Farai Chideya

Will the Hip Hop Generation Go Green?

Following is an excerpt from Chapter 6: The Future of Political Parties from Farai Chideya's new book "Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters," (Soft Skull, 2004).

Third parties have generally failed to attract large numbers of voters of color, including the emerging hip hop generation political movement. The broad 18-to-35 year-old cohort of hip hop generation voters is looking for real representation. The third party movement is looking for new constituents and fresh ideas. Will these two movements connect?

Yes, say urban third party advocates, who are beginning to reach out to new constituencies like working-class African-Americans. In April 2004, a group of African-Americans hosted a forum called "Why We Joined the Green Party" in an Oakland church hall. The room was filled not just with African-Americans but local citizens of all races, some of them party members and activists, others distinctly skeptical.

Three party advocates, Donna Warren, Henry Clark, and Wilson Riles, told listeners why they'd joined the Greens. "I'm talking to my Black brothers and sisters. Go back to your communities and tell them the infrastructure is already in place if we want to have a voice," said Warren, a former Green Party candidate for California's lieutenant governor. "Join the Green Party. They will not do what the Democrats do to Black people. They [Democrats] want our votes but not our voice."

All three of the candidates tried to convince the audience that the Green Party's platform jibed with African-American interests. The Greens are the only party to support reparations for slavery, they said. The Greens favor education, not incarceration. And Riles spoke about changing California laws that have undermined public financing for schools and services, like Proposition 13. He favors reforming the law so that corporations, whose share of the tax burden has shrunk, pay their share. You'd think that reform of the criminal justice system would be an easy win for the Green Party with African-Americans. But this produced the biggest controversy of the night. During the question and answer period, a coiffed and poised woman raised her hand. LaDonna Williams said that she and her six children had "been through it, homelessness, you name it." She believed in instilling her children with a strong sense of discipline – and disagreed with the idea of eliminating California's "three strikes" law, which gives long sentences to anyone who commits three felonies. Oakland's seen more than its share of addiction and drug-related crime, especially related to crack cocaine. Even though Williams agreed that the sentences are unfair, she was afraid that reducing the "three strikes" penalties would remove a deterrent to drug use and crime. "I tell my kids they are accountable for their actions," she emphasized.

Warren replied that she understood drugs: her thirty one year-old son, a crack addict, had been murdered. "I want people to be accountable," Warren said, "but accountable to the truth. What keeps people away from drugs? Good schools, jobs, having an opportunity to succeed in this society. There's no options in our community," she said. Then she added, "I held my child accountable, but he got addicted to crack cocaine, and he's dead."

Finally another person in the audience stepped in. The tall young man had a tousled afro and a quiet but authoritative voice. "There isn't going to be a strategy for sentencing youth that prevents crime," he said. "We're focused on jail and that has never worked in America. If you look at the rest of the world, you see they know that." Instead, the government should focus on preventing crime by providing educational and job opportunities.

His name is Andrew Williams, and he told me he'd joined the Green Party right before the 2000 election, as he turned eighteen years old. "Bush was, well, Bush, and I wasn't feeling Gore," he said. Williams wanted to join a party he believed in, and he chose the Greens. Voting third-party doesn't run in his family, either. He laughed when I asked if his parents had prompted his choice. "No," he said, "I fight with my family about politics all the time."

I followed up with LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams (no relation) after the meeting. They're both black. They're both savvy and politically aware. And they each have very different takes on what American politics means to them.

For LaDonna Williams, deciding to vote in the 2004 election was not an easy choice. As a Jehovah's Witness, LaDonna's faith advocates against voting. "The answer to our problems lies with God," she says. And when God decides, "we're going to see world peace. ... But until then, you have to live life." For LaDonna, given the current political situation, that means choosing to vote. She is particularly troubled by America under the Bush Administration. "I think President Bush is doing such a horrendous job," she says. "He just outright lies and the people support it. And going to war. ... You want to protect our freedom of speech and the rights we have, but does that mean we violate everyone else's rights?"

"We talk about the weapons of mass destruction," LaDonna continues. "If you look over in Livermore [a nuclear weapons research facility in California], they've stored this radioactive stuff and they're trying to expand it more so they can build more bombs. We're the ones having the weapons of mass destruction here. It's so hypocritical."

LaDonna's politics are rooted in her love for her family. She wants a politics that reflects "family values," secures the finances of working Americans, has a strong and fair criminal justice program and delivers educational opportunity. She's hammered the importance of education home to her children, who range in age from twenty-five to just four. When her twenty-two year old was recruited to play baseball out of high school, she urged him to go to college. He's still hoping to play pro ball, but he's also finishing up a degree in environmental engineering.

So why did she show up at a Green Party meeting? "I'm not pleased with the Democratic Party," LaDonna says. "They really went out of their way to hush up Al Sharpton. With the debates, they really attempted to hush him up and Carol Moseley Braun. I think that was very disrespectful. If the Democratic Party is going to take it to the next level, they need to put a black person in a presidential or vice presidential position." But she doesn't believe just anyone should get the slot. She's holding out for a black leader with strong morals and good ideas. In the meantime, she likes Kerry, "more than [she liked] Dean, and definitely more than Bush." She still hasn't decided whom she'll vote for in 2004, but it probably won't be a Green Party candidate; she wasn't impressed with the answers she got on criminal justice at the community forum.

Andrew Williams, on the other hand, is committed to the Green Party as a vehicle for political change. It's just one part of his larger view of how to make change happen. When I reached him by telephone, he was in the middle of a "Stop Clear Channel" hip hop tour with musicians from an organization he founded, The Collectiv. The Oakland-based organization aims to connect like-minded musicians and activists, empowering the hip hop community through education and entrepreneurship. Their campaign against the entertainment industry giant, which owns over 1,200 radio stations plus music venues and television stations, centers on the way they've cut out local radio programming, blocked independent music promoters and even retaliated against top-selling bands by not playing their songs when the bands did promotions with other stations. Clear Channel has made news as part of the ongoing debate over the Federal Communications Commission and media ownership rules. And for organizations like Andrew's, focusing on the politics of music is a great way to get young voters engaged.

At the age of twenty-two, Andrew already has a finely-tuned political sensibility and a willingness to commit his own time and energy for social change. He is going to conduct a voter registration drive, but he admits he may not be that successful at convincing people to vote. "I have a hard time arguing with my friends when they say, dude, that's [voting is] a joke."

Yet Andrew is committed to voting as a way to "say your piece" and get a piece of the political action. He compares the way politicians target voters to the way advertisers and corporations target consumers. Companies spend a lot of money convincing people who already buy products to switch their brand loyalty. Politicians spend a lot of money convincing people who already vote to vote for them. As Andrew says bluntly, "If you didn't vote last time, they [politicians] don't give a fuck what you want."

Andrew votes Green because he sees both major parties as beholden to the same corporate interests. "There will always be a minority that have a vested interest and try to protect that interest," he says, "And there's always going to be a majority that fight against that interest." The problem is that that majority is fragmented, including many of the Americans who don't vote. For the record, Andrew is convinced that "most Democrats are Greens waiting for the Green Party to get to the point where they can make that decision [i.e., vote Green] and not make it feel reckless." He believes that by voting for a third-party now, he paves the way for more Americans to take them seriously. "God willing," he says, "I'm going to be living through a lot of elections. I don't want to make a decision [with my vote] that won't make long-term change." Still, he understands the position of older members of his family, who see a critical need to vote Democratic now, to, for example, ensure a more progressive Supreme Court. The most important thing is to make a choice on election day. "If nobody voted, it would be terrible," he says. "The cats who are doing what they're doing would be able to say, see, you wanted it that way. I need to say my piece. I need to be able to say fuck that: that's not what I wanted."

LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams reflect both the opportunities and hurdles for third parties wanting to reach new constituencies. LaDonna Williams is reflective of the social conservatism of many working-class African-Americans, which doesn't mesh easily with some more liberal third-party politics. The fact that she showed up to a community forum like this one – and spoke out about her needs and views – is a heartening reminder that Americans are still looking for new ways to participate in our democracy. And the fact that a member of the hip hop generation like Andrew Williams is committed to a third party highlights the changing face of politics – and the possibility that the growing hip hop generation activist movement and the third-party movement could join forces. All across America, individuals like LaDonna Williams and Andrew Williams are exercising sheer raw will, transforming the nation's calcified political system into something that serves them and their communities better. If more people take a similar hands-on attitude towards politics, the question would not be whether our system will change for the better, but how soon.

Fortress America

I'm glad I got to see the world before it closed up shop.

In the past decade, I've been lucky enough -- blessed enough -- to travel to four continents. The countries I've toured are a literal A to Z, as I road-tripped from coast-to-coast in America and hiked through the mountains of Zimbabwe. And now, both within and without our nation, prospects for mind-expanding travel are narrowing to the aperture of a pin, or perhaps to the invisible width of a bit of data.

Today, the United States began photographing and fingerprinting non-U.S. citizens as they entered the country. The program, US-VISIT (United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology) is budgeted at $380 million. An estimated 24 million individuals each year will have to pass two finger scans and have their photographs taken as they enter the United States. The government's hope is that it will catch terrorists and those who overstay their visas.

In the words of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge, "As the world community combats terrorism ... you're going to see more and more countries going to a form of biometric identification to confirm identities." Biometrics is a developing, and lucrative, arena of technologies that map and quantify the body digitally.

Ironically, the International Biometric Industry Association had scheduled its annual conference for September 11, 2001, in Orlando, Florida. The association re-scheduled the conference, with a keynote called "Homeland Security and Biometrics," for February 2002. Since then, the financial prospects for biometrics firms have soared. In much the same way that the war on Iraq has improved the fortunes of military outsourcing firms like Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root, our nation's response to the September 11 attacks is feeding the coffers of biometrics firms -- for an uncertain reward.

This holiday season, the United States blocked or delayed several international flights into the country because of security concerns. Ultimately, no arrests were made, and the government admits there may have been no terrorist plot to begin with. In fact, some of the flights had spelling errors on their passenger manifests that caused the delays. More specifically, a test of the US-VISIT program in Atlanta screened over 20,000 passengers and found just 21 people with suspicious records. None of them were suspected terrorists -- rather, they had been convicted of prior offenses including statutory rape.

On the one hand, no one wants criminals entering the United States. But at a cost of $380 million dollars a year, this program is wildly expensive and does not seem to net its target of terrorists (who may well have sophisticated ways of foiling the system). Instead, it may deter legitimate tourists and hurt an already ailing airline industry.

And moves like this one do not just affect non-estadounidenses. The tightening of global travel restrictions sends a message to Americans that the world is as closed to us as the United States appears to be to those on the outside. They add to the already rampant paranoia that the world is merely a dangerous (and not also a wondrous) place and the only safe haven is a gated community within a shuttered nation. Our country is becoming a fortress of our own devising, both psychologically and tangibly. For example, last week Brazil began fingerprinting and photographing American visitors as a tit-for-tat.

"At first, most of the Americans were angered at having to go through all this," said Wagner Castilho, a press officer for the Brazilian federal police. "But they were usually more understanding once they learned that Brazilians are subjected to the same treatment in the U.S."

We can't expect special treatment on the global stage. If we restrict access to the United States, others will restrict our access to the world. And that would be a devastating shame. In an era of terror, anger and recriminations, one of the healing balms is a one-on-one connection with people of other nations. We cannot heal the rifts in this fractious world by hiding in our domain. No screening program will make us absolutely secure. And if we retreat -- attempting to become an island fortress -- we will endanger not only our humanity, but our long-term security as well.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

Leave No Flygirl Behind

The only thing worse than having a marvelous booty call, only to find the person you're waking up next to is a Republican, is finding out that one of your best friends so loathes the political system that she has not voted and will not vote.

I had one of those shocks the other day. Keisha (name changed to protect the guilty) is not your average Jenny on the block. She is multilingual, has traveled extensively and lived abroad, and pulls down a six-figure salary. She's a compulsive reader and knowledge-seeker. And as a thirty-something African-American, Keisha is also part of a demographic whose political disappearing act should worry Democrats and anyone who cares about democracy.

Keisha's reasons for not voting are simple. She hates most of the candidates. "I vote," she says, "with my money."

It should go without saying that "voting" for Gucci or Wal-Mart is not quite the same as voting for Bush or Sharpton or Dean. But the construct of American consumerism -- what writer Steve Waldman calls "the tyranny of choice" -- does give people a sense that they hold decision-making power. Politics, too often, seems to give us none. Many younger Americans see politics as a distasteful opportunity to make a series of wrong choices. As long as that is the case -- as long as the choice is the lesser of two evils -- then younger voters will continue to sit out the game.

The key to reinvigorating younger voters, and the untapped 100 million non-voters, is to find an aspirational, inspirational language for political change. The Republicans have been very adept at creating a clear narrative of power and self-determination that appeals not only to the people they serve (the rich), but to anyone seeking to better themselves. Thus the trend of the "NASCAR Dad," a demographic whose economic interests should go clearly Democratic but whose voting patterns are stubbornly Republican. Right now, at least, the Republicans are better storytellers.

Better, livelier, and more hopeful storytelling on the left and from Democrats is key to this election. Front-runner Howard Dean has been adept at attacking the Bush administration, but less able to paint vivid word-pictures of the nation he hopes to create. This kind of red-meat politicking appeals to party faithful and young Internet volunteers, but it may not bring many of the 100 million non-voters back into the fold. Messaging need not be an either-or dilemma. The candidates can continue to legitimately point out the failures of the current administration while honing their vision of a post-Bush America.

What would that vision consist of? Democrats have to reclaim the language of opportunity, enhanced by a solid grasp of social justice. The concept that a rising tide lifts all boats needs to be updated for the more acquisitive hip hop generation, who want immediate rewards for the fruits of their labor. The Democratic Party must be the party of strivers who are opportunistic but not parasitic, people who believe their own personal gain will not be enhanced by the misery of others. Right now some voters feel they have to choose between personal opportunity and social justice. A spot-on narrative will demonstrate that social justice -- including no more no-bid contracts for fat cats, more educational opportunity, halting the growth of the prison-industrial complex and better jobs creation -- benefits those seeking economic gain. Call it "Leave No Flygirl Behind."

Targeting the hip-hop generation -- people like Keisha -- with these messages is critical. The average age of white Americans is 41. The average age of black Americans is 31. Younger Americans are less likely to vote than older Americans. Black voters are 90-plus percent Democratic Party faithful. The Party has taken the black vote for granted, but as time passes, unless messaging is on point, the flow of black support will dwindle. The hip-hop generation is, of course, multiracial. Across ethnic lines, they are disgruntled with the lack of political storytelling that appeals to them.

It's not too late to find the language of inspiration. And it certainly isn't too early to start.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

An Open Letter to Michael Jackson

You were my first. Back when the other kids were swaying to nursery rhymes, I wanted to rock with you. I had everything I needed -- a portable stereo and an album of you singing with the Jackson Five. According to my mother, I would drag around my little stereo, and I would put you on, and I would dance. Nothing else in the world could have made me happier.

I remember you. Your lips were full and your nose was wide and your face was brown. This only rates mentioning because it is no longer true, so untrue, in fact, that sometimes I wonder if I imagined you as you once were. I'm sure at night, as a child, I dreamed of the boy with the afro who sang and spun on his heels like a miniature James Brown.

I wish that boy had become a man. That wish seemed reasonable all the way through "Off the Wall," when your nose grew narrower and hair more lank, but you were still visibly black. With every subsequent album your relationship to your original appearance grew fainter and fainter, until you were no longer even an echo of yourself. But the further you fled from black masculinity, the more international crowds lionized you. Today you are a grotesque.

And an alleged child molester -- that too? If we can believe what we see in the camera lens -- that this pale alien being (recently parodied in "Scary Movie 3") was once cute little Michael -- then we can believe anything. The danger for us is that we will judge you by your appearance. The danger for you is that you have set up a situation, with your reckless behavior around your own children and others', that we cannot help but judge.

In his book The Hip Hop Generation," Bakari Kitwana relentlessly outlines America's broken promise to black males. Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and unbalanced enforcement of drug laws have helped make prison a waystation or home for many more black men than white. In Los Angeles and Cincinnati, frustrated youth up-end their own neighborhoods to draw attention to police brutality. The global economy undermines the fortunes of lower-skilled workers, many of them African-Americans. The military, in many cases, remains the only way out.

This social warfare has hardened many black men, aiding and abetting the culture of hypermasculinity that permeates hip hop. It's hard to be a sister and be down with the bitch/'ho lyrics, hard to be down with men who spout rhymes full of anti-female fury. Commercial hip hop may appeal to young women who can pretend that the men are calling out someone else, but to an older head like myself it sounds as if they are speaking my name. I cannot listen to it. I cannot dance.

But I long to take the floor with the same childish glee that I did when you and I were together. I desperately want you to be there for me, to reassure me that things aren't so bad that the primary options open to black men are hatred of black women or physical and mental disintegration. I would like to think that you, the shadow Michael who never had a chance to grow up, wouldn't treat me the way those other men do. But I'm the furthest thing from your mind.

In your absence, the absence of a Michael I can relate to, I have only questions. Why does America destroy and pervert black men? Were you squeezed between racism and perfectionism until your very soul compressed? And what about those without your millions of dollars? What options are left for them?

I feel -- and I know it cannot be true, for I still breathe -- that if you cannot exist, I cannot exist. If there is no room for a loving black masculinity in the world, I fear there is little room for the black feminine as well. You, Michael Jackson, are not all black men, and for that I am grateful. But your decline says more about America than we can bear to hear.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

A Double Standard for Heroes?

What do you call a black war hero? A nigger.

In the crudest of senses, this twist on the old joke about black PhDs sums up the political backdrop of Calvin Baker's lyrical novel "Once Two Heroes." Set in the European battlefields of World War II, in black Los Angeles and in the white South, the book ranges masterfully across geography, race and point of view. The novel follows the struggles and glories of two war heroes, one black, one white, and their divergent and fatally convergent life paths. Although it is a period piece, its echoes are very much present day.

Take the case of Shoshanna Johnson.

Johnson is a single mother of a young daughter. She enlisted in the Army in hopes it would help her become a chef. Instead, the Army specialist was deployed to Iraq, shot through both legs and held prisoner for 22 days. (She was captured in the same ambush as Jessica Lynch, but remained in captivity longer.) Her slow and painful recovery was not charted by the media with the same zeal as her friend Lynch. In fact, there was hardly any coverage of her journey at all.

Today Johnson remains partially disabled, unable to stand for long periods (which clearly impacts her desired career), and haunted by flashbacks to her ordeal. But the U.S. Army, so buoyed by the publicity around the Lynch case, has now dealt Johnson and her family a severe blow. While Jessica Lynch is being discharged from the army with an 80-percent disability benefit, Johnson is being discharged on only 30-percent disability. The difference will mean a loss of nearly $700 per month for Johnson and her child.

Reluctantly, the Johnson family began to turn to the media that had spurned them, speaking out about her plight. Her father, Claude Johnson, told reporter Lee Hockstader of the Washington Post that there was a double standard.

"I don't know for sure that it was the Pentagon," he said. "All I know for sure is that the news media paid a lot of attention to Jessica."

The family has enlisted the help of Rev. Jesse Jackson. Although his help is bound to be effective, it is necessary only because of the tiresome dance of race in America, where whites are seen as the default models for society, and black achievements are looked at with puzzlement.

Jessica Lynch's face graces the cover of Time magazine; her interviews and excerpts of her book have been scattered across national television. Now, only because of a small but growing outcry, Shoshanna Johnson may get her due as well.

Nuyorican Poetry Slam winner Kahlil Almustafa has even written a poem about Johnson. It begins:

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The Age of Uncertainty

It seems like half of my friends are unemployed and the other half are stuck in jobs that don't match them, like ill-fitting suits. Maybe it has something to do with our age. Most of us are in our mid-30s, too old to work happily for peanuts at some crap-ass job, too young to stay put for a pension. (They still have those, don't they?)

We are desperate for change, desperate for guidance and vision and prospects and improvement. There's only one problem. We want the same amelioration in political life as we seek personally.

Why is that a problem? To state the obvious, if sobering, truth: What's good for America seems good for President Bush. If the war in Iraq is "contained," it increases the President's chances of re-election. If the economy blossoms rather than withers, the same is true. America is fundamentally a conservative country: conservative in the sense of conserving energy and reserving harsh judgment. Voting out a sitting President, even one with such an egregious track record on issues from the economy to the environment, strikes many Americans as somewhere between impossible and undesirable.

Progressives/left/liberals/you-name-it must move beyond the politics of opposition, where what's bad for America is good for the President's foes. We cannot rely on America's fortunes continuing to tank -- the up-tick in the economy proves that. There has to be a way to encourage and enjoy any improvement in America's fortunes while still building a base for change.

What if? That simple statement is one of the most powerful in the human imagination and in politics as well. If the left and America are to do well simultaneously, we must "what if" our way into a new vision of progress.

What if the President had listened to his own father, who wrote in his 1998 memoir A World Transformed:

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American Jihad

There are several battles going on simultaneously in Iraq. One is to secure the country against lawlessness and terrorism. Another is to dole out the spoils of the oil resources. Third is to secure victory for George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. And yet another is to win a public relations offensive, convincing the world that this was a just war in the first place.

In that last campaign, mark one for America in the "skirmish lost" column.

Recently NBC News broadcast footage of Army Lt. General William Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense, equating our campaigns in the Middle East to a religious war. Among his arguments: that Islam is "a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan," out to destroy America "because we're a Christian nation."

For bonus points, Boykin also pegged God (not the Supreme Court) as the deciding factor in the 2000 elections. "Why is this man [President Bush] in the White House?" he said. "The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."

Who does it serve to antagonize not Islamic terrorists, who need no further incentive for their deeds, but the rest of the members of the world's fastest growing religion? If any Islamic cleric or politician were to make similar statements about Christianity in a public forum, you can bet our government would decry their hate speech.

Therefore the most troubling aspect of the Boykin incident is not his words, but the Bush administration's reaction to his attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Boykin "an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States Armed Forces." He then defended the Lt. General's statements on free speech grounds, saying, "We're a free people."

A free speech defense has great appeal. But this administration, which has relentlessly criticized those who speak out against the Iraq war and occupation, seems to have a very selective view of its uses. (Remember former White House spokesman Ari Flesicher admonishing Bill Maher of 'Politically Incorrect' and "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do"?)

Much has been made of the evangelical Christianity of President Bush. He has tried to blend his courting of evangelical voters with attempts to extend an olive branch to a growing political force, Arab-Americans. But the President and his administration cannot have it both ways. They cannot restrict the meaning of "true American" to "Christian-American," and also purport to believe in a pluralistic society. And they cannot allow the military to promote the idea of an American Jihad -- a religious war -- while claiming to fight a religion-neutral war on terrorism as well.

The issue of religion in American identity will be one of the lynchpins around which the 2004 election turns. Currently the Supreme Court is debating whether schoolchildren should use the phrase "under God" (which was only added during the Red Scare of the 1950s) while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court may well bar the use of the words in school -- but every politician running for President will then, to court voters, leap to their defense. On a much deeper level, the Red State/Blue State faultline corresponds nicely with states in which evangelical or fundamentalist beliefs pervade (Red) versus states with a healthy, if hard-won, sense of religious pluralism (Blue).

In our own nation, and abroad, we cannot take lightly the threat that religious warmongering holds for our Union or our standing in the world. The administration must recognize the speech of Lt. Gen. Boykin and any others like him for what it really is: a threat to national security and American democracy as well.

Avoiding the Rush to Gloat

I was going to write this snarky column on the allegations that Rush Limbaugh is a pill-popper (as well just being dinged from ESPN for racism). Wasn't it just delicious that this malicious conservative firebrand, this master of condemnation, was living in a house of glass? Wasn't it just the comeuppance that he couldn't hack it without uppers and downers?

I only had one problem. I just couldn't finish that piece.

It strikes me that this sad, angry man says more about the tragedy of America's emotional life than an attack piece could convey. Who is he, this standard-bearer for anger and hate, and why did he allegedly feel it necessary to douse his own flames with illicit painkillers?

Like conservative moralist William Bennett, who lost millions of dollars gambling, Rush Limbaugh may become a symbol of the moral hypocrisy of the hard right. These two men helped build the frenzy to impeach President Clinton on charges of lying to the public. But were they themselves living a public lie?

If the ongoing investigation proves that Limbaugh got his housekeeper to buy thousands of addictive OxyContin illegally, he will join Bennett as a symbol of right-wing moralists' deadly dual consciousness. Morality is for the little people, and for liberals. (Same thing.) Talking about welfare queens and poverty pimps, not to mention philandering presidents, excuses your own failings.

So why not, excuse the pun, rush to judgment? In the book "The Power of Now," philosopher Eckhart Tolle speaks of a cycle of identification with the negative aspects of life that hurts the thinker as much as anyone around him or her. "To complain is always nonacceptance of what is," Tolle writes. "It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim."

Conservative complaints about the poor, about liberals, about (Rush's term) "feminazis" are a veiled form of victimology -- the very syndrome they decry. Beset by enemies of his own making, is it any wonder that Limbaugh could feel the need to turn to powerful drugs for relief?

But before we get too comfortable bashing Limbaugh, we should question the negativity in our own lives. Individuals on both sides of the political fence are prone to complaining, to victimology, more than problem solving or acceptance. Our collective anger also leads to a collective need to numb that anger -- the multi-billion dollar legal alcohol, television, and tobacco industries, as well as the illegal and illicit drug trade. This world is dangerous and beautiful, war-torn and peaceful, the site of both negative and positive changes. The more we can see the world for what it is, the better decisions we'll be able to make.

Would the vast majority of our political leadership have voted to give the President powers to invade Iraq if they had truly seen the world for what it was, not simply looked for a target? We must remember that Democrats as well as Republicans, left as well as right, voted to endorse this breach of the Constitution. Our need for revenge blinded us to the fact that our actions in Iraq truly had little to do with the hurts we suffered on September 11, 2001.

And now, as we seek to deal with the ramifications of the Iraq war, are we seeing the world as it is, or looking for scapegoats? Are we willing to look clearly at the situation we face, or do we feel the need to escape? The more we focus on the blame game versus problem solving, the more likely we are to self-sabotage by seeking false relief. Most of us are a little closer to being Rush Limbaugh than we'd like to admit. If that thought isn't scary enough to cause us to evolve, I don't know what is.

The opposite of complaining is not silence. As Tolle writes, "When you speak out, you are in power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness." Nor is acceptance the opposite of change. Acceptance of our situation allows us to see clearly and make change. If we can see the world as it is, and speak to the necessary and positive changes we need to implement, we can avoid the trap of victimology and make America the nation we dream.

Farai Chideya writes a regular column for AlterNet.

Community and Adversity

A man grilled chicken outdoors, giving it away to passers-by. A few blocks away, people from all over the city showed up spontaneously to visit a friend. And as the sun went down, neighbors who rarely spoke to each other gathered in Tompkins Square Park, dancing in a circle around a fire, laughing and smiling.

No, this wasn't a community block party. It was the New York City blackout -- the most joyous celebration of an emergency I've ever seen. It was an emergency, with disabled people stuck in skyscrapers and commuters stranded under the city on the subways. But for those who were lucky enough to be out and about, much of it was a big party.

I was struck by the way that normal class, race, and age barriers lowered or even disappeared. Late at night in the park, residents of the projects by the East River mingled with trendy yuppies from new condos a few blocks away. Anarchist street punks and business people, kids and parents, the locals and the staying-with-a-friend-'cause-it's-too-far-to-walk folks all, in the words of the much-maligned Rodney King, just got along.

There's something about the harshness of emergencies that sheds light on our more ridiculous day-to-day worries. Maybe that morning we waited an extra five minutes for the subway, fuming the whole time. Or our favorite bakery was out of apricot-bran-carrot muffins. Or, far more serious, a freelance assignment was late with a check, which meant rent would be late. All of that -- the small problems and the big ones -- disappeared for a moment as we realized the freedoms we had to reach out to one another and break the daily routine.

I have a similar experience almost every year. It's called Burning Man, a festival of free expression every Labor Day week in the Nevada desert. It's a little hard to describe to anyone who hasn't been there, like explaining Cirque du Soleil to someone who's only seen the Barnum and Bailey Circus. In fact, Burning Man is a circus -- a volunteer effort where everyone comes and contributes whatever of beauty or wonder that they have. A rollercoaster, a temple, huge public artworks, and a mind-boggling display of costumery and plumage are only the start.

What I love most about Burning Man is the same spirit of openness and community that suffused the New York City blackout. Urban refugees drop their unapproachable city-faces, offer free food and drinks and jewelry; in other words, do almost anything to help their fellow man enjoy their time on the playa. This year, my camp and I gave shelter to a member of the Paiute tribe, whose lands are near the festival. He helped us with our camp and told us about his tribe's history, which included successfully defending their land against American troops. By the end of the festival, his first, he declared himself an enthusiastic member of the Burning Man tribe as well as his own.

How can we bring this spirit of celebration to everyday life? It begins with small things, like smiling instead of scowling on the street. We can question our attitudes, particularly towards people who serve us in some capacity (waiters, attendants). There is a certain kind of disdain that masquerades as formality in this society. Be a rebel. Break it. Live.

Let's make every day an emotional state of emergency

Operation FUBAR

In Iraq last week, the United States launched Operation Jimmy Hoffa with a raid in Khalis, north of Baghdad. Members of a crime ring were apprehended. But like the body of the former teamster leader, the weapons of mass destruction used to justify war cannot be found.

I'd like to propose a name for the next massive raid: Operation FUBAR. This is a military acronym for F*ed Up Beyond All Recognition, a phrase which certainly seems to fit our failed empire building exercise in the desert.

But how, Farai -- you might say -- can you argue we went to Iraq to feather our own nest? I think I got the idea from Paul Bremer III, the U.S. Envoy to Iraq. In a telling interview with NPR's Juan Williams, Bremer made the case for spending billions more of U.S. money in Iraq. "Even if we succeed in getting our oil revenues back to normal," Bremer said, that won't pay for the cost of our military presence. "When you say our, you mean Iraqi" oil revenues, Williams interjected. "Yeah," said Bremer, without much enthusiasm.

Let's face it: From afar, Iraq looked like a cash cow, a place that could provide an additional base for U.S. operations plus a steady stream of black gold. Now the black gold has become a quagmire devouring U.S. and Iraqi lives, and U.S. dollars.

Next week, the Congressional Budget Office will forecast the federal budget deficit for the next year. According to a new report in the New York Times, the forecast will likely be over half a trillion dollars, even larger than previous White House estimates. Of course, those White House estimates didn't include the cost of a protracted war in Iraq, a war estimated to cost nearly $5 billion per month. "There will be no retreat," says the President. But there may be no victory, politically or economically, either.

What are the upsides of this FUBAR situation? Perhaps Americans will learn to let go of one of the most persistent myths in U.S. politics: Republicans stand for good economic governance.

The median family income and GDP grew more under President Clinton than President Reagan. Fiscal management under Bush I inspired the Democratic attack line, "It's the economy, stupid." And Bush II is turning out to be even worse than Bush I.

In a persuasive article, writer David Brock argued that Americans vote for Republicans rather than Democrats because Republicans speak to the aspiration to be rich. Nobody wants to be told that you're poor and you're going to suffer. Nobody wants to hear that taxes will rise because of the profit-taking which occurred in a past presidency. This presents the Democrats with a critical challenge: how to preach the politics of rebuilding without offering only austerity. (We Americans have never been good at austerity.) After a bruising four years, Americans going to the ballot box in 2004 will be looking for hope. We hope that the economy will recover, that the FUBAR war will end, that no more terrorist attacks will hit our shores.

There are ways to blend realism and inspiration. By re-aligning our political priorities, we can end the slow destruction of the public school system, provide decent healthcare for working Americans who can't afford it, and make sure that our strong military is also a smart military. If that isn't cause to wave the flag, I don't know what is.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

Top Ten Things to Do in a Blackout

I admit it. I caused the New York City blackout.

On Thursday I took the subway to a part of New York that is all but a foreign country: the Upper East Side. Rushing to an appointment, I passed rows of impeccable boutiques, stuffed with designer goods just big enough to fit Japanese tourists. Hopped the unreliable six train downtown. It runs on the only tracks serving most of Manhattan's East Side, is always jammed to the gills, and always has "unavoidable" service delays.

Though this has been one soupy mess of a summer, today wasn't so bad. It was actually hotter and muggier inside my apartment than it was outdoors.

So I did the thing I never do: turned on the AC. It wheezed its way to life, and I left the room for the kitchen. And then, something strange happened. My AC stopped.

I flipped every switch in the house. No lights, no TV, no high-speed wireless internet.

Meanwhile, the people in the shops and restaurants across the street were streaming outdoors, scratching their heads. White-aproned sous-chefs and frustrated photocopy clients tried to figure out what was going on.

My thought: I killed it. My one little AC killed the whole New York City power grid.

We now know it wasn't just New York City. The power outages stretch from Toronto to Maryland. I got off the subway about ten minutes before the trains stopped dead in their tracks. I'm grateful -- and guilty. Was my little AC the tipping point?

I usually flatter myself I don't need no AC. After all, I was practically raised in a swamp. The weather in Baltimore is known to reach the 100 degree, 100 percent humidity mark. Sometimes, pre air conditioning, my family slept in the basement. The thick insulation of the earth provided naturally cooled air. No such luck in Manhattan. Still, as a good little eco-citizen, I'd been trading damp armpits for the good of the planet. But everybody has a breaking point. It just seems like mine coincided with a region-wide reality check.

We'd all love to think that energy is unlimited and California is the only state where brownouts are a matter of course. The East Coast outage tells us otherwise. And since we're still in the middle of it -- and who knows how often it will happen again -- we might as well make the best of it. Forthwith, the Top 10 Things To Do In a Blackout:

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Secrets and Cries

"What if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split apart." When she wrote those words, poet Muriel Rukeyser must have been envisioning Tricia Rose's new book "Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy" (Farrar Straus Giroux), in which a chorus of women rip stereotypes of black female sexuality to shreds.

There's Sarita, who begins her story, "Ever since I was born, my life has been one big drama." Her father, an American-born Muslim, had two wives. Now she struggles to balance her hard-earned feminism with her love for her family. AIDS activist Linda Rae recounts her physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her family, and the turning points that made her a symbol of hope for others. Cocoa has tried playing Miss Perfect and failed. "I don't think that society understands black women's sexuality," she says. "They go to a light-skinned woman with long hair and say this is pretty, and when they see the dark-skinned lady, they say this is the nurturing type.... Or if they show a dark-skinned woman in a sexual light, she's poor, she's loud talking, she's not intelligent... I know it has an impact on my little niece...She watches BET and MTV."

Taking a page from Studs Turkel's oral history playbook, author Tricia Rose lets the women speak for themselves in natural language. This makes for the fastest 400-page read of the summer. Rose, now a professor of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, came to prominence with the seminal book "Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America." In this book, the theory appears only in small cameos. The stories take the fore.

Each of her subject's lives is so impossibly complex that they defy stereotypes -- precisely the point. But certain common experiences emerge. Many of the women have been sexually exploited, either as children, adults, or both. Most who have not been raped fear it. One of the deepest myths of Western society is that our values prevent this exploitation. Or as Dr. Judith Herman puts it in her book "Trauma and Recovery," "Women like to believe that they have greater freedom and higher status than they do in reality. A woman is especially vulnerable to rape when acting as though she were free -- that is, when she is not observing conventional restrictions on dress, physical mobility, and social initiative."

Those words echo a story a black American reporter in South Africa told me. Before the fall of apartheid, he was accompanying a local man through a township. The man said, "My brother, you walk as if you are free." In order not to attract attention, the American changed his gait.

In this sense, Rose's book bridges the gap between narratives of (white) women and black (men). Just as white male is the default position in American society, the female is assumed to be white, and the black assumed to be male. Rose's book is a classic example of law professor Kimberle Crenshaw's theory of intersectionality, which considers multiple identities at once. In one description, intersectionality puts the black woman at a literal crossroads. If she got hit by a bus, it could be racism, or sexism, or both. A black woman harassed by black men, then fetishized by white men, has just been hit by two buses.

Add to that heterosexism. Some of Rose's subjects are lesbians. Others, many others, have had one-time or ongoing sexual experiences with women. Says Pam, "I'm very shy, but I'm politically a lesbian. I've been an out lesbian on campus since I've been there....I've had really good sexual relations, I think. I expect my partners to be attentive and ask me what I want, and to try new things."

Despite the struggles, there is still both good sex and good love in this world. As Anondra says, "Sex with love is on a whole other level. It's not just physical. It's emotional. It's mental. It's sensual." Sex + love is a basic human longing. Along with uncovering pain and shame, "Longing to Tell" reveals that this dream still comes true.

Do Segregationists Have a Heaven?

If "The Lovely Bones" is right about heaven, Strom Thurmond has just appeared in a glorious version of the white South, where the clock stopped no later than 1948. In the bestselling book about a murdered girl, heaven is divided into neighborhoods of like-minded people (or spirits). If my version of heaven was, say, running a college radio station, and your version of heaven was having your own ska show, we might end up as eternal neighbors.

So here's my question: Do segregationists have a heaven? If so, the senator is probably planning a picnic with Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, or enacting legislation with Orville Faubus, or doing a Civil War exercise with General Robert E. Lee. Think of the fun! Senator Thurmond, no doubt in his younger form, can spend his day vanquishing the Northerners. Afterwards, the kindly negras will fetch him and his new friends their footstools and pipes. (If no kindly negras choose to appear in the segregationist heaven, maybe the boys can take turns in blackface, like "Birth of a Nation.") Of course, they'll keep a seat warm for Trent Lott.

The passing of America's longest-serving senator raises a whole heavenly host of questions. Yes, the afterlife is described in major religious texts, but do any of us share an exact concept of what it is? Do we get a cookie-cutter heaven, a prefab cloud complete and a new white robe, or is the great beyond customizable? And what about the entry requirements? Hey, slavery was condoned by the church. Are all the slaveowners upstairs, chillin'? Or is morality retroactive -- they were admitted to heaven, but once the church flipped on slavery, they were kicked down to hell? Or, as many theologians posit, is time an illusion? If so, some people who did their best to live by the morals of the day will show up at the pearly gates only to get the Celestial Gong.

This doesn't even get into the question of religious difference. Is there one heaven (and hell) for people of all faiths? Or, much as the world is divided into countries, is the afterlife divided by religion? What if you're a Jewish Buddhist? Do you commute?

It's all fun to think about, particularly given the complexities of Ol' Strom's life. Like, that black daughter of his, when she passes, will they have a family reunion? Will Thomas Jefferson and his black kids show up to welcome her home? Or will Strom spend his eternal sunset among spirits who, throughout the ages, have championed the separation of the races?

God willing, when I go, I'll end up on the other side of town.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics and a frequent contributor to AlterNet.

Integrity Breeds Dissent

My grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes, is one of my heroes. She is also very sick now. Much later than I should have, I started audiotaping some of the stories that make up her life. One of them is the tale of how she challenged employment discrimination on her job, the price she paid, and the gains she won.

My grandmother only went to work -- and started taking college classes -- after the youngest of her six children was in school. She began working at the Social Security Administration as a GS-2, an entry-level employee. In her words:

"I went to work with a determination to get promoted as soon as possible. One of the things that hurt so much was the fact that there was a black man who had reached a grade four. At that time, a grade four was great for a black person. When he found out I had put in for GS-5, he said, 'You know you're wasting your time -- a black middle-aged woman trying to get a job of that nature.' When I retired, he was still a GS-4, and I was a GS-11," she said.

"When I applied for a promotion, the white girl got the promotion. They told me she was more qualified. I had a high school degree and had gotten A+ on college classes. She had to get a GED in a hurry so [she could qualify for the job]. One of the reasons that she got it was because I had refused to accept [my supervisors'] attitude about a group of young black women who were eligible for promotion who were being bypassed."

My grandmother insisted that the black employees be evaluated fairly, by the same measures as white ones. They did well on every test, but management was not pleased. "They called me into the office, and they said, `This could mean your future.' I said, it would just have to mean it," my grandmother said.

She didn't receive a promotion for four years. "I just kept plodding along. Eventually I wrote to the commissioner and I told him what I'd done. They nominated me for the commissioner's citation. As soon as I got nominated for the commissioner's citation, I got nominated for a Grade 11. It was only after I received that citation -- the highest citation that Social Security can give -- that I got promoted to a job you could really say you took a look a lot of effort with."

My grandmother is an extraordinary woman not only for her integrity, but for her deep compassion. She mentored and befriended white employees as well as black. She also remained loyal in the truest sense to the institution she served -- by bringing them kicking and screaming into the era of the integrated workplace.

In a small-minded world, loyalty and integrity are enemies. Conservative proponents of the New Patriotism call anyone who dissents with the Bush Administration a traitor. This leaves no room for the very American principle of dissent, the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of ideas that undergirds all social progress. The expression of the ideals in the Declaration of Independence only became meaningful with dissent -- dissent against slavery, against the inability of women to vote, against legalized employment discrimination. Without dissent there is no democracy.

Who dissents? In every case of major social change, people of integrity made a very hard decision. They chose to stand up for principles that at the time were illegal and/or considered immoral. I met a gentleman named "Skip" Barner who, in the 1950s, promoted black employees and treated the black woman who worked for his family like a human being. When she stayed late, he would drive her home. When she ate lunch, she sat at the table with his wife. This so outraged the local Ku Klux Klan that they threatened his wife. Skip Barner took a gamble that leaving documents about the threats in a safe deposit box, should anything happen, would keep them safe.

That takes integrity.

It's easier to look at examples of integrity from the past than from the present. But one current example stands out for me -- the whistleblowers at Enron. Greed and a misplaced sense of loyalty -- to a corrupt corporation -- kept many top officials from telling the truth. But Sherron Watkins blew the whistle on the phony accounting. She didn't save the company, or its reputation. But she can be assured, in addition to sleeping better at night, that her obituary will not tout her as someone who squandered billions and put thousands of people out of work.

Loyalty and integrity are not enemies. When we place loyalty to the power structure of an institution or government above loyalty to its people, we undercut the ideals we claim to serve.

Integrity is one of the most important, and most threatened, of American values. Of course, "values" is a fighting word, particularly to progressives and liberals who have seen morality used as a weapon. But values can be-- and for many of us have been -- a healing balm that soothes the injustice of everyday life. One of the challenges of our experiment in American democracy is how to express values in public life. We can learn a lot from those who have had to make hard decisions before us.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics and a regular contributor to AlterNet.

When Is a Good Liar Better than a Good Reporter?

When I heard about Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old black reporter at the New York Times who made up at least half of his recent articles, I knew that the spin would be about race. Blair was a minority recruit. Now, according to some critics, he's a poster boy for the repeal of affirmative action.

To its credit, the New York Times hasn't published such drivel. Editors claim that race wasn't a part of the problem. On that score, I think they're wrong.

Race is always an issue; one that, if you live long enough, will work both for and against you. As America gets more diverse, the total number of black and of-color newspaper reporters has stagnated from year to year, in some cases dropping. The failure of America to have a truly integrated media does two things: 1) reinforces racial essentialism (i.e., all black reporters are held accountable for the sins of one; not so for whites) and 2) gives people who really want to play the race game a wide open field in which to do it.

Racial essentialism means that whites are thought of as having no race, and blacks (and to a lesser extent, other non-whites) are thought of as only seeing the world via race. This skewed perspective leads to the assumption that whites are "objective" when covering race (because they are somehow neutral, or raceless) and blacks are biased. It also means that white people don't have to apologize for famous plagarists like the Boston Globe's Mike Barnacle and Ruth Shalit (who penned a controversial article on race in the newsroom for The New Republic). Blacks apparently do.

Journalism is like any profession. There are a smattering of people who make us look bad, including the reporter caught stealing gold from Iraq and the two paid $10,000 each by the National Enquirer for lying about Elizabeth Smart's family. Many examples of journalistic misconduct never make it public. One minority reporter I know received a severance package because his boss, who was white, plagiarized his work. The supervisor was not fired, and the incident was not made public.

Now that we've established journalists aren't perfect, let's get to the bigger issue. News organizations -- hell, all organizations -- like their employees to fit into the culture. That's not bad when there's some flexibility. But too much conformity leads into the trap that Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes in her now-classic "Men and Women of the Corporation." The people who advance the quickest in a company tend to look (usually white and male) and act the most like their superiors. Blair wasn't white, but I suspect he was a skillful mimic who used his knowledge of the corporate culture to get by.

Liars like Blair are shapeshifters who spend at least as much time ingratiating themselves with others as they do on their work. Since his days on the college paper, Blair was known as someone who used his charm to get by. (One wonders, given the outrageousness of the stunts he pulled, exactly how much ass-kissing he had to do.)

This type of charming liar possesses qualities that, at least in the short term, are very appealing to editors. No assignment is too difficult, no request off-base. Real reporters get stuck, or at least find out that the story they uncover is different from the one assigned. Liars don't have this problem.

The best reporters today -- including the best black reporters -- follow the story, not the assignment. This tends to be problematic for many black reporters whose editors challenge their independence, particularly on stories of race. Talented reporters of color who see important story suggestions get shot down too often are branded "troublemakers" and leave the business. That's one reason that the biggest diversity challenge news organizations face is not hiring reporters of color, but retaining them.

There are countless reporters of color with proven track records looking for new opportunities. The question is whether outspoken, honest journalists of color are a better fit than con artists like Blair.

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com.

Getting Ashcrofted

I stood in a dim basement office facing a rack of electronic equipment. An employee in the ID card office grasped my thumb and pulled it toward the glass top of a small scanner. "Your hands are wet," she said, turning on a miniature fan. I forced myself to breathe deeply while my hands dried out.

My fingers always get clammy and cold when I'm scared, which I suppose I shouldn't have been. I've never been arrested. And I've never been fingerprinted -- until now.

I work for a nonprofit in space donated by other companies. Next week we move to the offices of one of the biggest corporations in America. They happen to fingerprint all their tenants.

I tried my best to talk my way out of it. I even considered working from home. But it wasn't going to fly. I respect the work I do, and if I wanted to continue it (not to mention eat and pay rent), I was going to have to put civil liberties on the back burner. But I was still scared. And as it has ever since I was a child, my body revealed the fear I tried to mask.

Once my hands dried out, the employee rolled my fingertips over the scanner of the Electronic Fingerprint Capture Station (ECFS) 2100. The loops and whorls that make up my prints appeared as oversized black patterns on a computer screen in front of me. Who needs ink?

The company that developed the ECFS recently changed its name to Integrated Biometric Technology. Everybody wants to cash in on the marketability of biometrics, the technology of identifying people based on biological traits. Biometrics extends far beyond electronic fingerprinting to retinal scans and, perhaps most controversial, face recognition from video surveillance. Biometrics is Big Brother, Inc.

There are some proven successes in this field. Fingerprint databases helped crack the D.C. sniper case. The FBI got a print from a shell casing left behind in a fatal liquor store shooting in Montgomery, Alabama. Agents ran it through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) and pulled alleged teen sniper John Lee Malvo's print. Malvo and his mother had been fingerprinted by the INS. They then found police records connecting Malvo's mother and 41-year-old suspect John Allen Muhammad.

But fingerprint evidence is not infallible. In cases where prints are smudged, IDs are a judgment call made by individual law enforcement agents. A year ago in the case U.S. v. Plaza, a Philadelphia court even ruled that fingerprints were not scientific evidence, but an art. That judge would love the early feedback on face recognition

This month, researchers from the Department of Defense and other government agencies released the "Face Recognition Vendor Test 2002," mandated by the PATRIOT act. Their headline cheered systems that could identify 90 percent of people caught on tape, but that only counted the top contenders; the worst company only identified 34 percent of faces correctly in indoor lighting, with an average score among systems of only 68 percent.

All the products worked miserably on outdoor pictures, and all produced false positives. Those in the hip-hop generation beware: Even the top surveillance systems had their worst ID rate with young Americans. The top three had less than a 65 percent accuracy rate for people aged 18-27.

The bad news about face recognition hasn't stopped the Washington, D.C., police department from building a high-tech command center to watch dozens of surveillance cameras placed around the downtown. The system, first activated on September 11, 2001, has been bashed by the city council. But a March 10 article by David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post depicts residents of a crime-plagued neighborhood asking for cameras. They're tired of their cars being stolen and their tires being slashed.

The residents of Benning Ridge have a point. It's not enough to protest surveillance. The same people who are at risk of bad surveillance also bear the brunt of street crime. Civil libertarians need to expand their mission to ensure the people whose liberty they're trying to protect get decent police protection as well.

Meanwhile, I feel like a suspect for some crime I haven't committed yet. A private company may have gathered my fingerprints, but the government's new Total Information Awareness system will allow virtually unfettered access to private databases for "anti-terror" purposes. (Check their nifty diagram.) A friend of mine says I've been "Ashcrofted" -- forced to give up my privacy for pretty much no reason at all. Maybe as more of us are Ashcrofted, we'll ask how we can balance liberty and safety instead of giving up rights for no return.

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com. She writes this weekly column for AlterNet.

The Revolution Must Be Monetized

I just finished my annual financial marathon. It starts in January, when I put the last bank statement into the huge plastic bin containing folders of different receipts. Over the next few weeks, I sort through these receipts and total them. I gather my 1099s and W2s, thin slips of paper that drift in from California, DC, anywhere I could scrounge a dollar. Then I try to make sense of it all for the taxman. I can't. I hire someone to do it for me.

The last time I did my own taxes -- maybe a decade ago -- was back when I was employed only by a corporation. For years now, my income has come mainly from what I seek out myself, a mix of writing, lecturing and consulting. Freelancing is always the best and worst of both worlds. Once you become your own boss, you usually realize just how lousy a manager you are.

Take Farai the Manager. Every year, FtM claims that she will move to a more efficient computerized accounting system. Every year, FtM tries it for a month or two, throws up her hands in disgust, and moves back to what FtE -- Farai the Employee -- calls shoebox accounting. (That big plastic bin used to be a humble cardboard shoebox.) Particularly in this political climate, where many people mask their feelings and beliefs just to stay employed, FtE appreciates FtM's efforts. If only she were more efficient!

Many of my friends are progressive writers, artists and activists who have the same manager/employee split personality. The employees are always whining about something: Why don't we have (any/better) health insurance? A 401K? And when are we going to get a raise? The managers keep threatening to close the "factory" and throw us at the mercy of the market. The employees point out the socially responsible nature of their work. The managers mumble ...as if anyone gives a damn.

The managers and employees are united on one front. We need more money. And more of a clue how to earn and use it.

Many of us are suspicious of money, not surprising when many of the people with a surplus use it to screw other folks over. But I believe the intellectual critiques of capitalism among many progressives actually have deeper and more personal roots.

Were your mother and father paid a fair wage? Could they even get a job? Could they keep it? Money is not just about numbers. How we use or abuse it depends on our emotional, political, and historical perspectives. During our childhoods, in particular, we develop ideas about whether money is a force to be feared or loved, and how likely we are to be able to control it.

This is how I remember the Reagan '80s. Schoolchildren in Baltimore cheering when Reagan got shot. Jokes about government cheese, usually coming from folks who ate it. The acceleration of the steep decline in urban public schooling. The constant longing to buy a brand-name anything that could provide a veneer of self-worth. Now that Reagan has slipped into the haze of Alzheimers, his hagiographers have gotten even more insistent. He wasn't about Iran-Contra and choking the life from cities. He built the perfect America.

Not mine.

The Bush Zeroes will divide America's memory as well. Did Bush II bring a return to values or an emphasis on the value of killing? Was that tax cut the beginning of the end of the American Empire, or simply a reward for the people who make this country great?

Too many progressives look at money as inherently tainted. We play a game of keep-away, bragging about who's broke. Meanwhile, urban pop culture has no compunction about acknowledging the value of money. Money can get you cars, clothes, sex and what passes for respect. Money, specifically the U.S. dollar, is the world's lingua franca. Many activists who presume to speak for the urban "underclass" talk about up-ending the economic system, as if that's what most people want. If our economy is a sinking ship, many would settle for a berth on the upper decks.

One of the most revolutionary things artists and activists could do is conduct their lives not as poverty crusades, all sackcloth and ashes, but as crusades to end poverty, including our own. Learning how to manage money -- and sharing that information with others -- is transformative. As I struggle to learn more about money, I also learn how much of my identity I've sold. One of my unpaid jobs is filling out all the forms from healthcare providers, banks and credit agencies, telling me I can only preserve my privacy rights if I explicitly say so in writing. In other words, your social security number, the medications you take and the videos you rent are all accessible by clicking a mouse unless (and maybe even) if you ask them not to be.

Understanding money means understanding America.

The revolution needs accountants.

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com.

Internet Kills the Television Blahs

A few days after the start of the war, I was sitting in a hotel restaurant having breakfast. At night, the eatery was a sports bar. But that morning, fifteen television sets, some as large as five feet square, broadcast war coverage.

Over my eggs, toast, and coffee, I watched the last night�s bombing raids, big red blooms of fireballs. Interspersed were animated graphics of military maneuvers and equipment, like a sophisticated, nihilistic video game.

As hard as I tried, I couldn�t look away. Television is mesmeric, engaging, and according to scientific research, addictive. Last February in Scientific American, award-winning researchers Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presented their findings on television addiction. It�s a term they reluctantly came to accept because the viewing patterns of Americans (who average 3+ hours per day) fit the classic definition. No shocker here: We feel relaxed while we�re channel surfing. But Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi were surprised that "the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue." In other words, we end up feeling slodgy and powerless right after a big TV binge.

But online news consumers have found a very different -- and highly active -- way of getting their information. Some of the most sophisticated news consumers, including progressives worldwide, have become the "blog"-era equivalent of news editors. By both receiving and distributing information via email, they vote with the click of a mouse on what information matters.

"It's nice to have these `intelligent agents� -- my friends and list neighbors -- passing along the worthiest columns and news stories," says musician and radio producer David Gans. He receives information via listservs, discussions boards, and the online community The Well, whose Media conference he hosts. Individuals like Gans, informed and discerning about what they send out, become hubs in this distributed information network.

Net use has grown exponentially since the first Gulf War -- the "television war" -- a decade ago. Says Australian writer Richard Evans, "I prefer [online news] to watching television as I have more control of the kinds of images and stories I read. I also use the Google news service as a way of getting a quick overview of a variety of sources." Studies also show that Americans find the web outlets of major media (like CNN.com) more trustworthy than their parents.

Print and online publications that make it easy for readers to forward material have seen a jump in traffic. The New York Times sends out 3.7 million headline alerts each day. But their "Most Emailed Articles" feature -- which allows online readers to see what other readers have forwarded -- has come into its own. New York Times Digital spokesperson Christine Mohan says that in March, the highest-traffic month so far, the average number of articles emailed was about seventy-five thousand per day. But in the days preceding the war, readers emailed up to 120,000 stories daily. "When you send something to your colleague, the person is much more likely to open it. It�s that inherent trust," says Mohan.

Novelist Danzy Senna ("Caucasia") uses the New York Times� system to email articles to friends and family. She also passes on alerts about upcoming peace marches and acts of civil disobedience. Judging by online outreach for recent peace rallies, the ability to customize and control the flow of information produces action as well as education. And alternative news sources may have benefited from the online news surge even more than major-media ones. In my admittedly unscientific survey of individuals who received and forwarded war-related news, most (including Senna) sent and received more independent than major-media coverage.

The downside? Not all information is credible. Web producer Emily Gertz finds some people on progressive listservs passing bad information on. "As part of harnessing the power of networked information," she says, "there needs to be a steady level of education about net resources and etiquette from those of us who've been online for a long time (in my case, over ten years)."

People who forward too much volume or too little of interest find people begging off their lists. And unique or "sticky" information, like Tamim Ansary�s letter about Afghanistan after 9/11, travels the world lightening quick, which opens the door for clever hoaxes.

The system is largely self-correcting, however -- and growing. The only thing that could block news "intelligent agents" from their mission is the question of revenue. For now, most outlets don�t charge for accessing or forwarding information, happy simply that they�re getting more eyeballs. In this world, readers and publishers share the burden of distribution. Online information fans have turned Fox News�s slogan on its ear, telling outlets "You Report, The World Decides."

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com.

Working Class Women as War Heroes

lynchPrivate Jessica Lynch is a hero, the kind who in her hopefully long life will never escape her youthful fame. The baby-faced 19-year-old fought off Iraqis in an ambush, endured broken bones, gunshot and stab wounds, and went eight days without food. This movie played in real time has all the elements that make fast-paced war flicks like "Behind Enemy Lines" box office magic. Her face, frozen with what must have been shock, pain and relief during her rescue, is already one of the most haunting images of the war.

Lynch is linked in more ways than one to Shoshana N. Johnson, a 30-year-old mother from El Paso, Texas. Johnson, who left her 2-year-old daughter with her parents when she deployed, joined the army to get training to be a chef. She ended up one of the first American prisoners of war in Iraq. Lynch -- well, she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher.

How did a chef-in-training and a future teacher end up toting guns in the desert? Both of these female war heroes come from hometowns fighting their own battles, economic ones. Lynch comes from the you-can't-make-this-stuff-up town of Palestine, in Wirt County, a farm community in western West Virginia of 5,900 people, 99 percent of them white. Wirt has a 15 percent unemployment rate; 20 percent live below the poverty line; and the average income per person is $14,000.

El Paso County is huge by comparison -- nearly 700,000 people -- but no more prosperous. Seventy-eight percent of El Pasans are Latino, and 24 percent live below the poverty line. The border city, hit hard by the impact of NAFTA, has a per capita income of just $13,000.

The folks in Wirt and El Paso are separated by half a country, but they have a lot in common. In both places, the economy has collapsed. The military is probably one of the best games in town. Jessica Lynch's family says she joined to get an education, something she probably couldn't have gotten otherwise. Now that she's a hero, a group of colleges have stepped forward to offer her a scholarship.

Wouldn't it be great if people like Lynch and Johnson didn't have to go to war to get a job or an education? At the same time that Americans are protesting against the war, thousands this week protested in favor of affirmative action, which faces its latest Supreme Court challenge. Working-class women and African-Americans like Lynch and Johnson will be among those to lose if affirmative action is ended. But affirmative action, as useful as it is, only gives a fraction of Americans the chance they deserve. Schools in working-class neighborhoods are becoming more like truly impoverished ones. In other words, they've become places where too many bright students lose hope.

Yale graduate and notably lackluster student George W. Bush got the benefits of an affirmative action program called "legacy admission," i.e., preference for the kids of alums (particularly the rich ones). For all his hawkishness, Bush went AWOL from his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War, 1972-1973. His father was a war hero. But these days rich men (and women) don't fight.

That's left to the working class. A New York Times article titled "Military Mirrors Working-Class America" notes, "With minorities over-represented and the wealthy and the underclass essentially absent, with political conservatism ascendant in the officer corps and Northeasterners fading from the ranks, America's 1.4 million-strong military seems to resemble the makeup of a two-year commuter or trade school outside Birmingham or Biloxi far more than that of a ghetto or barrio or four-year university in Boston."

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying money's the only reason people join the military. A lot of enlistees are following their dreams of serving their country. Others, like a 27-year-old interviewed in the Times article, like to blow things up (though not necessarily people). And some, like a friend of mine who spent ages 17-20 in the military, think it's a great way to grow up and find your mission in life.

There are a few other options for young Americans seeking a way to give to their country, earn money for college and get skills; in particular, the service corps like City Year and Americorps. In these programs, young Americans the same age as Lynch can spend a year or two giving back to a local community -- working on buildings, serving the elderly, even helping teach kindergarten. With school budgets being slashed, there's plenty of need and plenty of room for young recruits to lend a hand.

But these programs are still modest compared to the size and stability of the military. Before the motto an "Army of One," the Navy boasted the slogan, "It's Not Just a Job, It's an Adventure." Some people just want a job. What they get is far more uncertain.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

Pipe Dreams and Promises

Last week I found out that someone I love very, very much was so addicted to drugs that he became homeless. It's the second time this has happened to me. I remember five years ago going to the wrecked apartment of a friend in the music industry. Clothes, garbage, and kitchenware were heaped across the floor. He was probably looking for an imaginary baggie of heroin that he thought he�d stashed in dirty jeans or the cookie jar. Some friends and I staged a mini-intervention and all but tied him to the seat of a plane to get him to rehab. He got clean, dirty, clean. He�s still battling.

Now the streets have claimed another person I care about. He�s also deeply creative, a musician. Troubled. Usually kind. It�s heroin. Maybe cocaine. I worry and pray.

Why do some of the most creative people immolate on drugs? Everyday Kurt Cobains, they slip into the routines of addiction like an old soft shoe. Maybe these dreamers are too bruised by today�s harsh realities to face them head on.

Most folks I know who experiment (or more) with illicit drugs are no more screwed up than average. It�s easy to call addicts weak and lazy. It�s harder to look at the role drugs play in all our lives.

The spectrum of drug use in America is broad and deep. In 1998, Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey said alcohol caused the most drug violence. (Just watch �Cops.�) Five times as many Americans die from alcohol abuse as illicit/illegal drugs. The alcohol industry pays $2 billion a year to promote the consumption of beer, wine, and spirits. Increasingly, sweet malt beverages are snaring the 10 million underage drinkers.

Tobacco kills even more people. Switzerland's Addiction Research Institute notes that tobacco is the primary killer addiction worldwide and in America. In 2000, 4.9 million people across the world died from tobacco, 71 percent of drug-related deaths. The fact that it�s legal dulls many of us -- me included --- into thinking that nicotine is different. But at least two of my friends, both incredible women, have been cycling on and off tobacco like junkies battling the urge to shoot up. It comes down to this: Legal drugs, the most lethal, are taxable. Illegal drugs are not.

America�s drug laws are both draconian and racist. Even though white Americans consume the majority of illegal drugs, black and brown Americans -- a fraction of the population -- are the majority of those convicted for drug crimes.

Sometimes, as in the infamous Tulia, Texas cases, drugs are merely a pretext for railroading African-Americans. Two weeks ago, New York Magazine�s cover featured Lucy Grealy. Undergoing reconstruction for facial cancer, the author of "Autobiography of a Face" slipped from the bestseller lists into heroin addiction. Eric Breindel, the conservative New York Post editorial page editor who died from complications from his heroin addiction, has a scholarship named after him rather than a jail wing. This knowledge doesn�t change the fact that most of the people I see strung out on the streets -- shuffling, nodding, hollow-eyed -- look more like me than Grealy or Breindel. Money lets you hide your problems, and race and money are Siamese twins.

Our government�s response to drug use is to launch the new �Operation Pipe Dreams.� As we duct-tape our windows against bioterrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft has deployed 1,200 federal agents to catch businesses that encourage smoking up. Federal law bars the sale of products targeted towards illegal drug use, including bongs and marijuana pipes. (Just tell that to my nabe, the Village, head shop central.) So far, authorities have charged at least 55 stores and Internet retailers with selling illegal drug paraphernalia.

Paraphernalia is not the problem. Junkies can smoke off a spoon, snort coke from any reasonably flat surface, and what do you think most bodegas sell cigarette papers for? Maybe the issue is motivation.

In the past, and by a few people today, drugs were and are part of sacred rituals. Native American tribes have had to sue, repeatedly, to use the psychotropic peyote cactus in centuries-old religious ceremonies. The Council on Spiritual Practices has an entire crispy dry Web site dedicated to �entheogens,� or psychoactive religious substances. Entheogens helped people tune in, not tune out. I guess way back if you were tuned out on the permanent, you�d be eaten by an animal, killed by a rival, or starve to death. But I�ve seen some of the same shadows walking my streets for years.

Now most drug use is about escape rather than engagement. America, the key consumer of drugs, blames the suppliers. According to The Ecologist (UK), the United States is considering carpet-bombing coca-producing Columbian regions with a killer fungus, Fusarium oxysporum. It kills coca, the base of cocaine, but can also cause an infection in humans that is fatal in 70 percent of cases. We plan to drop it on small family farms, far from our streets, whether or not they�re growing goods we detest but pay for. And what are we doing here, about our addictions? The federal government won�t increase funds for rehabilitation. Politicians are addicted to alcohol and tobacco money. An investigation by Common Cause reveals the concessions the alcohol industry�s $23 million in campaign contributions and PAC money from 1989 to 1999 bought.

We can�t fight this by going outside. The only way we can balance the need for transcendence with the drive for survival is by going inside. We must push ourselves to be centered and strong; question what we seek from substances promising transcendence; and figure out what we�re willing to offer in return. In this environment, that could include our freedom or our very lives.

What are our alternatives? Marijuana, judging by the furious debates between states and the federal government, will be sensibly legalized at least on the local level. But it�s scary to envision a world where hard drugs are legalized and rehab continues to be underfunded and stigmatized. In America legalization, taken to a capitalist end-stage, is linked to marketing, sexism, and big corporate profits. What if we had "Pot Girls" and "Ecstasy Girls" just like "Bud Girls"?

The fear of that scenario is just one factor keeping us from moving forward. Talking to a suburban family with small kids, I described drug experimentation as a rite of passage for most people in their teens and 20s. They cocked their heads, remembering some long-ago bong hit, and said, �Ooh, we don�t want to think about that.�

We sure don�t. And as long as we don�t, we won�t be able to discuss what our options are. Decriminalization of drugs, a policy which most European countries follow tacitly or explicitly, means that people can buy certain substances without fear of being arrested and without money going to the government treasury. In America, decriminalization has stalled in part because we can�t imagine something being legal (or not-illegal) and also not taxable. We can�t imagine substances being taxable but having money really go to prevention and rehab. We can�t imagine acknowledging the need most people have to leave their skins for a minute, or building a world where more people have less reason to escape.

Organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance and Alternet�s Drug Reporter newsletter are trying to kickstart policy debate. Let�s start talking. Let�s start dreaming. Now.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.

The Politics of Depression

When the 2000 election went down -- "went down" as in a bad convenience store heist, blood spattering the aisles, people with their guts hangin' out crawling for the exit -- I was depressed. I wasn't depressed by the election. I was fearful far in advance. I'd seen the window of respectable debate tighten to the aperture of the sphincter of most Beltway assholes. On one televised debate I tried to nuance the divisions among progressives (Gore v. Nader v. nada) while the person next to me on screen screamed "Gore is evil!"

If I had verbally pimp-slapped her, maybe the election would have turned out differently.

Nah, that's just ego. But like most people who believe that everyone in America should eat, go to decent schools and work at jobs that don't kill their bodies or spirits, I played the nice girl. I've had years of training. I can recite the rosary and wear patent leather shoes with my legs crossed. But there's a downside.

Depression. You can't out-nice a flesh-eating virus. And that's pretty much the spiritual equivalent of where America is right now. God/Goddess/God-us, not to mention the flag and Uncle Sam, have pretty much been appropriated as corporate logos of the Bush Administration. Yet most Americans do not support policies that will gut their schools, turn their cities and towns into economic dust bowls, and send their friends and families to their deaths. What goes?

I have a theory. Niceness = death. I don't want to think that way, because it goes against one whole strain of my consciousness. To make a long story short, after 9/11 I turned from an agnostic into a believer. If god (lower "g" for the manifestation of the Spirit vs. a white-haired icon) didn't exist, I was plumb through with this plane of existence. It wasn't just the airplanes hitting the towers. It was years of being a reporter, going to prisons and schools and finding them eerily similar. Watching people self-destruct so they could fit in. America spinning its wheels and doing donuts in the world's parking lot.

Like many people around me, I have tried being extremely nice in the face of flying hunks of bullshit. Like the Administration's statements that fighting Iraq will bring peace to the Middle East. That drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will free us from oil problems. That giving rich people money will allow working moms to spend time with their kids. whap Wait a second, I read a policy report that... whap.

I curled up in my bed for a long while and eventually wiped the crap off my face. But I don't regret the time under the covers. Depression is the rumbling of the subconscious. The automatic shutdown valve of the soul. The cry of a baby held underwater, depression is helplessness manifest. Depression is the most common reaction among smart people to bad times.

Now it's time to wake up. As we experiment with information, which feeds our minds as food does our bodies, we find out what really nourishes us and what (like junk food) only makes us high for a second. It's easy to get high; a lot harder to get straight. I personally enjoy a mix of right- and left-wing, stodgies and fanatics, celebrity gigolos and serious news wonks. I lay the banquet out before me and have a taste. After a while you recognize what's rancid.

I've also recognized the value of being somewhere, every now and then, that humbles me. One of my favorite places is the California coast. There's no sidewalk to the path. Hedges and brambles line both sides. The sand lies below. When you finally reach the beach it's a revelation: houses high on the cliffs, a sharp steep mound of rock and trees before you. In the morning, men and women gather and snorkel for abalone. On the right of the mini-mountain, a spray-slickened path leads toward the top. And once you're there, you can lie on your stomach and look toward churning infinity.

Who wouldn't want to have faith in the future? And if so, why not build it?

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com.

A Silver Lining to a Whole Lott of Nonsense

In the week since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott confessed to dreaming of a really White Christmas, I've been through all five of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief. I've been in denial that the media could write so many times that Lott's words "appeared" to embrace segregation; angered when half of the rebukes (like J.C. Watts') sounded like apologies; bargained that if we got into a good debate on race and politics, we might learn something; got depressed that the story was reduced to "segregation happened, it really happened;" and finally accepted, once again, that this is just America, God bless us every one.

Trent Lott, a man who can shout "smaller government" while shoveling defense industry pork into his district, is hardly a model of honesty. Then again, is the man he praised so generously, Strom Thurmond? As South Carolina Governor, Strom Thurmond used the most powerful "n" words of the time "nigger" and "never" -- as in, never would African-Americans take a place in an integrated South.

In 1948, Thurmond ran for president on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket, which Senator Lott endorsed post-facto. But at the same time, Thurmond was paying for the college education of Essie May Washington, a student at all-black South Carolina State College. Washington was openly considered by fellow students to be Thurmond's daughter. Despite being questioned many times by several reporters, neither Washington nor Thurmond has ever denied nor confirmed their relationship. You can find more in an article from the (South Carolina) Point and in the book "Ol' Strom," co-written by Washington Post reporter Marilyn W. Thompson.

Segregation has always been a farce, morality a veil for economic gain and social insecurity. And slavery, its genesis, was the most unfair labor policy in the world, where bargaining led to mutilation or death. But during their days of enslavement, some African-Americans did amazing things.

The Capitol Dome is crowned by a bronze statue of an Indian maiden representing Freedom. That statue was cast by a man named Philip Reid, who was enslaved, and supervised some of the many enslaved people who worked on the very buildings where Trent Lott works. In fact, most of the men who built the capitol and the White House were African-American and enslaved. During the last session of Congress, House Continuing Resolution 368 (H.CON.RES.368) called for "Establishing a special task force to recommend an appropriate recognition for the slave laborers who worked on the construction of the United States Capitol." It was referred to the Senate Committee after being passed by the House, but representatives took no further action.

Now's the time. Lionizing the glory days of segregation may get Lott tossed out of the Senate leadership, if not voted out of the Senate itself. But even if he sticks around a while, let's revive the work on this memorial, and give him something to think about. Providing a positive reminder of how this nation was built will be a fitting silver lining to this ugly incident.

Email your representatives and ask for the resurrection of H.CON.RES.368. You can go to congress.org and enter your zip code to find and email your representatives. There's also a section at the top asking if you'd like to email them about Lott.

Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.com.

Revolutionary Soul Singer

Meshell Ndegeocello fights AIDS and ignorance with song. On Monday, Nov. 11, Ndegeocello performs with and directs some of America's most talented musicians, including Cassandra Wilson, Stephanie Mills and Bilal, at Carnegie Hall. All proceeds go the 21 year old organization GMHC, whose clientele is now two-thirds people of color. By the year 2010, half of New York's AIDS cases are projected to be women.

The mix of music and message is called "You Rock My Soul." Here's what Meshell, who's been touring for her album "Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape," had to say:

What was the genesis of the event?

The crisis that we are in. We are on a verge of a pandemic, not to mention that there are still so many misconceptions about HIV/AIDS as being a gay disease or drug users disease. Everyday people of all economic strata, cultural backgrounds and sexual orientations are getting sick and the fastest growing population is women. So if my little bit of time and my band's time and the other artists who have donated their time can help raise awareness and raise some dollars, then I'm thankful.

How did you become music director?

GMHC and the event producer asked me. I view it as a privilege to be invited to join with other people to address an issue, whether that's HIV/AIDS or peace or the prison industry. I've been involved with HIV/AIDS events and organizations for the last 10 years and will continue to be so engaged until this disease is wiped off the planet. Check out the Red Hot+ Riot album that's in stores now -- it's a tribute to Fela Kuti's music and a benefit specifically for HIV/AIDS efforts in Africa. It's also super funky. I live to create and to play, but also to do so in connection with the world, in connection with humanity. I have no real interest in living in my own musical fantasy land. The world is real, things people are living through are real.

How did the artists become involved?

They were hand-picked. Some were people who I've met through my musical travels and others I just wanted to get down with and this was an incredible opportunity to do that. We pulled together about 45 minutes of music that incorporates the many talented artists we have participating -- Jazz great Cassandra Wilson, R&B songstress Stephanie Mills, Afrobeat artist Femi Kuti, Afro-Cuban group Yerba Buena, and amazing vocalists Rahsaan Patterson, Bilal, and we just added Caron Wheeler.

It is wonderful that so many talented people have volunteered and have fit this into their busy schedules. It's not just showing up and playing -- they have to learn new tunes, rehearse, come to sound check the day off, etc, so I certainly appreciate them for their commitment. It's gonna be super funky. The folks we have in the house are going to shine, each and every one of them. Together we will bring African music, Gospel, Jazz, Rock and Funk to tell a story of perseverance and struggle and triumph in the face of adversity.

With AIDS rates in several major cities -- DC, Newark, Jersey city -- reaching 5 percent, what needs to be done to reach urban and black Americans? Do you believe existing messages haven't targeted or reached African-Americans in particular? What would you like to see done differently?

AIDS plagues the African and African American communities, mainly due to lack of access to sex education and health care and all the myths about AIDS being a "gay disease." I think that all HIV/AIDS organizations need to work hard to educate in communities of color and to partner with mainstream educational institutions to break down stereotypes. Unfortunately, lack of HIV/AIDS awareness in communities of color and homophobia are walking hand in hand -- at this point we have to stop the ignorance because all of our lives depend upon it. And if we can let our kids watch movies and play video games where people's heads are getting blown off, we should certainly be able to talk with them openly about sex. If the epidemic is going to be halted, it starts with kids. It starts with open and honest dialogues so that young people don't feel the need to be secretive and on their own.

How do you believe U.S. AIDS policy influences the international community? What would you like to see changed?

Well the U.S. influences the world because of its economic and military importance; meanwhile, healthcare around the world is far more humane and ethical than it is here. Of course I think it is reprehensible for any drug company to not make helpful HIV/AIDS treatments available in critical and impoverished nations. I think there is value in exploring the way that Cuba has isolated the disease and the way it has worked to keep its HIV/AIDS community connected to their families, but because of the political relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, this has been under-researched.

What I'd really like to see is an integrated international team of researches with the type of financial resources that the U.S. throws into fighting baldness and impotence. Then we might move further along in finding holistic, humane treatments.

Your music helps re-define black, female, urban. How hard is it to follow your own style versus be influenced by current trends? Or do you not see it as a challenge?

I don't set out trying to redefine the black, female, urban perspective. I've been called a revolutionary soul singer, although I've never called myself that. Revolution is a process of transforming oneself, of healing, of growing, of freeing one's mind and then being brave enough to encourage that growth in the society around you. There was a time when artists were engaged in that process, when their art was part of spreading that word, was part of creating a forum for discussions... Emerson's marketplace of ideas to a beat or on a canvas or on a stage. Now art is marginalized -- literally, limited to profit margins. You see this everywhere, from the government cutting funds to the National Endowment for the Arts to radio formats. To survive financially, so the economic order says now, an artist must build commercial value into his or her expression. My music critiques this idea, and by critique, I mean I participate in the very thing I critique.

I try to record the spirit of the times as I see it, be a voice that opens dialogue, that reflects my listening more than my own opinions. I just try to express myself and be funky, and if folks are feeling that, they'll come out to the show or pick up the record and have an experience. That's what its all about -- having your own experience, not something that's been dictated to you by some marketing strategy or demographic determination. Breaking free of the idea that we are all just here to accumulate products has everything to do with revolutionizing oneself, honoring your soul and singing the truth as you know it to the world.

Follow the Money and the Documents

I spent Sunday brunch with a bunch of journalists, many of them on war patrol -- doing quickie documentaries on Saddam, for example. But one producer with a major media company spent the past week trying to get a member of the Bush cabinet to return her calls and those of her even better-connected on-air reporter on an economic story.

"They just refuse," she said. "Worse, they won't refuse [outright]; they say they're too busy. Why should they spend their time answering the legitimate questions of a reporter? Why should they be accountable?"

One of the biggest underreported economic stories today (and boy is there competition) is the Vice President's attempt to withhold records of his meetings with oil companies. For the first time ever, the General Accounting Office (auditors for Congress) is going to federal court to order the executive branch to turn over documents. The 81-year-old agency wants to know which energy companies helped the Bush administration shape its policies. Yes, the energy companies were right there in the White House, all but holding the pen as policy was drafted. It's one thing to be friendly to business interests, another to walk out of the Oval Office and let them raid the till.

Cheney and other members of the Bush administration met with Enron executives six times last year. But that was just the beginning. In just four months during the dawn of the administration, February to May, Cheney and his economic task force met with hundreds of representatives from 150 corporations and trade associations. Then they set the administration's new energy policies, which included the plans to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and build hundreds of new electric plants. Now, despite a Congressional request for documents, they've been stonewalling for more than a year.

Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have long records of allying themselves with oil interests, being rewarded in 2000 with campaign contributions, and rewarding the companies with policies that will enrich them. Cheney, who polishes his image as a thinker and policymaker, is actually much more of a wheeler-dealer than Baby Bush. As the former CEO of Halliburton, a multi-billion dollar oil and energy corporation, he once stated, "The good Lord didn't see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected regimes friendly to the United States."

At the time, Halliburton was brokering a deal with military dictators in Burma, who were using slave labor to build oil pipelines. One of the companies involved in the Burma deal was Unocal, which also courted the Taliban as a possible protector of its oil projects in Afghanistan. In addition, as CEO of Halliburton, Cheney -- the former Secretary of Defense during President Bush pere's war on Iraq -- sold $24 million in oil-related construction services to the Iraqis. Money is inherently amoral. Oil is money.

Now, to add fuel to the fire, Cheney's former firm is embroiled in an Enron-style scandal. The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Halliburton for allegedly fudging its accounting numbers. Cheney has refused to answer questions about this issue as well.

There are dozens of political catchphrases that come to mind, particularly "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up." But Cheney's chicanery also reminds me of a song from Disney's animated film, "Lady and the Tramp." Two devious felines sing, "We are Siamese if you please; we are Siamese if you don't please." The Bush administration is ruthless in flouting all public accountability, and crafty in cloaking itself in the flag. It's a Siamese government, which presents the face of a grieving America to the public while continuing to cut backroom financial and political deals.

As a bona-fide internet junkie, I did a search on "White House" and "Stonewall" and came up with a little site called Disclose the Documents. It is clearly partisan -- constructed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- but, unlike the blather on Iraq coming from many Democrats, it is also clever. Once you access the site, you can email the Vice President asking him to turn over the goods. It might work.

But I suspect what might work better is simply being aware of the connection between our self-interest and the public good. Right now, the White House is telling us to ignore the economic crisis at hand in the name of patriotism. At the same time, it refuses to admit its own complicity in the decline of our economy. When you feel the pinch in your wallet or pocketbook, think how Bush and Cheney have helped siphon out the American economy. Then contact the White House and Congress, and most importantly, vote your conscience and your future.

Farai Chedeya is the founder of Pop and Politics.com. She is currently a Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

The Issue That Matters

The only paper I read with regularity these days is the Wall Street Journal. Although its editorial writers are patently insane, the news and feature writers have recently dedicated themselves to thoughtful pieces on what should be the most important story of our day: the collapse of our economy.

Perhaps I mean the collapse of the illusion of our economy -- a place of endless riches, where everyone's a winner. (Old America: Getting off the plane in Vegas. New America: getting on the plane back home, broke and jacked up.)

Take the Sept. 10 edition of the Journal. On the far left of the page is a feature story on New London, Connecticut. This tired, slumping, working-class town invoked the government prerogative of eminent domain and razed the houses of elderly citizens, so that drug company Pfizer could come in and build a new plant. The article by Lucette Lagnado details how the company was promised millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives in exchange for building a $300 million research facility, conference center, and hotel. The project hasn't been completed because some empowered and pissed off residents have filed suit.

The completed part of the plant doesn't employ many folks from New London, nor spill revenue over to local businesses. This is the downside of globalization: Demolish locally, employ globally. Many conglomerates these days act like mercenary armies, bringing in the troops they need, and asking little except food, shelter and complete obedience from those who quarter them.

In the center of the same day's Journal is a story titled: "WorldCom Board Will Consider Rescinding Ebbers's Severance."

WorldCom, known to many of us as the company that swallowed MCI long distance, has been in the news for misplacing $7 billion and filing for bankruptcy. This story, by Susan Pullam, Jared Sandberg and Deborah Soloman, details how the former CEO, Bernard J. Ebbers, got a whopper of a good-bye present: a $408 million loan at 2.3 percent interest, plus $1.5 million per year in lifetime salary.

Let me run that by you again: a man who was at the helm of a company that just up and lost $7 billion got a $408 million loan, plus $1.5 million in free cash each year. Let's pretend to spend that money for him:

-- $408 million is the equivalent of: 204,000 fancy laptops, enough to give one to roughly one in 10 graduating high school seniors this year, or 2,000 new homes at their roughly $200,000 average price.

-- $1.5 million a year equals: 345 average yearly payments of TANF (the post-reform welfare); 100 students' full tuition, board and fees at UCLA.

I hesitate to compare lost corporate cash to real world dollars. While we're more than happy to talk about "welfare queens" and "poverty pimps" (and yes, there are welfare cheats), we don't seem to hear the vast sucking sound of white-collar criminals hoovering out our economy. (Not to mention the estimated $12 billion in legal federal "corporate welfare.")

A quick note about welfare, which more people will need in the current downturn. Since "welfare reform," the number of child-only families receiving assistance has doubled across the nation, rising in New Jersey, for example, from 17 percent of the caseload to 33 percent. This means that parents with addictions, mental health disorders, or simply too few coping skills have left their children as wards of the state. Like most people, I have no idea where the money lost in Enron, et al., really goes. But I'd love to see it spent on programs like childcare and drug rehab. Even for people of means, like Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle.

I will spare you my full rant on Jerry Springer and Eminem but let me simply say: White kids have figured out this country isn't rolling out the red carpet for them, the same way black and brown kids did years ago. The result is an often poorly articulated but justified rage against a country that manages to stock 50 types of snack products in every mini-mart but rarely generates a decent neighborhood public school.

America has found one very successful method for dealing with black rage: massive incarceration of people who were never trained nor expected to be a part of "mainstream" society, regardless of their potential. And in fact, incarceration of non-white Americans (often on drug crimes) is a growth industry that largely employs working-class whites and non-white Americans. But at a certain point, particularly in an economic downturn, the system begins feeding on itself. We will either have to jail undereducated white youth en masse, or we will have to try something radically different, like training working-class kids to think for themselves, and not just take jobs, but invent them.

Actually, a lot of white-collar Americans are feeling the need for a good solid job right around now. I've never had so many unemployed friends in my life; friends who, admittedly, are still holding out for something new and better, while running up their credit card bills to bridge the gap.

One problem is that the implicit contract between companies and workers seems very much broken. Today, no matter what the job level or contract, people are being fired seemingly at will, from downsized managers making six figures to the 17,000 employees of Consolidated Freightways, who were laid off via voicemail on Labor Day. Employees, in turn, find little reason to offer themselves as paragons of loyalty. No, they do not want to work unpaid overtime. Yes, they steal the pens and fax paper. Yes, they take two-hour lunches. Why? They're looking for another job.

In his two years in office, President George W. Bush has managed to mangle the economy, allow the guise of homeland security to demolish the guarantees of freedom inherent in the Bill of Rights, and get away with seeming -- God knows how -- presidential. At least to some of us. On trips abroad, the comments, even from conservatives, usually run something like, "Your President's an idiot, eh?" In fact, the conservatives (I'm thinking here specifically of a trip to Switzerland) are often more vitriolic, embarrassed and abashed that someone with so little sense of governance speaks in their name.

There's good reason for President Bush to go on the warpath. After all, war is a traditional and often successful distraction from domestic woes, which we have in abundance. We also still have, in my humble opinion, the greatest country in the world. So I will wave my little flag for America, the country that I love, and note:

You can telephone the White House at (202) 456-1111. Wait out a short machine message and then a live operator will take your (hopefully concise) message for the President, along the lines of "I oppose" or "I support" the proposed war against Iraq. And, if you're really feeling your beans, you could mention the need to reconsider mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, which his niece may soon be facing.

Farai Chedeya is the founder of Pop and Politics.com. She is currently a Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

The Rap on Censorship

Let me be the first to say it in the language of hip hop: I've been hating on Eminem for a long time.

Yeah, yeah, I know he's got skillz, but so do a lot of other guys whose rhyme dictionary begins with "bitch" and ends with "ho." Maybe it's the fact that I heard the original version of his album, including jokes about raping lesbians, before he cut a clean version and became a crossover hit. Rappers like Eminem made it harder and harder for women like me (who actually listen to the lyrics) to dance to the music we once loved, and many of us have abandoned ship for other music like soul or drum 'n bass.

But when the FCC, led Gen. Colin Powell's son Michael Powell, decided to battle the Real Slim Shady by fining Colorado's KKMG for playing an edited version of his song, I reluctantly have to stand up not in his defense, but ours.

The call to make the airwaves safe for America's children sounds good, doesn't it? The problem is, the approach is all wrong.

First of all, it's a slippery slope.

Just look at who else has gotten caught in the FCC's net: one of the most effective critics within the hip hop movement. Sarah Jones is an actress, writer, and poet whose song "Your Revolution" has given young women a sense of personal freedom. In it, she sings lyrics like "The real revolution ain't about bootie size/The Versaces you buys/Or the Lexus you drives." It gets spicier, and more effective. for that, the FCC fined station KBOO in Portland $7000 on May 14 of this year...for playing the song in 1999.

Frankly, hip hop was a lot less vulgar before it became a crossover hit in white households, and a cash cow to record labels. When the music was an underground phenomenon, DJs and MCs produced party music and more political songs like the anti-cocaine track "White Lines" and KRS-One's black history lesson "You Must Learn." But how many white suburban kids want to listen to a black history lesson? The market quickly devolved into lowest-common denominator blaxsploitation, images of the "real" life on the streets that often bore no semblance to reality.

The reason teens listen to rap is probably twofold: one, to piss off their parents and, two, to find an authentic mode of expression in a world where everything seems shiny-happy-false. Yes, hip hop often presents a false mirror of the gritty and grimy, but censoring it will simply end an incomplete conversation about issues like drugs, sexuality, schools, and aspirations for the future, all of which come up in hip hop lyrics.

But how do you urge the conversation to go to a higher level when market forces are pushing it to a lowest common denominator? The record industry itself is finally beginning to take proactive steps with meetings like June's Hip Hop Summit, attended by moguls including Russell Simmons and artists including Queen Latifah, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Talib Kweli. Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has long set out to have a dialogue with the rap community, stated: "Society wants lyrics cleaned up but it (society) doesn't want to clean itself up." For their part, artists committed to bring more positive content into hip hop without top-down censorship.

Led by a bipartisan group including former Vice Presidential candidate Senator Joe Lieberman, Congress seems set on proposing even more restrictions on pop culture content. But the best reason not to censor musicians like Eminiem is the same reason prohibition backfired -- government repression increases demand. Those parental labeling stickers simply made f***ed-up lyrics sexier to teenagers. Efforts to take songs like Eminem's off the airwaves will create even more of an us-vs.-them mentality, leading people who don't support the lyrics but do support free speech to band with moneymakers in it for a quick buck. Meanwhile, a much better approach would be to turn down the rhetoric, discuss the actual issues behind the music, and make sure the Sarah Joneses of the world are as well known as the Eminems.

A Selective War on Drugs

In the finale of the hit show "The Sopranos," angry mob bosses retaliate against a rogue youngster, Jackie Junior, by executing him near a housing project and letting the blame fall on black drug dealers. One Mafioso who's had drug problems of his own praises boss Tony for the way he handled the situation. On screen, and in real life, black dealers are a convenient scapegoat for America's much larger drug problem, the public face of a multi-racial, multi-national, multi-billion dollar industry.

In fact, an analysis of government statistics by the organization Human Rights Watch last year revealed that in ten states from Maine to Illinois, black men are 27 to 57 times more likely to be locked up for committing exactly the same drug crimes as whites, though five times as many white Americans use drugs as blacks in raw numbers. This system, says the group's executive director Ken Roth, "corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all."

While the focus of drug use in America is on street dealing and street crime, the bulk of dealing and consumption goes on quietly, in private settings far different from the urban street corners depicted on shows like "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order." The May issue of Spin magazine ran an article called "Confessions of a Pot Delivery Girl," in which an Ivy League graduate talked about her uneventful time at a high-end delivery service for Manhattan marijuana smokers. She stated, "I soon became convinced that virtually every person on the island of Manhattan smokes pot. I delivered to doctors, lawyers, professors, architects, housewives, and stockbrokers." And while seeing a young black man arrested by police, she added, "for a moment, I felt my heart race. But the feeling passed as I walked by them in my black leather mules and knee-length skirt, a confident felon, young and white and female, handily concealed from the scope of the law."

The delivery girl's tale reveals a fundamental truth about drug use in America. Recreational use of drugs, as well as addictive use, cuts across socioeconomic sectors, but enforcement falls only on a few, in part because of laws that actually reward drug kingpins for turning states evidence on their low-level employees. The discrepancies between use and treatment, and use and punishment, are finally starting to hit some discordant notes with observant Americans and culture mavens. The hit movies "Traffic," "Blow" and "Requiem for a Dream" all turned popular attention to drugs at the same time that stars Robert Downey, Jr., and Daryl Strawberry have been arrested again and again.

The weekend of June 1 in Alberquerque, academics, activists, and high-level government officials--including the governor of New Mexico--are meeting to re-think the future of drug policy in America. The confab is funded in part by billionaire George Soros, whose funds leading think tank the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. Soros and two other financiaers are also funding ballot initiatives in Florida, Ohio and Michigan designed to send first and second time drug offenders to treatment instead of prison. A similar measure, Proposition 36, already passed in California.

America's "War on Drugs" has produced few successes and a number of high-profile failures, including the recent downing of the missionary plane in Peru. Throughout this decades-long "war," we have been willing to accept massive collateral damage in poor, black and urban communities. Now, other Americans are feeling pressure as well. In some states, the prison industry has grown so rapidly that 19 year olds are being recruited as guards for violent maximum-security facilities -- the equivalent of sending teenagers into battlefields. Laws that once provided loopholes for the rich and famous now are snaring them as well, admittedly after they've been given second or third or fourth chances.

And what have been the results? The rates of teenage drug use have recently nudged down slightly. But despite a focus on interdiction, the flow of drugs into the country continues unabated. Only half of America's addicts are receiving treatment, and many are on waiting lists stretching for months. "Plan Colombia" is a $1.3 billion military approach similar to that used in Peru. But when White House officials debated spending just $100 million of that on treatment last year, the suggestion was shot down by "Drug Czar" General Barry McCaffrey. Failing to deal with the cycle of addiction (and support harm reduction and needle exchange programs) has helped prolong the cycle of IV drug use and raise AIDS infection rates. In some cities, including Jersey City, NJ, one in fifty African Americans is HIV positive.

Ignoring the civil rights and public health implications of the war on drugs is like examining the remains of Aloha Flight 243 and saying "Who cares if one of the flight attendants got sucked out the ceiling?" For now, the casualties have mainly been poor, black and brown. That's changing. Will our policies change, too?

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