Saturday, August 22, 2009

What Does The Birdcage Have to do With Michael Vick?

What does The Birdcage have to do with Michael Vick? Think back to the movie for a moment. Think back to the story: the well-meaning parents of a young man want to make a good impression on the parents of his new fiancée. Where’s the conflict? The well-meaning boy’s parents are gay men (Robin Williams and Nathan Lane) who run a drag cabaret and the fiancée’s parents are conservative politicians. At their son’s request, the gay couple reluctantly decides to pretend to have a traditional home. Nathan Lane, the club’s star performer, needs to appear in drag for a whole new audience for a whole new reason: to play the part of the loving housewife. Of course the charade can’t go on forever, and toward the end of the movie Nathan Lane finally reveals that he is indeed a man in drag and half of a loving gay couple. The conservative politician’s reaction is priceless: “You can’t be Jewish?!” The real concern is their queerness. Classic misdirection of concern; classic understatement of importance.

Are you getting deja vu yet?

On August 17, 2009 Public Policy Polling asked a sample of 909 American voters whether or not they supported Michael Vick’s reinstatement into the NFL. Overall, 49% of Americans supported his reinstatement while 34% did not and 17% were unsure. Take a closer look:
There is an even stronger divide along racial lines with African Americans supporting reinstatement 80-9 but whites by only a 42-29 margin.
Here are some more numbers for you: the team that prosecuted Vick recommended that he serve 12 months in prison. The man was sentenced to 23 months and served 18 of them. Really? What else did Vick do wrong to warrant all those extra months added to a recommended 12 month sentence?

There’s your quantitative data.

Here’s some qualitative data: People are still making a gigantic deal out of the dog abuse. I mean protesting and boycotting across the country in person and in print. I mean a Michael Vick chew toy (because there’s a market for people who want the man torn apart and devoured in effigy). I mean three billboards worth of hatred on the roads leading to Lincoln Financial Field where Vick will play with the Philadelphia Eagles.

I’m not saying it’s okay to abuse animals – of course it’s not – but that’s beside the point I’m making here.

My point is, in light of the above information, the reactions to Vick’s reinstatement do not seem to fit a crime worth only a 12 recommended months of federal time. There has to be something else going on here to account for the discrepancy between the crime he committed and the societal punishment the man’s been dealt. And what’s with that racial divide Public Policy Polling pointed out?

Don’t pull a Birdcage, people. Don’t misdirect your more substantial concerns – the ones that really bother you, that are the most uncomfortable to talk about and to recognize in yourself – to the dog issue. The disproportionate importance given to the dog issue gives the lie here. If your issue is with race, come out and own it. Don’t blame it on the dog.

If what is underneath this absurd reaction against Vick is resentment that a young black man has an amazing God-given talent, that he was the #1 draft pick in 2001, that he enjoyed being the top-earning athlete in his sport, that he did something fantastic with his life while you fettered away in a cubicle somewhere compelled to spread your misery far and wide, own it. Come out and say it. If you’re complicit in the epidemic of young black men (Vick’s still in his 20’s, he counts as young) being disproportionately sent to prison for disproportionately severe sentences, own it. If you can’t be honest with yourself, who else can you be honest with?

People should not give in to the temptation to use dog abuse as a cover for their race issues. They shouldn’t pounce on the dog issue as their proof positive that they were right all along, that “Vick didn’t deserve any of his success.” The people who determine whether Vick ‘deserves’ to be in the NFL are in the judicial system and the NFL itself as his employer. No one never screws up, no matter how fantastic his job is. And the dog issue is weak compared to the race issue.

What makes the dog issue weak is that it’s too easy. Everyone loves their pets, and the attachment people have to them is part of what puts pet ownership so close to our hearts. That’s easy to agree on. Everyone can agree that hurting animals is bad. (Sure, there are a precious few outliers with the dog issue agreement, but that’s spit in the ocean.) It’s also easy to speak for animals that can’t speak for themselves and contradict what we say. That (among other things, some of which I will return to below) makes the dog issue, one that legitimately and understandably bothers and makes uncomfortable tons of people an easy one to tackle by comparison to race.

Racial issues also bother tons of people and make them uncomfortable, but our relationships to race are not as rosy as those of pet ownership. In dealing with race, we’re no longer dealing with a voiceless group in need of someone to speak for them. We’re dealing with people who can speak for themselves, and do. There’s a reason race has achieved the monumental institutional status it’s achieved in this country. To compare dog abuse to race in size and importance would be like comparing the Washington Monument to a thimble. It takes some serious denial to turn away from race and say, “No, I think the dog issue is more important than my fellow human beings. I don’t have as complicated a history with dogs. I consider myself their benevolent master. Good thing there’s no racial undertone in that last sentence or I’d have a tough problem to deal with!”

Don’t pull a Birdcage on Vick. And while you’re at it, don’t pull one on anyone else either.


Marie said...

To quote Renee of Womanist Musings, "If it ain't about you, don't make it about you." In other words, this post is not an accusation, but a discussion.

Anonymous said...

78% of the NFL is black, and yet you would accuse michael vick of being hated by white america because of his race? Do you really think that "white america's" issue with a dog abuser is that he shares a skin color in common with MOST OF THE LEAGUE!?

Anonymous said...

Firstly, you fail are failing to look at this issue within the proper historical context. The color barrier in NFL was broken less than seventy short years ago, and since then African Americans have consistently and maliciously been relegated to second-class athlete status. For instance! Did you know that African Americans on average earn FORTY SEVEN PER CENT less pay in the NFL??? That African Americans are injured in the NFL at a rate of 7.32 TIMES their Caucasian counterparts????! You are pulling a CLASSIC bird cage here, sir. Yes, Michael Vick "allegedly" engaged in some "illegal" "activities" BUT are you not overlooking the overwhelming disparities and racial tensions that frame your very arguments??~

Secondly, If you are going to fill our minds with this TRASH that you SPEW at least have the COURTESY and BACKBONE to stand behind your words, you ANONYMOUS LITTLE GOAT FUCKER.