Nov 23, 2010
Dumb It Down
Richard Hofstader dropped his classic text Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in 1963. The inherent ideas of this book still ring true today, though far beyond anything that Hofstader could have ever imagined back in the days of the Cold War. While President Obama's studied timidness hasn't done anything to sway such lingering feelings, the looming presence of this anti-intellectual fervor now threatens to consume the nation in ways that cannot be good for anyone involved.
Tyler Perry has made a career out of his contempt for educated African Americans, exploiting an audience of simple-minded religious dupes and others who simply refuse to think for themselves. Perry's work appeals to those who are comforted, as opposed to being appalled by stereotypes of over-the-top darkies.
My point is that in spite of all the jokes about 43's intelligence, or lack thereof, he does actually have degrees from two of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world. Four Trey managed to convince people that he was a good ole boy from the Lone Star State, in spite of his family's storied blue blood American pedigree. Dude wasn't as dumb as he looked. Like a suburban nerd transformed into a hard core gangsta rapper, Four Trey leaned heavily on that Texas twang and gunslinger swag in his efforts to convince people that he was not the son of privilege that he most certainly was. He used his performed and exaggerated ignorance as a stealth tool of manipulation. This tactic lowered expectations, which in turn allowed him to appear successful simply by not self-destructing in public. If you don't believe me, just ask Al Gore. While Gore came across as somewhat immobilized by the environmental stick that seemed permanently lodged in his ass during their debates back in 2000, Bush, the frat boy-in-chief, had some people literally clamoring to have a beer with him.
Sista Sarah is now one-upping The Decider. Four Trey once donned a flight suit and walked the deck of an aircraft carrier as though he were in a rap video. The fact that he couldn't seem to show up when he had real responsibilities in the Air National Guard back in the day seemed not to matter.
Her Mama Grizzly appeal is based almost entirely on embracing ignorance as a defense mechanism against the substantive reality of our present moment. Like Lupe Fiasco her efforts to "dumb it down" strike a cord with the multitude of working class underachievers who can no longer comfort themselves with cozy thoughts of white supremacy, now that the reality of an African American President has burst their lil' dish washing liquid bubble. The more ignorant Sarah acts, the more she endears herself to those who hold the most contempt for the educated among us. Somewhere along the line, her display of ignorance came to be read as authenticity.
Herein lies the rub: Tyler Perry won the battle simply by staying in the game long enough. His relative longevity has now encouraged many of his former critics to reconsider his work. He has exploited the low bar of expectations placed in front of him. Perry's For Colored Girls, a much more erudite work than he has previously been associated with, which isn't saying much, is causing many of his former detractors to pause if for no other reason than the fact that he actually got the movie up on the screen. If one really pays attention to the varied comments about this film, most have been of the "it was better than I thought it would be" variety. Far from a ringing endorsement, but more than enough to keep this wayward vessel afloat.
Again, Perry's previous work was of such horrendous quality that he is receiving the benefit of the doubt now for simply not completely destroying this new film. Having fully manipulated the low expectations that surround his very existence, Perry wins here by not losing. Though he continues to represent the absolute worst of black culture, he is now being discussed as a possible Oscar nominee. Such a nomination would not surprise me either. Not because it is deserved, far from it, but because Hollywood is so image conscious that they recognize the need to look diverse on Oscar night. TP can serve as a nice diversity prop in this regard.
The indelible hack Tyler Perry has been on the national scene longer than Sista Sarah, but in both cases, the longer they stay around the more people take them seriously. Sista Sarah poses a bigger long term threat though. The more seriously she is regarded, the more dangerous she becomes. You should know that there was a time when people thought Ronald Reagan's political career to be a joke also. Why wouldn't they? The man's biggest role was playing second to a monkey.
In the age of reality television, Sista Sarah need not waste her time in Hollywood movies. She came on the scene ready made for contemporary stardom. In an age when one's multiple "profiles" are often more important than one's real self, Sista Sarah--thanks to her hype man John McCain, the fool who gave her the mic in the first place--has been able to go straight to the public with her message of down home ignorance. Thus far, her Mama Grizzly steez has proven intimidating to her detractors, many of whom seem perplexed as to how to actually challenge her. Sista Sarah, for her part, has seen this gaping hole of uncertainty and run through it as though she were Cam Newton. Until someone has the nerve to challenge her straight up, she will continue to run untouched through the porous line of American anti-intellectualism.
When did being stupid become cool? The idea that being uneducated is somehow representative of authenticity is a dangerous thread running through our contemporary culture. TP has ridden this destructive impulse all the way to the bank. Sista Sarah is dead on his heels too. But she wants more than Oscar statues, she craves power at the highest level. If someone doesn't put her in check, and soon, we could all be in more serious trouble than even that wrought during the Four Trey era. Such a thought is a very scary proposition. Until America gets its collective mind right, such a possibility might one day soon be akin to that proverbial smoking gun which could indeed become a mushroom cloud.