Hopefully an Apt Metaphor

What would you rather be: broke or in debt?  Think about it long and hard, and don’t get into the ‘well is it good debt or bad debt’ debate.  It’s debt, it may be necessary, but it’s really never good.  Right?

Now think about what that means on a number level.  Broke means you have $0 (or pretty damn close).  Debt means you owe money, which means you’re negative.  Are we all set on this?

Ok, so the reason I bring up debt vs broke, is that I’ve been seeing a lot of stupid shit about “privilege” all over the internet.  Whether it’s “white privilege” or “male privilege” there are a lot of people who think these aren’t things.

“Nothing was given to me!”  “I had no advantages because I was white!”  We’ve heard all of these, and at face value, they can make sense.  The problem is, that these arguments really only hold up when there isn’t an opposing argument.  Just like being broke sounds bad, until you realize at least you don’t owe money.

“Privilege” is essentially being born broke.  You don’t necessarily have any property/money/political power or anything that will help you to succeed in life, you are starting from nothing.  So it seems natural to say “I had no advantages,” but what you didn’t have was disadvantages, and this is where the other side fills in the rest of the picture.

Being born without “privilege” is essentially being born into debt.  Not literally obviously, hopefully no one is being born into an actual place of debt, but the point is that there are specific disadvantages that come with birth for certain groups of people.  If you’re African American you’re more likely to be incarcerated, to be suspected of crime, followed in stores, the list unfortunately goes on.  If you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be harassed, or assaulted, or condescended to, or not be taken seriously in the work place.  There are disadvantages that come with being part of the LGBTQ community, or non-Christian, other races or ethnicities.  Those disadvantages are the equivalent of debt in this metaphor.  They have to work harder to get to “broke.”

I’m sure some will read this, and think those disadvantages I listed are incorrect, or inflated, or exaggerated.  Specifically the ideas of incarceration rates have been pointed out “well, if you do something wrong, you go to jail,” and other similar statements have been said to me, and my question is this: “how many times have you broken laws?”  Because I have broken laws, and I’ve never gone to jail.  Hell, I’ve been confronted by police while breaking laws, and never gone to jail.  It’s one of my least favorite things about people is that everyone wants law and order, but they like to steal movies, or do recreational drugs, or drive at excessive speeds.  There are very few people whom, I meet, who if they tell me they don’t break the law, I actually believe.  Yet we’re always ok with someone else paying the price for their actions.  This is a form of privilege.

The same idea kind of goes for the other examples that I gave of disadvantages, except that I feel like we’ve all heard the arguments against them.  We know that if a woman is assertive she’s called a bitch, and if a man’s assertive he’s respected for it.  We know if a woman sleeps with multiple people she’s called a slut, and a man is “sewing his wild oats” or whatever bullshit you want to call it.  We all know that the people telling gay people they shouldn’t be able to get married because of the “sanctity of marriage” tend to be on their third sacred marriage.  Or that the people who protest most about the deviance of homosexuality, or transgender identity tend to be significantly deviant.  Despite doing very little to actually discredit these things, or to make positive change, we all seem to know this stuff, that’s why I go into more depth on the “well if you break the law you should be punished” argument.

So which would you rather be?  Broke or in debt?  Be honest now.

Call to Action

All week, I have been obsessing over the events in the news, and trying to make sense of them, more importantly, I’ve been trying to think of how I can contribute, what I can do to make the world better.  I’m not kidding myself and thinking I can solve the problem, or that I can have some giant impact, but ultimately I’m not happy with doing nothing.

I came up with an idea, one that you are free to steal if it sounds good to you, one that you can contact me if you want to participate.

On a small scale (either a town, or a county) or maybe on a slightly larger scale (in the big hub city closest to you) we throw a catered event.  The “Everyone’s Welcome Dinner,” where we get food donated from restaurants, or perhaps its more potluck style, and we cater to every dietary restriction, so that everyone feels enticed to come.

As the title says, everyone is welcome, and that means everyone.  The idea would be that we would get people of every race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, and just be a community.  Everyone is welcome also means people in racist organizations, it means everyone.

The key, is that we get the best food options to really make people want to come, and the rule is we talk about things that we have in common, not things that divide us.  Do you play the guitar?  Were you on the football team in high school?  Have you always dreamed of climbing a mountain?

Now, I’m aware this seems pretty unlikely, and perhaps a lofty idea that won’t happen.  I’m not delusional.  What it would need to start out as a group of like minded (open-minded) people, who invite one or two people they know who are more clothes-minded, enticing them with the food, but also being completely upfront about what the event is.  We don’t scold people if after the event they return to their everyday beliefs and behaviors, we don’t even scold them if they don’t do a great job of mingling, we just continue to invite them back.

I think it becomes very easy for us to seclude ourselves not only in political echo chambers, but in groups of people where we can blend in, whether that is our churches sticking with people who know the same general behaviors, or our race where our skin doesn’t stand out with others.  This may be a melting pot, but I think largely there are a lot of chunks where the ingredients have stuck, and not fully melted in.

So the idea is this is a place where everyone is welcome to come and brag about their kids, or reminisce about their sports triumphs, or make plans to climb Everest.

These are the things that will make humanity great, when we see goals, and dreams, and accomplishments, and fond memories, but we’re stuck on these other things.  So maybe once a month, or quarter, or however often we can manage to make this happen, we should get together and focus on those things, with what I like to think of as the other great human effort, and that is food.

Please let me know if this is something you’d be interested in working on, or if you have any ideas for it, or any other thoughts you may have (try to remain cordial, that’s gonna be the key to all of this, even if it’s just a formality).

Cultural Appropriation, and a Couple of Things I Don’t Get

Alright, before I get started, I want to frame this for you correctly.  First of all, if you’re not aware, I’m a white/straight/cis/male, and so I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, and what I’m bringing up here, is hopefully to start a conversation in which I may learn more about the subject.  Second, if something in this offends you, please know that it is not my intention, and just let me know.

Wikipedia defines Cultural Appropriation as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.”

Right now there is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in a negative way. Given the historical context, it makes sense that there is controversy around cultural appropriation.  For all of modern history, specifically the age of mass media, in the United States, there has been a history of white people taking different cultural elements, and repurposing them, making it appear as if they were the originators.  Music is probably the most clear example of this, jazz, blues, and rock music all originated with black musicians, but were quickly adopted and in large part taken over by white people. Rap/Hip-Hop has to some extent been the exception (other than the Beastie Boys, and Eminem, there hasn’t been enough longevity by white artist in the genre to say it’s white dominated).

It is obviously bad when cultural identity, and history are taken from a culture, but I wonder where the line between this occurring, and genuine love/adaptation of culture is drawn.  Last month Demi Lovato received negative internet feedback when it came to her hair being dreadlocked. I didn’t fully understand why this was controversial, as far as I can tell, it didn’t appear as if it was some kind of mockery of dreadlocks, and certainly no one is going to be confused and think that white people started them because she had them—or regardless of how many white people have them at this point. Now there are a whole bunch of pieces that I could be missing, if she had said been critical of black culture in the past, or thought this granted her license to say racial slurs, then I would understand.  I’ve read a few articles that pointed at tweets telling her what she did wrong, and I must say that in 140 characters I didn’t get it, perhaps a longer form response is appropriate when it comes to a delicate issue like this.

On the other hand, this past week, I saw an article about two women forced to close their burrito restaurant due to cultural appropriation—together with the Demi Lovato story, I thought to write about this.  With the burrito women, all of the headlines made the argument against them sound ridiculous, but upon further investigation, I found out a major part of the issue, was that these two women went and found a place where they really liked the burritos, got the cook to give them the recipe and went home and began using it.  This seems a little more like a flagrant example, and while I’d be hard pressed to call it straight out theft, it does appear to be douche-y.

What I’ve been wondering with all this talk about cultural appropriation is, where is the line?  If we stick with the food example for a minute, I personally love food of many different cultures (I used to joke that fat people have a harder time being bigoted).  Personally, I don’t want to eat Italian food every night, or any other food every night, I want variety, and cultures cook different, and use different ingredients, and have created a large rainbow.  As I’ve grown up, my tastes have expanded, and I’ve learned about fusion foods (I’ve had tacos, and pizzas that have been heavily influenced by an array of different cultural identities).  Food isn’t the only way this works, music too, and I’m sure more subtle cultural practices can really make our lives fuller, and begin to blend together.

Obviously, there is a line between mockery or theft and appreciation.  Black face is the most obvious example. It should be clear to us all that black face—for the purposes of humiliation/separation/dehumanization—is not acceptable.  But what about if someone where’s black make up in an attempt to emulate—in a manner of adoration— a black person.  Take for example Juliana Hough, who, a couple of years ago, dressed up as the character of Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black.  It appeared that it was done to play a character she liked, not to mock, and yet the reaction was essentially the same. Now, I think that her dressing up with black make up was a bad idea, and clearly she didn’t understand the effect it would have on people’s feelings, but I don’t think she intended to do any harm.  To some extent shouldn’t intention come into play?  It doesn’t mean we don’t as a society say “woah!  Stop doing that,” but there should be some level of difference in backlash depending on malice or not.

I do understand that identity is a very important concept, and that we all need to have an identity, and more importantly I get that we have a history of people stealing cultural identity markers from others, but there must be a way that we can embrace each other’s cultural differences and grow and expand together, while retaining some form of identity.  So, the two examples, that of Demi Lovato, and the other with the two burrito women seem to be on opposite ends of the same line, and I’m not entirely sure the people complaining know where the line is, nor where it should be.

Please, if you have insight into any of this let me know.  I want to understand better, and obviously I’m missing something.

Not Getting The Message

There is a stereotype in our society of artistic meaning being total bullshit.  You know what I’m talking about, someone wearing a French Beret in front of a blank canvas, telling someone how it is perfectly representative of the potential of humanity as well as the accomplishment (sometimes it’s a hippy instead of a Beret wearer).  It’s a trope that we’re likely to think of when we hear someone is doing art that we don’t see the merit in (i.e. anytime genitals, or excrement or anything we consider vulgar are used or depicted.) In non-visual art there are other ways to dismiss art that doesn’t apply to our sensibilities, we refer to musical genres we don’t like as noise, films that have anything that we consider overly risqué tends to get placed—at least in our minds— in the category of pornography.  With art, if we don’t get the point, or more importantly if we don’t think that we get the point, we assume that there isn’t one.

Around the time that Dave Chappelle ended his show, there was a lot of talk about the message of the show.  People said that Chappelle walked off because white crew members were laughing in the wrong way, and Chappelle himself in interviews talked about people coming up to him and quoting the show in front of his kids.  They would say the “N-word” to him, or any number of other jokes.  A lot of the things that I’ve read on Facebook since the show ended have talked about the first problem, and said that there is not a wrong way to laugh, or that if a joke is only for one group of people that it is inherently racist.

Now the show started airing in 2003, at the time I was 19.  By the time it ended in 2006, I was nearly 22.  One of my favorite sketches was and remains to be the Clayton Bigsby sketch, which was the black blind KKK member.  It’s one of the best pieces of sketch writing ever, and I ate it up—as did many others.  It had a point, and that was that there is no real logic, or sense of continuity to racism (even after Bigsby learns that he’s black, his hatred of black people remains).

Here is the problem with the sketch, it’s arguably too smart.  We hear about people getting outraged or offended by controversial humor, and often times it’s a matter of the offendees not understanding the point of the joke—you can witness this almost every week on Real Time with Bill Maher, when Bill makes a joke aimed at subject A, but mentioning subject B, and the audience groans thinking he’s making fun of subject B.  It’s a problem that comedians have to deal with often, and it’s constantly being talked about. I’m not going to talk about audiences being offended to easily, because everyone talks about it.

What I want to talk about is the other side of the coin.  The fans who don’t get the point, and that can be arguably worse. In the Chappelle’s Show example, we get to see a series of sketches with very funny sound bytes, and so we have people walking around yelling “I’m Rick James, Bitch!” despite it not being the truly funny part of that sketch, or we get people quoting Clayton Bigsby in his many “N-word” infused sound bytes.  This get’s young people, or in the case of me and some of my peers, young white people.  Thinking they have free license to use the quotes without thought, justifying the use of that word by reminding ourselves that we’re just quoting, and not using it with intended malice. Some of this will be solved with maturity, and better understanding, but the fact remains, sometimes the message is too smart for it’s audience—I do not blame Chappelle, or any other artist for this, just as I don’t blame Stephen Hawking if I incorrectly try to explain any of the subjects in A Brief History of Time.  Ultimately it’s the job of the reader to work harder to understand the point, or to at least stop quoting it out of context.

In addition to fans, there is another problem with this type of misunderstanding. Whether you’re a rapper, a filmmaker, or a comedian, there are people in the field making their art in a pointed and specific manner, and then there are those who didn’t get it, but liked it and began to try to emulate it.  The best example of this that I can think of is in stand up comedy, with rape jokes.

George Carlin had a bit, which I’m sure at the time many considered a rape joke, but I don’t think it really was.  He said “Some people say you can’t joke about rape, rape’s not funny.  I say ‘fuck you I think it’s hilarious.'”  He continues on to talking about “it’s all about how you construct the joke.”

This is only the nine minutes that is specifically about rape, but within the context of the whole special/album, he talks about free speech, and language, and how we think in language.  The album this appears on is called Parental Advisory, and the special is called Doin It Again.  I recommend listening to/watching either.

The joke may not be for everyone’s sensibilities, and I certainly understand that, but the truth is in there.  He brought it up to show that even the most sensitive topics can participate in comedy, and shows the power of it, he deflates and humiliates the rapist.

Now, it’s a pretty common topic that people talk about how the topic should be avoided by comedians, and it is usually said in such a way that sounds like a mandate.  The truth is that it should be avoided, but not necessarily for the reason that there is no positive outcome.  The truth is that kids coming up, and becoming comedians in their own right, want to be controversial, and emulate what they see, and the easiest controversy is rape. I don’t want to debate the validity of the best rape jokes (shows like The Daily Show, or SNL‘s Weekend Update can certainly talk about rape, because often they’re attacking a rapist, and that would still be a rape joke right?  Whenever someone attempts to humiliate or knock Bill Cosby down a peg, it could be considered a rape joke?  So I think it’s a different argument). But we get flooded with bad rape jokes, rape jokes that don’t have any purpose but shock.  Ultimately, to some comedians, it’s just a word used as a type of controversy currency, and that is insensitive, and is offensive.

I’m sure the same can be said many other taboo subjects then just the “N-word” and rape, and it is definitely not exclusive to comedy, but we have a watering down of our art, because I think people are getting into it without the same forethought, the same purpose, as those who came before.  The Carlins, Pryors, and Chappelles, are followed by people who only heard the sound bytes, and mimic it, like when a small child get’s a laugh after saying something ‘naughty’ and they do it every time without really knowing why.

I guess the point I want to make is, that we don’t just need deliberate artists, musicians, and comedians, but we need to be deliberate consumers of art, music and comedy.  We need to —at least try to— understand things beyond the surface.  If we do this, if we teach our children to do this, hopefully we’ll get more generations of good, strong messaged art, music and comedy.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

This one is actually a new book review!  Well, the book itself isn’t new, but my review is.  I just posted it a few minutes ago.  I’ve actually reading faster than I used to, and so I’ll have two more reviews soon, and I’ll have another story posted in the next week or so.

Let me know what you think.