The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Love and Fear

"The Unit" has been cancelled. Well, it had four seasons, and in many ways was the first successful dramatic series with a non-white lead...especially if you factor in "hour-long" and "alpha lead" to the equation. Yes, I was never happy that Dennis Haysbert's wife was literally the only woman on the show who wasn't slinky. Yes, I wasn't happy that the other black member of the unit died right after having a dirty weekend with a white woman. That kind of bullshit is just too obvious, and I've dealt with it entirely too long. Despite those things, "The Unit" had the kind of ass-kicking, smart, fierce lead I've been waiting to see for fifty-something years. And he had first billing. So regardless of anything else, it was history. Thank you David Mamet. And thank you "24", without which Haysbert would never have had the opportunity to develop the gravitas necessary to make him a plausible lead.


Speaking of "24" the season ended Monday. Really liked it, but sure felt sorry for Tony Almeda. And boy, is it obvious that the producers are in an internal fight over the significance of torture as an image system on the show. Still can't believe how many times I've heard people reference Jack Bauer in their defense of "enhanced interrogation." Next time someone asks me about the Ticking Time Bomb scenario, I'm just going to say I'd send for Superman. A fantasy scenario deserves a fantasy solution.


You know, I'm getting nervous about the "Terminator: Salvation" film about to open. I suspect that we're finding out that Cameron is even smarter than we thought, and that weaving together action, time-travel and genuine human drama on this scale is simply a master's-class in popular film making. Hope McG attended.


Tananarive is in Florida being famous. Jason and I will just have to muddle through somehow. Chili cheesedogs for dinner! Just kidding.


"Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows, and Results Show." This is a principle of Hawaiian "Huna" magic. And common sense. Of course, since there's nothing less common than common sense. We have to be very careful where we put our conscious attention. Believe me, the unconscious takes care of its own damn self.


I was asked about Sijo Muhammad, and how he deals with other human beings on an emotional level. This is an interesting subject, because in some ways he's carrying more potential damage than anyone I've ever met. His grandfather was a slave, and he has endured massive racial challenges: klan murders in Viet Nam, police harrassment, threatened with lynching as a child, unjust incarceration, being cheated in tournaments (Chuck Norris once had to stand up and scream: "will you give this man his damned points?" Good for Chuck, who has a well-deserved reputation as a gentleman.) As a result of these experiences, Steve was considerably radicalized, concluding in joining the Nation of Islam. I'll say a couple of things about that. First, that when I read Muhammad Speaks, the NOI newspaper, back in the 60's I saw things I disagreed with strongly. Second, that I've seen them do an immense amount of good in the inner city.

And yes, they have some attitudes I don't embrace. But if I don't criticize the Mormons, I'm sure as hell not going to criticize the NOI. People are allowed to believe what they want. Behavior is the truth.

That said: Steve is absolutely polite, and warm to anyone who is warm to him. In fact, he has some of that: "I'll treat anyone 10% better than they treat me" that I aspire to. His specific attitude is "Never, never, never start a conflict. But if the other man starts it, fall on him like a thunderbolt." As survivor of over a thousand streetfights (probably a conservative estimate) his ability to actualize this theory is beyond doubt.

Not only is he unfailingly courteous, but you really need to see the way people react to him. Women, particularly. I remember my mom seeing his picture, and she was unimpressed, thought him muscle-bound. Then one day she actually met him, and I watched Mommy melt. It was bizarre. Must be pheromones or something. He was absolutely catnip for ladies, but I NEVER heard a whisper of a hint of anything inappropriate at his school. Never. His attitude toward teaching women was simple, and pretty much the same as his way of approaching men. "Fight like a man, walk away like a lady" was his philosophy, and trust me, he had some girls who would break your heart on the mat. Ouch.

The women I saw reacting to him in Atlanta were either reacting to him like Daddy (a role he understands well--the man has eight daughters!) or as mothers grateful that he treated their daughters like precious little jewels.

I touched on the racism in his past because it's impossible to talk about someone who created the "Black Karate Federation" in the late 60's without considering his racial attitudes. What his grandfather taught him, specifically, was to NEVER let a white man treat him with disrespect, never bow his head. That whites might try to return blacks to slavery, (and that slavery really didn't end until almost 1900 in terms of the conditions blacks lived under), and that he must be prepared to die before he allowed that to happen.

I was always interested in the way whites were treated in his school...and white parents sometimes brought their sons (rarely daughters, I noticed) in from the valley to train there. They had seen something in his physical performance at tournaments, and his comportment off the mat, and wanted it for their children. Whites often came down to spar, and train, and I never saw them given cheap shots, or treated like anything less than fellow warriors (BTW--Steve's definition of "warrior" is pretty damned simple. Someone who has been to war. Period. Not someone who has trained for it, or whatever. Someone who has actually been there. Now, I'm sure that he isn't actually that rigid. The term "War" would probably broaden to include people willing to sacrifice, or put it all on the line, for their families, communities, and beliefs. Probably.

But there are definitely attitudes. When up in Canada with Wesley Snipes filming "Blade" (Steve is Wesley's bodyguard) one of the white technicians noticed how Steve would effusively greet black men on the set, calling them "Brother." The tech asked why he did that, and Steve said, "because they're my brothers."

"Am I your brother?"

"No," Steve replied.

Stunned and hurt, the tech asked: "can we be friends?"

"Absolutely," Steve replied. And meant it, too.


Looking at all of this stuff, I think that what we have here is a man who was told to keep his head up, no matter how people treated him. To be prepared to die before he accepted dishonor. And through experiences in Vietnam, the South, South-Central L.A., tournaments and full-contact bouts around the world...somehow got his feet firmly on the emotional/spiritual "ground" within him. Not that surprising...if seventy years of constant work can't provide the result of being an awakened adult human being, there's not much hope for the human race.

So what we have here is someone who can tame gang members by beating their ass fairly. Turn thugs into military officers, police, doctors...and maybe nerds into science fiction writers. A horn-dog who became the safest man in the world to leave your virgin daughter with. I think he is so clear, and so confident in who he is and what he can do that he is able to release ordinary fear and let his heart fill with love for his tribe: black people, martial artists, and decent human beings. Probably in that order, too.

There is a saying that love and fear compete for the same place in your heart. I believe it, and I've run into a handful of people who exemplify it. Steve is one of them. Damn, I feel lucky to be his friend. And student. And son.


Marty S said...

Steve: 24 is just about mt favorite show on television. Rather than viewing the presentation on enhanced interrogation as conflicted, I see it as a great job of providing a balanced view of the pros and cons.
I also liked the Unit and am sorry to see it go. I think they killed it with that awful Sunday time slot. When there were sporting events you never knew what time it would start.

Mike R said...

>The tech asked why he did that, and Steve said, "because they're my brothers."

"Am I your brother?"

"No," Steve replied.

Stunned and hurt, the tech asked: "can we be friends?"

"Absolutely," Steve replied. And meant it, too. <

Being friends is nice, but it's still saying, "He is a member of my tribe, and you are not and never can be." Such attitudes insure that a group will never be fully integrated into another group. If that is the goal, then it is a productive attitude to take, but the history of minorities throughout in various cultures and nations throughout various time periods is usually not a pleasant one. Generally speaking, if one wants one's progeny to succeed and prosper, total assimilation into the dominant culture is usually the best way to do so. Such attitudes prevent that from taking place.

Unknown said...


There are a lot of arguments to be made about assimilation, pro and con - your country believes in the melting pot, mine encourages multiculturalism. Who knows?

But my ancestral people, the Scots and the Irish, have been fairly good at assimilating, have become valuable members of various countries and cultures, but have also tended to keep a strong sense of identity and kinship, and to keep their cultural roots intact. It's like being part of a family or a community; you don't have to lose your individuality to do it. In fact it's better if you don't.

Also, I'd like to say that, on a personal level, my friends are absolutely part of my tribe. They're maybe not part of my immediate family, as my brother is, but they're definitely in the tribe. I might feel a sense of kinship, a sense of shared history and common experience and cultural/biological roots with my brother that I don't feel with my friend, but that doesn't mean that I don't like, love, welcome and embrace, respect and accept my friend. But you and I might have different definitions of friendship.


I was looking at the DVD samples on Steve Muhammad's website, and I wonder if his definition of "warrior" has possibly changed? Obviously, you know him better than I do, but he seems to be at least opening the door for the idea that being a warrior is more about attitude, and less about actual fighting experience. I'm fine with the original definition, by the way, as I think it's one of those words whose meaning has been broadened to the point of meaninglessness, but I was just wondering...

Anonymous said...

It's fine to talk about total assimilation into the dominant culture, but for a black person growing up in the 50s and 60s the dominant culture didn't exactly welcome them with open arms.

Consider Steve Muhammad to be a product of that era, for good and for ill.

On a related note: Mr. Barnes do you by chance have any contact info for former BKF member Cliff Stewart? I would like to purchase his W.A.R. DVD series but he no longer appears to have a website.

Frank said...

Marty S

I think they killed it with that awful Sunday time slot.In talking with a lot of people, including my wife, I think they killed it when the wives started getting involved with spying.

All I know are agreed that the first two seasons were terrific, it went slightly downhill in the third and the best you can say about this last season is "it had its moments". It's not the actors fault, all were terrific, and the writing was still great, but the stories were less than optimal.

Same for 24, while this last season was much better than last, it didn't rival the first three or four. I'll watch it, but it's not my fav anymore.

My new favorite is USAs Burn Notice. At least so far. We'll see what happens when Season Three starts next month. But up until now it is the smartest action/comedy/drama around with a great cast of characters, actors and writers anywhere.

Just my opinion.

Eric Zielke said...

Regarding the reference to "24" when people speak about torture. Check out this guy's site. Seriously. This paper may have some answers you need about why people do stuff like that. In section 6 he points to studies that show fiction skews the way we view probability in relation to reality. Interesting mental floss.

Marty S said...

Eric: The paper you gave a link to is both right and wrong. In my career preparation I studied two methodologies, Risk analysis and utility theory, which resonated so completely with my internal mode of thinking that they became a central part of not just my professional career, but of how I view the world. I have used risk analysis many times in my career and have been very successful with it. Most of these risk analysises have included estimated probabilities of the type he criticizes in his paper. So where is he right and wrong. Biases like the ones he describes exist. The EPA established a study procedure to determine if companies had polluted the waterway into which their effluent was released. It involved people evaluating fish taste. This procedure was written into Michigan law and resulted in my company being sighted for polluting. The person who designed the procedure at the EPA may have been a competent statistician, but was completely unaware of the kind of biases described in the referenced paper and so the results of the study were predetermined and in this case incorrect. Being aware of the bias problem, I used a demonstration similar to those described in the referenced paper to convince the Michigan Department of Environmental Affairs that the EPA procedure was flawed and we developed a new unbiased procedure which replace the biased one in the Michigan law. The point of this example is that the good practitioner is aware of the kinds of human bias described in the paper and takes them into account. The fact that the original procedure was flawed did not mean we should abandon the use of a fish taste test altogether.

wraith808 said...

Yes, I was never happy that Dennis Haysbert's wife was literally the only woman on the show who wasn't slinky.Why? I loved the fact that she was competent, in charge, and a handful of a woman. She balanced out Denis Haybert's character perfectly, IMO. And if she had been any other way, I would have been very unhappy. And as her daughter came of age, she was an attractive, competent reflection of both parents.

Unknown said...

I feel the same way about the Bauer references. If I hear that one more time, I will use your quote...

It's funny because I actually heard ONLY one "expert" say "well, we've never had a ticking bomb scenario" while listening to NPR.

I knew Steve Muhammed was FOI. had to be.