Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Two Words this Music History Student Never Wants to Hear Again

As a former Music History student, I learned a lot about…well…music history. And music history is in many ways an easy way to follow history in general. One of the most important things I learned in all my music history classes was also one of the most obvious ones, and that is that everyone borrows from and is influenced by everyone.

This doesn’t just mean that Bach, from Germany is also influenced by Buxtehude, who is also from Germany; it means that he was also influenced by Vivaldi, from Italy. All over Europe, composers were traveling and hearing music from other countries, and bringing back those styles to be used with the music of their own countries.

To borrow a term from botany, that’s the way cross-fertilization works. Georg Friedrich Handel, a German, moves to England, where he becomes George Frederick Handel, and influences English music for generations to come. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from Austria, becomes known for Italian music, and greatly influences its style. Oh, and he also wrote a Turkish rondo, while Beethoven wrote a Turkish section to his 9th Symphony.

People from one culture are hearing things in another, bringing it back, and working it into what was native to them, and no one complained. It’s the way that music works.

It was also the way that fashion worked. You didn’t have to be French to wear French-styled clothes. Those styles made their way to Germany and England just as styles from Germany and England made their way to France.

Worth noting is that this cross-fertilization often happened even while those countries were at war with each other…which seemed to be fairly often.

So with this in mind, what are the two words I never want to hear again?

Cultural appropriation.

The way I’ve heard it used lately, it’s the idea that white people are illegitimately taking and profiting from things from black culture. They’re taking what is “ours” and using it when they really have no right to. This refers to everything from “our” music to “our” hairstyles, and even “our” way of speaking.

How do you say “bullshit” in Swahili?

Is it cultural appropriation when white people play “our” music, wear “our” hairstyles, and use “our” slang?

I don’t know…is it cultural appropriation when Scott Joplin uses the European diatonic and chromatic scales, the AABBACCDD compositional structure, and the distinctly Italian fortepiano to create ragtime? Is it cultural appropriation when musicians like Louis Armstrong use European instruments like the trumpet and saxophone to create jazz? Is it cultural appropriation when black women straighten their hair, and avail themselves of the additional style choices that come with it? Or when they dye it colors not found in nature? Is it cultural appropriation when a black person uses Yiddish terms like klutz or chutzpah? Or are all of these simply more cases of the cross-fertilization that happens when one culture meets another?

And lest you try to say that those cases are different because we were simply absorbing what was in the culture we were brought into against our wills, consider Hawaii. Was it cultural appropriation when Hawaiians took the ukulele that was brought over by Portuguese traders, and made it their own? And what about Asia? Is it cultural appropriation when young people in Japan, China, and Korea copy American or European music and styles? And is it cultural appropriation when we copy theirs?

My answer is “no.”

Sometimes we see something in another culture that we hadn’t thought of before, and like. That’s normal cross-fertilization. We’re not Monsanto here, trying to make sure that no one else uses our patented genetically modified soybean seeds. This is the way it is…we get ideas from others, they get ideas from us, and we spread them around like manure, helping new things grow.

So the next time I hear someone use the term “cultural appropriation”, I’m going to appropriate a 2x4 and smack them upside the head with it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Confederate Flag Conundrum

In the wake of this week’s shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, the call has come once again, for the Confederate flag at the state capitol to come down. This is not an easy thing by any stretch of the imagination, and if you are at all able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, you can understand why. But for those of you who can’t, let me explain why it’s not quite a slam dunk in either direction.

And then let me propose a solution.

Let me start out by saying that as a kid…or at least a teenager…the Confederate flag was the symbol of a region. Yeah, sure, it was also the symbol of those people during the Civil War, but those people lived in a specific region, and that region had its own flag. New England didn’t have a flag that could be used as an identifying symbol like that. Nor did the Midwest, the West Coast (which is really just California, so I guess it does), the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, or my own Middle Atlantic States. The South actually had a symbol, and that flag was it.

You could be pretty sure that car with a Confederate flag symbol on it was from the South. What you couldn’t be sure of was that the person driving it was a white racist redneck. After all, even black Southerners have a sense of regional pride.

So there’s that.

But there’s something else, and it comes up every time someone talks about getting rid of that flag. It’s called “honoring your ancestors.” I’m betting that just about every white Southerner worth their accent has ancestors who fought on the side of the Confederacy, and it’s not an easy thing to say that your great-great-grandfather fought on the wrong side or for the wrong ideals. It’s not an easy thing to say that the flag that your great-great-grandfather fought under should be treated with contempt.

And yet, today’s Germans do that all the time with their ancestors and the Nazi era flag.

Let me add one more point, and then I’ll propose my solution. This point is that in many cases, that flag made a resurgence in the mid 20th century as a form of “in your face” passive-aggressive resistance to the changing Civil Rights scene. It was sort of like, “You can make us change our laws, but you can’t make us change our hearts. So take our flag and stick it up your…” It’s this more recent resurgence of the use of any form of the Confederate flag which has been the source of many of the issues surrounding it.

And now it’s time for a solution.

My original idea for a graceful solution was that they should go back to the historical state flag from before the Civil War, just as the Germans did with the Nazi flag after WWII.

And then I found out that this isn’t even the state flag. The actual state flag would be perfectly fine.

So how then to solve this problem gracefully, without anyone feeling like they were backed into a corner, and needing to save face?

Fly the current flag, the Confederate flag, at half-mast for 30 days, treating each of the people killed on Tuesday night as fallen heroes, not of the Confederacy, but of the South…the New South…the South that South Carolina wants to be a part of. Will it make certain people’s ancestors spin like turbines? I don’t know. On the one hand, I’d like to think that they’re beyond caring. On the other hand, I’d really like to think that if they do care, what they care about is rectifying what they now understand are the grievous wrongs that they played a part in trying to prolong.

Yes, fly the current flag at half-mast for 30 days, and when those 30 days are over, take it down, and replace it forever with the official state flag. The flag that stands, in no uncertain terms, for all of South Carolina’s residents.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Bowtie, a Plaid Jacket, a Paisley Tux, and Flip Flops at the White House

There’s a picture on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday” of me receiving my National Achievement Scholarship award from Western Electric back in 1974. The first thing most of my friends noticed was the tie I was wearing…it was a huge white bowtie. After that, they noticed the jacket. It was plaid…boldly plaid.

When the comments started coming in, the first thing I did was to remind them of the era that photo was from. But then I remembered my prom…and Susan Ford’s prom…and realized that other factors were involved here…one that might explain the infamous White House “Flip Flop Flap” of 2005.

The missing factors were culture and socioeconomic class.

I grew up among people for whom a jacket and tie were not everyday wear, but something you put on when you got dressed up. These were postal workers, teachers, hairdressers, retail workers, librarians, autoworkers, and such. Solid middle-class or working-class citizens who took pride in how they looked when they got dressed up. And when they got dressed up, they put on their best…and fanciest…clothes. We didn’t have a distinction between business clothes and formal wear – anything that involved wearing a jacket and shiny shoes was getting dressed up.

This leads me to my prom. There’s another Throwback Thursday photo of me, from that same year, at my senior prom, wearing a black and white paisley print tux with a powder blue ruffled shirt, and a big black bowtie. I recall reading that same year that a President Ford’s daughter Susan’s prom, the big question was “black tux or white tux?”

“Black tux or white tux?” How boring! How totally lacking in imagination and style! What was wrong with these people?

Little did I realize that I was laughing at how “tastefully boring” their prom attire would be, people in the social class of the Fords (both the Geralds and the Henrys) would be laughing at the tacky “costumes” that my friends and I chose for our prom attire…even though it was fancier than what we would wear on a regular basis.

I figured this out somewhere during the next 10 years, as I left the people I knew in East Orange, and met other people from other places, and saw how people in other cultures and different socioeconomic classes did things. It was then that I learned the difference between dress (or business) clothes and fancy ones. It was then that I learned, to my horror, that despite the fact that they were shiny and black, and not suede, loafers were not considered dress shoes; and that the “proper” shoes to wear for such occasions would be wingtips, which I thought were among the ugliest shoes known to mankind. Not to worry though, I wore loafers to my wedding anyway…after all, it was my wedding.

And this brings us to the Flip Flop Flap of 2005. For those of you who don’t remember, this was when members of the Northwestern University Women’s Lacrosse Team were taken to task for wearing…gasp…flip flops to a White House ceremony in their honor. Now I’m not talking the cheap little rubber things you buy to wear at the beach. I’m talking really nice…really fancy…shoes, that just happened to have descended from that lineage, and had the little strap between the toes. The Fashion Police, accompanied by people of certain social classes, went out with their riot gear on over this one. “How could they possibly wear…gasp…flip flops…to the White House?”

Um…probably the same way that I’d wear nice black loafers.

But there are two important things to consider here. The first is that, at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, there is probably not a straight male anywhere who saw the photo of those girls at the White House, and noticed their shoes. I doubt that President Bush himself even noticed. Guys tend to know four types of women’s shoes: flats, heels, sandals, and sneakers. Anything else is a subset that we don’t really need to know about.

The second is that the people who got bent so horribly out of shape about the flip flops…the really nice flip flops that some members of the team were wearing…are…wait for it…snobs. These girls dressed up in their nicest clothes and nicest shoes for a very special occasion, and these people decided to go ballistic over a fashion rule that many of them probably didn’t even know existed, because they didn’t grow up with it.

I look back at those pictures of me in that plaid jacket with that huge bowtie, or my paisley print tux for the prom, and I laugh. But I look at the picture of the Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse Team, and I still don’t see anything wrong with their shoes.

At least they weren’t wearing wingtips.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Having Children

Oh Francis, you blew it. At least for me you did. I really like most of what you’ve done and said so far since you’ve been Pope, and I’m not even a Catholic. Of course, that’s been the big thing about you…you’ve been getting non-Catholics…even a few Southern Baptists out there…to take a look and say, “Hey, this guy seems to be legit! What else does he have to say?”

And I recognize that for as much as you’ve done so far, you haven’t moved fast enough for many Catholics…and too fast for others. But I understand that you can’t please everyone. Heck, even Jesus himself wasn’t able to do that.

However, back in February, you blew it big time as far as I was concerned, with your comment about couples who choose not to have children being selfish.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who once said that unless you’re doing “something important” with your life, like setting up a hospital in Africa, building houses for Habitat for Humanity…or being the Pope, those who didn’t want to have children were just selfish little people who didn’t want to think outside of themselves…for 18 or so years. This friend maintained that children are an intrinsic good, and that everyone should have them as a result. When I asked about those people who knew they wouldn’t be good parents, this same friend said that they should have children anyway…it would teach them how to think of someone besides themselves, and build character.

When I heard that, my brain exploded. If children are good in and of themselves, wouldn’t she want the best for them, rather than just using them as a character building tool for someone else? And what about all those children who don’t end up improving the characters of the people she insisted have them, and who go through horrible, and sometimes even extremely short, lives as a result?

It’s not as if there are people out there consciously saying to themselves “I could’ve had children, but I chose the fancy vacations every year instead.” There are people out there who honestly never really ever had a desire to have children, and the fact that they have a little more freedom and money than the rest of us is just an added bonus. Really. It’s not something that they felt and are suppressing in order to have more material things, it’s just a desire they never had; and we’ve finally reached a point in society where a couple isn’t pressured to have kids, and it’s OK to not want them.

Or so I thought until you came out laying this guilt trip on these people who often make absolutely wonderful aunts and uncles precisely because they don’t have the constant responsibility for children of their own; these people who love their nieces and nephews in small doses, but are also more than happy to send them back to their parents.

Rather than looking at children as an “intrinsic good” and something that everyone should have, whether they want them or not, how about focusing on having every child be wanted? After all, aren’t there enough people out there who want three, four, or eight children that we don’t need to insist that everyone have one or two?

For that matter, aren’t there enough people, period? I think of the ongoing water crisis in California, and think that it’s only going to get worse as more and more people there have children. Do we really need more people competing for the same limited resources?

Sometimes we’re so caught up in our own feelings, that we can’t begin to understand those of others. I believe that was the case with my friend. She wanted children, and a lot of them, so intensely that she assumed that everyone did, and should; and that anyone who said that they didn’t was indeed repressing the same intense desire that she felt…and doing so for selfish reasons.

But you know what, Francis…children aren’t for everyone. The large family that you found so joyful when you were a child can be stifling to others. And many people who have children spend their final years in more intense loneliness than people who have none.

So how about a little live and let live here? I won’t criticize the people who have five or more children if you won’t criticize those who have none at all. After all, when you average out the “nones” and the “manys”, we’re still looking at an average of 2.58 children…at least in this country.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Who Are Those Old...and Young People?

The 40th reunion of the East Orange High School class of 1974 was last August. I wasn’t able to go because of a conflict with taking my oldest daughter back to college, but I did get to see the pictures that were posted on many Facebook pages. And as I looked at these photos, I wondered who were these people who looked like my grandparents’ friends.

Yes…not my parents’ friends, but my grandparents’ friends. Most of these people in these photos looked like the people I saw in old home movies and photographs of my grandparents and their friends, not of my parents and theirs. Of course, there’s a very good reason for this…the memories of my parents and grandparents, and each of their friends come from the same time; and at that time, my parents and their friends were in their 30s and 40s while my grandparents and theirs were in their 50s and 60s.

The reunion photos that would have us looking as we remembered our parents and their friends would’ve been taken 10 to 20 years ago, and I wouldn’t have been so shocked to see them. In fact, I wasn’t shocked at all when I went to my 20th reunion and saw these people in person…looking much as I remembered their parents…simply looking like grownups. But now…now I found myself looking at people I grew up with, looking like my grandparents, and the people they hung out with…and that was a little jarring.

Now…if you age along with someone, the process happens gradually, and you don’t notice as it happens to either you or them. For example, the other day I ran into my friend “Donna” from my undergrad years. We’ve run into each other on and off over the course of the past 34 years, and as far as I’m concerned, she hasn’t aged all that much. But the flip side of this is that when I look at a photo of her when we were students together, she looks like a kid. I’m so used to the adult Donna, that photo of the 20-year-old version seems strange to me.

But this isn’t all about what a shock it is to see photos of people I was a teenager with in their 50s and 60s. I figure that we’re lucky to have gotten this far…because quite a few of our cohort haven’t. No…it’s about something else very important that I realized as I looked through those photos.

Suddenly, as I gazed at those pictures from last summer, I became aware of something that I had known intellectually, but hadn’t grasped fully: my grandparents, who I had only ever known as being old, probably looked at photos of their friends (black and white photos, of course), and thought the exact same thing! They wondered where the teenaged or 30-something versions of Clara, Otto, Ethel, Prince, Jeanette, Marcel, Pearl, Carl, Katherine, and Ollie went. Especially since except for a few malfunctioning and slower-moving body parts, they didn’t feel like old people.

Suddenly, as I saw old people in my friends from years gone by, I saw young people in my grandparents and theirs.

I no longer saw those old photos of my grandparents as younger people as some sort of artifact from an alternate reality…

But instead, as evidence of younger days that were just as real for them as ours were for us.

Yes…because I see us as old, I can now see them as young.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

It's Always Good to Educate People

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend from the trans community, who I’ll call Chris, in which he mentioned that he often gets tired of answering questions, but it's always good to educate people.

I said that I felt the same way about being black…that you have to answer a lot of dumb questions if you don’t want people to stay ignorant.

His reaction blew me away. “Really? Black people get the same treatment too? Cool! I thought we were the only ones.”

And no…he wasn’t being sarcastic.

Sometimes we’re so tightly focused on our own particular oppressed minority community, that we don’t notice that there are others out there who might be suffering from a different form of oppression. We think that everyone who isn't “like us” is part of a monolithic mainstream, and has no problems.

I liked the fact that Chris thought that black people were typical of everyone else. This is a person who truly is color-blind. And by that I mean he notices that a person is black the way that he’d notice that a person is blond. It may be a little na├»ve, but it also means that Ferguson and Baltimore notwithstanding, in a way we’ve made it very close to where we wanted to be 50 years ago. But that's another thread for another time.

The point I made to Chris was that everyone in the “mainstream” is part of some minority that people have stupid questions and ignorant assumptions about. Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Southern Baptists, Irish, Italians, vegans, atheists, agnostics, Asians. That “rest of society” that's not a part of your group is really a patchwork of other minorities that sometimes have things in common and sometimes don’t. But we all get the stupid questions.

And we all learn from being able to ask the stupid questions.

I count myself as very lucky for having people I could ask stupid, and sometimes seemingly invasive questions of, as I tried to learn more about people who were different from me. And I will continue to answer stupid, and sometimes seemingly invasive questions asked by others.

Because it’s always good to educate people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bad Stuff in the Gamma Quadrant

We listened to a Freakonomics episode a while back that started out talking about the very public death of the giraffe in the Copenhagen Zoo and the worldwide outcry that followed it; and contrasting that with what seems to be the lack of worldwide outcry about the deaths of thousands, maybe even millions, of humans around the world in places like Syria. The host posits that it’s easier for us to get upset over animals than it is over other human beings.

I have a few ideas. Some are mine and one is something I learned when I was a Public Communications student at SU many years ago.

My idea is that what happened in Denmark is something that we don’t expect to happen in a “civilized” country...especially one that many of us like to think of as one of the most civilized in the world. Denmark represents the standard to which we’d like to raise countries like Syria (but first we have to get them up to ours). And so what happened in Denmark is shocking, simply shocking, because it seems so horribly contrary to everything we thought we knew about that country.

Syria, on the other hand, is a country where we know that things are seriously effed up. And quite frankly, whether it’s fair to the Syrian people or not, it wouldn’t be news at all if this story had played itself out in the Damascus Zoo. It would be just one more terrible thing from a terrible place.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the Syrian people...or any people less than we do about the giraffe. There is much outrage and much horror, but little that we feel we can do in the midst of a complicated situation that won’t just make things worse. We've been there before and we know that sadly, some civil wars just have to settle themselves without us getting involved. We’ve learned that we can’t fix everything. We’ve learned that if we try to fix everything, we end up not fixing anything.

And then there's what I call the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective. This comes from the concept on Star Trek that our galaxy is divided up into four different quadrants, with us being in Alpha.

I said to Cheryl once that I was glad that we didn’t know about intelligent life on other planets, because then we’d also have to know about the horrible things they did to each other...that we couldn't do anything about from here. And because I don’t know about them, the atrocities happening on Rigel VII don’t concern me. But once we were able to see them on super telescopes, how would we feel about what we saw going on? And at 860 light years away, we’d be helpless to do anything anyway, since the events we’d be seeing would be ancient history.

In practical terms, the “Gamma Quadrant” perspective says that there are places too distant for me to have any practical influence on, and that perhaps I need not be inundated with the daily horror data on, since I can’t do anything about it.

It’s worth noting that on April 20th, 1995, Cheryl came home and told me that something terrible had happened in the Gamma Quadrant.

The last one is one that I’m not going to get exactly right, and couldn’t easily find a version of online, so I’m going to wing it here. It goes as follows:

The man stabbed downtown is more newsworthy than two children trapped in a well across the state, which is more newsworthy than 10 people in a plane crash across the country, which is more newsworthy than 20 people killed in a mudslide in the neighboring country, which is more newsworthy than a bombing that kills 200 people in a country on the other side of the ocean, which is more newsworthy than a bloody ongoing conflict in a country you’re never going to visit anyway…because it’s one of those horrible places.

And frankly, while you may feel horrible about all of them, the farther they get from you, the less they affect you, and the less you feel you can do anything about them.

So going back to where we started, after the international community expressed its outrage about what happened in the Copenhagen Zoo, we can be pretty sure that that won’t happen there again. On the other hand, the international community has been expressing its outrage over events in Syria for a long time.

Things really suck in the Gamma Quadrant.