Two Early NBA Thoughts

It is early in the NBA season.  Right now a bunch of projected contenders – Spurs, Clippers, Cavaliers, Thunder – are having underwhelming seasons. The Spurs and Thunder are dealing with injury issues, but the Cavs and Clips are pretty healthy to begin the season, and yet both began Wednesday just 1 game over .500.

The Cavs will continue to generate an insanely high level of discussion, debate and totally unnecessary noise simply because LeBron plays for them.  The Clips also attract a fair amount of scrutiny in the wake of the Sterling controversy and because they have the best point guard in the world and one of the best power forwards.  It is too early in the season to draw firm conclusions or freak out. But it isn’t too early to examine some minor tweaks that might improve on-court performance.

Thus far the Cavs best lineups are not their big 3 flanked by another big. Like the LeBron-era Heat, the Cavs play better when they go small.  We can see several reasons why the Cavs might be an elite small ball team just as the Heat were.  First, the Cavs have a fantastic pick-and-pop big man in Kevin Love.  Second, they have two long, athletic forwards capable of playing the 4 in LeBron and Shawn Marion.  Third, by putting as many shooters on the floor they create bigger driving lanes for Kyrie and LeBron and give more room for post-ups from LeBron and Love.  Perhaps the most unstoppable half court set in the NBA is LeBron posting up on the left block surrounded by shooters.

These lineups could go several ways.  The optimal balance between shooting and defense would be Love-Marion-LeBron-Irving and one of Miller-Waiters-Dellavedova-Harris-Jones.  Thompson and Varejao could be substituted for Love, but obviously neither brings the same level of outside shooting, although Varejao is a decent midrange shooter.

One thing that sometimes gets misconstrued is Love’s defense.  He doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be an elite rim protector.  He also isn’t nearly as quick as Bosh and therefore is less effective at trapping the pick-and-roll. But he is strong, and he isn’t going to be bulldozed by many post-up players in the NBA.  There just aren’t many players like that in the league, and the guys with either a bully-type post game (Pekovic, Cousins, Howard) or a refined set of post moves (Al Jefferson, Duncan) mostly play in the west or for non-contending teams.  Pekovic bullies everybody, it’s not as if Varejao or Thompson are going to do much better than Love.  And none of those guys are long, strong and skilled enough to really limit Big Al or Duncan or Cousins, but then there really aren’t many guys in the league capable of doing that.

Love is big and strong enough to play center, and his shooting brings opposing bigs away from the basket.  If he is flanked by a stretch 4 like LeBron or Marion that can open the floor even more and give the nascent offense more room to operate. Not surprisingly, the best Cavs lineup is a front line of Love-Marion-LeBron.1

Also, Love can do work in the pick and roll. In tonight’ game against the Spurs Varejao played very well, especially as the roll man.  But late in the game he passed up several open midrange jumpers.  This threw off their offense because then the clock was ticking down and LeBron was forced to create something quickly, which often led to a tough shot.  A screener who can take and make that midrange shot helps the offense flow better.  And both LeBron or Marion are big enough to guard Boris Diaw.

Out west, the Clippers have a glaring hole on the wing right now.  Both Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick are struggling shooting the ball.  Barnes is supposed to be their defensive stopper, but he is older and he was always more of a physical pest defender than an elite, lockdown, Tony Allen type of guy. Redick can track guys around screens but he is too small and slow to lock down an athletic perimeter scorer.

The Clips need more size, shooting and defense on the wing.  There has been speculation that they will make a trade at some point to address this weakness.  But they already have a good candidate on their bench: Reggie Bullock.

Bullock, at 67% from 3, is shooting better than Barnes (30%) and Redick (32%) combined.  Of course this is a small sample size.  Everything is at this point in the season.  But Barnes is in the midst of perhaps the worst shooting slump of his career, and he is a streaky shooter anyway.  He is also 34, so it stands to reason that he is in decline a bit and will continue to lose some athleticism.

Bullock is 23.  He should continue to improve.  Advanced stats already rate him higher than both Barnes and Redick.  Surely this level of play merits more than the 12 minutes a game he has been playing so far.

Tonight the Clips had a blowout win over the Magic, and Bullock played a measly 4 minutes. Hedo Turkoglu, who has been dead for several years, played 15. Turkoglu will give you terrible defense and inconsistent production on offense. He is barely a rotation player.  Doc is trusting declining veterans (who both had good playoff series against his Celtics teams 4 & 5 years ago) at the expense of developing younger guys.

Remember what Doc did with DeAndre Jordan last year?  He trusted him with more minutes and let the growing pains happen during the season, and DeAndre had the best season of his career and solidified their center position.  Why not try that with Bullock?  Barnes isn’t the future at the wing, neither is Crawford, neither is Turkoglu.  Bullock may not be either, but at least give him a shot. Could be a difference maker this year.

 

Gardner Marshall

What Will Happen to Football Fans?

Sports season for me lasts from the beginning of NBA training camp to the last game of the NBA finals.  It’s not really sports so much as it is sport. And I only watch the people who are compensated for their labor, though that is due more to the superior quality of NBA basketball than to my total dislike of the NCAA.

However, I am an anomaly in terms of American sports fandom.  Football is the most popular sport in America, followed by baseball, and football again (the college version).

“In 2014, 35 percent of fans call the NFL their favorite sport, followed by Major League Baseball (14 percent), college football (11 percent), auto racing (7 percent), the NBA (6 percent), the NHL (5 percent) and college basketball (3 percent).”

Hell, the NBA is behind auto racing.  I don’t know a single person that follows auto racing seriously, and I know my fair share of Republicans. Altogether almost half of the country (46%) considers football their favorite sport.  Wow.

The NFL is in the news a lot.  And recently the news has been quite bad. Players killing people.  Players killing themselves.  Billionaire owners and multimillionaire commissioners clinging to the absurd notion that the NFL is a “non-profit” entity and thus deserves to avoid paying taxes.  Players abusing wives/girlfriends and children.  Players saying homophobic things. Players saying racist things.

I think the attention is most appropriately focused on the ongoing problems associated with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and other long-term brain injuries suffered by NFL players.  Recent studies have found CTE in 76 of 79 former players, including Junior Seau (who committed suicide) and Jovan Belcher (who killed his girlfriend and then committed suicide).

There are a bunch of articles out there lamenting the ongoing popularity of the NFL.  These pieces point to stats like the ones I have listed above as evidence that playing football is more dangerous than we previously thought.  And that’s true.

There are also pieces predicting an imminent decrease in, and the potential demise of, the popularity of football.  The most common comparison is boxing, a sport that was very popular 50-60 years ago but now barely sustains a niche following.  The parallels are clear. Both sports are violent, both sports are macho, and both sports even cause the same type of brain damage.

It is easy to find counter-arguments.  The NFL occupies an unprecedented financial situation, both in the American sports landscape and the American economy.  Consider just the television revenue.  Sports channels such as ESPN are forced on cable/satellite TV subscribers (there are generally no plans without ESPN).  ESPN pays tens of billions to the NFL for the right to broadcast MNF.  And ESPN wants to protect that investment.  In fact, ESPN is so concerned about that partnership that it was willing to suspend Bill Simmons, a very popular writer, for merely pointing out that the NFL commissioner lied regarding the timeline of the Ray Rice abuse scandal. Hard to imagine the NFL’s bottom line being impacted anytime soon when it has decades-long, multibillion dollar TV deals in place.

My question: If, in 30-40 years, football has experienced a significant decline in popularity (which is possible; I expect at least a moderate decline), what happens to all those sports fans who no longer follow football?

The articles excoriating society for its embrace of football often insist that one day people will be ashamed that they were once football fans. And there is the subtle hint that people should be ashamed.

I know people who used to love watching boxing.  I have never heard anyone apologize for it or express any shame.  Consider Muhammad Ali. Probably the greatest athlete of all time, adored by tens of millions of people all over the world.  Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 42, just 3 years after his last fight (his second-to-last fight, in 1980, was described as “watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive”).

Though boxing is no longer a mainstream sport, Ali is still spoken of with reverence, appropriately so.  His current state is tragic, but that doesn’t stop people from focusing on his years of glory, years which ultimately contributed to his deterioration.  Fans insist on seeing Ali as he was, not as he is.  We look away from the depressing stuff.

I think this is what will happen with football.  The sport will experience some decline, surely. As more parents learn about the increased risk of long-term brain damage – a risk that exists even at the high school level – fewer kids will play, and fewer people will watch.

More players and ex-players will experience the effects of CTE.  More stories, like the recent one in the New York Times, will describe the daily suffering of football players:

“Spend an extended period of time behind the N.F.L. curtain, as I did, see eerily subdued postgame locker rooms filled with vacant stares and hear anguished screams echoing from the training room, and you’ll understand how the physical and emotional toll these players endure is devastating enough to erode the morality of a good man or exacerbate the evils of a bad one.”

Terrible as it is to imagine, the rash of suicides by ex-players is not probably not over.  And the discussion about the dangers of football is far from over.

Eventually fewer people will watch.  They will look away from the depressing stuff, and perhaps try to forget how intently they once looked toward what caused it.  They will just find something else to watch instead.2

Hopefully it is something that causes less suffering than football.

 

Gardner Marshall

The NBA Cares

March Madness is almost upon us, and football season is (mercifully) over.  I thought it might be time to address two of the more pernicious tropes regarding basketball in the United States.  These foolhardy notions are intertwined, and can be described as follows: college players play harder/care more about the game than NBA players.

The absurd logic of many (many) college basketball fans apparently goes something like this:

When player A is playing for his college team, he is a selfless, heroic, laudable athlete playing simply for his love of the game, his school, and his teammates (in roughly that order).  If player A is skilled enough and works hard enough (and is very lucky), player A makes it to the NBA. Upon entering the professional ranks, player A becomes a selfish, overpaid, lazy jerk who loses all love for the game, his teammates, and his organization, and cares only for himself.

Clearly this is a deeply flawed perspective.

Player A is admirable only when his labor is being exploited by a bunch of administrators and coaches and NCAA officials.  Once he is finally compensated for his labor (as he should have been all along), he become selfish?

One facet of reality that this perspective ignores is that college athletes don’t have a choice.  How many would turn down a salary if it was offered to them?  Would the ones who accepted it – an overwhelming majority – care any less about the game?

Also, NBA players play many more games each year, roughly 3 times as many as college players.  That is a sizable difference.  And an NBA game lasts about 17% longer (8 minutes) than a college game.  NBA players are playing against the best, most athletic, strongest, fastest, players in the world every single night.

Think of a guy barely in the rotation on an NBA team, a guy that other teams pick on and target (e.g. Jimmer Fredette).  That guy almost certainly dominated at the college level.  Did he just stop caring once he made the NBA?  Was his goal simply to make it and not actually to succeed?  The partying was too much to handle?  (As if college athletes never get a chance to party, ever).

When an NBA team (or player) plays a bad game (or a few), people say they aren’t playing hard.  When a college team plays a bad game (or a few), it is blamed on coaching or lack of skill or the folly of youth. Because of their youth and much, much kinder schedule, college players certainly have less of an excuse for not playing with 100% effort. Yet that happens all the time.  It happens in all sports, and in every other facet of life.  The occasional lapse in effort is a universal human quality.

The more plausible answer is that succeeding in the NBA is incredibly difficult.  Harder than anything these players have ever done before in their lives, by a magnitude of several degrees.  And the players in the NBA, though they have lags in effort like any human being in any endeavor, are actually consistently playing at an incredibly high level.

Consider someone like Steve Nash.  He played 4 years of college basketball.  He is in his 18th season in the NBA.  He has played 1,332 total NBA games (including playoffs).  He currently plays for a crappy team (the Lakers) that has essentially no chance of making the playoffs.

Nash is 40 years old.  He has dealt with numerous serious and debilitating injuries in his career, the most recent – a nerve root irritation – has forced him to basically rebuild his muscle memory and come up with an entirely new training regimen.

Check out what he is currently going through just to suit up in an NBA game for a non-playoff team:

Incredible.  This guy has 2 MVPs, numerous career achievements, and tens of millions of dollars.  He has far exceeded any expectations that people had for him when he came out of Santa Clara University in 1996. He has nothing left to prove.

Nash could simply retire and live a very enjoyable life on the coast of Southern California. But he chooses to go through agonizing physical rehabilitation every single day so that he might have a shot at getting back out on the court.

So who says NBA players don’t care?

I think the other portion of the answer is that the people who turn to these tired stereotypes don’t watch the NBA.  Maybe they turn in during the playoffs a bit, or watch some of the NBA Finals, but they don’t watch a Monday game in the middle of the regular season.

It is easy to say NBA players don’t play hard in the regular season when you don’t watch the games and thus have no idea what you are talking about.  And of course people are free to watch what they want and say what they want.  But perhaps a few more people should tune in during the NBA regular season, if only to watch the two best basketball players in the world compete for the MVP award (and earn home court for the playoffs in their respective conferences).

Last night LeBron put up 61 points while wearing a mask.  He shot 22-33 from the field against the 7th ranked defense in the NBA, making 8-10 3-pointers, with 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and only 2 turnovers (http://espn.go.com/nba/boxscore?id=400489766).

Pretty amazing for a guy who apparently doesn’t care enough to try hard.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Movies

Bill Murray did a great AMA (“Ask me anything”) at Reddit recently:

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/1vhjag/bill_murray_here_ok_ill_talk_ill_talk/

 

Political and Military Affairs

A history of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the document upon which most of the legal reasoning and political justification for the ongoing War on Terror rests.  The immediate aftermath of 9/11 is a crucial and overlooked period in our history.  The construction and subsequent interpretation of this document is frightening and disturbing:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/gregorydjohnsen/60-words-and-a-war-without-end-the-untold-story-of-the-most

If you don’t initially agree, consider the following quote from the article:

“Twelve years after 9/11, who exactly is the U.S. at war with?”

“When I contacted the Pentagon to get an answer, a spokeswoman emailed back: “’The list is classified and not for public release.’”

 

Humor

An open letter to people on the Paleo diet:

www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-paleo-diet-enthusiasts

 

Music

A look back at Nirvana’s phenomenal live performance on MTV 20 years later (this performance ultimately became the album Unplugged In New York):

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/nirvanas-tense-brilliant-em-unplugged-in-new-york-em-20-years-later/282040/

 

Sports

Zach Lowe of Grantland (probably the best NBA writer around) makes his case for who should be selected to the NBA All-Star game this year:

http://grantland.com/features/our-nba-all-star-team/

 

Tech

I have never had a Facebook account, in part because of some deep philosophical issues I have with the lack of privacy and seemingly trite nature of the majority of the content on the site.  So I am encouraged by the fact that teenagers, in spite of their tiny brains and poor taste in many areas, have begun a shift away from Facebook (although I am sure many of them are choosing to spend time doing something equally wasteful):

http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-facebook-in-3-years-the-2014-facebook-demographic-report/

 

I apologize for the delay in posting, I had to be a law student for a minute.  And then travel.  But I’m back.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

 

The NBA is back. Stop the hate, enjoy the game.

Close your eyes.

Picture a great NBA athlete, with elite strength, quickness, leaping ability, court vision, and agility.  He has the type of physique that, even among the elite athletes in the world, appears to give him an unfair advantage.  He is too strong, too long, too fast.  He is known for his impressive dunking ability.

This player is a capable ball handler and talented passer with a penchant for making unselfish plays.  However, he is also a skilled scorer who attacks the basket with ferocity. He complements these offensive skills with All-NBA caliber defense; he is capable of defending positions 1-4 (even the 5 in a pinch), and is especially adept at containing quick point guards.

He has amassed numerous triple-doubles throughout his time in the NBA.  He been on All-NBA teams and the All-Star team.  He has hit several game-winning shots during his career. He won a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics as part of the USA National Team.  He hit a game-winning playoff shot over Hedo Turkoglu.

Personal background: Born in the winter of 1984, this player is from the midwest originally.  He spent the first several seasons of his career with the Eastern Conference team that drafted him.  This team had some success, but ultimately never won a championship.  Because of the lack of a title, this player’s personal traits (character, clutch ability) were questioned, as was his overall basketball ability.  People wondered whether he could be “the guy” on a championship team.

A few seasons ago this player was traded to a new team.  His skills meshed better with this new squad, which was filled with more talented players, many of whom were fantastic athletes.  But, this team also experienced serious playoff disappointment during the first season that the player in question was on the roster.

Keep your eyes closed.

If you are at all familiar with the NBA, by now you are picturing a certain player. This person probably causes strong emotions to well up within you, most likely a mixture of anger and disdain.  That is because you assume the player in question is LeBron James.

But wait, stop.  Focus on imagining the player.  Now imagine it’s Andre Iguodala.

Open your eyes.

Iguodala hit a huge shot last night at the buzzer to win a really exciting game against the OKC Thunder.

If you have heard of LeBron James, chances are you don’t like him.  Unless you are an NBA fan, you probably haven’t heard of Andre Iguodala.  Regardless of which group you fall into, you don’t know either of these men personally.  You haven’t had involved conversations with them.  You haven’t gotten a sense of their character, you don’t know a lot about their personal history, their principles, whether they possess a high level of integrity or not.  At most you have seen them in brief post-game interviews, and, in LeBron’s case, numerous commercials.

Neither of these men have ever done anything to personally harm you in any way.  They have not insulted your friends or family.  Neither is infamous for off-court personal problems or run-ins with law enforcement.  Both come across as jovial, good-humored guys.

But, if you know who LeBron James is, the first thing you would likely say is some version of “I don’t like him/what a jerk.”  If you like basketball then you probably prefer college basketball, so your assumption about Iguodala is that he is another spoiled pro athlete who doesn’t love the game the way the college players do (the ones who generate billions of money for their schools and the television networks and are barred from sharing in those profits, whose alleged love of the game is a result of not being paid, as if they made a choice not to be).

Why?  Why, if you watch the NBA, would you expend energy hating the best player in the world?  A man who combines unparalleled size, strength, speed, agility, and court vision. Whose ability to shoot, pass, defend, and rebound may be unmatched in the history of the league.

Why would you hate LeBron simply because he decided to play for a different team (especially if you weren’t originally a Cavaliers fan)?  All sorts of players do it every summer.  Michael Jordan played for two teams in his career.  Charles Barkley played for three.  Shaq played for six.  Andre Iguodala has played for three, and I don’t see anyone burning his jersey.  Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard both fucked over their teams in ways LeBron never did with the Cavs, but they haven’t felt even a fraction of the scorn LeBron has received.

If, like most Americans, you don’t watch the NBA regularly, you probably still know who LeBron is.  Disliking a guy in a league you don’t even care about seems even more bizarre than if you were an actual NBA fan.  Why would you be angry at a guy whose most offensive act was shifting the balance of power in a professional sports league that means little or nothing to you?

If you are going to possess irrational hatred or dislike (which, of course, please don’t, and, if you do, try to stop), at least try and minimize the irrational part by applying it consistently.  If you dislike LeBron for deciding to go to another team then you should dislike Carmelo, Dwight, and Andre Iguodala.  And the hundreds of other guys who have done that in their professional careers.

Ultimately life is way more fun if you can just get over this type of silly shit and enjoy the good stuff. And watching players like LeBron and Andre Iguodala most certainly qualifies in the latter category.

(By the way, both of them really have made game-winning buzzer-beaters in the playoffs over the same guy – Hedo Turkoglu.  Each shot is in one of the clips).

These are two phenomenal athletes, a couple of the best two-way players in the league, who play hard every single night – and their season is way more grueling than a puny college season.

The NBA is back, and it is as exciting as ever.  Tune in.  Enjoy it.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

 

 

Elliott Smith: “Been pushed away and I’ll never come back”

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death.  This was popular topic of conversation amongst certain people and in certain parts of the Internet.  To those of you who may not be familiar, Elliott Smith was a fantastic musician who found his niche as a haunting and strikingly original solo multi-instrumentalist from the mid-1990s until his death in 2003.  I personally dislike dudes who sing while playing acoustic guitars, but classifying Elliott Smith as one of those guys is like calling The Wire a cop show.

Anyway, Grantland did a nice roundup of many re-issued and newly written articles on Elliott. This can be found here: http://www.grantland.com/blog/hollywood-prospectus/post/_/id/90300/the-music-world-remembers-elliott-smith-10-years-later , and is strongly recommended for those of you who have both the interest and the time.

Notable amongst these pieces is a long, detailed and exceptional oral history (including interviews with 18 people who were very close to Elliott) done by a writer for Pitchfork. Found here: http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/9246-elliott-smith/# .  This piece has great photos, video clips, and songs interspersed throughout and is really more of a multimedia immersion into Elliott Smith than a simple article.

(One great observation from the Pitchfork piece was made by Mary Lou Lord, a fellow musician and labelmate, who described the first time she saw Elliott Smith perform live: “I was backstage, just talking to everybody, and Slim said, “Mary Lou, you really need to go out and watch that guy.” I wasn’t very interested; I had heard a million acoustic guitar guys, you know? But Slim was like, “No, Mary Lou, you really need to go and watch him.” In other words, “Shut the fuck up and get out there.”  The first thing I noticed was that his guitar was really crappy. I realized he was making that crappy guitar sound really good. By the third song, I had completely lost myself. I was sucked in. I immediately invited him on tour.”)

For those of you who may not be longtime fans of Elliott Smith, or may never have heard of him, this piece on the Consequence of Sound site provides a great introductory crash course on his music by taking 10 songs from across his discography: http://consequenceofsound.net/2013/10/elliott-smith-top-10-songs-10-years-later/ .  I think this list is well done, and it contains several of Elliott Smith’s undisputed great songs, such as “Between The Bars,” “Christian Brothers,” and “Waltz #2.”  It is absolutely worth going through for a full listen, as the 10 songs are an excellent playlist. And below each clip is a paragraph on the song, the sound, and the possible subject matter.  These last portions are very touching and can help a new listener appreciate the depth of thought and emotion that was present in Smith’s songs.

The final page of the Consequence of Sound article contains some important truths about Elliott Smith’s music.  I believe these should apply more broadly to great art.  “Elliott Smith could make you feel like you weren’t alone…He created emotional balm. His songs enable depression, sure, but they also enable catharsis. Something about these sketches of inner turmoil comforts us.”

I try to make this blog a forum for ideas and topical posts and explorations of trenchant issues. But Elliott Smith’s music is very personal to me, more personal than almost any other music.  It makes me feel.  It makes me feel happy, and sad, and jubilant, and less alone, and more alone (but I revel in that aloneness).  It makes me feel a rare euphoric sadness that I hope other people are lucky enough to experience.

Just listening to the complex rivulets of sound that he created can fill me with emotion, but when combined with his lyrics Elliott Smith’s music just floors me.  Listening to his music is the probably most cathartic auditory experience I’ve ever had in my life.

Many people call his music depressing, and certainly depression was an issue he examined with acuity and persistence.  He immersed himself in emotionally raw subject matter, but he cloaked that in sonically beautiful tapestry, with his ethereal3 voice providing the delicate threads.  The listener is left with something so well-crafted, so precise, so harmonized that it sounds almost too fragile to exist, like it might slip through your fingers if you held on too tight.

I find catharsis to be the most powerful element of Elliott Smith’s music.  And if you listen closely and you feel that catharsis, there is hope.  At the end, there is this beautiful, unfettered, radiant hope.

 

Gardner Marshall

I will include a few personal favorites.

 

 

Authenticity: Kanye West, Dave Chappelle, And How We Think About Racism

We are all racist.

Not the most uplifting message in the world, I know.  But there is a bevy of social scientific research to back up this statement (many of you may be familiar with said research already after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink” or hearing about it).4  I can’t really provide further insight on this social science research.  And I don’t want to waste time talking about Malcolm Gladwell.  But I do think think this point is especially relevant when discussing two contemporary black celebrities – Kanye West and Dave Chappelle – and their roles in the respective mediums that we most associate with them (hip hop music, comedic television) as well as American popular culture.

Perhaps you have heard about the recent “feud” between Kanye West and Jimmy Kimmel?  One might draw a lot of conclusions from the interview Kimmel had with Kanye last night.  Here is one clip:5

Kanye – while admitting it was a social faux pas – labeled himself a “creative genius” and called out fake humble celebrities, they talked about the perils of celebrity, and Kanye discussed standing up for creative people (i.e. nerds) who too often get pushed around. Kimmel mentioned that a lot of people think Kanye is a jerk, and emphasized that in their personal interactions he has always found Kanye to be a really nice guy.  As one writer noted in a post-interview interview with Kimmel, Kanye refused “to use self-deprecation to make himself into a sympathetic character.”6  Regardless of whether you like Kanye’s behavior or not, it is honest, and it is undoubtedly more authentic than the public face of many celebrities. You are lying to yourself if you think your favorite business mogul/actor/political figure/athlete/musician/doctor is not supremely confident.  Ask yourself this: How many successful people in any field got where they are without confidence, even swagger?

One thing I was reminded of from the interview is the fact that Kanye is a nerd.7  One definition of nerd is “someone who is single-minded or accomplished but is felt to be socially inept.”  I think this quality may be the key to understanding Kanye.  Look back at the specific moments where Kanye invited mass enmity – saying George Bush didn’t care about black people, briefly embarrassing Taylor Swift, various iterations on the theme that he is a genius – and you can see an element of social ineptitude combined with a striking frankness.  Kanye says things that might very well be true.  These utterances are viewed with disdain – and painted by the media as crazy rants – not because they are necessarily wrong, but because people aren’t supposed to say things like that.8

(An aside: those who say the real problem was Kanye disrespecting the President in such a manner should probably engage in some self-examination on the topic of race. The most shameful moment in that saga came years later when Bush claimed that being called a racist was “the lowest moment of his presidency.”  Not 9/11, not the deaths of thousands in post-Katrina New Orleans, but being called a racist.  And just in case you haven’t been paying attention, members of Congress regularly accuse President Obama of being a terrorist and/or secret Kenyan communist (charges that contain blatantly racist elements). Also, w.r.t. the Taylor Swift incident, ask yourself this: would anyone have cared if the roles were reversed and Taylor Swift had interrupted Kanye getting an award to give her opinion on the matter?  Of course not).

Success has allowed Kanye to explore his nerdy obsessions as he pleases (e.g. being an intern at Fendi).  Because of his nerdiness (which in some ways is almost anti-gangster), obvious zeal for fashion, introspective lyrics, and art school background (amongst other things) Kanye doesn’t fit the rapper template we have in our minds.9  This template is seen most obviously in Kanye’s close friend Jay-Z, who has perfected the modern rapper image (some combination of retired gangster, successful businessman, and ultimately a figure who is ostensibly above all the petty squabbles that other rappers engage in), in spite of the fact that musically he is basically in the Jordan Wizards stage of his career.

So Kanye doesn’t mesh with our idea of what a rapper is supposed to be.  Rap sprung largely from groups of young, black, poor, urban males in the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City.  Most popular rap music in America hasn’t strayed much from this – the rappers we know are generally young black males from poor urban backgrounds (though there are important racial and gender exceptions).  Over the years, as figures like Tupac and B.I.G. and Jay-Z came to define rap in the popular consciousness, rap became associated with crime, with gangs, and thus with gangsters. But Kanye was raised by a college professor.  He comes from a background of black activism.10  I think this is important, and it doesn’t get discussed enough when we talk about Kanye.

I think that at a societal level we have difficulty comprehending and accepting black celebrities who don’t fit the template we are accustomed to.  Kanye is a prime example. But there are others.

Guess who else was raised by a mother who was a college professor, whose parents were involved in black activism, and whose public decision to step off his expected path resulted in a bunch of people calling him crazy?  Dave Chappelle.

Here is the link to a recent and fantastic profile of Chappelle, written by Rachel Ghansah for the October issue of the Believer magazine: http://www.believermag.com/issues/201310/?read=article_ghansah.

As Ghansah states, “More than any comic of his generation, he lanced the boil of how race works and also prodded at how nuanced race had become…Chappelle did such a good job of truth-telling, on every subject, that nobody knew what to do when he just stopped talking. We aren’t used to taking no for an answer, to being rejected, especially not by the people who are supposed to make us smile. Especially not by black men who are supposed to make us smile…But Chappelle, like Kanye West, grew up in a home where black activism and black leftist thought were the languages of the household. No wonder, then, that both Chappelle and West have wrestled so bitterly and publicly with their sense of responsibility to and also their failure to meet those same obligations.”

Here is a sketch from the show,11  depicting a scenario in which black Americans get reparations for slavery:

The profile contains a thoughtful investigation into the racial humor on the Chappelle Show and Chappelle’s decision to walk away from a $50 million contract  This decision was greeted with shock and wild speculation. “When news of his decision to cease filming the third season of the show first made headlines, there were many spectacular rumors. He had quit the show without any warning. Chappelle was now addicted to crack. He had lost his mind. The most insane speculation I saw was posted on a friend’s Facebook page at 3 a.m. A website had alleged that a powerful cabal of black leaders—Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and others—were so offended by Chappelle’s use of the n-word that they had him intimidated and banned.”

Shortly after Chappelle left Comedy Central he gave interviews to Oprah and TIME magazine.12 In both interviews he alluded to the fact that he began to feel uncomfortable with the racially charged material on the show.  This feeling crystalized when a white crew member laughed in a way that Chappelle felt was inappropriate during a sketch about a pixie that encouraged black people to act in stereotypical ways.

Chappelle admitted in both interviews that he felt some of the material on the show was socially irresponsible.  “It’s something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere.”  Chappelle is talking about a very difficult tightrope to walk. Chappelle navigated this dizzying maze adroitly, but the process took a toll on him.

There is a sports comparison here.  Muhammad Ali, a sports figure who was embraced by many young, liberal white Americans of a certain age as transformative, in part because of his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War.  And, in a striking contrast, Michael Jordan, the ultimate corporate shill, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate who was running against Jesse Helms (a notorious racist) in the North Carolina senate race, allegedly replied “Republicans buy shoes, too.”  One famous person speaking his mind and daring the establishment to retaliate, the other remaining quiet and filling his bank account.

Ghansah, author of the Chappelle profile, references Ali while drawing a parallel to Chappelle: “In his fantastic profile of Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson writes that “the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.” The medal was a symbol of a white world that Ali “was already learning to treat with a very calculated measure of public disrespect.” Like most people of the post–civil rights generation, I think that Chappelle, whose family had long been free, educated, leftist, and radical, had hoped that his success would not need to follow that same militant path…Like Thompson once wrote of Ali, Chappelle was put through “one of the meanest and most shameful ordeals any prominent American has ever endured.” Without knowing his history, Dave Chappelle’s decision to figuratively toss his gold medal into the Ohio River does seem like a bizarre, illogical act that abbreviated a successful career on its ascent. But was it illogical? Hardly. Revolutionary? Possibly. To turn his back on Hollywood, to walk away from the spotlight because it was turning him into a man he didn’t want to be—a man without dignity—was a move that was, in a way, Chappelle’s birthright.”

We are accustomed to celebrities holding their tongues on any issue of social import. They have legions of publicists and agents working around the clock to keep their images squeaky clean. When someone lets a controversial opinion slip they are condemned, and we congratulate ourselves and move on.  In the process we maintain our own conscious and unconscious racial biases without confronting them fully.  As the TIME article states, “Racial divisions are becoming more complex, harder to understand, more challenging to discuss. That’s where Chappelle comes in. He takes all those hang-ups about race and lifts them up, spins them around, puts them in our face. Deal with it. Laugh at it. But don’t ignore it.”  In other words, more Ali than Jordan.

Stop and think for a second.  Can you see this struggle playing out – admittedly in a much clumsier way – in the infamous Kanye incidents involving his statements on Bush, his interaction with Taylor Swift, and his continued struggle to become accepted as an equal in the fashion world?  It is a stretch, but not an impossibility.  In each case Kanye is, I think, saying something he believes has a potential social value to black people that lack his platform.  It might be messy (and inextricably linked with Kanye’s massive ego), but isn’t that messiness preferable to someone who doesn’t care one way or the other?  Why would you prefer apathy?

Racism: Then and Now

The structural racism of the 1960s, and its overtness, was in some ways easier to deal with than what we have today.  Let me be clear, I am not saying by any measure that it was easy. Murders, threats of murder, physical assault, harassment, etc.  But perhaps it is simpler to look at a segregated water fountain and say “fix that, make it just one fountain,” walk away, and claim you have fixed the problem.

What we are dealing with now is the fallout from the historical perceptions of race in America. And perceptions can shape, or trump, reality.  This is partly why the racism that exists now is so difficult to extinguish.  It is tough to get a handle on.  Thinking of oneself as racist should be – and often is – anathema to a decent person, and this makes things harder.  None of us wants to think we are racist, because racists are those wackos in the KKK, racists are the other, not us. This thought comforts us, but it also prevents us from the necessary process of self-reflection and empathy that will help transcend the racism that lingers in our society.  I think the Chappelle Show had a social value because I believe that the best way to alleviate this problem is by discussing it often, by confronting it head on, instead of sweeping it under the rug.

I think the majority of racist experiences and episodes in America occur in the vague ground between non-racist and explicit, overt racism.  It is not segregated water fountains, or the war on drugs (many young people see the obvious racism of that policy, even if our political leaders pretend not to).  Rather it is the thousand everyday tiny life experiences.  Crossing the street when you see a black person.  Saying “they” inadvertently.  Talking with each black person as if he or she is some de facto representative for all black people and asking questions that open with a phrase like “But don’t black people” in the nicest way possible (we have all done this, I have done it). Expecting a black person to be superior at sports.  Hell, I did this a few months ago, picking teams at the UT Rec center for pickup basketball.  I picked the only black guy first and this scenario occurred:

But in real life.  That was racist.  Sure, not as harmful as many forms of racism, but that doesn’t excuse it.

I think Kanye West and Dave Chappelle are both trying to figure out ways to maintain their dignity and balance the social responsibility that they feel.

Kanye has done it publicly in a controversial (and ego-saturated) way.  This is further complicated by the fact that he is a nerd.  In several interviews during the past year (and with his album Yeezus) Kanye has indicated that he believes he never should have had to apologize for his outspoken nature.  This language is often couched inside a soliloquy about fashion and/or Kanye being a genius, so it is harder to see (and many people are too busy shaking their heads and thinking Kanye is a douche bag to notice).  But if you get beyond the idea that the man is “ranting” and simply pay attention to what he is saying, then try to put yourself in his place, you can see a lot of truth in what he says.

Kanye West is an artist, not just a rapper.

Chappelle has done it behind the scenes, in a quiet and more egoless way.  Turning down such a massive sum is unheard of, and that act stands as evidence that he was willing to sacrifice a fortune in order to uphold his principles.  He is a brilliant comedian who maintained ironic distance as he tackled racial issues, but he has admitted to feeling enormous pressure from his platform on the Chappelle Show.

Dave Chappelle is a social critic, not just a comedian.

Both men are trying to be authentic – to be themselves and not be corrupted by the system around them (a system that, if we are being honest with ourselves, we must admit is controlled largely by white people) – and we should respect that.

 

Gardner Marshall

 

Addendum: I should add a meta-disclosure.  In one portion of the Chappelle profile Ghansah interviews Neal Brennan, the co-creator of the Chappelle Show and Chappelle’s longtime collaborator, who happens to be white:  In 2011, Brennan told a reporter: “You know, for a black artist that’s beloved to go on TV and say he was victimized by a white corporate structure, that is like white-people nectar, it’s like white liberal nectar, like, ‘Oh my god, this young black man has been victimized.’”

I am a liberal white male.  I have some close friends that are black.  I am drawn to some aspects of American society that are viewed as black: hip hop music, NBA basketball, sneaker culture.  I must admit that there is something to that Brennan quote.  I think that there is a trend among my specific racial-socio-economic-political group whereby we overcompensate for past racial transgressions against black Americans, a more nuanced version of white guilt combined with a (conscious and unconscious) desire to be accepted by black people.  This process often includes overlooking some things (e.g. the widespread misogyny in rap music) and perhaps occasionally exhibiting contrarian enthusiasm for a black cultural figure when they are the object of criticism (e.g. my continued defense of Kanye West).

So in addition to the more common conscious/unconscious racial biases I possess, I must also account for this.  Ghansah states, “for all the post–civil rights progress we have made, it is possible that you could be best friends with someone of a different race without being able to enter worlds and spaces that they can, or in the way that they do.” Sadly, I think that this is more of an inevitably than a possibility. I believe that introspection and empathy and frank discussions of race can serve as a shield against that inevitability. And I want that shield, because it is hard enough to achieve an authentic connection with another human being, and race shouldn’t complicate that process the way it does now.

Update: A piece on Gawker today discusses the Kanye-Kimmel interview and racial issues.  Worth a read: http://gawker.com/kanye-west-knows-you-think-he-sounded-nuts-on-kimmel-1443710553