American History X Revisited

By David Michael Newstead.

American history tends to get whitewashed and Disneyfied overtime until the past seems like something it never really was. Of course, there are lots of good moments in American history and I don’t mean to diminish that. Then again, anything tends to look good when you leave out all the bad parts.

I say all that to say that race and racism are central to American history and any attempt to paper over that fact is at best a well-intentioned fantasy. In bookstores, for instance, I used to have this habit of opening up American history books and seeing if they made any real mention of Native Americans. More than a few do not. Similarly, African Americans and others tend to fall by the wayside in this grandiose national narrative we’ve constructed overtime. It’s not incorrect per se, it’s just an incomplete picture of what happened. And to quote founding father Benjamin Franklin, half a truth is often a great lie.

Lately, I keep thinking about the movie American History X. I like movies a lot, I’ll just say that now. But this isn’t one you enjoy exactly. It’s thought provoking more than anything else and sad as you watch one tragic event or bad decision leading to more of the same and you’re left to wonder if that cycle ever really ends. The film is almost twenty years old now and it follows a misguided young man as he moves into and later out of the white supremacist movement.

It had been awhile since I’d actually sat down to watch it. American History X is from the late 1990s after all. The film stars the normally affable Edward Norton who is transformed into a muscle bound Neo-Nazi skinhead covered in tattoos and swastikas. But we also get to see Norton’s character before he shaved his head and became a Nazi and the unfortunate path that took him there. Given the subject matter, it can be difficult to watch. There’s graphic violence and racism. But everything people are grappling with in 2017 is right there: xenophobia and immigration, anti-semitism and arguments about police violence, angry white people and hate proliferating the internet.

As an audience though, we’re not just bombarded with hate for the sake of it. You watch how the main character and his brother are pulled in. And you get to see them realize everything that’s wrong with it, how their anger and grief were manipulated. How that hate solved nothing. Is that some kind of redemption? I don’t know. The movie ends with a quote from Abraham Lincoln and so that’s what I’ll leave you with: We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

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2+2=5

By David Michael Newstead.

Made famous by George Orwell’s novel 1984, the slogan 2+2=5 is used to represent the absurdity of political falsehoods and lying propaganda. But it wasn’t a figment of Orwell’s imagination. In fact, the author was referencing an actual propaganda campaign from Stalin’s Russia, which Orwell was highly critical of.

For Stalin, 2+2=5 was a rallying cry, boasting that the goals of the first five-year plan had been achieved ahead of schedule in only four years. Meant to rapidly modernize the Soviet economy between 1928 and 1932, the first five-plan had indeed collectivized farmland and created heavy industry throughout the country. But like most things Stalin related, there was a sizable body count. The collectivization of agriculture, for example, triggered a famine in which millions died, while industrial workers were harshly punished for failing to reach an ever-increasing set of quotas associated with the plan. Still, propaganda posters were churned out just the same, proclaiming success regardless of the numbers.

Today, circumstances may have changed, but political falsehoods live on. Orwell’s work is being re-read like never before and Stalin is once again admired by the Russian state. As for 2+2=5, it feels like the slogan is only one press conference, one tweet, or TV interview away from resurfacing – from being proudly shouted at anyone within earshot. It’s something George Orwell understood very well and a phenomenon that we’ll have plenty of time to think about.

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The Wisdom of the X-Men

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By David Michael Newstead.

Way back in the 1990s, talking about the latest episode of X-Men was the thing to do in my elementary school cafeteria. In case you were wondering, Wolverine was most people’s favorite character. And even twenty years later, the Fox animated series still holds up pretty well. But while some of the social commentary was probably lost on me as a kid, the foundation of the X-Men franchise is hard to miss. X-Men is about mutants struggling to coexist with humans who are often fearful, suspicious, or hostile to their very existence.

This became the vehicle for numerous analogies to minority rights issues around the world such as racial and religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and more. The group’s leader, Professor X, is a Martin Luther King like figure, while characters like Magneto take a more radical and sometimes violent stance. There is a version of the KKK called the Friends of Humanity. And mutants everywhere often live in fear that the government is going to round them up at any moment.

Skip ahead to my adulthood and X-Men isn’t as fictional as it used to be. The X-Men were concerned about flying robots that could kill them, government databases tracking them, and something nefarious called the Mutant Registration Act. Today, the real tragedy is that I can copy and paste that last sentence almost verbatim and I’d be describing reality. But just as comic books and cartoon shows have gotten me this far in life, it’s worth considering how the X-Men confronted the challenges facing them.

  • First, working towards peace and mutual understanding is the way to go since violence only begets more violence.
  • Second, it’s important to remember that every team member has a backstory, a special talent, and a way of contributing to the cause.
  • And finally, the fight for equality never really ends – not in comic books and certainly not in life.

Over lunch nowadays, I guess things haven’t changed much since elementary school. People talk about the latest show they’ve been binge watching. They mention the characters they like and what they did over the weekend. But now current events make for a strange backdrop to every conversation. It’s a world that’s not so distant from the X-Men and where things go from here is up to us now.

 

The February Reader 2017

ReThinking Masculinity

Moonlight

Strange Fruit in America

State of America’s Fathers 2016

From NPR: Bid To Boost Black Men’s Voting Heads To The Barbershop

The Angry White Man Election

Watching Question Bridge

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

The Shapings of Black Masculinities

The February Reader 2016