Wednesday, January 22, 2014

There Was Only One King, And WWE Proves It Every Year

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It was the third Monday in January, so you knew how RAW was going to start. It's the same thing every year, as dependable as the sun setting in the west. You can almost hear somebody in the truck counting down from five before saying "Roll the King package".

This year there was 126 seconds full of promise and hope for the future, featuring the seemingly mandatory shot of an interracial handshake and filled with so many shots of notable African-Americans you could be forgiven for thinking February had started 12 days early. It started with The Speech, as it always does, and it ended with a simple four word edict of Keep The Dream Alive. You saw a lot of that, as you do every Martin Luther King Jr. Day; in a nation and a world which can turn history's winding roads into Twitter statuses just to keep them in the recesses of the mind what MLK Junior is probably best known for is the I Have A Dream speech that just turned 50 last summer.

And, of course, the WWE could've done light years worse than a tasteful video package to open their program. Yesterday, whether it be in the worlds of fashion, industry, politics from the far right, or children who took the wrong teachable moment away from Tropic Thunder, there was plenty to shake your head and sigh ruefully or even want to throw a chair and beat somebody up about, especially if you're a person in my position. But in saner circles at the beginning of the week, it came down to something bumper-sticker worthy and usually with the word Dream featured prominently in it. About never forgetting it, about it living long, about Obama reflecting it, and so on and so on.

So why did something that was guaranteed to engineer a positive feeling from almost the entirety of the audience and almost specifically aimed into my wheelhouse make me feel like turning into a Molotov-throwing insurgent about to level a building? Then there was another quote that came to mind that put it all into focus.

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

There's a King quote that didn't fly around the web nearly enough on Monday, and it probably is why most of the ceremonial observances left me cold leading into RAW. Even leaving aside the problematic history of African-Americans in professional wrestling in general, WWE specifically seemed to be coming from a spot of well-meaning corporate culture that was going to do best for business exactly for two minutes one day a year and all the pesky actual racial problems fraught over the course of years, decades -- hell, centuries -- was to be set aside.

Why go down those pesky backroads and cul-de-sacs where King noted rightfully about how America as we know it was founded on genocide and added progressives to the list of people who hated him alongside the right in the last year of his life? Why do a full exhumation on the character of a man in which he stood alongside Planned Parenthood, denounced the Vietnam War, spent some of his last weeks on earth championing the economic and social bill of rights he'd worked on, or his criticisms of American capitalism and the racism inherit within? Nobody wants to hear about the Cold War between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover leading directly to King getting wiretapped in the COINTELRPO wave because he was pallin' around with communists and getting charming notes from the proto-NSA politely suggesting he off himself lest certain tapes of his infidelities (which continued up until literally his dying day) get released to the public and shame him? Best for King to know his place.

And in modern society, best to pull that beige teddy bear's string that says "I have a dream today!" once a year and show you're not complete troglodytes and can't possibly be, that those dark days are in black and white for a reason and in a technicolor world such atrocities aren't still happening right here in America even while you read this very sentence. It was National Let's Pretend We Actually Care About Integration, Nonviolence and Racial Harmony Day, and pesky facts weren't going to get in the way of the narrative woven en masse, from WWE and everywhere else.

Because to pretend to have a big three in professional wrestling and review their CVs next to Stamford's is to say they're all failing, but at least WWE's putting a bit of effort into the enterprise and doesn't eat as much paste as the other dunces do. Please, take a look over towards the Northeast, where ROH has positioned misogynists like Austin Aries and Confederate-flag wearing homophobes like Jay Briscoe with the crown jewel of their World Championship while Jay Lethal's been their Tommy Dreamer aside from a run with their inferior TV title. And once you gaze downwards in the direction of TNA?

Well, it's entirely possible I'm the best African-American wrestler on their roster, which should be the crowning achievement of my life and is only lessened by the pesky detail that I'm not technically a wrestler. Then again: who would've thought that a professional wrestling enterprise based out of the South could find themselves financial problems or not with an entirely whitewashed roster that's put a logo with a bastardized stars and bars with Dixieland on it out front and center of its programming for almost the past five months? Next thing you'll tell me Martin Luther the King once worried to a confidante that he was worried he was trying to integrate into a burning house known as America.

Right, right: a lot of people might've suspected that, but you knew some didn't and wave off that last question as part of being an anti-South or TNA-hating bias. After all, as several white fellows have already tried to mansplain to me over the course of a year that's barely three weeks old about the plight of African-Americans in this country whether it be politics, music, television or sports entertainment that it's 2014, not the 1980s, and not the 1960s, but right now, and hasn't there been a lot of progress made? Look at the President! Kevin Hart's in every other movie! If I ever get to sleep with Kerry Washington, my wife has to give me a pass! And I've got black friends, for crying out loud! C'mon! How long do we have to keep coming back to this?

Good question. Maybe if this country wasn't literally built on racism and subjugation and it was easier for a black person with no record to get a job than a white ex-convict, or to do things like go to the store for a quick snack without getting plugged in the back by a lunatic who'll end up dodging arrest for the better part of two months before not getting convicted or a Stanford graduate would be able to give a psyched up post-game interview seconds after the biggest win of his life against his most hated rivals both individually and as a unit without a spade of pearl clutching from dilettantes afraid that scary-looking man had scared the beautiful white woman, maybe there'd be a different answer than forever.

This is what is most galling about everyone bandying about the Speech and the word dream: on even an unconscious level, it keeps plenty subjugated. Dreams are ephemera of the unconscious. They don't deal with reality and the act of being awake from day to day, of having to live in a place that never intended for you to be able to read or write let alone miscegenate or vote. Hold positions of power?! Effect pop culture and in a lot of ways set the benchmarks down to be ripped off for greater white profits later? In the name of Pat Boone, what sort of delusional psychotropic have you gotten in your system?

Have you ever seen someone who's a borderline land monster turn heel and then disappear? Because Brodus Clay is teaching that class right now, and he's going to be salutatorian at least at the rate he's going. And what was he doing before that? Why, he was singing and dancing and entertaining the mostly white kids who's parents can afford the freight of a WWE ticket. Just like R-Truth. Just like Xavier Woods, so completely different and distinguishable from each other that the latter's introduction to the big stage has him paired up as the same devil-may-care dancing buddy of the former, ending up as three men fighting over two booty-shaking black women and the same theme music which was recycled from another former African-American on the roster to boot. But now all that is over (?), and now the former Truth and Consequences get people happy, standing up and dancing, as opposed to the Prime Time Players, who dance and entertain the mostly white kids before getting them to bark intermittently. Completely different.

And this leaves aside the glory run of Kofi Kingston's career, especially the resurgence he's had over the past fortnight. You know, the Rockian glory of having Randy Orton beat you like you owed him money, only to get a fluke win out of nowhere that was immediately subsumed by Orton jumping Cena's father and not even punting him this time. Even so, when the rematch comes on MLK Day, the act of you wrestling the first Unified Champion in the main event is a distant flashpoint compared to the epicenter of John Cena showing up almost three hours late for work to a job that ostensibly has only three hours to it to avenge his fallen but not kicked viciously in the skull papa, and your job is to--kind of, sort of wrestle and then vaguely get in the way. Because John Cena has to get his revenge, and your job is to be the faux Jamaican and kinda sort of be a background speck to entertain the children and literally get them to clap their hands as the warm-up act for the main event happenings. Just as you did to such acclaim in 2013. And 2012. And let's not forget 2011, or your stellar work in this field in 2010, to say nothing of--well, the point's made, yes?

What's most infuriating is that, in very small doses, WWE has actual beneficial reservoirs to draw water from for what should be the ideal avatar in a post-King 21st century; to not be "the black wrestler" but rather the "wrestler who happens to be black". When healthy on either side of the alignment, Mark Henry's been a paragon of not being defined by the color of his skin but the volume of wigs split and bills for air collected upon. But even his greatness is a slight outlier, since the former ECW and World Champion is the World's Strongest Man and someone who can pull two tractor trailers for a record on a Friday night and get a crowd that should've been anti-anything he did at the time to cheer vociferously without the benefit of aural dubbing.

Most encouragingly in the recent past, the Intercontinental Champion Big E. Langston's not only gotten to look like a man making the belt more by every passing week rather than the other way around, and he's also gotten to rub shoulders in big-time matches with the Rhodeses, CM Punks, and Shields of the roster. To be put in the mix with this level of superstar either in singles forays, regular tag matches or trios affairs means that in part he's depended upon to turn in a seemingly never-ending wave of above-average matches that can easily put into a main event or sub-main should it be necessary. As Langston catches on, his ceiling is seemingly limitless. Now being allowed more time at commentary when he's not wrestling and showcased more has given him a foundation to build his obvious intelligence, sly humor out of the ring and powerhouse game in it upon. Unsurprisingly, the fans of both varietals have welcomed the formerly silent muscle to the side of the white hats with open arms (even if the more knowledgeable amongst us would like his winning counts to be nearly twice as long). But his outlierism just highlights the overall problems of the roster.

Who else isn't "the black guy who dances or pretends to be from the islands" for Stamford at this moment? And who doubts that given how far O'Neill and Young have come in the ring, especially with Young still riding the wave of support he received upon revealing his homosexuality last year, or someone like Woods with his academic pedigree, that given that Langston "this kid might be the future" push that they couldn't account well for themselves? Tragically, all WWE does at its best and worst is hold up a fun house mirror to the society from which it came, and it's the same here. For every superachiever like Langston who gets into rarefied air there's four guys fighting for the same job that're all capable, and the deciders will play them off of each other since in their eyes they're all roughly analogues of each other anyhow.

Most galling of all is that this is a multi-million dollar pinnacle as the worldwide leader of the industry that's supposed to be setting the standard that every one else should aspire to, and at the end of the day they seem more than perfectly willing to emulate most of society when once a year every year they hold up signs and reflect quotes and point to the same thing over and over: a bunch of people saying "dream, dream, dream" when the other 364 days a year they'd rather defer, defer, defer; video packages instead of actual concrete actions subject to blowback, and the reason the phrase Sambo Voltron got invented rather than getting the sheer glee of watching dudes get flat-out trucked by wondrous physical specimens.

Then again, Rise Above Hate and Be A Star are slogans for corporate sheen and to sell t-shirts. And being passive towards evil and perpetrating it is easy and profitable, as well.

Not accepting it and protesting it?

Hell, that's the kind of thing that gets a man shot.