By The Editors / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007

Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season by David Shields '78 (Crown Publishers, 224 pages, $23) by Jason Tanz '96

If you have no patience for navel-gazing, cross this book off your must-read list. Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season is a series of gruellingly introspective essays in which the author, David Shields, scrutinizes the racial underpinnings of his passion for basketball. Shields employed a similar approach in his previous book, Remote, in which he scrutinized the social underpinnings of his passion for television and popular culture. This time, though, the subject matter is more urgent. Get past Shields's self-absorption and you will find in Black Planet a fascinating and disturbing study of a white man's obsession with black athletes.

Shields followed the Seattle Supersonics through their ill-fated - season, keeping a diary of the games and his reactions to them. As readers, we watch the Sonics over a period of seven months, but more importantly, we watch Shields watch the Sonics, and then we watch Shields watch himself watch the Sonics. Unrelenting in his self-analysis, Shields acts as his own confessor, therapist, and judge. He examines his fixation with brash point guard Gary Payton; he measures his reactions to the beleaguered white coach George Karl; he discusses his need, in ultra-polite Seattle, to identify with the trash-talking Sonics; and, most important, he looks unflinchingly at how he fetishizes the Sonics' blackness. For Shields, they are "others": sexual icons who serve to remove him from his own nebbishy personality, sponges to absorb his white guilt. To Shields's credit, he stares his own racism in the face and refuses to step away.

For the most part, his self-analysis yields bitter, though entertaining, fruit, portions of which will feel disquietingly familiar to most white male basketball junkies. Disappointed that Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen don't act childish or outrageous in their Seattle appearances, Shields writes: "We pretend we want them to be controlled and 'classy,' but really what we want them to do is misbehave, so we can equate their talent with inadequacy, reaffirming their deep otherness, their mad difference." Washing dishes in his kitchen, Shields hears a highlight on the radio of Payton scoring a last-second bucket against Dallas and sums up his fandom: "I'm not him. I'm really not him. I wish I were him. I love him - the phantasm of him - to death."

Yet there are times when Shields's forays into the personal seem more solipsistic than profound. Do we really need to hear about his bedroom cavorting with his wife - "Laurie and I do the wild thing till midnight" - after a Sonic win? The point is that Shields gets a sexual charge out of his personal identification with athletic black men. It is a disturbing and relevant thought, but one that is more subtly and meaningfully explored elsewhere in the book.

When a black reporter told David Shields he was like a spy into the minds of white people, the Seattle-based author took it as a compliment. Black Planet, Shields's fifth book, is a candid look at the obsession white fans - especially the author - have with professional basketball. "It is a highly subjective book," Shields says. "I go out and hang out and see what happens to my mind and heart. I make myself complicit in a larger social issue." While some see professional basketball as little more than an overpriced game, Shields finds in the sport an analog for a much bigger issue: U.S. race relations. Basketball, he says, is "the place in which white people work out their own conflicted relationship with American history." Subjecting his fandom to such intense scrutiny has changed Shields's relationship to the game, he says. He now describes himself as "an excruciatingly self-conscious fan." - Michael Lukas '02

Similarly, Shields's constant bandying with the Sonics' press office - he has off-and-on credentials from the Seattle Weekly - doesn't add much to his story. I suppose Shields includes these passages to underline the fact that he only associates with the Sonics in his mind; when it comes to actually interacting with them, or even getting free seats, he is more of a hanger-on than a comrade. Still, there's too little payoff for the amount of time he spends on this, and some of his commentary, especially his snide nicknaming of the Sonics' press agent Cheri White - "ma chérie" - seems downright vengeful.

Shields is more successful when he focuses his ruthlessly analytical eye on NBA culture. In his view, every aspect of the game is fraught with unacknowledged racial tension. When the Sonics' mascot, Sasquatch, lampoons Shaquille O'Neal on the court, Shields is mortified. "It's all I can think about the rest of the game - what the players must feel when fans' true view of them as ridiculous beasts has been revealed, dramatized, celebrated...."

Yet too often Shields sees the apocalypse in the most banal of occurences. A mascot pretends to shine a black referee's shoes and Shields calls it "one of the most uncomfortable thirty seconds I've ever witnessed." Shields presents these stories as if they prove that racial angst lies beneath every interaction between black and white. They are, frankly, a stretch. Shields's other insights are convincing enough; he does not need to cast his eye everywhere for examples of trivial conflict.

Some of Black Planet's most alarming passages occur when Shields dissects the discussions on Seattle's sports radio station, KJR-AM. He characterizes play-by-play commentator Kevin Calabro as a desperate white guy infusing his speech with ebonics in order to ingratiate himself with the players and, most awkwardly, with his black co-announcer, Marques Johnson. Shields's portrayal of Calabro is condescending yet oddly sympathetic. And in describing the rampant homophobia on the call-in programs, Shields throws one of his sharpest barbs: "It is impossible to overstate the degree to which sports-talk radio is shadowed by the homosexual panic implicit in the fact that it consists almost entirely of a bunch of out-of-shape white men sitting around talking about black men's buff bodies."

Shields's musings are deeply unsettling. He sees an alienated, repressed America, where no one says what he or she is really thinking, where racial hostility might be muzzled but never dies, and where even the most sympathetic gestures are undercut by a substratum of confused motives and emotions. The fact that Shields arrives at these conclusions after a study of sports - the great American entertainment - is all the more troubling. He offers no solutions, but introduces brutal honesty and candor into the discussion. For that alone, Black Planet is a remarkable achievement.

Jason Tanz is a magazine reporter working in New York City.

Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence by Aaron T. Beck '42 (Harper Collins, 354 pages, $26).

by Jennifer Sutton

Many years ago, Aaron Beck, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania, was celebrating the publication of his latest book by signing copies of it at a bookstore. A middle-aged man approached, his eyes glaring, and remarked sarcastically that Beck seemed to enjoy being the center of attention. "Well, it helps to sell books," Beck replied. "I guess you think you're better than me," the man angrily shot back. Surprised, Beck disagreed, but the man became even more antagonistic and looked as if he was ready to punch someone. Although a few of Beck's friends hustled the man out of the store and the book-signing continued without incident, the encounter stuck in Beck's mind. This wasn't just an unstable guy behaving irrationally, he concluded later; it was a universal illustration of how hostility can turn into violence.

Most of us would argue that there's a big gap between acting like a jerk in a bookstore and, say, shooting up a school library or slaughtering a million Rwandans. But in his timely book, Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence, Beck contends that the same kinds of distorted thinking occur across all levels of anger, whether expressed by a bickering couple, a paranoid sociopath, an armed mob, or warring nations.

Beck is known as the father of cognitive therapy, a form of psychotherapy hypothesizing that people's feelings and behavior stem from how they perceive events around them. After founding and directing the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also taught in the medical school, Beck in launched the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research with his daughter, Judith Beck. Prisoners of Hate reflects Beck's scholarly background; it is meticulously written and even-toned, and with fifty-six pages of footnotes and bibliography, it feels more appropriate for psychotherapy professionals than laypeople. Still, the picture Beck paints of how our minds can turn to violence is clear and compassionate.

In psychotherapeutic circles, Aaron Beck's name usually appears couched in superlatives: he is, after all, one of the most important psychologists of his time. The founder of the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, Beck has spent his career teaching, researching, writing about, and practicing cognitive therapy, now the fastest growing psychotherapy in the United States. In Prisoners of Hate, Beck applies the lessons of cognitive therapy - an approach that uses rationality to overcome destructive instincts - to explain the origins of hatred on both the personal and global levels. "The dazzling technological advances of our era," he writes, "are paralleled by a reversion to the savagery of the dark ages - unimaginable horrors of war, and wanton annihilation of ethnic, religious, and political groups." By looking carefully at the historical record, Beck argues that the misinterpretations and distortions that lead to large-scale conflicts can bear a strong resemblance to those we experience in everyday life. "The distorted thinking of a paranoid patient," he writes, "is akin to the thinking of perpetrators embarking on a program of genocide." - Michael Lukas '02

Cognitive therapy is built upon the premise that a person's perception is not always reality. A husband can misinterpret something his wife did; a teenager can build a petty high school squabble into something horribly unmanageable. "People in conflict," Beck writes, "react to the threat emanating from the image rather than to a realistic appraisal of the adversary. They mistake the image for the person... Whether applied to a hostile spouse or to members of an unfriendly foreign power, the fixed negative representation is backed up by selective memories of past wrongs, real or imaginary, and malevolent attributions."

So the man in the bookstore had somehow created a negative image of Beck in his mind and taken Beck's book-signing performance as a personal affront. That's another typical trigger of hostility, Beck says: the egocentric perspective, the sense that everything revolves around and reflects upon you. "We all have a tendency to perceive ourselves as the lead actor of a play and to judge other people's behavior exclusively in reference to ourselves," he writes. But when a person's egocentric perspective intensifies, "it may cloud the true characteristics of other people and interactions." Beck doesn't relate his theories to any of the school shootings of the past few years, but the egocentric perspective seems to apply to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the pair who shot up Columbine High School last spring. They targeted several boys wearing baseball caps (among others) because they had been picked on by student athletes in the past. Harris and Klebold were so caught up in their own power play they could not see that these particular boys had not actually wronged them; they looked like jocks, so they were the enemy.

How do people get from anger to such violence? Beck explains that many of his patients who lash out physically first experience self-demeaning thoughts and feelings of vulnerability before actually getting angry at someone. They perceive that the offender has wronged them in some way and is therefore responsible for their hurt feelings. The "injury" is believed to have been deliberate and unjustified, so the offender should be punished or eliminated. In this way a violent person can see himself as an innocent victim acting only in self-defense.

Groups and societies display the same kind of distorted thinking as individuals, Beck notes in Prisoners of Hate. They see the adversary "as wrong or bad," he writes, "and the self as right and good. The aggressor construes the facts in his favor, exaggerates the supposed transgression, and attributes malice to the opposition." Once a group reasons that aggression against its adversary is justifiable for self-defense, its members lose any sense of personal responsibility and are willing to accept increasingly destructive activity. Beck is careful to state that genocide and war stem not from mental illness but from ideological propaganda that can encourage dysfunctional thinking in anyone. Hitler certainly exhibited obsessive and delusional characteristics, but it was the constant Nazi mantra - holding up Jews as a ruthless, diseased menace lusting after world domination - that drove Germans to the Holocaust.

A book about hatred and violence doesn't wrap up nicely in the end, though Beck does what he can. Having already explained that cooperation, love, empathy, and altruism are as much a part of our evolutionary legacy as egocentricity, he concludes that we must "depend on our rich resources of rationality to recognize and modify our irrationality." That's more easily accomplished with individuals - through therapy - than on the societal level. There, Beck writes, "we know a great deal about the nature of prejudice, but we have not yet been able to convert this information into... [preventing] large-scale massacres." The voice of reason is often hard to hear.

Deep Background by David Corn '81 (St. Martin's Press, 384 pages, $25.95).

by Todd Andrews '83

Bill Clinton has been in the White House for so long that his presidency has begun to seem unreal. It is almost as if the luminaries of the Clinton administration have become archetypes instead of real people. No wonder, then, that David Corn, the Washington editor of The Nation and author of numerous articles and a book on the inner workings of the CIA, would draw on reality in order to fabulate a compelling tale about an American president. Will there ever be a fiction that can compete with the alleged truths about our seventeenth president?

Corn's novel opens with a bang: a White House press conference is interrupted by an assassin who, masquerading as a journalist, stands up and shoots the president in the face, twice. The ensuing investigation, which provides the backbone to Deep Background, develops into a thrilling, fast-paced mystery worthy of comparison to such conspiracy-theory potboilers as Seven Days in May and Six Days of the Condor.

However, Deep Background often seems dominated by the shadow of the Clinton White House. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President Bob Hanover, First Lady Margaret Hanover considers a run for the presidency. Nick Addis, a young former Congressional aide who helped get Hanover elected in a come-from-behind victory, is the president's right hand man. He has power, fame, youth, and the president's ear - everything but a Greek, superpolysyllabic last name.

Corn makes the most of characters that are all too familiar to anyone who has spent time inside the Beltway: the chief of staff with a heart of stone, the slick consultant who doesn't care what his candidates stand for (just as long as the checks clear), and the dedicated aides who crave power almost as much as the political patrons they serve. But the temptations of headline reality are often too strong for Corn to resist. When he sends Addis to the Hanover's home state of Louisiana to investigate a shady land deal from which the Hanovers reaped a very healthy profit for a small investment, you've got to wonder: Aren't there some other shady investment vehicles out there that would have served Corn's plot just as well?

When he leaves behind the punishingly familiar details of the Clinton administration, Corn begins to put some flesh on the bones of his characters. In the aftermath of the president's death, the finger-pointing focuses on Clarence Dunne, the head of the slain president's Secret Service detail, who happens to be the first African American to ever hold the position. In a city where tight security is a fact of life, Dunne has committed the unpardonable sin of letting the president get killed on his watch. He feels that all eyes are on his failure, especially when he senses there is something fishy with the post-assassination investigation. Soon he is joined by an attractive CIA analyst, Julia Lancette, who also stumbles upon evidence that something is not quite kosher with the way the investigation is being handled.

Eventually, the three quintessentially Washington characters - Addis, Dunne, and Lancette - team up to battle the shadowy forces that want to stop their investigation. In their quest for answers, they maneuver through car chases, guns, knives, secret government death squads, a high-class escort service, a seedy bar that caters to gay U.S. Marines, and the high drama of a political convention.

At the heart of the matter is a government conspiracy, and Corn has the credentials to make this plot cornerstone very believable. Deep Background is a good bet for both the experienced and novice fans of political thrillers. And you get the benefit of feeling like a true Washington insider without leaving your armchair. ***

Todd Andrews is former press secretary and deputy chief of staff for U.S. Senator Jack Reed. He is currently director of corporate communications for CVS pharmacy.

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