mixtape and Moneyball, and the more I thought about it, the more I was impressed by the latter and just kind of indifferent toward the former. On the surface, BPM is the kind of flick right in the boomers' wheelhouse; big names, big times. And while the footage is great and in good condition, it's a pastiche, and I came away thinking it was just a walk down memory lane, nice in its nostalgia, but fairly tame stuff. Angela Davis, the poster child of the 60's black power movement, is given prominence, occupies the poster for the film, and yet was never involved with movement building. She was an intellectual, and very good at it, but never involved in the day to day work of building a grassroots movement the way the BPP was. It also comes off as contrived; having Talib Kweli, Eryka Badu and Questlove ruminating on the crucible of the 60's/70's is like Britney Spears talking about the merits of Steal This Book. Ok, maybe not like that, but....

Which brings me to a point; for progressives who are truly concerned with changing the system, if everyday people's voices aren't present in their diversity, run. This is embodied in Malcolm's words when he said:
There's one thing I want to make clear; no matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition whites show toward me, as far as I'm concerned, as long as that same respect and recognition is not shown toward every one of our people in this country it doesn't exist for me.

Moneyball, on the other hand, is ostensibly about as far from the progressive left this side of the skynet death star. It's "about" major league baseball general manager Billy Beane, but is about thinking but also about guts; how a mind can free itself from the societal strictures of tradition and pressure. It's about breaking through old hat.

Corporations love to say "think outside of the box", while doing everything to suppress it. Make no mistake, Major League Baseball's franchises are corporations, and in some ways, are arguably more pressurized than working for Citigroup. It was Noam Chomsky himself who famously pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, Americans are very smart and analytical, and as proof, just turn on sports talk radio and listen to the callers running down everything from the efficacy of man to man versus zone defense to matchups, coaching strategies, trades and their implications... any sports fan knows what he means. And it's true.

Amidst that comes Michael Lewis, about as good a writer as there is (on EM08 and other subjects, like being a dad), who just happens to be a sports nut. And he discovered something funny; that despite a payroll dwarfed by industry behemoths like the Yankees and Dodgers, the Oakland A's were doing something against all odds; they were winning.

What Lewis discovered is not just a great story, but a platinum lesson for those seeking change against the evil empire. Because Moneyball is really about the Godfather of Billy Beane's adopted approach (Sabermetrics), Bill James. And while Beane's story of struggling against convention is a great one, the fact is that Moneyball would never be without James, who first thought of the system of looking at baseball from outside of the box of tradition. And who is Bill James, a former player, a coach? Nope. He was an everyday joe who loved baseball, thought about it from a different angle, and went on a journey of discovery.

In a movie brimming with the lesson of breaking through, Beane himself is served up a cardinal lesson late in the movie. In about as contrived a scene as can be, and yet perfectly pitched, he's schooled in some of the greatest lessons of all; to see himself and the big picture. It works, but I'm a sucker for old Hollywood; I've seen Capra's opus, It's a Wonderful Life, countless times, and it never loses any of its power, in fact, like a fine wine, it only seems to get better. Moneyball is a throwback movie to that Golden Age of Hollywood, and for two hours, I was a little boy sitting in the Golden Gate Theater, enthralled. Thanks also to director Bennett Miller, for time well spent.

The fact of James being an everyday person who had such an enormous impact on a tradition over a century old whizzes right by the viewer in Jonah Hill's dialog and a short burst of James' photo, but listen and watch for it: It's the golden Easter egg, the moneyball within Moneyball.

See this movie.

At the game: The great Bill James