San Francisco’s Monument to A Racist Past Hides In Plain Sight

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Justin Herman Plaza badly needs to be renamed.

“There is no moral difference between the facts of life in Birmingham and the facts of life in San Francisco.” -James Baldwin, 1963

For progressive white people who live in liberal northern cities, there’s a persistent myth that racism is something that happens somewhere else and is perpetrated by other people. Racism doesn’t happen in San Francisco, California, it happens in Charlottesville, Virginia. Racism doesn’t come from well-meaning Democrats, it comes from hostile Republicans. It’s a false dichotomy, and it completely ignores the role of systemic racism in perpetuating inequality.

Is a Black person in Virginia more likely to have the N word yelled at them than one in Boston? Perhaps, though it certainly happens in both places. But even if you allow that overt racism might be more common and persistent in southern cities or in rural areas, it’s impossible to deny that the liberal cities of the north spent decades pursuing discriminatory and racist housing and development policies, and have done little if anything to atone for it. In some cases, like Minneapolis, they’re still pursuing them. In the end, does it matter much if your house was burnt down by the KKK in the name of white supremacy or if it was demolished by the Housing Authority in the name of redevelopment? Either way, you’ve lost your home. Either way, your own community has told you that you’re not welcome in it.

While we’ve justly chastised the people and cities that are still holding onto monuments celebrating the Confederacy and segregation (and celebrated the cities that have removed them in the face of outrage and protests from white supremacists), we’ve failed to critically examine or even notice the monuments that celebrate racism in our own backyard. And here in San Francisco, Justin Herman Plaza, one of our most prominent public spaces, is a grand monument to systemic racism.

Fairly well remembered is The City’s history of discrimination against its Chinese population. A direct line can be drawn from the anti-Chinese race riot of 1877 to the first ever Federal law designed to curb immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. To the degree that our city has come to terms with and atoned for the racism aimed at its Chinese residents, it is by and large because of the political capital and social power the Chinese community has amassed here over the decades. Asian residents, with Chinese immigrants and their descendants compromising by far the largest bloc, are now an ethnic plurality here, and within the next decade and a half, will become the outright majority. We have our first Chinese mayor, Ed Lee, and the mayors that recently preceded him, like Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown, owed their place in office in no small part to Rose Pak and the power brokers of Chinatown.

San Francisco’s Chinese history is now lauded and celebrated, and rightly so. But would white San Francisco have ever come to terms with that part of our history if our Chinese community hadn’t become so large and amassed so much collective financial, social and political power? The largely forgotten history of our African American communities seems to indicate otherwise.

There was a time when San Francisco and the Bay Area had the most successful Black population in the entire country. African Americans came from all over the nation to work in the area’s shipyards and armories during World War II. At a time when employers no longer had the luxury of discrimination based on race or gender, they were paid well and generally treated fairly, and they used those earnings to build vibrant communities in the area. Across the bay, West Oakland’s 7th street was a thriving cultural mecca. Here in San Francisco, the Fillmore district was among the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in America, with its collection of Jazz clubs, fine dining, high-end retail and other Black-owned businesses. It was, for a time, the most culturally significant Black community anywhere outside of New York City.

San Francisco had been one of the earliest cities to officially ban racial discrimination and segregation, all the way back in 1860, but in practice this was never really the case, except during those short few years during World War II when the needs of manufacturers for labor exceeded their desire or ability to discriminate against women and minorities. Even then, the tangled web of systemic racism still had a part to play. The Fillmore district was only able to attract so many Black newcomers because the Japanese community that previously filled the neighborhood was subjected to internment in concentration camps for the duration of the war. Regardless, for a brief time, the Fillmore sprung into prominence, a beautiful example of what a Black community could do with hard-earned money and the freedom to invest and spend it. But by the end of the 1950s, this had begun to change.

As the wartime industries shuttered, newly unemployed Black San Franciscans found the old discriminatory hiring practices had returned in full, and with rising unemployment and reduced purchasing power to continue investing in it, the Fillmore neighborhood slowly began to slide into poverty. The urban decay was heightened, in San Francisco as in so many other cities, as wealthy white residents began to flee these cities for their suburbs. Between 1950 and 1980, The City shed 100,000 residents. And as in so many other cities, San Francisco’s response to the ongoing urban crisis was not to invest in these neighborhoods and impoverished communities, but to tear them down and displace their minority residents in hopes that whites would return. They did not, and by and large, these renewal and redevelopment plans ended in disaster.

For San Francisco, the architect of all this was Justin Herman, head of the SF Redevelopment Agency from 1959 until his death in 1971. During his time in the role, he oversaw the demolition of almost the entire Fillmore district. Hundreds of old Victorian homes and businesses were demolished, first to make room for the planned widening of Geary Boulevard, for which alone 461 Black-owned businesses and over 4,000 black families were evicted, and thereafter, to carve out large blocs for vague future development. But as The City’s population continued to decline and unemployment continued to rise, it eroded the municipal tax base, and there was no money for any of these planned developments. Vacant lots created by the Fillmore’s destruction sat empty for years, and in some cases, decades. The result was the de facto exile of San Francisco’s black population, which in the postwar years had grown to make up as much of 13% of The City, at the time larger even than The City’s Asian community. It now stands at just north of 5%, which is the lowest percentage of African American residents in any major American city, north or south, east or west.

Justin Herman was not a well-intentioned man whose policies ended in accidental disaster. Prior to leading the SFRA, he spent a decade as the head of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, under whose leadership the agency specifically denied access to housing and loans to Black residents, except in the outlying areas of the Bayview and Hunter’s Point. These housing and banking policies were explicitly designed to segregate the black population into specific, less desirable neighborhoods, and they largely succeeded. Herman’s personal and professional history is long and ugly, and deserves a much more thorough retelling than I’m getting to here, but in the end, he achieved his goal of crushing the Black communities in the heart of San Francisco. Hannibal Williams, onetime spokesperson for the Western Addition Community Organization, summed up his legacy succinctly. “We didn’t know who the devil was. But we knew who Justin Herman was and that was the devil for us.”

So how has tolerant, liberal, progressive San Francisco come to terms with this ugly piece of our past? By naming our most scenic and significant public plaza after Herman, and handing out an annual award for business development named in his honor. Justin Herman Plaza sits across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, and aside from the name, is the type of civic space any city would be happy to have. It is long past time it got a name befitting its beauty.

The few attempts at renaming the plaza through the years have failed to gain traction, even though the total cost for the name change is estimated at a paltry $5200. If you’re a San Francisco resident, I urge you to contact your member of the Board of Supervisors and let them know you want it renamed. The best proposal I’ve seen would rechristen it Maya Angelou Plaza, well known for her celebrated career as poet and activist, but mostly forgotten as San Francisco’s first black female streetcar operator.

The amount of collective effort that it would take to rename Justin Herman Plaza is small. The amount of money it would cost is even smaller, less than 2 months rent for an average SF 1-bedroom apartment. At a time when so many of us are demanding that monuments to racism be removed in other cities, it is vitally important that we take the steps to do so in our own city.  San Francisco’s Chinese community has reminded us of our sins and forced us to face them by their presence. In the case of San Francisco’s African American community, it is largely their absence that should speak to us. Will we confront this part of our history, or will we continue to ignore it and keep pretending that racism and monuments to it are only something that exists in somebody else’s backyard? San Francisco is, rightly or wrongly, held up as the nation’s best example of tolerance and progressive politics. We can live up to that standard, admit our mistakes, learn, grow from them and refuse to repeat them, or we can continue to ignore our history, safe in the comforting thought that we’re good white folks in a liberal city. The choice is ours.

-by Harrison Anderson

Crackers at the Crossroads

Photo by NBC29.com
Forced to confront an ugly past, white Southerners stand at a crossroads.

Over the weekend, a member of the Mississippi state House of Representatives, Karl Oliver, took to Facebook to vent his frustrations at New Orleans’ removal of Confederate post-reconstruction monuments in the neighboring state of Louisiana. Calling his statement offensive on many levels is an understatement.

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Yesterday, Oliver deleted the comments and posted a clumsy and half-hearted apology after his remarks were criticized widely on social media and by fellow members of Mississippi’s state government.

While Oliver’s comments were especially noticeable for their openly racist tone, they are by no means unique in the recent backlash to the removal of Confederate statuary in New Orleans and elsewhere. They all share a common line of attack, variations on a theme of claiming that liberals and democrats are trying to erase history. Southern lawmakers have gone so far as to compare their removal to ISIS’ destruction of ancient sites and to Nazi book burning. Corey Stewart, GOP candidate for Virginia governor, took to Twitter to declare ‘nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner his monuments don’t matter.’ Stewart, who hails from Minnesota, had already found his support sliding after several months of draping himself in the Confederate flag and calling those who criticized him for it ‘nervous nellies,’ though he still draws roughly 25% support in polls for the upcoming primary.

Ask any Southerner who defends the Confederate battle flag or monuments to Confederate generals why they do so, and without failing they will respond ‘we’re just celebrating our culture and heritage.’ It’s a flimsy excuse that wilts under the slightest critical examination. The symbolism of the flag and monuments is rooted in one thing only—white supremacy. While I don’t doubt there are some Southerners who do not intend to advocate white supremacy by embracing these symbols, they are being willfully blind to the history involved. The people who erected and inscribed these monuments harbored no illusions about exactly what type of ‘culture and heritage’ they were promoting.

The particular Robert E. Lee statue that Oliver and Stewart rushed to defend was, until 1993, inscribed with the following: “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).”

Revisionist history has claimed for years, essentially since the end of Reconstruction, that Robert E. Lee, a slave owner, was opposed to the institution of slavery but fought for the Confederacy out of a sense of obligation to his home state of Virginia. Like a $35 t-shirt bearing the face of Che Guevara, this should be so ridiculous as to be dismissed out of hand, but both continue to be bought unquestioningly by those eager to believe in and embrace history they have no desire to understand. For a Southerner really interested in celebrating their culture, they would presumably find things to be proud of outside of a pro-slavery war their ancestors lost over 150 years ago. New Orleans has given the world Jazz music, Cajun cuisine and an entire district devoted to year-round daytime drinking, among many other things. Any one of them would be a much better example of proud Southern heritage than the Confederacy, which represents the darkest chapter of America’s story.

It doesn’t take much digging at all to discover who has really attempted to rewrite history, and the historians who did so have been successful in muddying the waters of Civil War history for a great number of people. Go to any news article or Facebook post about the monuments, and you’ll find scores who, without prodding, will say that the Civil War was not about slavery at all. Unfortunately for them, the intent of the secessionists was clear and well documented. The first state to declare its secession, South Carolina in December of 1860, cited a single issue—slavery. Every state which followed cited slavery in their declaration. Most attempted to make constitutional arguments to the legality of their seccession, but few went so far as to cite a grievance with the Federal government outside of slavery. The ‘Cornerstone Speech,’ by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, made it clear that the war was to be waged to preserve slavery as an outright rejection of the Jeffersonian ideal that ‘all men are created equal.’ Responding to that specific phrase, Stephens said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

White southerners who have embraced Confederate symbolism have two options, if they wish to actually be truthful in regards to their history. The first option would be to recognize and concede that the Confederacy was fighting solely for the purpose of preserving slavery, and that this is a history to be confronted, not celebrated. This would require critical self-examination regarding their own feelings toward race, which has not traditionally been a strong suit for white Americans anywhere, regardless of their geography. It would call for the elevation and adulation of figures who fought to undermine the institution of slavery instead of continuing to honor those who fought to protect it. The second and darker option: they could admit that, yes, they believe in white supremacy and the segregation of the races. While this is plainly abhorrent, admitting it would at least be honest. An honest foe is a foe that can be fought on recognizable ground, which is probably why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, and numerous other figures of the civil rights movement asserted that the enemy which most concerned them in the fight for civil rights was not the open racist, it was the white moderate. In the words of King,

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

If we’re being sober, we have to admit that most white Southerners have on some internal level grasped this basic conundrum, and too many have either chosen the path of white supremacy, or to simply stay silent. It is not staid Civil War historians or art preservationists who have turned out to rally around and defend these monuments; it has been open white supremacists and neo-nazis. And it has not been the white moderates who have spoken out to condemned them, it has by and large been black Southerners, who after 240 years of slavery, 100 years of segregation and Jim Crow, and 50 years of ever-present hostility, are still demanding to be treated as equal human beings, and still finding support sadly lacking from their white counterparts.

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White supremacists rally around the Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA

This is not an indictment of all white Southerners. There are those who have stood up bravely, today and through the years, to fight for the rights of black Americans. New Orleans’ mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave a remarkable address on the removal of the monuments, which Slate’s Jamelle Bouie called “one of the most honest speeches on race ever given by a white southern pol.” But too many more have sat quietly by and done nothing. If the American south is ever going to move past its history of racism, it will take active engagement by these moderates, who to date have been content to let the white supremacists speak for them through their silence. At this crossroads, I hope every American, and especially Southerner, of conscience will find it in themselves to do the right thing, to condemn the hate currently rising in their midst, and to confront and learn from their past. An American south that strongly rejected its racist past, fought against it in the present, and worked to build a future without it, would leave for their descendants a culture and heritage they could truly celebrate.

Circular Distraction and the Media’s Ongoing Failure in Covering Trump

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Is Trump a master of media manipulation, or are pundits playing themselves?

One of the most pervasive myths about Donald Trump is that he has a true talent for manipulating the media. He’s a master magician they say, adept at using the shiny toy in his left hand to keep your attention off what he’s doing with his right. I don’t think that’s true at all. If it was, he probably would have gotten much more favorable coverage during the 40-odd years of his life spent in the public eye prior to entering politics, instead of having generally been treated as the grifting huckster that he always has been. That view of him in the press has never changed much, if at all. And strangely, that has morphed into the central problem with the journalistic response to Trump. Veteran reporters just can’t believe our political system has been hijacked by a nitwit neophyte, and so they’ve taken to imbuing Trump with talents he doesn’t possess.

22 months after Donald J. Trump first declared his candidacy and nearly 4 months into his presidency, the American media still has no idea what to make of the 300 lb. orange elephant in the room. In spite of decades of evidence from their own reporting to the contrary, they are now insisting that this is a man with long term goals and strategies. Trump has acted impulsively and in the moment for his entire public life, with little regard for what the eventual outcome of his brash words and rash actions would be. He has walked back or outright reversed himself on countless statements, because he simply doesn’t have the self-control to stop himself from saying whatever pops into his head at the time, regardless of whether he agrees with it or means it at the time he says it. “I don’t stand by anything,” he said. “What I say is what I say.”

I do understand their confusion in a certain way. To paint with a broad brush, political journalists tend to have some degree of faith in the institutions they cover. They believe in the ultimate goodness of the American people, and by extension, the US government. They are used to covering complex politicians with opaque agendas who apologize, or at the very least have the decency to act embarrassed when they are caught in lies or distortions. They don’t want to believe that the newly minted most powerful man in the world is exactly what he appears to be- a rich loud idiot with no agenda outside of building his own personal brand, and no personal complexity of any identifiable type.

This is most evident in the cascade of stories since the inauguration about how Trump is only doing X to distract us from Y. Just how blurred have the lines between meaningful action and distraction become? I started with a list of the biggest stories from Trump’s first 100 days as President and tried to find out how many of them had been referred to as ‘a distraction’ from something else. I knew there would be a metric ton, but was still surprised to discover that literally everything Trump has done so far in office has been cast as a distraction from something else he’s done, usually many times over, and sometimes in ways so circular that you can’t help but laugh. The most common theme by far is some variation on ‘Trump is doing this to distract from the Russian probe’, but that’s not anywhere close to the only one.

Depending on whose word you take for it, bombing Syria was either a distraction from the Russian investigations, his failing domestic agenda, or his tax returns. Bombing Afghanistan was a distraction from all of the above, or a distraction from having just bombed Syria. Both Syria and Afghanistan were a distraction from…something. The disastrous Yemen raid was a distraction from the in-fighting that has plagued his White House staff. Escalating tensions with North Korea are the Old Country Buffet of distractions, where you can choose to fill your plate with either the Russian investigation, his domestic agenda, his tax returns, his bombing of Syria and Afghanistan, or ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

His botched Executive Orders on Immigration, attempts 1 and 2 at his promised Muslim Ban, were a distraction from the Russian investigation, or the Russian investigation is a distraction from his Muslim ban.  Every Executive Order he has signed is a distraction from whatever, your guess is as good as the author’s there. His proposed budget was a distraction from the Russia investigation and the Russia investigation was a distraction from his proposed budget. The resignation of Michael Flynn was a distraction from just about everything. His Executive Order on Religious Liberty was a distraction from individual states’ anti-LGBT agendas (credit that one for actual nuance), and his push for funding his border wall is a distraction from the opioid crisis (credit that one for actual insanity).

Because they are wholly unaccustomed to dealing with a politician who has no cogent plan, no master strategy, journalists have bent over backwards to try to invent one for him. The dizzying circle they’ve created, where every single important issue gets treated as a distraction from another important issue, is doing a serious disservice to the American public. We’re becoming unable to separate the really important things that have happened during the Trump administration from the things he’s said that actually are diversions, like his accusation about Obama wiretapping Trump Tower (which has now gotten nearly 2 straight months of coverage), or his ridiculous claim that he would have won the popular vote if 3 million illegal immigrants hadn’t voted (6 months, albeit more sporadic).

Make no mistake, when Trump authorizes airstrikes or a mangled raid that results in civilian casualties, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he signs executive orders attempting to enact his campaign promise of a Muslim ban, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he pushes hard for the AHCA bill that will have disastrous effects for millions of Americans without having any personal understanding of it, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action. When he rolls back protections for transgender students, that’s not a distraction, that’s the action.

We sincerely need our journalists, columnists and media institutions right now. To be sure, there are many out there who have done exceptional work these last few months. David Fahrenthold has done an exhausting and comprehensive investigation into Trump’s fraudulent charity. Lauren Duca has provided incisive commentary (and made Tucker Carlson look like the smarmy jerk he is on his own show). Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rebecca Solnit have been as sharp with their op-eds as ever. PBS rolls right on with their sober and serious reporting, and Vox continues to provide excellent, wonkish coverage of every major piece of policy that comes up for discussion. These are just a few of my personal favorites, and there’s many others out there that are well worth your time.

But far too many more reporters are falling into a trap of self-deception, insisting to themselves that the President is playing chess when they can see perfectly well he’s eating checkers and drooling on himself. And because they’re not just failing to recognize the game Trump is really playing but going so far as to make his moves for him, they’re conceding defeat in the only game they should be playing- enriching and informing the American public.

-Harrison Anderson

Caitlyn Jenner Is Neither the Advocate the Trans Community Needs Nor the One It Deserves

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Caitlyn Jenner continues to search for a middle ground that does not exist.

In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon last week, Caitlyn Jenner indicated that she would be open to running for office if the circumstances dictated it. “…would I be better working from the inside? If that is the case, I would seriously look at a run. It just depends on where I would be more effective.” The question and comment were brief in comparison to the segment at large, where she discussed her new book and her frustrations with the Trump administration’s hostility to transgender rights. But the unfortunate answer to her rhetorical question, an answer that she seems completely unwilling or unable to grasp, is that she currently stands a zero chance of being an effective advocate for the transgender community in either the public or private sector.

The most telling exchange is her assertion that even after the Trump administration rolled back transgender protections, she would be glad to go play a round of golf with him, but she cannot because “my community would go nuts.” She goes on to state casually and in her typically self-assured demeanor that, “I would ask him, what the hell were you thinking?” and then says that Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III are two people who “need a talking to.” She follows, “I’m not a one issue voter. There’s more to it than just trans issues.”

As Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence was the point man for the most openly anti-LGBT state government in modern American political history. Statements he made as a congressional candidate in 2000 indicate that he was an advocate for conversion therapy, and let’s not mince words, conversion therapy is nothing more than a form of psychological torture for LGBT individuals, primarily youth. His spokesperson denied the allegations last summer. Around the same time, language supporting the practice made its way into the GOP party platform for the first time. His signature is on Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, not the first and sadly not the last attempt to legalize public discrimination against LGBT citizens and their civil rights.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is named after two major figures of the Confederacy and is a former(?) segregationist. (Here’s where Sessions supporters will chime in to parrot the GOP talking point that his career began when he supposedly worked to ‘defeat the segregationist’ Lurleen Wallace in the 1966 Alabama gubernatorial election. They always manage to leave out the inconvenient fact there were 3 candidates in that election, with 2 segregationists and 1 non-segregationist, the latter of whom Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III did not work for. Sessions worked for Jim Martin, the other segregationist Republican candidate.) While Sessions hasn’t been as visible in opposition to LGBT rights as Pence over his career, he has managed to earn a lifetime score of 0 from the Human Rights Commission for his voting record. In short, this means he has never once even accidentally voted for a bill that would advance LGBT civil rights.

The troubled history for both Pence and Sessions regarding LGBT issues is all well documented and goes much, much further than what I’ve laid out here, but I think the point is clear. The idea that these two men, who have spent nearly a combined 75 years in public political life being firmly opposed to even the slightest advance of the rights of anyone who is not also a straight white man, are going to have their minds changed by a “talking to” from Caitlyn Jenner, or anyone else for that matter, is simply absurd.

Caitlyn’s history of being a Republican is long and clear and doesn’t really need to be rehashed. When she says “my community would go nuts,” it’s a community she has never done more than halfheartedly embrace (if even that), and it’s a community she has never shown even the slightest interest in putting above her own tax bracket, at least so far as the ballot box is concerned. Given a choice between the community and the Republican party, she has chosen to back the party at every opportunity.

Being a community advocate would not require her to become a single-issue voter- very few people anywhere on the spectrum are. It wouldn’t require her to become a Democrat or to stop believing in limited government. It would require her to prioritize things like members of the trans community being able to use the bathroom in peace or to simply exist in public spaces without fear of harassment or scorn, above her own marginal tax rate. It would require her to stop voting for people who are openly hostile to her and the trans community’s basic rights, and to speak openly about her reasons for doing so. To be a member of a community, to be embraced by it, is to give freely of yourself to the community without expecting anything more than the same embrace in return. To date, she’s given little indication she cares about any member of the community outside of herself.

She has faced incredible amounts of derision from both sides of the aisle. Much of it has come from people being cruel for the sake of being cruel, taking what they think is a free shot at a member of a marginalized group. Caitlyn Jenner is a human being, and should be afforded all the dignity and understanding as the rest of us. Caitlyn Jenner is an American citizen, and under the US Constitution, she has the same civil rights as the rest of us. Those rights should be held sacred, fought for and defended, whether she herself is willing to fight for them or not.

But her failure to fight for transgender issues is very real, and the type of opposition she has faced from the two sides surrounding her has been very, very different. The derision she has faced from the left stems almost entirely from her personal political priorities. The derision she faces from the right is a denial of her basic right to exist- not just in public spaces, but at all. Until she faces that simple fact, and adjusts her world-view accordingly, she will never be anything close to an effective advocate. She will continue to unintentionally contribute to the hardships of transgender individuals who do not have the wealth and resources she possesses, the resources that allow her to hold the community that she would otherwise be a member of, at arms length. She will only continue to be an apologist for her and their marginalization.

-Harrison Anderson

The Pedestrian Lessons of Paperboy

When I moved to San Francisco a few years ago, one of the first things I noticed about the city was how bad most people were at walking around in it. I wasn’t sure why at first, but I kept zooming by slow rolling groups of tourists without breaking stride, dodging darting crackheads, and steering clear of the random Muni bus that tries to run down the unwary soul. It took me a little while to figure out exactly where these foot-traffic avoiding skills had come from.  I finally stumbled across the answer recently, as I’ve been diving back into the NES.  Paperboy had somehow laid the childhood groundwork for the adult H’s pedestrian lifestyle.

If Paperboy was set in the city instead of the burbs, the Grim Reaper would smell like feet and onions and ask you for 50 cents.

Paperboy was everything you ever wanted in an NES game; ridiculous concept, nearly impossible difficulty, a brief and pointless ending. I can’t speak to that last one personally, because I’ve never beaten it. If I made it to Thursday alive, I was already doing pretty well, and I can’t say I made it that far into the week too often.  If I didn’t get run over by a van or attacked by Death or hit by a tire or tackled by the bulldog or blasted by the tornado, then I ended up I losing all my subscribers, because it doesn’t take long at all to learn that throwing several papers through every single window on a house is more fun than throwing a single paper cleanly into the mailbox. Plus, the neighborhood really brings out the worst in you with it’s relentless efforts to kill or maim you. If you’re not in a window smashing mood by the 3rd house on the route, you’re a better man than I.

The optimism of the title screen soon gives way to harsh reality.

Paperboy pulls the rare trick of having a higher difficulty than real life. I’m grateful the real city doesn’t *usually* throw as many obstacles in my way as the game does, although the more I think about it the real difference might be play control. In real life, if some slow walking tourist suddenly steps into your path, you can just step around them and carry on.  Also, when this happens to you in real life, it’s usually an accident.  In Paperboy, your bike not only changes direction with all the ease and grace of an oil tanker at sea, but an entire neighborhood is just waiting for the right moment to lurch into your path.

Aside from the fact that the dude on the bike is quick and agile instead of sluggish and plodding, that commercial was very literal in terms of what the game play actually consists of.  As we’ve seen, most Nintendo related ads of the era wanted you to think you were going to be an instant badass who could just punch the air until you beat the game, or at least transported mentally into some far off land of fantasy by playing Crystalis or eating your vaguely Mario-shaped cereal.  Paperboy made it very clear at every step of the way: you’ll be playing a game about a boy who delivers papers while a bunch of shit tries to knock you off your bike.  No cryptic title referring to some kind of document-stealing spy thriller game here.

There’s one thing that nobody ever mentions when they talk about Paperboy that I’d like to address at this point. The game presumably takes place at approximately 6 AM, or so you’d expect if they’re really trying to give you a semi-realistic paper delivering experience. So why in the hell is a suburban residential neighborhood buzzing like this?

There’s a guy running a jackhammer. Unattended children are running wild on tricycles. A man dressed like a jockey appears to be practicing his bull-whip skills. Some dude is break dancing in the grass, and by break dancing I mean laying on his back and thrashing his legs in the air. A lawnmower is running in circles, which means somebody had already been at their yard work long enough to get bored and abandon the project without even bothering to clean up or stop the mower- the kind of mental fatigue that comes after hours of labor.

Some might try to point to the skateboarder and say no hesher would have been up that early, but I think it’s feasible he could have been heading back home from the previous night’s activities, so I can’t in good conscience ding the game any points for accuracy there. Same thing for the guys riding the choppers, because ‘the party’ is a fierce and fickle mistress who doesn’t chain herself to any specific time of the day.  Or I don’t know, maybe everybody just got riled up and went outside after that tornado ripped down their street at dawn.

All in all, I suppose it’s clear this game is not meant to be 100% realistic, but I think that ultimately just adds to the educational value. It’s so much more crazy and unforgiving than actually walking around (as long as you keep your damn head up and don’t get hit by a bus), that when you actually do get out and about on your feet or your bike you can’t help but react so much more quickly and accurately than Paperboy lets you. It would be like if you learned to drive on one of those drunk driving simulators.  Once you got behind the wheel of an actual car you’d be amazed by how responsive it was and that you didn’t indiscriminately crash into everything no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

As frustrating as most of my experiences playing Paperboy were, in the end, it was all worth it.  All those times I died at the hands of a careless motorist, or an angry homeowner, or a jazzed up guard dog, or even Death himself, were simply so that I might be able to live on my feet in the city of San Francisco.

NEStalgia Week Pt.9; Congratulation! A Winner is You!

The nice thing about being a full grown man with a healthy dash of nostalgia is that you can pursue whatever collecting and hobbies your time and wallet will allow. The rotten thing about that is paying the rent and working a more than full time job means there’s never enough money or hours in the day to scratch that itch fully.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Almost everything is better in moderation, they say, and after a half dozen margaritas I’m inclined to agree. If I had infinite free time to play the games, and infinite money to collect them, I don’t think I’d be having nearly as much fun with my Nintendo return.

Happiness doesn’t come from having every idle wish instantly fulfilled, it comes from facing life’s challenges and difficulties and forcing yourself to carry through. It comes from having goals to work towards, things that require struggle, sacrfice and effort to achieve. And so, even though I could strap a Game Genie onto Metroid and blow through it, or just look up the all items code, it was more rewarding to pick my way deep into the game, and eventually die in the bowels of Ridley’s lair at 4 AM. Even if I’d gotten through, it wouldn’t have been fast enough for the good ending, but that was a moot point.

For the most part, my return to NES gaming had been a mixture of fun nostalgia and a realization that old grey H, he ain’t what he used to be. It’s a shame to say it at 30 years old, but I just don’t have the hand-eye coordination I did when I was playing most of these games for the first time. A game like Castlevania III, that I played a ton of and was able to finish as a kid, now confounds me after a point. But there had to be a tradeoff somewhere.

I just don’t think 8 year old H had the patience to backtrack and puzzle solve in the way that Metroid asks you to. A linear platformer built on timing? Oh yeah, youth is all over that. An open world that requires patience, memory and multi level thinking? A grown ass man has the advantage. Sometimes you just have to run across something at the right time in life. When I played Metroid for the first time, it was too soon, I didn’t get it. I was a little older when Super Metroid came out, and I loved it, even if I leaned heavily on Nintendo Power to get through it. But I never really revisited the first until last night.

Not as chipper as Bubble Bobble, but just as to the point.

Now, most of the original feels fresh to me, even though it’s a nearly 30 year old game that I’ve played before. I think that really gets down to the heart of the appeal of retro-gaming, that what is old is constantly new again. For most people who are into the hobby, the thrill of the chase is of course a big part of it. But the days when you could walk into any thrift store and expect at least some type of dirt cheap find from the early console era seem to be fading, as more people get into the hobby.

The flipside is that the retro gaming resale market is thriving online, where if you hunt hard enough, you can still find a lot of quality games for cheap. Well, sometimes cheap. I’d love to give Sword Master another shot, but if it’s $60 bucks to take the trip, I’ll probably pass. I did pony up 7 bucks for a copy of Crystalis, which I’m looking forward to diving into. And ultimately, I don’t want to limit myself to just the NES. I have a smaller SNES collection, and a few stray Genesis cartridges plus a working console. I sold or gave everything else away through the years, so until I come across any stray cheap other consoles, I’ll be focusing on those 3. The last couple weeks, I’ve been ducking in and out of thrift stores, hoping to find some random retro console goodies. I haven’t found them, but it hasn’t stopped me looking.

On the other hand, I have found a wealth of NES era advertising.  After awhile, you start to wonder how they sold any of these things.  Thank god most of the products were better than the commercials.

NEStalgia week turned into 2 weeks, and over the course of it I worked a ton, turned 30, and discovered the fun that’s still waiting to be found in games that are almost as old as I am. If you’ve been enjoying the NES related content here, well, you’re in luck, because there’ll be more retro gaming articles to come, mixed in with the regular random nostalgia and esoterica I usually indulge in.  There’s still pedestrian lessons to be learned from Paperboy.  Maybe Scrooge McDuck can teach me a thing or two about how to manage my finances.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first trip down Nintendo memory lane, and I hope you’ll join me on the adventures ahead. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go rip off various housewares from a blue skinned family.

It’s cool. Here’s your flashlight and your cheese and all the other shit we stole from you guys.

NEStalgia Week Pt.8; We’re Off to See The Wizard

The wonderful wizard of pause? Ugh, forget I typed that.

As NEStalgia week got rolling, I knew that at some point I was going to watch The Wizard.  It’s the only movie that’s really about Nintendo games, as opposed to being based off of one.  It is unapologetic in being a commercial for the NES, for instance, some of it’s titles abroad include; Joy Stick Heroes in Germany, Game Over in Finland, and the straight-forward Video Game Genius, Videokid and Gameboy in Brazil, France and Sweeden, respectively.  Only Japan joins the US in playing it non-literal with the title Sweet Road, which is bitterly ironic considering all the torture the kids in the movie go through on their journey.

Few things have ever served the dual purpose of epitomizing a moment in time and advertising a product as well as The Wizard, and no walk down NES memory lane would be complete without a viewing.  My memories of it are fond, but I didn’t expect it to be a great movie.  Well, I suppose all things considered, it’s not, but I did thoroughly enjoy watching it again, and unexpectedly, it reminded me that as much as life moves forward, everything always comes full circle.

First things first, if you haven’t seen The Wizard, it’s available in it’s entirety on youtube.  To sum up, Fred Savage plays Corey, half brother to a younger kid named Jimmy who was traumatized a couple years earlier by the drowning of his twin sister.  Jimmy lives with his mom now, while Fred Savage and Christian Slater live with their dad (Beau Bridges), the family having fallen apart after the drowning.  Jimmy doesn’t say much, except for the word “California”, but he does keep trying to walk there.  His mom and step father decide to “put him in a home” to use the only phrase the movie ever employs in describing Jimmy’s treatment.  Fred Savage is outraged by this but unsuccessful in convincing Beau and Christian to take action, so he decides to break Jimmy out on his own and run away together and take a trip.  When he gets to “the home” and suggests this to Jimmy, his little brother’s only response is “California?”.  And so they have a destination.

One time and one time only did The Wizard miss such a ripe opportunity for product placement.

Along the way, Fred Savage notices Jimmy has mad Double Dragon skills.  They also meet the plucky young Haley (Jenny Lewis!!), who, after being hustled by Fred Savage and Jimmy, suggests they go to Video Armageddon in California and try to win the $50,000 prize.  She promises to help get them there for half the money.  So they all set off together.  Along the way, they find Jimmy a rival- the infamous Power Glove toting Lucas Barton.  They also manage to get robbed a couple times, and to get Fred Savage beaten up by some kids he and Jimmy hustled.

Meanwhile, in the finest NES racing game fashion, they are pursued by two players; PLAYER1 is the two headed monster of Beau Bridges and Christian Slater, a father and son duo who were doing some serious fighting at the beginning of the movie.  Beau is initially determined to go after the boys alone in spite of Christian Slater’s insistence, until they are comfronted by PLAYER2, the excessively sleazy Putnam, a bounty hunter who goes after children, and who promises to bring back Jimmy and only Jimmy, and insinuates consequences if anyone gets in the way of his bounty.  Next to Lucas Barton’s presidential nuclear football style case for his Power Glove, the idea that anyone would allow Putnam to have anything to do with their children is the least believable thing about this movie.

Well, hardships aside, the rest pretty much writes itself.  Beau Bridges and Christian Slater learn to love each other AND Nintendo games during their trip together in pursuit of the runaway boys.  Sleazeball Putnam almost nabs Jimmy a couple times, but is thwarted by the plucky young Haley and some of her trucker friends.  In contrast to his being hired to safely return a child standing as the movie’s least believable plot point, his being arrested and drug out of a casino accused of molesting one stands as the movie’s most believeable scene.

Fred Savage and Haley develop a pseudo-romance.  And Jimmy beats Lucas Barton and wins Video Armageddon!  He then finally finds “California”, which turns out to be the Cabazon Dinosaurs, where the family had once road tripped together when his sister was still alive.  He sets down his lunch pail of memories of her, and Jimmy leaves with Beau, Christian, Fred and Jenny Lewis.  Now, they have enough money to do what they had planned all along.  Oh, wait, they never said what they were going to do with the money.  I really think this is the only movie I’ve ever seen where the main story arc was going to win a big lump of money and that money wasn’t even intended for any purpose.

Video Armageddon is not a means to an end in The Wizard, it IS the end.  The main message of the film is that Nintendo games are awesome, and in this message, it is successful beyond belief.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is one of the best selling games ever in North America, and it exploded onto the scene fueled by the hype and anticipation kids had after watching Jimmy play it in the film’s climactic sequence.  Every major character in this movie who is not a slimeball loves and plays Nintendo by the end of it.  It was unanimously panned by critics at the time of it’s release- Roger Ebert amongst others dismissed it as being a thinly veiled commercial for Nintendo products.  I didn’t have a problem with it as a kid because NINTENDO IS AWESOME was the level of my thinking then.  I don’t have a problem with it now because not only is Nintendo still awesome, well, the veil just doesn’t seem that thin.  There is nothing about this movie that doesn’t claim to be anything but an ode to the NES and it’s games and peripherals.

Some of the products it advertised were more successful than others, of course.

It is exactly what you would expect overall, very much a cheesy 80’s movie that at this point can be enjoyed both nostalgically, and also for it’s unintentional humor.  But for me, the journey was ever so slightly more personal, and watching it again, I realized a couple things.  My life has moved forward in a linear sense- I’m older, a working man, in a 5 year relationship, and like both Jed Clampett’s kinfolk and little Jimmy, we said “California is the place you ought to be” and loaded up the truck and all that.  But 23 years later, I’m pretty fond of Jenny Lewis, I’m all into my Nintendo again, and still jazzed about playing Super Mario 3.  Even if The Wizard is the longest and most well directed commercial ever, I’m glad it reminded me that as much as things change, they always stay the same.