The HNIC Report

Month: August, 2010

Lies, Politics, and Basketball

by darryloliver

If your name was Michael Jordan and you were a benchwarming basketball player in high school that never made it to a D1 program, would you tell people that you played basketball for the UNC Tarheels in college or the Chicago Bulls in the mid 90s?

Councilman Brown

What about if your name was Michael Brown? Would you try to pass yourself off as another Michael Brown? No, you wouldn’t because the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of your statement can be easily verified. So why would Brown, a DC Councilman tell a reporter that he was an All-Metro basketball player in 1983 when he clearly was not? I think its because he’s an arrogant doofus. This isn’t even a slip up – its a lie that the councilman has maintained to the reporter on several occasions over the years.

This is disappointing on several levels. The first rule of basketball etiquette is that you always tell the truth. You receive – or are denied – props based on what you’ve accomplished. Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t. If you say that you played with certain people, or on certain teams, you had better be telling the truth, or else that lie will come back to haunt you one day, as it is doing to Councilman Brown right here, right now.

Secondly, this man is an elected official who has been vested with the public trust. If he is running around DC, lying about whether he was All-Metro as a high school player, what else has he lied about? Can he be trusted? Asking whether a politician can be trusted is like asking a Black man if he trusts the police. Did Brown tell DC residents that he was All-Met on the campaign trail to get more votes? He probably did. This lie propagated by Brown could very well have contributed to his election win. He disgusts me.

Third, DC’s basketball legends often stay local because when they do, they are treated like GODS. You may not have ever heard of them outside of the metro area, but trust me, these guys have it made if they stay home after achieving basketball greatness. There is always a job waiting for them somewhere and they can kind of skate by unnoticed and under the radar without having too much scrutiny being paid to them. Everybody loves them. We will overlook their addictions and bad habits because we have a special place in our hearts for hometown athletic heroes.

I hope that his opponent exploits this situation for all that he can. We can’t allow a lying, non basketball playing, fuzzy memory having, councilman to continue representing the residents of DC. It just wouldn’t be right.

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Fenty’s Last Stand?: Further Proof that D.C. Just Isn’t New York

by Dax-Devlon Ross

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is desperately seeking to salvage his political future

I just got back from a weekend trip to D.C. It was a quick in and out visit with family and friends but I was there long enough to notice all of the Vincent Gray for Mayor placard posted up in people’s yards. Although one of my good friends is the son of the Mr. Gray, I haven’t been keeping up with the D.C. mayoral race. Which is why the apparent groundswell of support he’s receiving against Adrian Fenty, the incumbent, caught my attention. Just four years ago Fenty was the darling of D.C. politics. At the age of 36 he won in a landslide and became the city’s sixth mayor. His youthful energy, law school pedigree and post-racial identity placed him squarely in the new black political leadership’s inner circle. He appeared to represent the new face of urban politics: a prosaic, results oriented technocrat who approaches city governance like a chief financial officer. Like his mayoral godfather, Mike Bloomberg, he focused on school reform, crime reduction and government efficiency. Among his administration stated accomplishments listed  on his campaign web site are: Read the rest of this entry »

An Urgent Call For Support!!!

by Dax-Devlon Ross

A few weeks back my good friend and artistic collaborator  Jonathan Sears opened a brand new art gallery in Cincinnati. We spoke a few times before the opening and I can attest to his excitement and pride. Opening a gallery is an accomplishment.  This wasn’t just a gallery, though. It was a 19th century shot-gun home that had been salvaged from the brink of ruin and fully restored over the span of three months by Jonathan and his partner. The North Side Gallery was supposed to be a community to showcase emerging artists, masters and “progressive installations.” Among the artists premiering at the show was Ellington Robinson, another dear friend and  collaborator. The gallery opening received strong reviews. But then the owner of the building — who was a partner in the enterprise —  went bonkers. For absolutely no legitimate reason, he padlocked the house and put $50,000 worth of art out on the street.

Jonathan and his partner, Chris Hoeting, invested roughly $20,000 in the restoration of the building and its conversion into a gallery space. They put everything of themselves into this project for three months and they were  seeing the fruits of their labor. I spoke to Jonathan in the midst of the chaos. You can imagine how he was feeling.

Fortunately they didn’t take the abuse lying down. They filed the necessary adjudicatory papers and then they got back to work. Sears and Hoeting rented a pair of U-Hauls and put on a Renegade Art Show/ Fundraiser in front of the home they were summarily evicted from.

Now they’re looking for support. I’ve donated to the cause. If you care about art, consider doing so too.

Click Here for more details on how you can.

If you want to read more about what happened, click here.

Long Live the Renegades,

DDR

The Plot Thickens: Wyclef’s Incompetence Uncovered?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I ran across an article published in yesterday’s New York Times entitled “Star’s Candidacy in Haiti Puts Charity in Focus.” If you read my previous post then you know I’m genuinely interested in the debate surrounding the substance of Wyclef Jean’s candidacy for president of Haiti. The article contains a number of damaging assertions of malfeasance against Yele and Jean (his $2.1 million tax bill, for example) that taken together paint a picture of an untenable candidate. However, it is also marred by hearsay, loaded language,  coded messages and material omissions. If this is someone’s first impression of Wyclef the candidate, it’s hard to see how they’ll stay interested long enough to give him a second look. This, of course, assumes the people who’ll be voting for him will ever read this or any other article criticizing Wyclef  in the first place. Nevertheless,  as someone who’s  still trying to figure out where he stands, this kind of imbalanced reporting simply has to be addressed. Read the rest of this entry »

Screw Sean Penn: Four Arguments in Favor Wyclef’s Candidacy

by Dax-Devlon Ross

This past weekend I read all of Sean Penn’s remarks regarding Wyclef Jean’s candidacy for President of Haiti and watched his interview with Wolf Blitzer more than once. By Sunday afternoon I found myself feeling sick to my stomach.  I had to write something if only just to purge. It’s just so, so, so nauseating. I mean,  how many more well-intentioned but ultimately over-privileged American actors turned humanitarians turned know-it-all political activists are we going to have to suffer? It’s one thing to go on Bill Maher and spar for an hour every so often. It’s entertaining and it’s always nice to see Hollywood types hold their own in political conversations. It’s also one thing to criticize your own country’s leadership. I applauded Penn’s spirited outrage in the early stages of the War on Terror. His anger echoed the sentiments of a lot of Americans, including me. I thought his meet and greet with President Chavez was ballsy. I thought his work in New Orleans was admirable. I thought his voyage to Haiti was noble. But to use the platform he’s developed through his humanitarian work to question Wyclef’s political motivations  on national television when he has never even met this person crosses a line. What I really want to know is why he’s so passionately opposed to Jean’s presidency at this stage of the game. It’s not as if he’s leading in the polls or on the verge of winning. All Jean did was announce his candidacy and here’s Sean Penn throwing the man under every bus on the road. If anything is suspicious, I’d say it’s Penn’s premature venom.

I have a theory about Sean Penn. But, of course, you’re not obliged to read it. If not, just skip the next paragraph.

My theory about Penn is that playing hero roles in movies wasn’t enough anymore. Cognitive dissonance set in. The fame and adulation he received for essentially “playing” roles started to wear on him. He looked around at the world he was living in and the people he was surrounded by and he started to feel like a fraud. And the only way to reconcile his feelings of being a fake was by throwing himself into real situations that allow him to validate or feel worthy of the adulation. It’s a cleansing, if you will. For Penn, who has played a politician in his last two major motion pictures (Harvey Milk in Milk and Willie Stark in All the Kings Men) riding a boat around hurricane torn Katrina or running a tent community in earthquake ravaged Haiti could very well be a kind of purification process that washes away the line between his fictional and real selves. Or, alternatively, it could be the only thing that can give him the feeling of being alive anymore. I’m no psychologist so I’ll leave it at that. In any event, I decided not to spill any more virtual ink over Sean Penn. He’s irrelevant.

I’ll be the first to admit it, Haiti wasn’t really on my radar this summer. I gave money early on but then, like most people, I moved on. But for the past week now, I’ve been mildly obsessed with Wyclef’s decision to run for office. In fact I’ve barraged everyone I know with the same question: what do you think. I genuinely wanted to know because I didn’t and I figured the only way I could draw my own conclusions was through dialogue with people. After a week of informal interviews, the responses folks gave me can be broken down into four categories.

Celebrity

Everyone agreed that his celebrity could shine a light on Haiti that other candidates can’t. At a time when most of us — and admit that you are who I’m talking about — are over Haiti, Wyclef as president would draw and maintain an unprecedented level of international interest and support on the island. This interest could also serve as an informal watchdog  network that keeps a critical eye on Haiti’s progress (or lack thereof) under Jean’s leadership.

Vision

Folks I spoke to had some questions about his plan to address the issues facing Haiti. This is a fair and legitimate critique. Wyclef has issued statements detailing his plans for the country and they seem to be on the mark: job creation, education, an end to political corruption, and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. These are all people centered, bottom up initiatives. That’s a good starting point. But in all honesty foreign investment is going to be the linchpin of the country’s recovery in the early stages. How that investment takes place as well as how the proceeds are managed/distributed is going to determine how the job creation, education initiatives unfold.  Putting people and systems in place to ensure accountability is going to be of paramount importance.

One concern I have is that Jean may be so idealistic and so energized that he bites off more than he can chew. He’s going to have to manage the expectations of his constituents. They are going to expect miracles from him. He is not going to be able to deliver miracles. In particular, the youth that are supporting him are going to expect reciprocity from him if he is elected. They will expect jobs and better lives. He may not be able to deliver right away. What then?

I remember traveling through South Africa shortly after Mandela’s term ended. I expected to hear everyone applauding his work. In the shanty towns especially, that’s not at all what I encountered. I met people who were frustrated with Mandela, who’d lost respect for and faith in him.  Up to now Jean has been loved by the people of Haiti. How will he handle being criticized by the very same people?

Qualifications

By and large most of the people I spoke to repeated the now popular refrain: What are his qualifications to run a country? From what I gathered, people aren’t asking this rhetorically. They want to know. There are a couple of ways to approach  this question:

Sub Categories:

  • Technical Expertise

While writing this piece I came across an open letter to Wyclef on the Root.com.  In it the author explained why she thought Jean shouldn’t run:

Haiti needs a highly educated and experienced technocrat who understands the intricacies of governing and diplomacy. Someone who can wage a successful civic-education campaign and get different sectors of civil society all working on the same page and tamp down the country’s cyclical social unrest. Someone who knows how to get things done and knows how to build schools, hospitals and neighborhoods, as well as sewer systems, electric grids and roads. Someone who can feed the people and give them jobs. Someone schooled in international affairs and who will be respected by the international community. Someone who can rebuild Haiti and ultimately restore its dignity.

I have a couple of questions about this wish list for Haiti’s next president. First, who on earth fits all of these categories. Second, if that person exists why would that person choose to become president of an ostensibly 4th world country? Third, why would we expect any single person to have all of these qualifications when most presidents — whether it’s of corporations or countries —  surround themselves with people who are smarter than them in specific areas. More often than not, presidents are, to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Gladwell, smart enough. Not geniuses. Not experts. Not technocrats. Smart enough to know what they know and what they don’t know.  Come to think of it, presidents can’t afford to be technocrats! They have to be big picture people who can connect dots and communicate a vision. They have to be charismatic enough to capture the imagination of the people they’re leading and to hold the interest of the people they’re courting.

  • Leadership Experience

In his tirade against Wyclef Jean, Sean Penn noted the missing $400,000 that Jean’s Yele Haiti organization hasn’t accounted for as evidence of Wyclef’s fiscal ineptitude and moral turpitude.  It’s hard to argue with this, however, the organization is still afloat. In other words, if the IRS or any other entity is so concerned about the health and well being of the organization why has  it not been stripped of its 501c3 status and shut down? I can only go on the facts and right now the fact is the  organization is still up and running.

A point I found myself raising throughout the week (and I know some people are going to be mad that I even dared make the comparison) is did anyone ask the “experience” question when Nelson Mandela ran for president of South Africa? Was his leadership experience ever the main issue on people’s minds? Mandela never held political office and was in prison for 27 years and yet everyone on the face of the planet supported his candidacy.

Mandela’s presidency actually raises an interesting point that I think is relevant here as well. The end of Apartheid represented an extraordinary circumstance. In this light, Mandela’s election was largely symbolic. He was the face and voice of resistance and change. He was the inspirational icon the people needed to do the transformational work ahead of them. A similar case can be made here. Haiti is in the midst of an extraordinary circumstance. Whether you agree with his politics or not, Wyclef an inspirational figure and inspirational leaders are crucial to the national identity and rebuilding process of any collapsed country. Lest we forget, politics ain’t all politics. They are performance, too. We’d like to think people elect the best candidates for the job, but we know better. People elect who they feel better about, who they find more attractive, who they connect with and who says they’re going to do more for them. The best person for the job often fails to meet these criteria.

Allegations of his support for the ousting of former President Jean-Bertrande Aristede and his allegedly cozy relationship with Bill Clinton aside, the criticism of Wyclef’s wherewithal to run a country has been a little troubling. The overriding sentiment of those criticisms (I wouldn’t even call them critiques) is that Jean lacks the technical expertise to run a country, that he is fame and hype and the country needs substance. I take issue with that criticism because it belies a deeper judgment, namely that fame is frivolous and the famous are intellectual lightweights. It’s as if we’re comfortable saying pop stars and icons are really just lucky and talented but they definitely aren’t smart, committed or serious. This is a very American interpretation of the role of the artist. We don’t like our art and politics to mix. We certainly don’t like our “rappers”   to step outside the roles we’ve assigned them. But in other parts of the world, artists (and art in general) play a different role in society. They are political figures simply because art and politics are entwined. There’s an expectation that artists will be involved in politics and the tradition of political engagement that precedes them. (To this very point, one of Wyclef’s main rivals in the election will be another musician named Sweet Micky.) Fact is, Wyclef has elected to step into history and into that tradition. I applaud that.

Sean Penn and others have also made it abundantly clear that Wyclef hasn’t spent enough time on the ground.  What they’re saying in essence is that he’s not native enough, which is tantamount to Obama’s critics claiming he wasn’t black enough, which we all know is bullshit. It’s bullshit because that argument slides into a game of who’s more authentic than who, which in turn lends itself to dangerously reductive assumptions about one’s trustworthiness or lack thereof based on matters that have no political bearing or merit.

The leadership question boils down to this: from the very beginning of his career Wyclef has been doubted and dissed. And yet he continues to thrive. Am I big fan? No. Do I support his  music? Not really. But I respect his hustle. Anyone who can stick in the entertainment business as long as he has and remain culturally relevant and financially bankable must have some brains. Who am I to place limitations on him?  Who am I to say what he can and cannot evolve into? Who would have thought a kid born in Haiti would have made it this far?

To me, the better question isn’t so much experience as it is potential. Does he have leadership potential? Can he grow into the position? Can he learn how to be a better leader? Does he have enough of the tools to develop into a world leader? Does he want to? Those are the questions I will be looking to answer for myself over the next few months.

Motivations/ Intentions

This falls along the lines of Sean Penn’s “suspicions”. Most of the people I spoke to didn’t question Wyclef’s motivations. They wondered about them. Is running for president about his ego? Is it about seizing power? This is what we know about him. He’s always proudly represented his birth country. He’s always given back to his country. He’s always attempted to create music that addressed the people and the issues of Haiti. That’s what we know, all we know. Anything else is speculation. Does he have an ego? I’m sure he does. I have an ego. I wouldn’t want someone without one running anything. The same goes for power. A person does not run for office unless they want power. Power is not a bad thing, though. The question is what do they want to do with that power? Now, there may be some legitimate questions about who is behind his campaign. Penn seems to believe he’s being backed by corporate interests hell bent on turning Haiti into a combination neo-colonial outpost/tourist attraction. The conspiracy theorists think he’s a puppet for American interests as well. This sounds eerily similar to the conspiracy talk around the Obama campaign and administration. Frankly, in order to win any political office anywhere you need powerful supporters, and those supporters have their own interests. That’s politics. The one thing Jean has in his favor is personal wealth. Presumably at least, he doesn’t need to rob the country blind in order to fill his private coffers.

While we’re on the subject, the conspiracy theorists talk about Haiti as if world imperialist forces are desperate to dominate the island. But why? Because Toussaint L’ouverture defeated the French 200 years ago and the western wold has never forgotten this? On one hand, there’s a kind of grandiosity to these claims. On another, I see evidence of persecutory delusions, a branch of the paranoia tree. Maybe Haiti a small, troubled island country that needs help and isn’t in the best position to dictate how that help arrives. It’s cold, but it may be the truth.

While we’re at it, there’s one last thing I just have to get off my chest: This isn’t a great job. Being a pop star is  a better gig than the president of Haiti right now. According to reliable sources, Wyclef earns roughly $18,000,000 a year. I don’t know what the salary for president of Haiti is but I’m almost certain at least two zeros would be deleted from that figure.  One thing I also haven’t heard at all is how much of a sacrifice this will be for Wyclef the artist. I don’t know many artists who would be willing to put down their craft for several years to take on a largely thankless job like president. He is walking away from a career that most artists dream of. Let’s not underestimate or trivialize the difficult choice he’s making.

I’m sure there is someone out there who has a better grasp of the issues. But this election isn’t just about the issues. It isn’t even just about a country getting back on its feet.  Katrina hit the Gulf five years ago this week and that took the lives of  1,836 people (this number doesn’t reflect the untold number of Katrina-related deaths that weren’t directly linked to the tragedy). Haiti lost more than 100 times that. Whoever takes office will have to guide the country through the dark stages of grief.  The most salient job qualification may come down to the next leader’s capacity for empathy and understanding, two notably artistic traits. If so, Wyclef may be the perfect light tower to keep Haiti in the spotlight until its ready to move into the future  so many believe it is destined to finally achieve.

Going Digital: Smart Move by Romance Publisher?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

I.

This past Friday the Wall Street Journal and others reported that Dorchester Publishing is giving up its trade paperback business in favor of e-books and POD (print on demand books). According the company’s Chief Executive, Dorchester, a largely romance oriented house, has been “putting in the effort, but not getting the results.” Meanwhile, the  house’s e-book sales this year have been “remarkable”. They’ve doubled in the last year alone.

But even as the market for e-books is growing, digital sales only account for 12-15% of Dorchester’s sales. I’m guessing this is an anticipatory move that will hurt more now than it would if they waited any longer, but I  still have to wonder: if the company gets rid of paperback books, how is it going to guarantee it makes up the difference? Fortunately, Dorchester is a privately held company, which means it doesn’t have stockholders to answer to. Which means it could get very tricky for the bigger publishers if there comes a time when they want to eliminate the bound book (and, by the way, I don’t see this  happening any time soon),

It goes without saying that the move will significantly reduce overhead costs which will help smooth the transition and allow the company to better target its core audiences while figuring out creative ways to market books without the books themselves. Nevertheless, I still had two related thoughts:

1. Dorchester is already a sort of bargain basement publisher. Their books go for an average of $6.99 rather than the standard $12-15. What this suggests is that they are targeting a particular kind of buyer already–one with lesser means who’s looking for a quick, cheap read, perhaps. Is this buyer going to spend the money to buy an e-reader? Can they afford it?

2. A related thought (or question) is this: If Dorchester is having a hard time selling books at half the price of regular trade paperbacks, is switching to digital/POD really going to save the company or is there something else going wrong? I checked the company’s web site and I have to say: it’s busy and not very appealing to the eye. To be perfectly honest, it already looks like a POD company. But I also think that’s very intentional: romance publishers go for a certain look. Dorchester nails it all the way

II.

My favorite quote of the WSJ article: “Romance fans in particular have already embraced e-books, in part because customers can read them in public without having to display the covers.”

That’s the saddest, funniest and yet subtly poignant quote I’ve come across in a long time. After I finished laughing, I got to thinking. In a place like in New  York in particular, we know what’s being read based on what we see. We know what’s popular because it’s in everyone’s hands. But what happens when we no longer can see what people are reading? A few years back everyone was reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Everyone. It was kind of like an unspoken shared experience that you could either choose to participate in or choose to hate on. (On principle I always choose the latter). And I think that’s part of what blockbuster books are all about. They’re not the best books out there; they’re the books everyone is talking about. People feel like to feel they’re part of a conversation. They can have an impassioned opinion about a book that millions of other people are reading and that makes them feel included in a larger discussion. Of course that can still happen, but something is definitely lost when everyone is walking around with their own private leather-bound e-reader. All of a sudden, we lose that idiosyncratic self that a book and only a book can exude to the world.  A folded book, a hardbound book, an underlined book–these things all say something about who we are. The book you’re holding can be a conversation starter, a way to meet people. An e-reader just says is that we’ve elected to join the  cool group because we can afford to. Boring.

On a lighter note, I won’t be able to judge people for reading books like The Da Vincy Code anymore. That sucks.

Two  last thoughts about Dorchester’s move to an exclusive digital format and then I’ll leave you alone:

1. Romance books typically end up in thrift shops and stoop sales. Authors create new readers when their books are given away, found in bins, etc. Quiet as kept, e-readers eliminate the possibility of second-hand readers finding a book and, later, an author. The e-reader requires everyone to go out and by their own copy, which may be good for blockbuster books but not so good for romance titles.

1. This isn’t as big a deal as it appears. POD is an amazingly efficient tool. We’ve been using it at OTB for five years now. Books arrive a couple of days after they’re ordered. Not only that, book sellers can choose to buy as many copies of a book as they like. POD takes the onus off of the publisher to ship the books and, later, pay to recover the books that don’t sell.

New York State of Mind: What the WSJ Missed about Amare’s Spiritual Search

by Dax-Devlon Ross


I was on a plane to Dallas last week when I noticed a passenger seated in front of me reading a Wall Street Journal article on Amare Stoudemire’s trip to Israel. I’d been hearing about Amar’e’s Jewish heritage proclamations for a couple of weeks and thought it was, you know, interesting, but it took seeing the story in the WSJ to pique my interest.

My initial thought was  cynical one: New York City is home to more Jews than any other place in the world besides Israel. I wouldn’t put it past a guy who activelycampaigned for All-Star team votes the last two years to pick a religious faith on the eve of his debut as a Knick just to score some initial points with fans.

My second thought was how would we be reacting if this was a star white athlete claiming that his “tru culture” was Islam and started signing off his Twitter updates with As-Salumu Alaykim? How would we interpret his journey to Mecca? What would we think of his plan to observe all Muslim holidays? Wouldn’t someone out there consider it a grand, disingenuous act of cultural appropriation? Would any of us feel in any way discomforted by his trainer taking on the role of spokesman? Would the highly respected Wall Street Journal lay out a flattering full-page spread? These are just a few questions to ponder…

My third thought was that maybe Amar’e was a little confused about his mother’s Hebrew roots. You see, there is a religious sect called the Black Hebrews. If you live in New York City you’ve probably seen them proselytizing on street corners. Most of us ignore them for obvious reasons: they appear incredibly hostile toward whites and express  black supremacist views. Among their teachings are:

1. All Jews were originally black

2. White Jews are frauds

3. African Americans are descendents of the lost tribes of Israel

4. Jesus was an adherent to Judaism and a prophet, not God or his son

You can read the rest on the blog: www.3fromdeep.com

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

by Dax-Devlon Ross

When my ex and I moved to Newark nine years ago we used to spend our weekends with our friends Stephanie and Robyn in Park Slope. Pretty much every Friday or Saturday we’d take the train from Newark-Penn to 14th Street, hop on the 2/3 and ride to Grand Army Plaza. It was all we had to look forward to at the time. This was the fall right after 9/11 and we were both jobless and perpetually broke. If it wasn’t for my good friend Darryl we wouldn’t have even had a place to stay. I will always be grateful to Darryl for his kindness. Read the rest of this entry »