I’m not sure who should get the credit for 12 Years a Slave. I’m just worried that, the way things are going, it’s going to be Condoleeza Rice.
Anybody who paid attention during awards season has noticed that Slave’s director, Steve McQueen, and its writer, John Ridley, don’t like each other very much. They barely acknowledged each other during the various ceremonies, and the Oscar cameras captured for posterity McQueen’s pointedly lackadaisical half-clap when Ridley won his award. The scuttlebutt is that McQueen had tried unsuccessfully to get his own name into the movie’s writing credits – either alongside Ridley’s or in place of it, depending upon whom you believe.
As a writer, I’d normally side with Ridley as a matter of instinct, given the frequency with which honest recognition for our hard work is treated with all the sanctity of a beat-up Topps baseball card to be traded at whim. If McQueen had indeed tried and failed to bully Ridley, there was some degree of bitter irony in McQueen’s own acceptance speech, in which he reminded the viewing audience of how many people around the world still live in slavery. Hey, tell it to the WGA, pal.
Ridley, rewarded richly for pulling his pants up.
But it got harder to sympathize with Ridley when a friend pointed out that he appears to be a pretty big fan of bullies himself. In 2006, he wrote a piece for Esquire in which he declared that the time had come for upstanding African-Americans to disassociate themselves from the “niggers” (his choice of word) who were holding them back. The piece, which Esquire repackaged online after Ridley’s Oscar victory, is a breathtakingly bilious piece of bilge: It takes the premise of Chris Rock’s most notorious routine and wrings all the mitigating humor out of it, until what’s left is a sort of Clarence Thomas/Bill Cosby rant on steroids. Ridley heaps derision on the baggy-pantsed multitudes who have failed to earn a comfortable place in mainstream America -- a failure he attributes to a simple lack of effort on their part. Over the course of numerous punishing paragraphs, he blanches at having to breathe the same air as any coon who isn’t as respectable or successful as him (two qualities he treats as essentially congruent).
And wouldn’t you know it, his harangue doesn’t take long to come around to
Condoleeza Rice. Ridley sputters his outrage that America’s “niggers” have shunned a smart, capable, accomplished woman like Rice, just because she happens to be of the wrong political party. In other words, his logic is that black Americans shouldn’t unthinkingly reject those few of their brothers and sisters who happen to be conservatives; they should unthinkingly embrace a political figure just because she shares their color, whether or not the policies she advocates are actually good for the vast majority of black Americans. Such is the cognitive dissonance of the neocons.
Since at least 2000, Rice’s role in politics has been to facilitate that sort of calculating doublethink. Once, during the early days of the Iraq war, I was in the waiting room of an Orlando Christian-broadcasting station, where I was doing a favor for a friend. The TV was on, Rice was speaking, and the other men in the room – all of them old, white and well-heeled enough to look far more natural in the station environment than me – were smiling approvingly.
“That’s a very smart woman,” one of them said to the guy next to him, who nodded in agreement. What was interesting was that none of them was actually listening to what she was saying; they were merely remarking on the occasion of her being on TV to advance their agenda. In their parlance, “That’s a very smart woman” apparently meant “That Negress sure does a good job of getting the message out there. Bet it nets us some votes from the darkies who can actually think for themselves.”
Her usefulness as a demographically oriented cudgel is the main reason Rice continues to be embraced by Republicans, even those who profess outward discontent with the course of the Bush years. Now that that administration’s calamitous failure on every front is recognized fact to everyone with a modicum of honest interest in public affairs, her blackness affords a way to put a positive, if dismayingly shallow, spin on the whole business. “Sure, we may have broken the world,” the argument runs, “but we had a Very Smart Colored Woman there, and who can have a problem with that?”
Thus Rice’s speech at the 2012 RNC, which was somehow treated as an oasis of statesmanship by commentators who should have been pointing out that it was the same old bill of goods from a source that had by then been thoroughly disgraced. Even some “liberal” pundits fell for it – which is why it’s so encouraging to see the pushback that’s now being felt against Rice’s booking as the 2014 commencement speaker at Rutgers University. Faculty members are publicly protesting the decision to have Rice speak to the graduates, pick up an honorary Doctor of Laws and pocket a $35,000 appearance fee in the bargain. And of course conservatives are crying persecution.
She was the first black woman to serve as Secretary of State!, they howl. (This from the bunch that customarily disdains quotas and “identity politics.”) She’s supremely well-educated! (This from the crew that derides the “snobbery” of higher learning and castigates Barack Obama’s Harvard career as a murky byproduct of affirmative action.) She’s being discriminated against because she’s not a liberal Democrat!
McQueen wonders why the Clapper in his den always seems to be on the fritz.
The should-be-obvious reality is that Rice is facing resistance for the same reason as would any member of the Bush team Rutgers chose to honor: They’re war criminals. And as we’re learning all the time, Rice was one of the worst of the bunch. Yesterday, in Rachel Maddow’s illuminating Why We Did It report on the runup to the Iraq war, author Ron Suskind reiterated his findings that Rice had advocated regime change in that country as early as January 2001 – to the supposed shock and horror of cabinet members Colin Powell and Paul O’Neill. From that day forward, she was a reliable enabler for her boss’ burning ambition to topple Saddam, no matter what other realities might get in the way.
Why would a supposedly intelligent woman like Rice make herself a cheerleader for such folly? One explanation is that intelligence is not the same thing as honor. Another theory is more psychoanalytic in nature: While the Bush administration was still in power, confidantes of Rice confessed to the press that she was fascinated with her commander-in-chief on a personal level; straight-laced little Condi, they revealed, had a weakness for “bad boys.” Now, the Constitution allows for a wide variety of approaches to governance, but I’m not comfortable with the idea of thousands being sent to their deaths because of some frustrated Urkelette’s psychosexual masochism.
We’re going to be seeing a lot more of the Condi rehabilitation project in the months to come. The GOP needs blacks and women to carry its P.R. water, and the last few years haven’t yielded any enduringly viable candidates. (Sorry, Mia Love: Your party isn’t going to stick its neck out for another Mormon.) Rice will be paraded in front of every podium the party bigwigs can rent, and any attempt to discuss her crimes will be met with furious re-declarations of her color, her gender and her “competence” -- which, conveniently, is a matter largely separate from her record. And at each such turn, the onus will be on us to bring up that record, and to explain why it disqualifies her from public life.
Or maybe we can just have Steve McQueen write her out of the picture.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 262.
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