Bob Franken


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If I had my way, casual restaurants would be off-limits to politicians trailed by cameras. The hackneyed shot of a candidate or officeholder talking to someone just trying to have lunch is supposed to show how he or she may be high and mighty, but hasn’t forgotten the little people. The long-poled microphones with their fuzzy covers pick up the stilted conversation, strained because those at the table were taught not to talk with their mouths full, and what comes out of the interloper’s mouth is just empty platitude. We’d all be better off if they simply abandoned the shtick and left it to Guy Fieri. For those who don’t watch Food Network, Fieri drives around the country highlighting “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
I bring this up because there was President Barack Obama, at Bingham’s Family Restaurant, mixing and mingling with the common folk a few days ago for a good old-fashioned photo op. When Fieri performs it, we call it entertainment. But when it’s Obama or the thousands of other public officials, it’s just a cliché.
What’s anything but cliché is the 50th anniversary of the momentous March on Washington, which happened at a time in America when Barack Obama would have been barred from countless restaurants and other public accommodations. It’s good we can use the occasion not just for speeches but for some honest reflection on how far we’ve come and not come in realizing the grand vision so movingly described in Martin Luther King Jr.’s clarion “I Have a Dream” speech. The answer can be summed up in just a few words: We’ve made significant progress, as evidenced by the fact that we have a President Obama. But we are still bedeviled with a racism that substantial portions of our society just won’t give up.

In states like Texas and North Carolina, cynical officials are trying to further their ambitions by attempting to put up the kind of barriers to minorities voting that are reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Meanwhile, demagogues get traction on the right by pandering to their alienated followers with still another grievance over their hated liberal media (in their minds, that’s a redundancy). This time they’re concocting a comparison between the aggressive coverage of the Trayvon Martin killing and the brutal random murder in Oklahoma of Australian Christopher Lane, a college student, who was allegedly gunned down by three teenagers. Why, they demand, haven’t news organizations given equal emphasis to the racial aspects of this case?
For starters, there don’t seem to be any. At least the local district attorney says there aren’t. The victim is white. True, two of the alleged assailants are black, but the third is white. In addition, authorities made a quick arrest in this case, where in the Trayvon Martin shooting, the man who gunned him down went free for 46 days. There are no parallels, but that won’t clutter the minds of those who still resist the MLK “dream” of equality.
They look askance at the commemoration of that majestic speech. In their heart of hearts, they resent the civil-rights laws that were passed after the 1963 march, in the Capitol just a short distance away, with heavy pressure from the presidents. These days, what with the current roster in Congress, we should call the building Area 51. Far too many members have been elected by alienated voters in districts gerrymandered to keep the races separated so there is no incentive to explore common interests.
What we witness these days is a political system mostly fueled by fear, resentment and ignorance. Our leaders deflect responsibility for the important issues by using distortion to obscure serious discussion. They come up with gimmicks. The contrived visit to some diner is one of the old standbys, where food for thought is never on the menu.

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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