Month: July 2014

Cultural Appropriation vs Appreciation

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I don’t know how successful I am when it comes to respecting other cultures, (one of the benefits/downsides of privilege is most people don’t tell you if your screwing it up unless you have someone like my wife who both knows and will tell me) and to be honest I don’t know if I have any right to this blog post or to speak for others. Let me say that I’m am doing the best that I can, I am learning, I speak only for myself and I have no wish to speak louder than those with greater insight. But I would say you need three things to go from cultural appropriation to appreciation/inspiration.

One is expert knowledge in the culture your talking about; Their history, culture, language, religion, and traditions as seen from THEIR perspective. It’s not enough to know the history of another group from the lens of your own socio-cultural values. Ted Nugent sings songs about Native Americans and uses some cultural items in his performance. Why is this appropriation and not inspiration or an homage? Because Nugent knows jack about Native American sacred ceremonies and he’s using the ceremonial objects incorrectly -unless for some reason that the middle of a rock concert has somehow become the proper time and place and Nugent has become a Native American shaman. It’s deeply offensive. It takes a lot of time and research and a connection to the members of that community for someone to have that kind of insight.

A second thing you must have is a respect for that culture that is recognized by that culture. It may seem odd to have to spell this out, but if another culture doesn’t feel respected by your actions you haven’t shown them respect and what you are doing is hurtful and exploitative. For example, if representatives from that culture tell you they are offended by something you’ve done, do you accept that judgment, apologize, and seek to make amends? Or do you say they’re not entitled to their feelings because what you’ve done is a sign of respect and they need to understand that? Do you say that your actions are justified by your traditions and another culture should bow to your traditions? I don’t know what lunacy this is but it’s not respect. Respect also goes deeper than a single instance like a team mascot for example. Have you shown respect not only to the culture your trying to honor or be inspired by but to other cultures too? You can’t claim to respect Native Americans for example and then go on to be offensive to blacks, Jews, political officials with whom you disagree, the LGBT community, etc. If you have made a mistake about another culture, in my experience (which is not authoritative) if you are genuinely open and honest most people will be happy to share with you their culture. However the burden is still on you to learn, grow, and appreciate others. They are under no obligation to teach you anything. There’s a loose criteria in there that I will call depth. No one like to be reduced to their simplest attributes. To trivialize the experience of a minority through simplification is not respect. When Katy Perry “kissed a girl” she did not encapsulate the entirety of the gay and lesbian experience. Some people felt her faux-lesbian act trivialized the complexity and passion of these groups. She turned sexuality into titillation. To the extent that some expected more from a popstar they were offended. Respect for a person or a group means to treat them as multifaceted complex and deep. When Ted Nugent got his concerts canceled did he accept the reasoning of the Tribes? Or did he reflectively seek greater understanding of Native Americans? No. He went in a multiweek rant about his own persecution and compared his critics to Nazis. There might be a lesson in that.

The third thing you must absolutely possess is humility. Your intent doesn’t matter. Your excuses don’t matter. Your friends don’t matter. Saying that you didn’t intend to be offensive is not an apology, or that you were drunk, or that you have black friends, or you’ve done service work, are all non-issues. You will never know what it’s like to be someone else, to fully understand them or how they feel. You must forever understand that even if you are an “expert” omniscience is quite beyond you. And Ignoring your own place and privilege in society is not humility but arrogance. Only once you have a deep understanding of a culture, respect for that culture and all others, and the humility to realize you are still flawed, only then can you be inspired by a culture without appropriating it.

The conservative playbook

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Conservative Americans in their umbrage over President Obama’s perceived weakness over Ukraine, are making the same mistake as Putin.  They accuse the president of weakness because they want to DO something flashy and explosive and what is the President doing? Seemingly nothing. As perverse as it sounds, and as counterintuitive as it might be, conservatives and Putin are on the same side. That’s not to suggest that conservatives are unpatriotic, quite the contrary. But they see the world through the same old fashioned Cold War perspective as Putin does with the same old geopolitical goals and means. Massive arms build ups, military industrial complexes, fighting proxy wars, accruing debt. Your classic Reaganism.  It won’t work in the short term and in the long term it’d be disastrous for US foreign and domestic policy.

Do you know why we’re giving Ukraine economic assistance instead of military? If we’d followed the conservative playbook we would have done the same thing as Russia.  Sent complex and sophisticated weapons into a volatile area.  As a result that airline could just as easily have been shot down with by the Ukraine government instead of the rebels  and that would have been a disaster for us instead of Russia.  Because of this inevitable atrocity, Russia is now a pariah among nations and facing even stricter sanctions.  Moreover, military aide would further justify Russian involvement. With more weapons to match the Russians, the situation would escalate, atrocities would be committed and it would be our fault. We’d run the very real risk of destabilizing the region and permanently dividing Ukraine. People would flock to the Russian banner not because of Pro-Russian sentiment, or for nationalism but simply to fight the intrusive Americans. In the exact same way, a narrowly divided Ukraine has shifted dramatically to the west because it resents Russian involvement.

So we’re popular. For now. What of it?  Russia could roll right over Ukraine militarily if it wanted to. We need to do something to prevent it.  Right? No.  We don’t. Imagine for a moment that Russia could and would take over not only eastern Ukraine but all of Ukraine and even the nations further west, what should we do? The conservative playbook says to draw a line in the sand and build up a powerful (and expensive) army that’s so powerful that Russia doesn’t dare cross it. This is wonderful for Russia. Russia sees a massive sophisticated army on its border and responds to this existential threat by cracking down on freedoms without inciting it’s people, beefs up its economy through defense spending, and build exclusive trade partnerships with its allies. Russian power and prestige grows.  It collects hardened allies from those nations hostile to American intrusion  and now we’re back to the Cold War.

It won’t work so let’s toss out the conservative playbook even though Putin is still reading from its pages.  Let him. Let Russia take Crimea, East and West Ukraine and whatever else it can seize militarily.  Russia won’t be able to keep the territory any more than the Soviets could. The move would spark massive unrest which would provoke equally massive repression.  This would begin an unending cycle of violence and retaliation that would destroy the regional economies and make the newly claimed territory ungovernable and worthless. Eventually Russia would have to retreat and western powers would move in diplomatically and economically to consolidate power in the region. How do we know this? Because that’s what happened last time and it led to greater political, economic, and military integration under the western aegis.

If Russia makes the same mistakes a second time the gains for the west will be even greater. The key is economic stability and prosperity. This is a war of ideas and trade not with guns and bullets. If conservatives confront Russia with an aggressive military posture, Putin will mirror it and consolidate or expand power. Consider that even now Russia has gained an insignificant peninsula and (potentially) a small bit of land in Eastern Ukraine. As a result it’s been diplomatically isolated, proWestern sentiment has skyrocketed, and where the Russian economy was doing relatively well it risks depression or even collapse due to ever tightening sanctions. Russia can not exist as it is in isolation. No sophisticated economy could. If you really want to battle Russia, develop cheap and easy alternative fuels. You’ll crash the Russian economy even without sanctions and you remove Russia’s only real leverage.  OR better yet, reduce the military, balance the budget, provide a legitimate safety net, invest in education and technology, and broaden dollar diplomacy and trade agreements. That’s how you win.