Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cultural Appropriation in Cowtown

Hello Reader,
Got CA?
Cultural Appropriation?

Don’t worry: I am well aware that opinions, to paraphrase a computer expert, “are as common as twitter accounts: everybody’s got one.” (“Ya, but I don’t”) Don’t worry that I will try to preach at you about the issue of CA. On the contrary, I will explain how I can’t do so. Not here in Cowtown.

My friend Betty passed me some handouts from a weekend class on metaphors. Apparently the sacred mystery of poetry is partially due to metaphor, to words meaning more than one thing, words reaching “beyond the emotional and intellectual” into deeper meanings. Wow! I didn’t know there was anything deeper than those two areas. I feel energized with FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) like when I read about the nostalgic joy of American baseball, or about the joy of watching ice hockey during the playoffs. Now I’m under a spell: I want to join the community of literary readers too.

But then again, do I really want to join the literary set? They buzz like bees but where’s the honey? I ask because the buzzing of the “chattering classes,” in this otherwise merry month of May, is about the sadness of  “cultural appropriation,” or CA. Actually, they claim to be “offended,” but to me that’s a wimpy code word for a “deeper meaning” than offended: “feelings hurt,” and sadness. I think CA is a term that, like “political correctness,” PC, back in the 20th century, is not instantly self-explanatory but requires a series of steps, or stages, to understand. For example, stage one, at least for PC, is: Any person you write about is someone whose culture and peer group you are automatically “speaking for.”

Make sense? When I first heard the idea of stage one it was clear as mud. Now stack on some other rocket stages too, ones that are not perfectly computed to the tenth decimal place, with each added stage thereby increasing the chance of mission failure, and in the end we have a rocket from North Korea. …Stages, eh? Not instantly grasped? There’s a reason why strong ideologies, from communism to the Unification Church out of South Korea, require study groups.

Main Body
You may wonder: By this reasoning of PC and CA, if women have a different culture, then can a male write about a female character? New York Times best-selling author and feminist Rita Mae Brown, back when (1988) she wrote her advice–for-writers book, Starting From Scratch, answered “yes,” adding that straights should learn to write about gays, (she joked about “passing in reverse”) She even joked that Herman Melville had an extreme solution to the ‘speaking for’ problem: He put his characters in Moby Dick out at sea in an all-male ship. For my part, I haven’t gone sailing yet but yes, I’ve passed for being gay.

If I am fond of the nice Ms. Brown ~of 1988 U.S. deep south~ even though, if I might coin a metaphor, she gives off a rainbow spectrograph not of my own subculture, then it’s because I could see us happily sharing a mint julep together. Even if she wouldn’t find me nearly as funny as her. Unhappily, I think her nice sense of humor in 1988 was too broad—she called herself “an equal opportunity offender”—too broad to allow her to feel any nice enjoyment at being strictly, narrowly, politically correct …if in fact they even had the term PC back in her day, as it seems PC was only popularized after a 1990 N.Y. Times article, according to Wikipedia.

People didn’t say PC back when Brown was writing, except the people in communist study groups—which they called Marxist study groups, because they resented, nay, were offended, at being called “commies.” This was because they were stridently Marxist-Leninist, not to be confused with the other communists, the Stalinist-Khrushevists, who followed the Moscow party line, rather than the party line of China and Albania. I still regret how the “campus commies” had their weekly meetings right when I always had a more important weekly meeting to go to, so I missed my chance at seeing history. It was queer how they kept on having their study-meetings even after the Berlin wall came a-tumbling down: Those fanatics didn’t want to admit they were on the wrong side of history, that Albania would soon go capitalist. Oh well, at least they still have China.

ANOTHER FOOTNOTE Hey, I bet you thought of the line in the Sheryl Crow song where the girl’s boyfriend is a communist who holds meetings, while she’s gonna tell everyone to lighten up.

Perhaps I should have more precisely said it’s the “literary class” that’s all a-buzz during May, as I for one haven’t truly looked into CA. Why? Partly because: The tempest is back east, and I don’t feel I can comment on Easterners, because it’s not politically correct to comment on a culture I don’t know—it might annoy them. After all, I myself get miffed if Easterners try to say our two totally separate provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta both have an identical carbon cultures, merely because they both have farmers and prairie grass. Fair is fair: let’s not comment on each other. If, like being under the spell of the World Series, Torontonians think CA is really important, then let them talk about it with their fellow Fans.

Partly because: the magazines and periodicals in question are ones I wouldn’t normally read, or even see on local sales racks, so who am I to comment? Partly because: I seemingly don’t care enough to even retain the names of people involved, and furthermore I don’t think they would be my friends… not even if I lived right next door to them. No mint juleps for us, ’cause I’m not rich enough and literary enough.

This issue I am not explaining today, this CA, is about writers, of cultures and subcultures, imagining stories that involve persons and settings that are of not of the writer’s own culture or subculture, while using the artifacts and ideas of those cultures. Bad enough to walk in another man’s shoes, but to carry his red boots across a cultural boundary is CA, “cultural appropriation.”

To a degree, maybe, this makes sense: After all, can an Easterner who believes in “housing projects for the poor” (which the Americans knew, for heaven’s sake, to stop building back in the 1960’s—see the comedy of Dick Gregory) possibly understand my smaller city, a cowtown where the roads department has a deer sighting everyday, and where I personally see rabbits every single day? I wonder what the biggest wild animal is in Toronto? Not a deer, surely. Maybe a squirrel.

I do read, honestly I do, just not literature. If I go into an authentic prairie coffee shop in the morning, the sort of place where the men are wearing baseball hats as unselfconsciously as men of 1955 Manchester are wearing tweed cloth caps, and then if we talk about our reading, well, our talk is not about rarified prose, only about prose as common and accessible as a television show. Our vocabulary does include some big words, but certainly not the term “cultural appropriation.” As we pass around the newspaper TV pages it wouldn’t occur to us to ask: Does Hollywood even have a culture?

Here on the prairies, last I heard, our third largest minority group is the Ukrainians, after the British and the French. All three groups enjoy the cinema. Suppose secret agent James Bond goes to Moose Jaw, and has an adventure inside the windowless exotic Elk Bone Casino. Eh? Suppose the movie scriptwriter has imagined local Non-Ukrainian females wearing traditional Ukrainian red boots, and nontraditional red leather skirts too, and, furthermore, suppose he imagines male casino patrons wearing nice business suits, and tuxedos too. Should regular folks worry about their image? “Oh no, Easterners are going to think we all wear our Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes to go do sinful gambling.” Should Ukrainian folks say, “They have appropriated our red boots”? Should all the folks together say, “Oh no, they’ll think all our local young ladies wear shameless red leather!”

At the heart of the matter: Is the writer, to use a PC phrase, “speaking for” Moosejawians? I’m sure my calm weathered white-haired coffee buddy with the John Deer hat is not worried about the image of “sinful” Elkbonians. Come to think of it, neither is he worried that he doesn’t know his metaphor from a simile. So my answers for Moose Jaw are “No, no and no.”

I hate to be honest but verily, in my humble Cowtown, most of us spend more man-hours watching the screen than we do reading, and most of our reading is intended as printed television. Writer Margaret Lawrence, who’s books are “Canadian literature,” books not to be shelved with the science fiction, even if they do take place in the fantastic future, has said, I presume with exasperation, something like, (I forget, so I’m kinda making this up) “Please understand: When we read, it’s not because we are too lazy to turn on the television set.”

I believe you Margaret, but I just don’t know about your “literature friends.” It seems to me your friends have long ago lost their wide-eyed “Zen beginners mind.” They have simply read too much, to the point where they all know a cliché when they see one, and they all despise clichés. This has consequences. This means they never write about kisses, car chases, cars rolling over and down ravines, exploding cars, lively folks jumping out of cars to have earnest gun battles and —er— heroes entering the bedroom. Clichés to Margaret’s friends, yes, but we regular folks expect to see this every night. We don’t expect culture. Not unless, maybe, we click around the dial to CBC or BBC America: “Ya gotta love your Doctor Who.”

But literary people? Methinks they don’t talk with great passion about the Doctor, or Torchwood, or anything else filmed in Cardiff. For them, it’s much easier to feel stirrings of interest in discussing cultural appropriation.

I don’t know any literary Easterners myself—how could I? —Yet in my mind’s eye they are buying their books in hardcover because they are so rich, their pockets stuffed with so many coins they don’t even jingle. Because I’ve noticed: If their book reviews or scholarly articles quote a page number, then it’s always for the hardcover page. Call me lazy, call me stuck in my own subculture, but I confess: At the end of the day, I simply can’t be bothered to tell them that my culture prefers paperbacks. Maybe I’m enabling them to appropriate my culture, to pretend in their writing that my culture, here in the same Canada we all share, prefers hardcovers too, eh? Well. Better if I relax, like the folks in Moose Jaw, and credit the readers, and the writers themselves, with knowing when they are pretending.

For my part, any precious coins that remain after bus fare and coffee go into my wee piggy bank, which happens to be in the form of—no, not a pig—the Doctor’s blue phone booth, also called his “blue box,” (You can look it up, it’s on the web) properly known as his “tardis.” (Note to literary guys: the word tardis is in my computer’s Oxford ROM dictionary—“Yowser!”) As for cool piggy banks, what the heck do Canadian literature guys use? Eh? ... All I can think of, maybe, is a porcelain Ann of Green Gables, complete with a slot in her sunbonnet. Or maybe a slot in the gables.

You may ask: Can you wear “Anne’s” sunbonnet? Here in our distinct culture of Alberta? Can you wear a bonnet, several time zones away from the different-yet-equal culture of Prince Edward Island, without culturally appropriating P.E.I.’s headgear? For that, I would refer you to any literary people—absent from my coffee shop—or to your computer search engine, which can explain CA far better than I can… as I’m trying not to bore you.

Now, with your permission, because I suspect James Bond, metaphor-wise, speaks to our need to glamorize our lives, just as if we could have 007 background music in real life, I will go off to see what I can appropriate from another British James Bond novel… complete with long guns, a zig zagging car chase, and maybe an ejector seat.

Sean Crawford

Sidebar on Northern Culture: held back for another post
~My newest metaphor: For advice on CA I would not advise you to ask just one person, rather, I like the metaphor of Derek Silvers, of asking around like a bat sending out “echolocation.” He writes, “Bounce ideas off of all your surroundings, and listen to all the echoes, to get the whole picture.”

~I have this week deleted two essays on my current Web Administrator’s Page because they were attracting spam robots: Anglicizing and Into Arizona.

~May is not over yet: Yesterday (datelined Toronto, of course) came another news story, interviewing a University of Toronto professor about the CA controversy, headlined Journalists are self-censoring? (Here’s the link)
The questions that were covered:
-The Sun asked Peterson, what are the implications for journalists?
-In some cases, the journalist apologized. Why wasn’t that enough?
-Does this promote censorship?
-What about the argument that journalists are being insensitive to other cultures?

~Rita Mae Brown’s Book, from back in the days of typewriters, is subtitled A different kind of writer’s manual. I see it gets only average reviews on Amazon, but I strongly disagree with those guys: I won’t loan my copy to anyone!

~ A book from my youth (You can tell by the stern title it was made during the 1960’s) about the Canadian civil war (Killing Ground) had for the viewpoint character a Ukrainian-heritage army officer. The reason, according to the author, was because Ukrainians were the third largest minority in Canada. I recall the character noting that middle grade officers, as part of the military subculture, would “unconsciously” take on the moustaches and the look of Anglo-Saxon officers.

As for “unconsciously,” I rather suspect: If any culture becomes self-conscious then it may no longer be a natural culture.

~I was moved to do an essay on the rebooted New Doctor Who back in February 2017 (my blog archives are to the right)

~And finally, yes I know, I could have scattered this with blue links like the Martian measles, to impress Google search engines, and then get some hits from Canadians back east, but why? I’m not seeking tenure, and I’m not getting paid. This is my hobby blog.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Human Interest with Muslim Demons

Hello Reader,
If God made me white and liberal, then God had a reason. “I won’t be made (guilty), nor be idle with despair.” As Jewel sings.

Of course I like my “citizen” essays, but since we all like to hear about human beings, well, it’s time for a “human interest” piece about my life, or, if that’s too hard for me to share, at least about my flaming opinions. Self-indulgent maybe, but hey: It’s a blog thing.

As you may recall, blog is short for “(world wide) web log.” Originally, young folks, comfortable with computers, who rightly thought their lives mattered, would post a log (Stardate 3141.59) about their days and their fears, complete with photographs of what they had for breakfast. This required some effort. Today our “need to get attention” is more easily served by briefly tweeting. Like the U.S. president does.

As for me, I’m just as modest about my “ordinary half-boring life” as was my favorite dead-tree essayist George Orwell, or my three favorite essay-bloggers: Modest, all of us. For example, I barely know, in passing, that the other essayists have wives, but I don’t know what the wives have for breakfast, or what kind of shirts they wear… as their kitchen counter radio plays Major Tom. (Space Oddity)

If you and I didn’t want to get some attention, through our blogs, tweets, media and our conversations in-person at the watering hole, if instead we were totally self-effacing, then I guess we would be saints. And verily our lives without attention would be as plain as supper without salt: Oh well, at least as saints we’d save on the cost of beer and cigarettes.

As for thinking we all count, I’m still chuckling over someone’s T-shirt I spotted down in the States. You may recall the Yankees have been saying, “Black lives matter.” This T-shirt had big block letters to proclaim:


At the bottom: except isis, fuck those guys.

You might say those words against ISIL are “demonizing the enemy.” I would agree. I saw the T-shirt out in the Arizona desert, among plastic lawn chairs, as in: “the white seats,” as in: the expensive up-front section of a big outdoor country music festival. A performer reminded us to support our military. He added, “If you think supporting our military is political, then you can just leave now. Because supporting our American military is never political.”

That’s historically true: When little republics like Athens or Corinth would beat the drum everybody would rally around the flag. The drum, to use a metaphor, was kept silent until there was unity. Any political talk among the people mingling in the forum would happen before they finally voted and all clamored for war. Then: All of the people would support some of the people to carry out the wishes of the people. Historically.

What if, foolishly, we would attempt to fight before we felt an appropriate certitude in our decision? The Bible has that covered: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” and “A house divided cannot stand.” If you do, God help you, blow an uncertain note, if the people “blow it,” then it still remains appropriate to emotionally support your “countrymen at arms,” beyond all politics, while at home we are acting as swiftly as possible to sort out our political conscience.

Historically, such is the way of a healthy republic.

Sidebar History:
The classic “uncertain note” would be the “Vietnam conflict” —the official army term— during my youth. Americans used under-voting-age Cold War conscripts—the conscription being ALREADY in progress—as part of the greater Cold War effort.

The smaller localized conflict in the Republic of South Vietnam was never formally endorsed nor declared to be a war by the U.S. people, the “body politic.” In fact… even though the contested battleground was officially the “hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese, to convert them to democracy, while preventing them from converting to communism… it is documented that all of the important leaders in Washington, let alone regular citizens, could not have passed a simple community college exam on the hearts and culture of the Vietnamese.

The Americans never called up their National Guard and their reserves; they had no recycling, or any other sort of war effort, on the “home front.” Such a dim uncertain trumpet.

As for me, as a Bohemian sings, “I’m just a poor boy, from a poor family…” and yet I easily mingled enough, in the desert, among affluent fans in the white seats. I can say with assurance the rich people had ample empathy for working people, trailer trash and, as Loretta Lynn sings, a coal miner’s daughter. Furthermore—here starts my flaming opinions—those country fans could sympathize with the dear boys and girls whom America would send into harm’s way. Unlike certain elite

—Oops! I wonder if I have just offended some Guilty-White-Liberals? You know, the elite so comfortable to stay-at-home while letting impoverished guys like me do all their fighting for them. As for that anti-ISIL T-shirt, before my Canadian readers call it prejudiced against innocent ISIL-Arabians, remember this: The U.S. has declared War on Terror. This means, by definition, Americans have to “demonize the enemy.”

I live on planet reality. Maybe on fantastic Mars the patriotic social workers and saints, during wartime, are flying in their bombers and pressing their buttons while sobbing, “This will hurt me worse than it hurts you.” Not me. I would look down through my plexi-glass at the flashing anti-aircraft guns and say, “Screw those bastards.”

Historically, no one has ever been able to make war-time sacrifices, such as great tax increases… or leaving their crops half-grown in their fields, or leaving their college degree half-finished, or leaving their National Football League cash-cow to go off and join the fight, not until they had first demonized the enemy.

My dear Canadian readers: If, hypothetically, Canada declares War on Terror, and then, if you and your friends don’t demonize the enemy, then to me it logically follows: You might as well do tax decreases just like Bush junior did, and let your war be fought by “others” such as civil servants. In uniform. Which would suit corrupt liberals just fine. But know this: You surely are confused or a liar if you call that a “war.” I know one thing for sure: Even a bigot hates a liar.

A thought: If someone asks in bewilderment, “Why do some people view Hilary, Obama and Bush junior, despite their diversity of gender, skin color and party membership, as being all the same, all elite, all peas in a pod?” then at last I have an answer… Now, during World War II, young Bush senior was in uniform, a pilot, shot down by fascist AA guns in the Pacific and then rescued by a submarine. Yes, but can you imagine those three young peas, Hilary, Obama and Bush junior, serving out in the Pacific, fighting on Hacksaw Ridge? (Film) Me neither.

In contrast, I can imagine a (future) President Kennedy volunteering in WWII, President Truman volunteering in WWI, and President Lincoln volunteering in the Blackhawk war, where his peers elected him to be a lieutenant. Everyone respects Lincoln: By his plain words and his down-to-earth humor, we know he had too much inner dignity to ever want to join the elite.

Forget the elite: I can easily imagine President Trump sharing my foxhole. I’d probably have to tell him to keep his head down as he occasionally fired off a few rounds and shouted insults across no man’s land at the evil Nazis. When the time came to race across the field to the enemy lines, through thick dust and smoke, so thick that no one would ever know if we secretly wimped out or not… I could surely count on Trump to keep up with me as we dashed into the fire...

As I was saying at the top: Of course we all want to get attention, but let’s not tell false news with our tweets, blogs and social media, not about ourselves. For example, I would hope that by honestly blogging that I have an “ordinary half-boring life,” my readers aren’t struck by FOMO—fear of missing out. And hey, let’s not get confused about the definition of war. Let’s not lie to ourselves.

Sean Crawford

Human Interest Religion Sidebar: held back for some other week.
~The used bookstore in Sundre has a separate room for treasured old books; I drive the nicely scenic 22 north from Cochrane.

 ~The movie Hacksaw Ridge is like Saving Private Ryan: heavy casualties. But the grim film is still worth it, being a moving testimony to one man’s faith, a God-fearing man. He wouldn’t touch a rifle, yet he won his country’s highest honor, presented to him by President Harry Truman. At the end of the movie, people clapped for a long time. I have the old hardcover version, unearthed in Sundre, on my shelf. (The Unlikeliest Hero by Booton Herndon)

~A person of color, with laughing eyes, teased me, “But you’re a liberal.” My eyes flashed, “But I’m not guilty!”

~If God made me white and liberal, then God had a reason. I won’t be made guilty, nor be idle with despair. As Jewel sings.