Tuesday, June 8, 2010

By the Time I Get Near Alabama

I'm going to say goodbye to some of my favorite beaches on the Gulf Coast. In some cases it's probably premature, but I don't know when else I'll have an excuse to drive along them. I'm not sure if I'll see the bleaker stuff. Last year I took a back way out of New Orleans and drove through part of the Lower 9th Ward and felt like a human vulture. Even if there is something visually awesome and profound about seeing white sand beaches turn pitch black, like an original-series Star Trek race metaphor, there's no guarantee I'd have the stomach for it.

It's always tempting on these trips to try to scan the AM dial and see if I can replicate the Simpsons' "Itchy and Scratchy Land" experience and skip to the next item on the Signs of Evil Countdown. Black oil gradually destroying significant economic engines — fishing, tourism — for each of the Gulf states certainly offers a key ingredient for approaching the apocalypse like David Letterman.

At least that level of discourse is a step up from the dominant local AM narrative of the past month or so, which has involved 2010 GOP candidates for office in the southern states falling over each other to see who can endorse the Arizona anti-immigrant legislation harder than the competition. The theatrics in Florida have been especially amusing or nauseating, depending on your mood, because of course Florida wouldn't function without people coming from someplace else, daily. On the white side of the coin, that's national and international tourism. But on the "creeping brown specter" side of it, there are all the people who cook those tourists' meals, clean their rooms and turn down their beds, who pick the sugarcane, fruits and vegetables that wind up in their glasses or on their plates back wherever they come from.

Thus each candidate has to work hard to parse his or her hatred. One can't offend the good sorts of Cubans who send money to the GOP because this is finally gonna show that Castro, just as one can't demonize migrant workers without risking the ruination of the Florida produce industry. The condemnations have to be nuanced, preserving the tacit toleration of the above groups while recognizing that citizens are right to be outraged that people who don't speak English as a first language live in their apartment/condo complexes or their subdivisions which were named for whatever indigenous plant was destroyed to build them. This is why Florida will always feel like a libertarian state — no income tax, Castle Doctrine — but never quite get all the way there. Unlike the GOP, serious libertarian ideology makes it difficult to pick and choose the right kinds of brown people to demonize without doing any math.

Anyhow, while the oil spill has given radio a respite from this topic, I'm sure I'll still hear something about it sooner or later. This is probably why I'll give AM a miss and just listen to MP3s, which have offered a nice valve for political disaffection. For instance, as soon as the Arizona story broke, Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" went into heavy rotation on both my MP3 lists and the Youtubes I kept watching when bored. At one point I think I'd listened to it every day for three weeks.

There is certainly plenty of smart and politically aware hip-hop today, but it's hard to think of an act with as much political philosophy and ferocity becoming as popular as Public Enemy again. It's certainly a stretch to think of one making a video as violent as "By the Time I Get to Arizona" again — which is a pity, because it's been 19 years, and Arizona hasn't changed.

Back then, Republican governor Evan Mecham refused to recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr. state holiday and essentially canceled it — to white acclaim — telling black leaders, "You folks don't need another holiday. What you folks need are jobs." Public Enemy's response was to make a music video in which the "Arizona governor" was assassinated. Today Arizonans are painting school murals to turn brown faces white, again toasting the worst sheriff in America (who has a fucking tank) and threatening to export a "papers, please" law dependent on racial profiling to the rest of the southern states. Racism doesn't change. It just changes targets and tactics.

At least there's still the video and the song to siphon off a sense of rage. (While enjoying it, why not load this page full of facts apparently completely irrelevant to Arizona.) Incredibly, this was actually played on MTV for a few days before white people who felt oppressed and discriminated against safely segregated it to late-night airings on Yo! MTV Raps, thus restoring America.

Now that I think about it, I definitely want to avoid AM radio. It's bummer enough watching people scrape dark sludge off some of the nicest beaches I've ever seen; I don't need someone explaining to me how it's the black president's fault and that the hue and spread are God's righteous metaphors.