Bill Clinton v. Robot
For more information about the the Clinton-Robot smackdown, read my op-ed from in the Washington Post, below:
Reprinted from WashingtonPost.com, Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Last week, when former President Bill Clinton came to Iowa City, I went to the event, stood on a chair, and told him to apologize to Sister Souljah. At first he was caught off guard and uttered a sophomoric putdown -- "Look, look in the mirror" -- before chastising me for throwing out leaflets, because it kills trees. The incident I wanted him to apologize for was 15 years old, but our exchange made national news.
Oh, one other detail: The whole time, I was dressed like a robot. Here is the CNN coverage:
And here is a report from MSNBC's Keith Olbermnn:
Why a robot? And why bring up an event from 1992? Well, one point at a time.
I put on the silver vest, sparkly shoes, shiny helmet, and oversized sunglasses because I knew it was exactly the kind of look, and hook, reporters would go for. After all, the news media has a dependable preference for spectacle over substance.
These days, pulling a media prank is like throwing a rock in the pop culture pond. You just plop it in and watch its effects ripple outwards. My stunt received play on various blogs, on cable news networks, and in newspapers, which churned out surreal headlines like "Roboprofessor Heckles Former President."
Despite its absurd trappings, I do think there was something to the substance of my message. The "Sister Souljah moment," as it has come to be known, taught me that Bill Clinton was more of an opportunist than an advocate of social justice. And it's relevant to the current presidential race because it provided an early glimpse into the cynicism of the Clinton political machine.
Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign was flagging in June 1992, when he took the words of Sister Souljah out of context in a speech before the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Souljah, a Black activist and recording artist, was talking about the Los Angeles riots sparked by the Rodney King verdict and was trying to paraphrase the mindset of a gang member when she told The Washington Post: "I mean, if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Yet, in an effort to appeal to upper-middle class swing voters, Clinton portrayed her as a reckless radical who advocated interracial violence. "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech," he said. It was a brilliantly effective political move. It also exploited an ugly kind of racial politics.
Is Sister Souljah the most important issue we should be discussing in the current presidential campaign? No, but that brings me back to the media. Some commentators said I looked like a moron in my costume. And I can't really disagree. But which is more idiotic: a grown man dressed as a robot or the fact that so much space and time was devoted to a grown man dressed as a robot, at the expense of worthier issues?
Today, it is easy to see how reality can be meticulously contrived, or carelessly created, by the institutions that shape our consciousness. And it is important to hold media and government accountable for their depictions, or deceptions. If that means dressing like a robot and acting the fool, so be it.
The writer is a University of Iowa communication professor and author of "Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property."
Here is some more television news coverage from various sources:
And some behind the scenes footage:
For more details on the “Sister Souljah Moment,” the best coverage of this incident I have found appears in Jeff Chang’s award winning book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Here is an excerpt from pages 394-6:
Clinton Vs. Souljah
While Democrat Bill Clinton and President George Bush moved toward their formal nominations [during the 1992 election season], Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot threatened to upset the usual political calculus with a third-party run. Perot was particularly attractive to middle-aged, upper-middle class, suburban and exurban “swing” voters, the so-called center that both parties so desperately coveted. Skillful exploitation of racial and generational fears might prove the key to the election. [...]
Young Black activist Lisa Williamson had become Sister Souljah when she joined Public Enemy in 1990. During the late ë80s, she had worked with the crew when she served as organizer for the National African Youth/Student Alliance. ... After appearing on the Terminator X and Public Enemy albums, she worked with Eric “Vietnam” Sadler on her own album, called 360 Degrees of Power. Released in March, it had not been a big seller. Souljah was a better polemicist than a rapper, and she settled into a heavy schedule of interviews and lectures. Days after the [1992 Los Angeles] uprising, she sat down for an interview with David Mills, who had now moved downtown to the Washington Post.
Mills baited Souljah on the riots, asking her if she thought the violence against Reginald Denny was a “wise, reasoned action.” Here, he writes, “Souljah’s empathy for the rioters reached a chilling extreme.” He quoted her answering:
“I mean, if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government, and that mayor were well aware of the fact that Black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?” As she said on Sunday Today: “Unfortunately for white people, they think it’s all right for our children to die, for our men to be in prison, and not theirs.”
On June 13, as a guest of Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow Coalition’s political convention, Bill Clinton read an edited version of Souljah’s words in disgust. The night before, Souljah had participated in the convention’s youth panel, and Clinton’s advisor believed he had been handed the perfect opportunity to distance himself from Jackson’s constituencies and ingratiate himself with Perot voters. Clinton said to the stunned crowd:
Just listen to this, what she said: She told the Washington Post about a month ago, and I quote, “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?” I know she is a young person, but she has a big influence on a lot of people, and when people say that—if you took the words white and Black and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.
Souljah blasted Clinton for taking her statements out of context. She had never personally advocated violence against whites, she said. Clinton, she said, was trying to maker her “a Willie Horton, a campaign issue, a Black monster that would scare the white population.” Jackson and other Black leaders seethed at Clinton’s well-placed, high-profile 10 percent dis. “She represents the feelings and hopes of a whole generation of people,” Jackson said after Clinton’s speech. “She should deserve an apology.”
None was forthcoming. Instead, political pundits heaped praise on Clinton. New York Times writer Gwen Ifill wrote, “There is no question that the Clinton campaign is quite satisfied with the outcome of the Sister Souljah episode, and that it may become a blueprint for future risky missions to rescue the campaign’s flagging fortunes.”