Playing to Lose

Illustration by Shino Arihara

One of the many hard lessons of the recall election starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is the dispiriting confirmation that politics is indeed a game. Not in the sense that its players don’t take it seriously or spend mountains of money in the endeavor — they did — but in the sense that the gravity of governance has been completely aerated by the player/candidates’ ambitions for office. Schwarzenegger has proven that the real stakes of the game are not stewardship of public policy or mending a frayed budget, but a Rocky-like triumph of the individual that clearly is its own reward for both Rocky and the people who follow him, a triumph that has much less to do with reality than with the movies and the total suspension of disbelief they require. That politics is entertainment is not news to anybody, but that the equivalence has been not diminished or refuted but flaunted in the last couple of months by the Arnold camp is nothing short of astonishing. The moral of the recall is that fantasy officially rules reality (including the fantasy that Arnold did nothing wrong in routinely pawing female peons on the job), and that those of us unwilling to play the game are hereafter doomed to sit back and watch everybody else passing Go and collecting $200, building themselves nice digs on Park Place, getting over at all costs à la the Terminator. People chose Arnold because of his connection to movies, and also because they want to be in his movie of the moment; my insistence on staying in the audience as an observer and critic might be principled, but right now it doesn’t feel like it amounts to a hill of beans.

I feel the same sort of haplessness about a controversy lately making the rounds that involves another for-real game called “Ghettopoly.” This is a crude, urbanized takeoff of Monopoly that uses black stereotypes in place of the upper-crust icons of the traditional game: a gangbanger sporting a red bandanna instead of a tycoon in a top hat, mini–crack houses instead of the little green ones, that sort of thing. Ghettopoly was created by a young Taiwanese-American man and hip-hop enthusiast named David Chang. Chang, whose immigrant family worked hard to finance his elite private-school education, claims to be denouncing all these stereotypes in the very act of exaggerating them to the nth degree in a game — moving tokens around a board, he explains, is a form of satire that makes evident our folly in demonizing the real thing, and the real people. Naturally the black establishment doesn’t buy this. The Seattle chapter of the NAACP immediately lodged complaints with a local Urban Outfitters, the slacker-chic apparel chain store that carried “Ghettopoly,” and threatened more action if Chang didn’t cease and desist distribution (in swift response to the pressure, Urban Outfitters announced last week it was recalling the game and bailing out as chief distributor, though Chang still sells it on his Web site). Black columnist Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette breathed fire in his condemnation of Chang as an “amoral entrepreneur” who is being “true to the ruthless ‘I-can-do-anything-that-makes-a-buck’ strategy of his adopted country.” Chang has pointed out that his board game skewers other ethnicities as well, including his own, but clearly, with its crack fiends and malt-liquor-swilling toughs that serve as chess pieces, Ghettopoly’s premise is the criminal black planet of popular imagination.

At the heart of this conflagration is the same fuel that’s kept the race wars burning for decades — economic exploitation of black images and culture by nonblacks. It is but the latest expression of an ageless American tradition of synthesizing race and profit that began with slavery, revived in the era of ragtime and the dawn of pop music, and hasn’t really abated since. Black folks are entertainment, lucrative entertainment at that, and anybody standing in the way of this truth that only gets truer — or sitting in the audience as a critic, like the NAACP — has no place in the new reality (not that blacks ever really had a place in the old one, but that’s another line of thought). Chang and others can claim progress all they want, but that’s cheap Orwellian logic that only intensifies the sting of the obvious — Ghettopoly sells because its black anti-fantasy fantasy has become the norm that overrules once and for all the drab reality that the ghetto is not a game at all. Chang’s product is but a symptom of the larger problem of black fetishization that has become so prevalent, it’s seen not as a problem at all but as a staple of initimable American style; as I’ve pointed out in previous columns, “ghettotainment” has burgeoned into an accepted industry that doesn’t look to be downsizing any time soon. It’s not merely a business but an attitude and worldview that people invest in and want to reinforce, even if they know it might be racist and ultimately unreal. In the same way that many voters believed the sexual harassment and other allegations against Arnold but also believed the allegations didn’t matter, so fans of ghettotainment can decry the plight of black inner cities as a matter of course even as they all but celebrate that plight with goods like Ghettopoly. And few people see the disconnect simply because they don’t want to. We are at the apex of an American power trip — built up in great measure by the Bush administration — that dictates that everything is exactly what we decide it is, or isn’t. Facts are stupid things, context something worse. Thus can we say with perfectly straight faces that Arnold is qualified to lead us, and that David Chang really means us no harm. You can do that when you’re writing your own script.

If I must live the film fantasy I’ll live it as Neo, the guy who grudgingly discovers he’s been looking at the world from the wrong end — it’s the concrete things that are illusions and the intangible matrix that is real. We live in a version of that world now, one in which image, expectation and wish fulfillment move people to action far more than fact or substance, and protesting all this is about as futile as protesting the existence of the Internet. This created world has a huge built-in margin of error in which lapses of fact or taste or judgment don’t even count as errors yet — this is a movie with a plot and characters that can always be redeemed in the end, whenever that comes. We all deny thinking like this, but the truth is we want the fantasy terribly, and we want it both ways — maintaining it can’t hurt us because it’s just a movie or a game or entertainment, while increasingly letting all these things set the template for our lives. By the way, How Arnold Became Governor is already being made into a movie by the cable channel A&E, which means that California history will very soon have a perfectly parallel film universe up and running even before Arnold takes office and history is actually made. Art doesn’t imitate life so much as coax it along, and then pull ahead of it.

Speaking of matrices, there’s always been an overlap of black reality and its commercialized counterparts — Lindy Hop and jitterbug, jazz and swing — but there was often open acknowledgment on both sides of what was “real” and what was the dilution. In the millionaire hip-hop age, what used to be a cautious intersection has become a hostile takeover, with the counterpart not only trumping reality but sucking blood from a marrow of black reason and aesthetic integrity that appears to be getting weaker by the generation. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist pointed out, blacks are often as complicit as other Americans in the fantasy department, even if they suspect it goes against their self-interest. They can rationalize Ghettopoly with the worst of them, which actually isn’t hard to do when you have the likes of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg insisting they’re no role models for black youth while knowing full well it is black youth, individually and in the pernicious abstract, that started and sustains their careers. It isn’t hard to do when Nelly, a rapper known for not having a hard edge, debuts a new energy drink called “Pimp Juice” and then defends it as merely a reflection of reality that the oft-distorted black community is entitled to. If David Chang is looking for a business partner, one who might lend him a superficial credibility he lacked the first time out, he doesn’t have to look far. Governor Arnold might even have a space in his cabinet for a good fabulist or two.

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