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‘Better Is Good’: Obama Talks on Reparations

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: I’ve talked to Marty [Nesbitt], I talked to Mama Kaye [Wilson], I talked to Eric Holder, so I’ve been making the rounds. I’ve got all the goods.

Barack Obama: You’ve got all the goods.

Coates: I’ve got all the goods. Talked to [David] Axelrod, talked to [David] Plouffe.

Obama: I’m ready to just fill in the gaps.

Coates: I thought we’d talk about policy today. I wanted to start by getting a sense of your mind-set coming into the job, and as I’ve understood you—and you can reject this—your perspective is that a mixture of universalist policies, in combination with an increased level of personal responsibility and communal responsibility among African Americans, when we talk about these gaps that we see between black and white America, that that really is the way forward. Is that a correct summation?

Obama: I think it’s a three-legged stool and you left out one, which is vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. So the way we thought about it when we came in is that—and obviously we came in during crisis, so how we might have structured our policy sequencing if, when we came in, the economy was okay, and we weren’t potentially going into a great recession, and folks weren’t all losing their homes, might have been different. But as a general matter, my view would be that if you want to get at African American poverty, the income gap, wealth gap, achievement gap, that the most important thing is to make sure that the society as a whole does right by people who are poor, are working class, are aspiring to a better life for their kids. Higher minimum wages, full-employment programs, early-childhood education: Those kinds of programs are, by design, universal, but by definition, because they are helping folks who are in the worst economic situations, are most likely to disproportionately impact and benefit African Americans. They also have the benefit of being sellable to a majority of the body politic.

Step No. 2, and this is where I think policies do need to be somewhat race-specific, is making sure that institutions are not discriminatory. So you’ve got something like the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], which was on its face a universal program that involved a huge mechanism for wealth accumulation and people entering into the middle class. But if in its application, black folks were excluded from it, then you have to override that by going after those discriminatory practices. The same would be true for something like Social Security, where historically, if you just read the law and the fact that it excluded domestic workers or agricultural workers, you might not see race in it, unless you knew that that covered a huge chunk of African Americans, particularly in the South. So reinvigorating the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, making sure that in our Department of Education, where we see evidence of black boys being suspended at substantially higher rates than white boys for the same behavior, in the absence of that kind of rigorous enforcement of the nondiscrimination principle, then the long-standing biases that I believe have weakened, but are still clearly present in our society.

If you’ve got those two things right—if those two things are happening—then a third leg of the stool is, how do we in the African American community build a culture in which we are saying to our kids, “Here’s what it takes to succeed. Here are the sacrifices you need to make to be able to get ahead. Here’s how we support each other. Here’s how we look out for each other.” And it is my view that if society was doing the right thing with respect to you, [and there were] programs targeted at helping people rise into the middle class and have a good income and be able to save and send their kids to school, and you’ve got a vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, then I have confidence in the black community’s capabilities to then move forward.

Now, does that mean that all vestiges of past discrimination would be eliminated, that the income gap or the wealth gap or the education gap would be erased in five years or 10 years? Probably not, and so this is obviously a discussion we’ve had before when you talk about something like reparations. Theoretically, you can make, obviously, a powerful argument that centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination are the primary cause for all those gaps. That those were wrongs done to the black community as a whole, and black families specifically, and that in order to close that gap, a society has a moral obligation to make a large, aggressive investment, even if it’s not in the form of individual reparations checks, but in the form of a Marshall Plan, in order to close those gaps. It is easy to make that theoretical argument. But as a practical matter, it is hard to think of any society in human history in which a majority population has said that as a consequence of historic wrongs, we are now going to take a big chunk of the nation’s resources over a long period of time to make that right. You can look at examples like postwar Germany, where reparations were paid to Holocaust victims and families, but—

Coates: They lost the war.

Obama: They lost the war. Small population, finite amount of money that it was going to cost. Not multiple generations but people, in some cases, who are still alive, who can point to, “That was my house. Those were my paintings. Those were my mother’s family jewels.” If you look at countries like South Africa, where you had a black majority, there have been efforts to tax and help that black majority, but it hasn’t come in the form of a formal reparations program. You have countries like India that have tried to help untouchables, with essentially affirmative-action programs, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed the structure of their societies.

So the bottom line is that it’s hard to find a model in which you can practically administer and sustain political support for those kinds of efforts. And what makes America complicated as well is the degree to which this is not just a black/white society, and it is becoming less so every year. So how do Latinos feel if there’s a big investment just in the African American community, and they’re looking around and saying, “We’re poor as well? What kind of help are we getting?” Or Asian Americans who say, “Look, I’m a first-generation immigrant, and clearly, I didn’t have anything to do with what was taking place.” And now you start getting into trying to calibrate.

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FROM THE WAYNE MCGREGOR INTERVIEW: “I SEE BEAUTY IN THE DYSFUNCTIONAL”

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Mr. McGregor, how would you describe your unique style of choreography?

I see beauty in things that are dysfunctional rather than just pure line and shape. The aspiration of classical ballet has often been about a kind of grace and effortlessness and lyricism in the body, an instrument that’s in fantastic motion. I think that’s really beautiful and really interesting, but I also think there’s a whole other range of physical potential that a human body can do. So, I’m interested in that side of it. I’m interested in bodies misbehaving.

Where do you think that comes from?

I’ve always had a very long body, so I’ve been able to do things differently. I was doing body-popping and a lot of club stuff when I was around 18, when rave culture came around. That kind of permeates the way in which you see people move. I’ve not been in a classical ballet school — where you’ve seen bodies move in a particular way — since the age of eight.

“Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.”

You never had any traditional ballet training?

No! And that’s why it was so strange that I would get these really amazing jobs at places like The Royal Ballet, where I was the first resident choreographer who had never trained in a royal ballet. But I don’t think any of that matters. Being a choreographer is about the biomechanics and signature of the body. Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.

Did you go back to school to gain the technical knowledge necessary to talk to professional dancers?

Kind of. I did a degree in choreography and semiotics, as well as contemporary dance training, but I got my practice in ballet through actually doing it, right? So the first time you ever work with somebody on pointe shoes, you ask them, “What can you do?” I had no idea what you can do! But less important than knowing how the pointe shoe works is to have good dancers in the room who, when you say, “Can you do that?” they can go, “Oh no, but I can do this.”

Your approach to teaching choreography seems to rely more on collaboration than authority.

It’s a dialogue. I try to work with the best people possible and suck out their brilliance as much as possible. The job of a choreographer is to find what’s personal to them. When I worked with Thom Yorke, for example, I found out that he’s an amazing dancer. Full stop. He doesn’t really need a choreographer.

So you based the choreography around his natural movement?

Right and I think it should be like that for everyone! The “Lotus Flower” video is choreographed but it comes from him, so he feels he owns it already. He’s giving it to me, and I’m just helping him form it in a different way. When you’ve got somebody so extraordinary, it’s exciting for a choreographer; it’s effortless. Sometimes technique gets in the way of letting dancers be curious and open and try new things. Their idea of physical beauty gets in the way of them exploring. For me, there’s no point in being an artist now and just repeating things that happened in the past.

Source: The Talk

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OLE SCHEEREN TALKS: “HOW CAN WE BREAK THE MOLD?”

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Mr. Scheeren, what experiences would you say changed your understanding of the world?

I think when you grow up in Europe, almost no matter where, you have a very sheltered idea of how things are. So going backpacking through China 25 years ago really confronted me with a reality that was unimaginable. Simply the amount of people around you, a completely different definition of personal space, of how things would work, of how people live… The main reason to go was that I knew nothing about the world, and China seemed the most impenetrable. Somehow that trip was a discovery of a reality that I had no idea about before. It was quite a transformative moment for me because it liberated me.

Liberated you from what?

It showed me that things could be dramatically different but maybe equally valid or equally interesting. For instance, I think that the power in China was not in holding on to its past in the way that other developed nations do, it was in the complete focus on the future. There was very little sentimental baggage. It was simply a search for how to progress. That experience was very raw, you could feel this incredible energy somehow in that country. People were hungry for things to happen, people were interested in what the future could be.

“That strong sense of courageousness was a very exciting context for an architect to engage with.”

Ma Yansong says architects should involve the public more when envisioning the future of urban planning.

Well, that strong sense of courageousness, that strong sense of demand, or exploration, was a very exciting context for an architect to engage with. It wasn’t just about how could we stick to what we already know but how can we rethink things for which there are no particular models. For example, in China, someone came to us and said, “We want to build a bookshop that is 100,000 square-meters large.” And you go, “What do you mean? Not even a public library is that size!” But then you visit an existing bookstore in Seoul that is half that size and it’s completely full of people. You see that energy and that density and you think, “Of course you can double it!” But at first it sounds like a completely implausible idea.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better…

True. What is important is to not simply succumb to the generic production of quantity and built mass, but to really ask how could we develop models out of this inevitable density, that are much more valuable towards us as human beings — towards a question of how we want to live, what is the quality of our life, and how do we want to exist in a city that grows extensively. I think we’ve been quite successful in finding clients that were ultimately willing to engage in these dialogues to see how we can break the mold, how we can, in a very literal way, open the skyscraper up to the life of people.

Like with your Interlace apartment complex in Singapore?

Exactly, the Interlace was a redefinition of a building as something that was no longer just an object, but a connective tissue that would form a huge community. The way the building blocks are stacked up forms huge gardens and courtyards, so it was about defining the space to live in that would allow you an incredible degree of freedom to decide for yourself. I think that’s what ultimately makes for an incredible quality of life in that place. Another example is the Sky Forest project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. For that, we imagined the nature that you could soak up in the middle of a very dense, emerging part of the city.

Have you ever been surprised by how people inhabited your buildings?

In a way, that’s the best thing that can happen, when people are inspired enough to make their own story out of it. It’s not that they have to live your story — I think that would be a rather oppressive scenario. Architecture should never be too prescriptive in terms of telling you what to do. I think it’s actually brilliant when people find ways to reinterpret the spaces we create. For example, by complete coincidence, I found on the Internet a girl living at the Interlace who had posted a series of “My Life at the Interlace” videos, where she rollerblades throughout the complex — that was really a great moment. We couldn’t have scripted anything as good as that.

Source: The Talk

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DAVID OYELOWO SAYS: “YOU ARE NOT THE CENTER”

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Mr. Oyelowo, how do you approach playing a historical character?

It’s a very tricky thing because of course you have to be evocative of who they were, how they moved, how they spoke. You have to make people relax and say, “Okay, he feels like him enough that I can just go on this journey with this character.” But if it becomes an imitation, if it’s about mimicry, if all people were saying is, “Oh, yeah, he really got the voice,” you’re dead! That’s the worst compliment you can pay.

Really, why?

Because when you go to see a movie, there is a spiritual exchange between the audience and what you’re watching. There is something metaphysical going on, where through the eyes, through what that person is exuding, you go, “I understand who they are. I have a sense of what they’re feeling when they’re not even talking.” There is an embodiment that is total so that you forget all of that. People shouldn’t be looking at the mechanics of what you did.

What should they be looking at?

How you did it emotionally. I believe that we go to the movies to see ourselves. “How would I react?” If all you’re seeing is a superhuman human being who had answers for everything, then you’re just watching in awe and it’s just like, “Okay, wow, he’s him and I’m me.” So I think it’s important that we can see ourselves on screen and I think that also means that we’re looking for the greatness in ourselves.

Is it important for your work to inspire people to be better?

It is important to me! I want to do films that hopefully inspire people to be the best version of themselves. If you look at the films I do, all of them, in some way… the remit I set myself is, “How does this enrich people’s lives?” You know, what’s meaningful? I want films that, when my kids see them, they understand why daddy did those films. They understand how it correlates with the way I’m trying to raise them.

Did you gain that perspective when you became a father?

Being a father teaches you very quickly that you are not the center of your own universe. That’s one of the gifts of having to wipe poop! (Laughs) Other people’s poop… Four times, with four children! I’ll be on a plane tomorrow back to my kids, lock my door, and it’ll all be about poop again! (Laughs) That’s the life I lead.

I’m sure that makes it easier to focus on the important things in life.

The fact of the matter is that every actor’s career has highs and lows. When success as an actor comes early, it’s very easy to believe the hype. But to me, it’s about how consistently you do the work – whether it’s celebrated or it’s not. I’ve been in movies with huge movie stars who have been crucified when there are failures and who have been adulated when there are successes.

In the last few years you’ve been in The HelpLincolnThe Butler, and most recently you portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Why is it so important for you to make films about African-American history?

We need those films. Up until recently, films that deal with civil rights and racial unrest have mostly been told through white characters, through white protagonists. Malcolm X is probably the only film I can think of where you have an indisputable black American leader as the focus of the film. What you’ve tended to have is Mississippi Burning or you have Glory or you have these films that are all through white protagonists. Great films – but a different point of view. You can’t have a film about Dr. King and it be all about Lyndon Johnson in my opinion.

Why do you think there are so many films about African Americans coming out of Hollywood lately?

I think it’s synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency. I think having a black president means that for a lot of white people there is an opportunity to not just focus on what’s negative about the past, but we have clear indications of progress, so it becomes easier to go: “How did we get here, historically? How have we got to the point where we have a black president?” All these films, they were just not getting made before his presidency. I actually saw President Obama about two weeks ago when we took Selma to the White House, and I thanked him for my career.

What was his reaction?

He went, “Ah, I don’t know about that.” But I told him, “Trust me. I can track when these films came my way!” I can chart it because it’s synonymous with when I moved to L.A. I’ve been in five of those movies! So I think that’s what it is.

And last year 12 Years a Slave even won the Oscar for Best Picture.

But a film about a slave is different than a film about a leader. Black people have been celebrated as slaves and butlers… The very first black person to win an Oscar was for playing a maid in Gone With The Wind, Hattie McDaniel. So, you know, that’s not an issue. We’ve been celebrated as subservient people forever. Great! Fabulous! As leaders? No, not so much. Barely ever.

To quote Dr. King, do you believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice in the end?

I think it does – if love is where you’re operating from. I think if you have anger and bitterness in your heart, and you just decide to lash out against it, all you do is you feed prejudice because prejudice exists on the basis that you are lesser than. If you prove that you are lesser than, you are only going to perpetuate that myth. I think there is a reason why the phrase is moral because to be moral is to absolutely embrace the fact that there is a right and there is a wrong. So the only way it bends towards justice is to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem.

Source: The Talk

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