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 culture, 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)

~I am a person of culture, I am so proud to say, so here is Britain's classical singer Katherine Jenkins performing in an episode of Doctor Who: (link)


  1. I sent some of my stuff to "literary" style contests and never got a bite. I started reading the stories they published and found them very uninteresting. Perhaps I'm not boring enough to be literary! I think the brouhaha about cultural appropriation is ridiculous. I think it is inappropriate to pretend you are from a culture you don't belong to or market yourself as from another culture like a famous US politician did (hint: she wasn't Native American like she said she was) but really part of the joy of being a writer is delving into characters from all backgrounds whether it be nationality, sexuality, or anything else that is different from ourselves. I guess if we can't write characters from other cultures we will all need to write science fiction. Unless of course the aliens land for real and give us heck for appropriating their culture; then we will really be in trouble because they will probably use their ray guns on us.

  2. I like the dry wit of your last two lines. You go girl!

    I agree that delving into characters is a joy: They say that once an actor starts getting regular work they never go back to the restaurant business, not even if they were a very skilled waiter.

    The nice thing about acting in summer stock is that no one cares about your gender or skin colour, no one except for the literary EC types: Excruciatingly Correct.

    Even though last week there were frost warnings, and snow in the higher elevations, I am looking forward to Shakespeare on the beach/by the river/in the park. Here in landlocked Calgary? In the park.