Quotulatiousness

July 20, 2014

Culture, political correctness, and social change

Filed under: Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:11

This week’s Goldberg File email newsletter included an interesting discussion of the power of political correctness and how society continues to change:

What is commonly called “political correctness” doesn’t get the respect it deserves on the right. Sure, in the herstory of political correctness there have been womyn and cis-men who have taken their seminal ovulal ideas too far, but we should not render ourselves visually challenged to the fact that something more fundawomyntal is at work here.

Political correctness can actually be seen as an example of Hayekian spontaneous order. Society has changed, because society always changes. But modern American society has changed a lot. In a relatively short period of time, legal and cultural equality has expanded — albeit not uniformly or perfectly — to blacks, women, and gays. We are a more heterodox society in almost every way. As a result, many of our customs, norms, and terms no longer line up neatly with lived-reality. Remember customs emerge as intangible tools to solve real needs. When the real needs change, the customs must either adapt or die.

Many conservatives think political correctness forced Christianity and traditional morality to recede from public life. That is surely part of the story. But another part of the story is that political correctness emerged because Christianity and traditional morality receded. Something had to fill the void.

I wish more conservatives recognized that at least some of what passes for political correctness is an attempt to create new manners and mores for the places in life where the old ones no longer work too well. You can call it “political correctness” that Americans stopped calling black people “negroes.” But that wouldn’t make the change wrong or even objectionable. You might think it’s regrettable that homosexuality has become mainstreamed and largely de-stigmatized. But your regret doesn’t change the fact that it has happened. And well-mannered people still need to know how to show respect to people.

[...]

Now, I don’t actually think Christianity is necessarily inadequate to the task of keeping up with the changes of contemporary society. (The pagan Roman civilization Christianity emerged from was certainly less hospitable to Christianity than America today is. You could look it up.) But Christianity, like other religions, still needs to adapt to changing times and the evolving expectations of the people. I’m nothing like an expert on such things, but it seems to me that most churches and denominations understand this. Some respond more successfully than others. But it’s hardly as if they are oblivious to the challenge of “relevance.”

My concern here is more about mainstream conservatism. I think much of what the Left offers in terms of culture creation is utter crap. But they are at least in the business of culture creation.

July 8, 2014

Understatement of the day – “Britain in the Seventies was a very weird place”

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:42

In the Telegraph, Iain Martin tries to put this summer’s British media hysteria/witch hunt into a bit of perspective:

Anyone who expresses astonishment about the wave of recent revelations and allegations centred on the conduct of assorted entertainers and celebrities from the Seventies must have been lacking access to a television set, if they are genuinely shocked. In that decade, and on into the Eighties, even the most successful and least funny comedy programme rested mainly on one joke, which involved a man in a raincoat chasing around bikini-clad young women. Back then the work of Benny Hill was regarded as family entertainment, and groping, sexual incontinence and jokes about the corruption of innocence were the staples of countless other comedians. It would be surprising – really, wouldn’t it? – if a minority of twisted, power-crazed people working in “entertainment” intent on sexual abuse hadn’t exploited the opportunity to do terrible harm.

Britain in the Seventies was a very weird place. The sexual revolution (largely an elite project of the Sixties, which did not go mainstream until later) had produced a bizarre popular culture hybrid. In the Seventies, the British saucy postcard tradition, always darker than it looked, featuring cheeky innuendo, collided with a crazed mood of supposed sexual liberation. The message pushed out in some sitcoms and other forms of popular entertainment was that everyone was permanently at “it” and that any woman resisting “it” was a prude or a relic of a bygone era. Questions of license, consent and desirability became hopelessly confused. This was the dark flip side of the numerous benefits which came with the abandonment of the old, stifling constraints imposed on both sexes.

To make matters even more hazardous, Britain in the Seventies was a country wobbling on the verge of a transition. The population’s over-reliance on deference and a blind faith in the virtues of authority had already been tested in the Suez disaster and in the Profumo scandal of 1963, although it had not collapsed entirely. Parents still operated on the assumption that fellow adults in positions of power were likely to be trustworthy, and the majority were. But thanks to scandals revealed since involving schools, churches, children’s homes, the BBC, the Scouts and so on, we know that some individuals and networks of paedophiles exploited that trust, again to do terrible harm.

The hound pack of the media is in full cry, and that urge to convict before trial is overwhelming common sense and propriety.

But increasingly we seem less interested in due process – as a protection against miscarriage of justice or to prevent a bad precedent being established – than we do in the excitement of the moment and urgent demands for a government “inquiry” which must usually be “over-arching”. These inquiries are now an industry in themselves, although curiously the one area that probably deserved it (the banking collapse presided over by the political class which triggered the worst downturn in 80 years) was not given a proper inquiry. Funny that.

On Westminster child abuse, the risk was identified by Claire Fox speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme earlier. She said that rumour is already becoming confused with evidence. All manner of claims are now being aired and reported as though they are fact. “Twenty members of the Establishment,” “ministers” and unnamed “leading figures” are accused of dark and sinister deeds. Alongside those making genuine allegations, anyone with a claim will get on air at the moment, any crank or fantasist who wants to attract attention or settle scores will cry that they are being ignored or suppressed if the broadcasters will not give them a platform immediately. It would be a brave BBC producer who would decline right now.

July 3, 2014

QotD: The death of nuance

Filed under: Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

… American liberalism culture is now synonymous with a juvenile Manicheanism that imagines some perfect world we could achieve if people just weren’t so selfish and evil; that getting showily, publicly angry about problems is more popular than actually attempting to solve them; that there is no issue of such emotional and moral complexity that many people can’t reduce it to a black-and-white caricature; and that we have created a media which has made its financial best interest inextricable from destroying depth, nuance, and complexity. I genuinely don’t know if people believe in difficult choices and intractable problems anymore; they’ve been bludgeoned by the loud noises and shouting we mistake for discussion into thinking that all problems have clear villains and easy answers. I do know that this is no way to run a democracy. And I also know that, years from now, when people like Vogell are no longer wasting a second of their time thinking about physical restraint of children who are a danger to themselves and others, the women in my program will be working, quietly and selflessly and for awful compensation, trying to help the children they are now accused of abusing.

Fredrik deBoer, “difficult problems after the death of nuance”, Fredrik deBoer, 2014-07-01.

May 31, 2014

QotD: Clear your mind of cant

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant….You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.

Dr. Samuel Johnson to James Boswell on May 15th, 1783. (quoted by John Derbyshire in “A Whining Pretension to Goodness”, Taki’s Magazine, 2013-10-17)

April 29, 2014

QotD: The music business, from 1959 to now

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The music business has flipped 180 degrees in his lifetime, and he led the charge a bit. It used to be that the bandstand was filled with disreputable drunks and drug addicts, womanizers, and plain bums, and the audience was filled with staid drones, dressed for Easter, who instructed their teenage daughters to stay away from musicians and marry a nice accountant, maybe. Nowadays it’s more likely for the audiences to be filled with disreputable cave people, higher than a kite and all dressed like a roadie for Metallica, while the stage is filled with the hardworking, sober people. And the only work for an accountant these days is counting a musician’s money. No one in the audience knows where their next meal is coming from.

Lots of cool cats in attendance in the video. Music used to be more intimate like that. The world would be a better place if you could get dressed up like you’re going to be buried, take the chariot down to a supper club, slide into the banquette, and listen to jazz made fresh daily over the sound of your glasses clinking. It sure beat today’s version of a concert: getting groped by amateur TSA diddlers, then standing three hundred yards from a stage, looking at the TFT side of ten thousand crummy phones pointed at the replacements for the bandmembers that died in bizarre gardening accidents.

Sippican Cottage, “The State Of The Art In 1959: The Ahmad Jamal Trio”, Sippican Cottage, 2014-04-28

April 13, 2014

Japan does not understand how it is perceived overseas

Filed under: Government, History, Japan — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:02

In The Diplomat, Robert Dujarric explains some of the odd behaviour of some Japanese politicians in dealing with and talking about other nations:

… why are outsiders so worried about Japanese militarism?

First, there is the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” posture of the Abe Cabinet. In barely more than a year it has engaged in an endless stream of symbolic or verbal provocations: pilgrimages to Yasukuni, participation at Takeshima Day rites, Abe-appointed NHK governors denying wartime sexual slavery and the Nanjing Massacre, discussions about revisiting the Kono Statement, and a convoluted speech by Deputy Premier Taro Aso on learning from the Fuehrer.

Second, many Japanese politicians don’t know how the rest of the world thinks. A telling example was the prime minister giving a thumbs up from the cockpit of Japanese Air Self Defense jet with tail number 731. That prompted memories of Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, which performed gruesome experiments on Chinese, other Asians, Russians and some Westerners (and whose leaders received a “get out of jail card” courtesy of the United States). Yet the premier either didn’t notice the markings or didn’t realize what the impact would be, and then failed to fire his entire advance team afterwards. The “731 photo-op” was not unique. Aso’s trip to Yasukuni just after attending the inauguration of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was another.

Third, Japan has an excellent but minute corps of diplomats and bureaucrats who excel at interaction with foreigners. Beyond this, though, most of its officialdom, including many in the Foreign Ministry, have not received the necessary training to, as the American expression goes, “make friends and influence people” overseas. The root causes lie in the inward-looking education system. Unfortunately, the government is blind to the requirement to provide extensive multi-year “remedial education” to the graduates it hires to ensure they are capable of functioning in a non-Japanese setting.

Also, Japan’s is a “closed shop.” Most Japanese who grew up overseas or have a parent from another country end up working for foreign companies or governments. Those best suited for interacting between Japan and the world are lost to the Japanese state.

Fourth, most Japanese officials view outsiders who criticize the LDP as hostile to Japan as a nation, which is generally not true. During a recent session with a Japanese diplomat, I mentioned a Western journalist in Tokyo. This reporter, whom I would describe as an open-minded left-winger, is neither a supporter of historical revisionism nor of Koizumi-Takenaka economics. Anyone who cares to read his prose will also notice a deep empathy for the Japanese people, an outstanding knowledge of the country, and a passion for Japanese culture. My Japanese interlocutor, however, saw him as a foe.

March 29, 2014

China’s “barbarian-handling tools” date back 2,000 years

Filed under: China, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:35

Edward Luttwak describes the very first time China was able to bring powerful “barbarians” into a tributary state, and how that first success has become a key element of Chinese geostrategic thought ever since:

It is this successful transformation of a once superior power first into an equal (signified by imperial marriages) and then into a subservient client-state that seems to have left an indelible residue in China’s tradition of statecraft. It was achieved with a specific “barbarian-handling” tool box first described by its early practitioner, the scholar and imperial advisor Lou Jing (婁敬) 199 BCE. His method was first applied when the Xiongnú [匈奴 horse-nomad state] were still very strong and the Han were not only tactically inferior (their chariots were totally obsolete for fighting mounted archers) but also beset by political divisions, so much so that a 198 BCE4 treaty required the payment of an annual tribute in kind (silk, grain, etc.), and the formal attestation of equality for the Chanyu [Qagan, Khan] embodied in a marriage alliance, formalized by imperial letters that make the equality fully explicit.

The first barbarian-handling tool is normally translated as “corruption” in English translations, but perhaps “addiction,” or more fully “induced economic dependence” are more accurate: the originally self-sufficient Xiongnú were to be made economically dependent on Han-produced goods, starting with silk and woolen cloths instead of their own rude furs and felt. At first supplied free as unrequited tribute, these goods could still be supplied later on when the Han were stronger, but only in exchange for services rendered.

The second tool of barbarian handling, is normally translated as “indoctrination”: the Xiongnú were to be persuaded to accept the authoritarian Confucian value system and the collectivistic behavioral norms of the Han, as opposed to the steppe value system, based on voluntary allegiance to a heroic (and successful in looting) fighting and migration leader. One immediate benefit was that once the Chanyu’s son and heir married an imperial daughter, he would be ethically subordinated to the emperor as his father-in-law — remaining so when he became Chanyu in turn.

The much larger, longer-term benefit of the second tool was to undermine the entire political culture of the Xiongnú, and make them psychologically well as economically dependent on the imperial radiance, which was willingly extended in brotherly fashion when the Han were weak, and then contemptuously withdrawn when the Xiongnú were reduced to vassalage. What happened between the Han and the Xiongnú from the equal treaty of 198 BCE to the vassalage treaty of 51 BCE, remained thereafter, and still remains today the most hopeful precedent for Han dealings with powerful and violent states — evidently the assigned role of the United States in the present Beijing world-view.

The method forms a logical sequence:

Stage One: start by conceding all that must be conceded to the superior power including tribute, in order to avoid damage and obtain whatever forbearance is offered. But this in itself entangles the ruling class of the still-superior power in webs of material dependence that reduce its independent vitality and strength.

Stage Two: offer equality in a privileged bipolarity that excludes all lesser powers, or “G-2” in current parlance. That neutralizes the still powerful Other party, and isolates the manipulated soon-to-be former equal from all its potential allies, preventing from balancing China with a coalition.

Stage Three: finally, when the formerly superior power has been weakened enough, withdraw all tokens of equality and impose subordination.

Until the Chinese government decided — very prematurely I believe — to awaken the world to its classically imperial territorial ambitions by demanding the cession of lands, reefs, rocks, and sea waters from India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam (demands that disturb and damage the concurrent Tianxia narrative of an alternative and more harmonious state system, disseminated even within the confines of Stanford University), it was making much progress towards Stage Two, the stage of equality preparatory to the final stage of subordination.

March 26, 2014

QotD: Britain’s “common culture”

Filed under: Britain, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:22

In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell wrote that the most salient fact about England’s liberal elite was “their severance from the common culture of the country”. By “the common culture” Orwell was thinking of things like beer and bingo, as well as smutty humour, the tabloid press and a distrust of the state and its officials. What connects these things, according to Orwell, is that they all have a whiff of rebelliousness about them, something that appeals to the Sancho Panza in all of us rather than the Don Quixote – “your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. These are the things ordinary people genuinely enjoy, as opposed to what they ought to enjoy. In indulging in these simple, unpretentious pleasures, they are making use of their freedom to spend their money on whatever they like, not what various authority figures think they should spend it on. “One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical,” wrote Orwell. “They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world.”

The reason the liberal elite are disconnected from this culture isn’t simply because it’s alien to them. It’s also because they actively disapprove of it. Unlike the common people, they are puritanical. They think gambling, drinking and bawdy humour, not to mention tabloid newspapers, are wrong and they often give vent to these feelings. Alongside a desire for a more just society, sits a yearning for a purer, less sinful society, one in which the workers spend their evenings reading self-improving books – Booker Prize-winning novels – and engaging in traditional arts and crafts, like basket making. The reason they seek political power isn’t primarily because they want to protect working-class people from being exploited by evil capitalists. They want to protect them from themselves.

Toby Young, “The Conservatives should become the party of beer, bingo and Lamborghinis”, Telegraph, 2014-03-26

March 25, 2014

Tech culture and ageism

Filed under: Business, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:56

Noam Scheiber examines the fanatic devotion to youth in (some parts of) the high tech culture:

Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. “Young people are just smarter,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: “We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.”

And that’s just what gets said in public. An engineer in his forties recently told me about meeting a tech CEO who was trying to acquire his company. “You must be the token graybeard,” said the CEO, who was in his late twenties or early thirties. “I looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m the token grown-up.’”

Investors have also become addicted to the youth movement:

The economics of the V.C. industry help explain why. Investing in new companies is fantastically risky, and even the best V.C.s fail a large majority of the time. That makes it essential for the returns on successes to be enormous. Whereas a 500 percent return on a $2 million investment (or “5x,” as it’s known) would be considered remarkable in any other line of work, the investments that sustain a large V.C. fund are the “unicorns” and “super-unicorns” that return 100x or 1,000x — the Googles and the Facebooks.

And this is where finance meets what might charitably be called sociology but is really just Silicon Valley mysticism. Finding themselves in the position of chasing 100x or 1,000x returns, V.C.s invariably tell themselves a story about youngsters. “One of the reasons they collectively prefer youth is because youth has the potential for the black swan,” one V.C. told me of his competitors. “It hasn’t been marked down to reality yet. If I was at Google for five years, what’s the chance I would be a black swan? A lot lower than if you never heard of me. That’s the collective mentality.”

Some of the corporate cultures sound more like playgroups than workgroups:

Whatever the case, the veneration of youth in Silicon Valley now seems way out of proportion to its usefulness. Take Dropbox, which an MIT alumnus named Drew Houston co-founded in 2007, after he got tired of losing access to his files whenever he forgot a thumb drive. Dropbox quickly caught on among users and began to vacuum up piles of venture capital. But the company has never quite outgrown its dorm-room vibe, even now that it houses hundreds of employees in an 85,000-square-foot space. Dropbox has a full-service jamming studio and observes a weekly ritual known as whiskey Fridays. Job candidates have complained about being interviewed in conference rooms with names like “The Break-up Room” and the “Bromance Chamber.” (A spokesman says the names were recently changed.)

Once a year, Houston, who still wears his chunky MIT class ring, presides over “Hack Week,” during which Dropbox headquarters turns into the world’s best-capitalized rumpus room. Employees ride around on skateboards and scooters, play with Legos at all hours, and generally tool around with whatever happens to interest them, other than work, which they are encouraged to set aside. “I’ve been up for about forty hours working on Dropbox Jeopardy,” one engineer told a documentarian who filmed a recent Hack Week. “It’s close to nearing insanity, but it feels worth it.”

It’s safe to say that the reigning sensibility at Dropbox has conquered more or less every corner of the tech world. The ping-pong playing can be ceaseless. The sexual mores are imported from college—“They’ll say something like, ‘This has been such a long day. I have to go out and meet some girls, hook up tonight,’ ” says one fortysomething consultant to several start-ups. And the vernacular is steroidally bro-ish. Another engineer in his forties who recently worked at a crowdsourcing company would steel himself anytime he reviewed a colleague’s work. “In programming, you need a throw-away variable,” the engineer explained to me. “So you come up with something quick.” With his co-workers “it would always be ‘dong’ this, ‘dick’ that, ‘balls’ this.”

There’s also the blind spot about having too many youth-focussed firms in the same market:

The most common advice V.C.s give entrepreneurs is to solve a problem they encounter in their daily lives. Unfortunately, the problems the average 22-year-old male programmer has experienced are all about being an affluent single guy in Northern California. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many games (Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, Crappy Bird) and all those apps for what one start-up founder described to me as cooler ways to hang out with friends on a Saturday night.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

March 16, 2014

Defining hackers and hacker culture

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:49

ESR put this together as a backgrounder for a documentary film maker:

In its original and still most correct sense, the word “hacker” describes a member of a tribe of expert and playful programmers with roots in 1960s and 1970s computer-science academia, the early microcomputer experimenters, and several other contributory cultures including science-fiction fandom.

Through a historical process I could explain in as much detail as you like, this hacker culture became the architects of today’s Internet and evolved into the open-source software movement. (I had a significant role in this process as historian and activist, which is why my friends recommended that you talk to me.)

People outside this culture sometimes refer to it as “old-school hackers” or “white-hat hackers” (the latter term also has some more specific shades of meaning). People inside it (including me) insist that we are just “hackers” and using that term for anyone else is misleading and disrespectful.

Within this culture, “hacker” applied to an individual is understood to be a title of honor which it is arrogant to claim for yourself. It has to be conferred by people who are already insiders. You earn it by building things, by a combination of work and cleverness and the right attitude. Nowadays “building things” centers on open-source software and hardware, and on the support services for open-source projects.

There are — seriously — people in the hacker culture who refuse to describe themselves individually as hackers because they think they haven’t earned the title yet — they haven’t built enough stuff. One of the social functions of tribal elders like myself is to be seen to be conferring the title, a certification that is taken quite seriously; it’s like being knighted.

[...]

There is a cluster of geek subcultures within which the term “hacker” has very high prestige. If you think about my earlier description it should be clear why. Building stuff is cool, it’s an achievement.

There is a tendency for members of those other subcultures to try to appropriate hacker status for themselves, and to emulate various hacker behaviors — sometimes superficially, sometimes deeply and genuinely.

Imitative behavior creates a sort of gray zone around the hacker culture proper. Some people in that zone are mere posers. Some are genuinely trying to act out hacker values as they (incompletely) understand them. Some are ‘hacktivists’ with Internet-related political agendas but who don’t write code. Some are outright criminals exploiting journalistic confusion about what “hacker” means. Some are ambiguous mixtures of several of these types.

March 9, 2014

More on that “cultural appropriation” meme

Filed under: Media, Middle East, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

A couple of days back, I linked to a Salon article where an Arab woman was expressing her anguish and hurt that non-Arabs were appropriating belly dancing and how this was something she just couldn’t stand to see. Eugene Volokh responds in the Washington Post, asking “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?”:

Appropriation — the horror! People treating artistic genres as if they were great ideas that are part of the common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group. What atrocity will the culturally insensitive appropriators think of next? East Asian cellists? Swedish chess players? The Japanese putting on Shakespeare? Jews playing Christians’ Christian music, such as Mozart’s masses? Arriviste Jewish physicists using work done for centuries by Christians? Russian Jews writing about Anglo-American law? Indians writing computer programs, using languages and concepts pioneered by Americans and Europeans? Japanese companies selling the most delicious custard cream puffs? Shame, shame, shame.

But, wait: Maybe — and I know this is a radical thought — artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came.

Maybe telling people that they can’t work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be … rats, I don’t know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean “telling people that they mustn’t do something, because of their race or ethnic origin.”

March 7, 2014

White belly dancers are “appropriating” inappropriately, says Salon writer

Filed under: Media, Middle East, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:08

That vast invisible knapsack of white privilege is even deeper and more capacious than we thought: Randa Jarrar writes that the sight of white belly dancers is something she cannot stand:

Google the term “belly dance” and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?

The term “belly dance” itself is a Western one. In Arabic, this kind of dance is called Raqs Sharqi, or Eastern dance. Belly dance, as it is known and practiced in the West, has its roots in, and a long history of, white appropriation of Eastern dance. As early as the 1890s in the U.S., white “side-show sheikhs” managed dance troupes of white women, who performed belly dance at world’s fairs (fun trivia: Mark Twain made a short film of a belly dancer at the 1893 fair). Many white women who presently practice belly dance are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not.

[...]

“It’s Arab face,” my friend Nadine once said, pointing at an invitation from a white acquaintance of hers. The invitation was printed on card stock and featured the woman and a dozen of her white friends dressed in Orientalist garb with eye makeup caked on for full kohl effect and glittery accessories. We wanted to call these women up and say, “How is this OK? Would you wear a dashiki and rock waspafarian dreads and take up African dance publicly? Wait,” we’d probably say, “don’t answer that.”

The most disturbing thing is when these women take up Arabic performance names — Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali. This name and others like it make no sense in Arabic. This, in my estimation, completes the brownface Orientalist façade. A name. A crowning. A final consecration of all the wrongs that lead up to the naming.

Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

H/T to Steve Muhlberger, who wondered “what kind of purity test will would-be dancers have to pass?”

January 29, 2014

Alan Moore on the “cultural catastrophe” of Superheroes

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:58

In the Guardian, Alison Flood rounds up some fascinating comments that Alan Moore made in what might be his final interview:

Comics god Alan Moore has issued a comprehensive sign-off from public life after shooting down accusations that his stories feature racist characters and an excessive amount of sexual violence towards women.

The Watchmen author also used a lengthy recent interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid at Slovobooks entitled “Last Alan Moore interview?” — to expand upon his belief that today’s adults’ interest in superheroes is potentially “culturally catastrophic”, a view originally aired in the Guardian last year.

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

The award-winning Moore used the interview to address criticism over his inclusion of the Galley-Wag character — based on Florence Upton’s 1895 Golliwogg creation — in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, saying that “it was our belief that the character could be handled in such a way as to return to him the sterling qualities of Upton’s creation, while stripping him of the racial connotations that had been grafted onto the Golliwog figure by those who had misappropriated and wilfully misinterpreted her work”.

And he rebutted the suggestion that it was “not the place of two white men to try to ‘reclaim’ a character like the golliwogg”, telling Ó Méalóid that this idea “would appear to be predicated upon an assumption that no author or artist should presume to use characters who are of a different race to themselves”.

“Since I can think of no obvious reason why this principle should only relate to the issue of race — and specifically to black people and white people — then I assume it must be extended to characters of different ethnicities, genders, sexualities, religions, political persuasions and, possibly most uncomfortably of all for many people considering these issues, social classes … If this restriction were universally adopted, we would have had no authors from middle-class backgrounds who were able to write about the situation of the lower classes, which would have effectively ruled out almost all authors since William Shakespeare.”

H/T to Ghost of a flea for the link.

January 18, 2014

QotD: Belief

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

Why do so many people believe in a god? Dennett’s Breaking the Spell is an attempt to examine that question, for Christian fundamentalists, Islamic teachers, Buddhist monks, atheists, and others. He begins by pointing to the commonality of pre-scientific answers in groups of people: “How do thunderstorms happen?” answered by “It must be someone up there with a giant hammer” (our example, not his). Then, probably after a minimum of discussion, a name such as “Thor” becomes agreed. Having successfully sorted out thunderstorms, in the sense that you now have an agreed answer to why they happen, other forces of nature are similarly identified and named. Soon you have a pantheon, a community of gods to blame everything on. It’s very satisfying when everyone around you agrees, so the pantheon soon becomes the accepted wisdom, and few question it. In some cultures, few dare to question it, because there are penalties if you do.

Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, & Jack Cohen, “Disbelief System”, The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day, 2013.

January 7, 2014

“Boomer Classic” and “Boomer Reboot”

Filed under: History, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

Chronologically speaking, I’m a late Baby Boomer, but I’ve never felt I was a Boomer culturally. In the New York Times, Richard Pérez-Peña helps to explain why this is:

This year the youngest of the baby boomers — the youngest, mind you — turn 50. I hit that milestone a few months back. But we aren’t what people usually have in mind when they talk about boomers. They mean the early boomers, the postwar cohort, most of them now in their 60s — not us later boomers, labeled “Generation Jones” by the writer Jonathan Pontell.

The boom generation really has two distinct halves, which in my mind I call Boomer Classic and Boomer Reboot. (Take this quiz to see where you stand.) The differences between them have to do, not surprisingly, with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — and economics and war. For a wide-ranging set of attitudes and cultural references, it matters whether you were a child in the 1940s and ‘50s, or in the 1960s and ‘70s. And it probably matters even more whether you reached adulthood before or after the early ‘70s, a time of head-spinning changes with long-term consequences for families, careers and even survival.

[...]

Late boomers like me had none of that — no war, no draft, no defining political cause, and most of our fathers were too young for World War II. I remember, as a teenager, seeing old footage of the riots outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and thinking, “People my age don’t feel that strongly about anything.”

People raised in the immediate postwar years had more faith in their government, and an idealistic view of America that curdled in the ‘60s and ‘70s. My childhood memories of the evening news, on the other hand, include the war, protests, Watergate and the dour faces of Johnson and Nixon, not the grins of Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy.

In this way, I think we late boomers have more in common with the jaded Generation X that followed: we had less idealism to spoil. No, I don’t remember where I was when Kennedy was killed and innocence died (I was an infant), but I sure remember where I was when Nixon resigned and cynicism reigned. Older boomers may have wanted to change the world; most of my peers just wanted to change the channel.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

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