Wednesday, January 17, 2018

On Cultural Appropriation Again

If you asked me 15 years ago whether I believed institutions should impose gender-neutral language, I would have rolled my eyes. These days I believe gender-neutral language is good and have started to use the pronouns "they" and "them" as opposed to "he/she" and "him/her" in my writing. If you had asked me if Apu was a racist caricature, I would have said, eh, get over it. Thanks to a certain comedian who will soon become a household name, I now feel a little ill for laughing at a few too many of the lazy, so-called "post-racist" jokes on The Simpsons (1989-).

If you asked me five years ago whether I thought "cultural appropriation" was a problem, I would have rolled my eyes. These days, I am willing to listen. But whereas there are certain subjects upon which I feel I have no right to add my voice, on this one I do have that right. I have a stake in the conversation.

I suppose my biggest complaint about cultural appropriation is that the term is too broad. I don't think blackface, or what we are now calling redface, brownface, gayface, or transface, is a form of cultural appropriation, at least as I understand the term. I don't think a white person wearing blackface is appropriating any form of blackness, stealing from black culture. Why? Because blackface in its classic form, is emphatically not black culture. Black minstrelsy is a creation of white people, a means of keeping black people regulated to specific roles. When black actors are forced to perform black minstrelsy themselves, they are being asked to perform the white-cultural-idea-of-blackness. I would say the same for the Washington Redskins and a sombrero party. When a bunch of "woo" girls walk into a gay club and start off with the "Heya girlfrieeeennnnnddddd!" b.s. I'm not looking at cultural appropriation, I'm looking at plain old bigots who engage in stereotypes, who define and control people they know nothing about.

What would be cultural appropriation? Well, a few years ago I interviewed Craig Thompson, a white American, about his book Habibi, an Arabian Nights-inspired tale. Thompson employed Arab designs and reconsidered the Arabian Nights as a kind of proto-superhero-comics story, noting that like superhero comics, the Arabian Nights can be a little gaudy, sexed-up and comic-book-like. Is this a form of cultural appropriation? I would say yes. He is appropriating art work from a tradition he was not born into, that is not inherent to the tradition in which he works, and creating something new. He claimed that he had great respect for the unnamed Arab artists he was imitating and I'm sure he did. The question is not whether or not this is cultural appropriation. The question is if this cultural appropriation is wrong? And the answer is a resounding..."I don't know."

How about Poland's contemporary klezmer scene? Many if not most of the klezmer musicians in Poland are not Jewish. They are playing music from a tradition that is not only not their own, per se, but was born out of a tradition of a people who were historically not allowed to define themselves as Polish even though they lived within the borders of the country. Now that most of those Jews are gone, do contemporary Polish musicians have a "right" to play klezmer, to be the keepers of the tradition in Poland? It disturbs me to see Polish teenagers vote for anti-Semitic politicians and also somehow fall in love with klezmer. But as a klezmer fan, if not a fanatic, I have to admit that non-Jewish klezmer musicians have done a lot more to learn about this music than I have. Whatever my reservations, I like the idea of an idea of Jewish culture living on, in some vestigial form, in contemporary Poland.

The questions become more complicated. Do the anti-cultural-appropriators hate a major achievement like The Wire (2002-2008), a show mostly about black people written, directed, and shot mostly by white people? And what about food? Why doesn't a white guy get to open a sushi fusion restaurant? Not all cultural-appropriation easily fits our definition of power. A black artist appropriating American Indian artwork doesn't fit into our concerns about control.

The term "cultural appropriation" suggests a essentialist definition of a people, and essentialism, at some point, maybe at the earliest point, becomes its own form of racism. Cultures aren't static. Black gospel will always change, the Talmud is always open to interpretation, and the American Indian oral tradition, like all oral traditions, is defined by the fact that it can't be pinned down to a precise historical moment. Stiff approaches to the concept of "cultural appropriation" suggest a narrowing of culture rather than a democratic approach to cultural exchange,  the latter of which, admittedly, may be impossible within our current system.

I also have to admit that the debate does not strike me as the most important one to have in regards to achieving a more just, equitable society. I met someone who was very proud of the fact that he paid a hell of a lot of money to cover up one of his old Indian tattoos. I think there are more than a few Indians who would have preferred he had sent the money for the tattoo removal to the protesters at Standing Rock.

So where am I on whether or not I believe cultural appropriation is a real thing? The answer is that I don't immediately roll my eyes at the impulse to pose the question. The answer is also that I am just as afraid of those who shout "cultural appropriation" without questioning the term for themselves.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On Oprah Winfrey

Things I don't like about Oprah Winfrey, in no particular order:

1. She promotes quacks, among them anti-vaxers and terrible psychologists. The harm is exponential. She promoted Dr. Oz who in turn promoted a guy who thinks you can cure AIDS with goat's milk.

2. Her relentless positivity is toxic. 

3. She thinks reading long books is an act of bravery.

4. She celebrates a culture of consumption.

5. Her favorite people are rich celebrities.

6. She screwed over all those people she gave free cars to.

7. Her message to the black community is a little too Booker T. Washington.

8. She really likes Cory Booker.

9. She talks to her audience of perfectly intelligent grown-ass adults like they're fourth graders.

10. She likes Tyler Perry.

11. She has promoted terrible trends in educational reform.

12. All that applause. Non-stop applause. For god's sakes...

13. She thinks Henry Kissinger is a nice man because he likes dogs.

Except for point 1, she is pretty much the same as any mainstream Democratic Party candidate. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

On Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives

Richard Morgan's dive into Woody Allen's archive reveals what we already knew from watching Manhattan (1979) and Mighty Aphrodite (1995).

I should lay out my concerns. I am disturbed by the impulse to require all art, particularly art of the distant past, to conform to the specific moral beliefs of our present moment. I don't think the approach to warfare and honor in The Iliad can be defended. An honest, historically accurate staging of The Merchant of Venice would be vilely anti-Semitic. Benito Cereno is racist beyond all mention. As someone who has seen First World pedophiles exploit younger, impoverished boys in Third World countries, I read The Immortalist with a great deal of discomfort. Still, I learn from all these books, indulge the charisma of the language (in translation), look for the ways their moral ambiguities — and the ambiguities are always there even if you don't want to see them — speak to my own time and my own life. They are my Talmud.

So Woody Allen...Well, nothing will ever make me stop laughing at "My brain? It's my second favorite organ" (Sleeper [1973]) or that bit about how a relationship is like a shark. But after running through some of his one-liners and thinking through some of his set-ups, I was surprised to discover how stale and Jay Leno-esque some of his humor can be in the movies that are supposed to be his funniest: jokes about how bad food is in health stores, how Norman Mailer should dedicate his ego to science (Sleeper) jokes that Wallace Shawn, of all people, could be a sexual animal, that a now lesbian ex-wife is a kind of castrator (Manhattan), or that middle-aged men might like to dress up in woman's clothes (Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask [1974]). I mean, when he's good, he's still good. I guess I'm indulging the darkest corners of my Jewish soul when I admit that "My grandmother never gave me anything. She was too busy getting raped by cossacks" (Annie Hall [1977]) made me lose it when I first heard it and still does.

So is Allen's interest in young girls still funny? I guess when I first saw these movies they were funny because the low-status man Allen played seemed as ridiculous and pathetic as Falstaff or late-period Hugh Hefner, a slave to a libido that makes him miserable, a grotesque figure who is just a few notches away from being tragicomic as opposed to merely comic.

Maybe the problem is that the real Allen, the Allen these movies are all based on, and the Allen whose persona and personal life shadows these films, looms so large in our consciousness as is the case with any major persona actor Hollywood. The other problem is the knowledge that Allen in real life, in every significant way, is the guy with power, social and economic. His looks always made him low-status in some respects.  The Allen persona worked in movies only because the characters he played also had low economic status. When the real Allen, the powerful Allen, enters into the narratives, they just aren't funny anymore. Stardust Memories (1980), the story of a wildly rich and successful filmmaker, doesn't work. I know this defense of his movies has problems. Even low-social-status males pose a threat to women and I don't blame anyone for not finding Annie Hall funny anymore even if I still can.

My two favorite Allen movies and the ones that may very well survive are hybrid comedy-dramas, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Husbands and Wives (1992). His true alter ego in the former is not the character he plays, a failed documentary filmmaker, but rather Martin Landau's successful, culturally sophisticated optometrist. Judah Rosenthal commits a murder with the help of his mafioso brother played by Jerry Orbach. He gets away with it and after suffering terrible guilt, he comes to terms with himself, comes to believe that his murder is only one part of his identity, that he is also a man with family, friends, and admirers and is able to continue living his life. In Husbands and Wives (1992), Allen plays Gabe Roth and Sydney Pollack plays Jack, both of late-middle-aged men who pursue affairs with much younger women. Jack finds an aerobics instructor who helps him lose weight played by Lysette Anthony. She embarrasses him at a party after talking astrology with his middle-aged sophisticate buddies. He discovers that she can't give him what he wants, that he never can have what he wants.  He tries to escape the humiliation. He throws her in his car, and too drunk to function, fighting for control of himself and his life, he can't get out of the space, he hits drive and breaks the bumper of the car in front of him. He puts the car in reverse and causes another few thousand dollars of damage to the car behind him. He's trapped with a woman he hates but has no right to hate, and his own terrible self.

On some level, Allen just knew. He condemned himself far more powerfully than the rest of us ever could. I don't know if Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives will survive another 100 years, but they'll always survive for me.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

On Watching Violent Men

You might not be able to recite it word-for-word, but you have probably never forgotten the gist of the opening line of Memories of My Melancholy Whores, the last novel by Gabriel García Márquez. "The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin." Edith Grossman translated the novel. I saw her speak some years ago and she pointed to some of the moral dilemmas in her career. Throughout García Márquez's oeuvre, there is scene after scene of lovemaking between adult men and adolescent females. The relationships are often exploitive, and outside even statutory rules, many of them are outright rapes. The language renders these scenes exquisite and titillating. But fiction is fiction, and like a great musician interpreting a master, Grossman transfers that titillation from the Hispanophone to the Anglophone world. 

Grossman has her limits. She could not translate a 16th-century poem by Lope de Vega because she thought it was Islamophobic. Grossman lives in New York and she was horrified by the Muslim-bashing that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks. She did not want to contribute so much as a breath to that atmosphere.

The distinctions in the two cases are fascinating and don't follow any of the conventional wisdom with which we usually consider these problems. Lope is a citizen of the distant past, which we try to forgive as much as possible. We can't impose our morality in that foreign country. García Márquez is a citizen of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He doesn't get the same pass. Lope is guilty of racism. García Márquez, through the disguise of fiction, is an apologist for rape culture. Grossman's translation of Lope's poem would likely have been read by very few people, most of them academics or undergraduates whose teachers would have worked to put the work in cultural context. García Márquez's novels are best-sellers. Your friends who don't read LITERATURE read him. 

For Grossman, writing words which condemn members of a different race or religious background as a member of a separate species is simply more painful than writing words which treat 12-14-year-old girls as objects for 90-year-old men. So Grossman's decision is as much visceral as it is intellectual. But I think I know the source of this difference.  If I'm kind to myself, I will claim that I can transfer the excitement I feel when I read these passages from García Márquez to my own more common/respectable/amoral thoughts on twenty-something men. I don't have an out when I read Oliver Twist. To delight in Fagan is to delight in a hatred of Jews. There is no transference possible. There is only one group that you know of which follows the contours of the stereotypes set down by Dickens. To be caught in the charisma of language and narrative is to surrender. And I surrender over and over again. I don't believe literary critics who claim otherwise for themselves. Jewish critics turn away from Eliot less because Eliot insults them than because they fear indulging a latent Jewish anti-Semitism.

Film doesn't offer the same out. You don't get to watch Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979) and transfer the camera's love for a seventeen-year-old Mariel Hemingway onto anyone else. (Personally, I think Hollywood makes us all bisexual.) You also don't get to ignore the power of the body of the man who commits violence. García Márquez confronts you with his language, with the power of his ventriloquism. But despite his celebrity, he doesn't force you to look at his own dirty old man's body. Even a memoir expressing such desires is somewhat separate from the body from which those words originated, especially in the era of type. But to delight in Kevin Spacey's satanic performances is to delight in the body that in our actual world terrorized so many people.

I saw the preview for All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott, 2017), and I regret that I won't get to see Spacey in what would have been the final performance of his career. He looked fun and terrifying, his evil more organic than it had ever seemed before. I don't need to see Mel Gibson play a romantic lead again, but I'm all for the misogynist/bigoted fucker playing villains. We need the safety of fiction to believe we're still good people when we enjoy evil. We don't need the safety of fiction to enjoy evil.

Monday, November 13, 2017

On the Criticisms of #metoo

From what I understand there are two major criticisms of the #metoo movement. The first is that its definition of sexual harassment is too broad. The second is that its definition of workplace harassment is too narrow.

In the first article I linked to, Cathy Young, a sharp necessary voice from Reason, suggests that in our rush to expose some truly gruesome behavior -- who the hell corners a woman in a hallway just to masturbate in front of her!? -- has led us to either over-punish lesser crimes or make relatively innocuous behavior seem criminal. A recently married couple, both feminists -- by which I mean they spend a fair amount of their thinking lives dissecting male privilege -- met while working together. The generalization that no one should ever flirt in the work environment doesn't make a lot of sense to them. I guess they're right. But we have all seen the office flirt who may never touch a woman and who keeps inappropriate comments to a minimum who still creates an uncomfortable, possibly toxic working environment. Young doesn't defend Leon Wieseltier's behavior, but she is uncomfortable with his firing. I'm not so ready to go with Young here. I've been on the receiving end of Wieseltier-type behavior outside work: unwanted and forced kissing, subtle attempts to use power in order to receive a sexual favor. I couldn't imagine having the specter of that threat on a daily basis in my place of employment. If I were his boss, I'd want him gone. But would a stern and early talking-to have solved the problem with Wieseltier? 
As for the second claim, posited by Barbara Ehrenreich, the #metoo movement has become so centered on the most privileged women in our society, ignoring hotel maids and fast-food workers. It ignores the many other types of degradation such women (and men) suffer in the day-to-day: wage theft, petty humiliations, etc... She proposes strong unions as the primary answer. You can't trust HR. You can trust a union rep who is more than prepared to introduce your boss to a union lawyer. 

Ehrenreich's criticisms are more important than Young's. Both are noting the movement's solipsism, and of course the tendency we all have to declare our specific experiences universal and to create single, unimpeachable rules in every and all cases. 

But the movement is not even two months old. This is just the start. If all the movement does is make well-meaning people a little more aware of how their behavior may be more of a problem than they realize, terrible people scared, and victims a little less lonely, it will have done, on balance, a hell of a lot more good than bad.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

On Hendrik Hertzberg and Emily Yoffe

I don't know what happened to Hendrik Hertzberg. He was one of my favorite living writers on any subject. I got to interview him 10 years ago at his New Yorker office. I still treasure that experience. But there's a story he once related about his career that didn't sit quite right with me.

Here's Hertzberg in 2011, writing about Barney Frank, who was then retiring from politics.

In 1981 he went from Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill in spite of the Reagan landslide, while I went from the White House to the New Republic because of it. A few months into his maiden term we decided to profile him. Here’s how clueless I was: I figured that the best way to get the bachelor Congressman to open up would be to assign the story to our in-house bombshell, the smolderingly lovely (and formidably talented, I hasten to add) Emily Yoffe. To our puzzlement, the strategy didn’t work all that well. Barney seemed kind of uncomfortable being interviewed, Emily found. We assumed he was just a little shy around “girls.”

Hertzberg is ribbing his straight self for getting Frank wrong. But he sure isn't embarrassed about sending a young female reporter out to charm a middle-aged politico, a member of a body well-known for sexual harassment.

The New Republic, man.

On Pathetic Dirty Old Men

During my time abroad in my 20s, I had cursory dealings with American embassies. Some of the people I met did us proud. Others were utter embarrassments. There was one fellow I remember in Hungary. He was a tall, effeminate man in his 40s. He had the habit of greeting men he liked by cupping their cheeks in his hands and kissing them just a little too long on the lips. He preferred burly men. I wasn't his type. More than one of these men told me, "I don't like that. I wish he didn't do it." And sometimes, "I keep telling him I'm straight."

I don't know what position he held at the embassy or how good he was at his job. I didn't really care. I saw his behavior and I didn't have any respect for him. I felt nothing but hatred for Harvey Weinstein. My reaction to George H.W. Bush was different. He may have once been the most powerful man in the world, but today he's just a pathetic weirdo who never grew up. Whether you're a man or a woman, he's not worth your time.