Against “cultural appropriation.”

I recently read an article that was written in response to a conflict between two professional athletes about the nature, the problem, and even the hierarchy, of “cultural appropriation.”  My thoughts upon reading about this frankly ludicrous conflict were basically the same as my general reaction to all accusations of “cultural appropriation,” and they are more or less as follows:

“Congratulations!  You are clearly and irrefutably safe.  Indeed, you are clearly and irrefutably among the safest creatures ever to grace the surface of this hazardous planet.  You have adequate, clean water, you have abundant food, you have superb shelter, you have protection from predators, from attackers, and from invasion, and you have a lifestyle that provides you such abundant and luxurious free time that you can invent problems about which to be outraged.”

The irony is that, while the whingers about cultural appropriation are among the most “privileged” people the world has ever seen, there are nevertheless real problems—even in the developed world—to which they could be addressing their apparently overabundant energy.  These outrage mongers are, obviously, relatively educated people; only those with a moderate degree of education could possibly think to invent the pseudo-complaint of “cultural appropriation.”  Just as obviously, these people want, at some level, to do—or at least to be—good.  So, why do they not address themselves to real issues, issues of consequence, like climate change and its denial, the deterioration of public education in America, the horrible spectre of the War on Drugs, the incarceration of a full 1% of our adult population, largely because of that War (with clear and irrefutable racial inequality in the way that War and incarceration are carried out), the incompetence and malfeasance that abounds in our local, state, and national governments, and the ironic and baffling apathy of the public in the face of the failure of their elected officials?

The trouble with all of these problems, I suspect, is that to address them requires real effort and real thought.  It requires one to interact intelligently, to have adult conversations, sometimes even with people who don’t share one’s personal virtue signals.

But really, let’s try to be clear.  Culture is not something that belongs to any individual, or even to any subgroup.  Culture is something that happens.  It’s shaped by historical contingency, by interaction between peoples, by the cross-pollination of art, and literature, and music, and clothing, and all other aspects of human behavior, and it evolves constantly, especially in a truly global civilization such as the one in which we live.

I’m not defending anyone who deliberately mocks some particular cultural artifact, who uses it in a derogatory fashion, with the intention of putting down another person or group, or as an expression of bigotry (which is one of the worst failures of reason to mar our species).  But in the vast majority of the cases in which people are accused of cultural appropriation, they are simply taking on some article of culture because they happen to like it.  In other words, if anything, it’s a compliment.  It’s a cliché to say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly have my doubts about the “sincere” part, but surely if one dons a mode of dress or styles one’s hair in the image of another person, it is an expression of admiration.  What’s more pertinent, though, is that donning some particular fashion, or incorporating a style of art, does not take anything from anyone else.  If I do my hair in the same way you do, your hairstyle doesn’t somehow magically disappear.  You have lost nothing at all.

I think the most appropriate response to someone who hurls accusations of “cultural appropriation” is simply to say, “Fuck you,” and go on about your life, but you can leave out the expletive if you prefer not to use it, and can simply meet the accusation with silence.  There are too many real, honest problems in the world to dignify what amounts to the whining of spoiled children.  There is real bigotry in the world, there is real victimization, and there is real violence.  We don’t need to coddle toddlers who are upset because someone else happens to have chosen the same flavor of ice cream cone that they have.

Maybe, someday, when we have solved all the rest of the manifold true problems in the world, it will be reasonable to give time and energy to the “problem” of cultural appropriation.  But by that time—if it ever comes—I think we will have reached a stage of development where such trivialities don’t concern anyone.  I certainly hope that’s the case.

Adulation and congratulations to Kip Thorne and his Nobel co-recipients for their confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves

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Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech

I just wanted to write a brief posting about how delighted I was to learn that Kip Thorne was one of the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics this year, for his part in the long-awaited confirmation of the existence of gravitational waves.

I’ve been a fan of Professor Thorne’s for more than two decades now (roughly), and have long regretted that he wasn’t more of a public figure, though that’s probably by his own choice.  I first heard of him in the post-script to one of the episodes of the original “Cosmos,” (added when the series was re-shown on TBS).  In that post-script, Carl Sagan mentioned that when he was writing his novel “Contact,” he wanted to ascertain if there was a legitimate, scientifically valid way for a sufficiently advanced race to travel great distances through space in reasonable lengths of time.  The person he asked, he said, was Kip Thorne, and it was Kip Thorne who gave him the information he used to create his worm-hole-using alien race in the book.*

If memory serves, Carl Sagan also mentioned that Kip Thorne had written a science book for popular consumption, called “Black Holes and Time Warps.”  (You can find it here on Amazon.)  The next time I was at a book store—probably Borders, my favorite book store, the loss of which has been a source of bitter heartache to me—I found a copy and bought it.

I have rarely been so pleased with a science book.  If you’re interested in a wonderful, thorough, but well-explained treatment of some of the more extreme aspects of General Relativity, I can’t recommend anything more highly.  Even Stephen Hawking and Brian Greene have not produced anything better (that I have read) on this subject, and if you know me, you know that’s high praise indeed.  This is one of those books that, when you read it, makes you feel brilliant.  This is because the author understands his subject so well that he can convey it in absolutely clear terms, illustrating it literally and figuratively so that these mind-warping (and space-warping) concepts make perfect sense.

Congratulations to Professor Thorne, and to his co-recipients for the recognition of their work on gravitational waves.  I remember that, when I first heard about the LIGO observatory, some years ago, and how it worked, I thought, “But wait, won’t the lasers and the space they pass through be compressed and stretched by gravitational waves exactly the same amount?  Won’t that negate the measurable effects of the waves and make the laser interferometry wash out?”  Obviously, this was not a question that wouldn’t have occurred to the people creating the observatory, and they knew why it wouldn’t be a problem, or at least not an insurmountable one.  I wish I’d thought to ask someone in the know when the question occurred to me.  I wish I’d known whom to ask (certainly at that time I could not have asked Professor Thorne himself, though nowadays he could probably be reached through Facebook or Twitter).

Anyway, I was more than happy to have my own dubiety (is that a real word?) smashed when the announcement was made that the waves had been detected, and then again, and now again, only within the past few months.  It’s not astonishing quite in the same way as when I first heard of the discovery that the expansion of the universe was accelerating (Wow, what an excellent, world-changing surprise that was!), but in other ways it’s just as awe-inspiring.  We (the human race) are on the leading edge of a whole new era of astronomy, one that could someday let us peer back past the last scattering surface that produced the CMB and catch glimpses of a time ever closer to the Big Bang.

I get chills.  Seriously.

So, despite all the other, horrible news, of disasters both natural and man-made, that we’ve all had to endure over recent days and weeks, we should take heart in the knowledge that knowledge is possible, and that, however easy it is to destroy things, the power to learn, the power to create knowledge, and thence to create new prosperity, is clearly much stronger.  If it were not, civilization would long since have been destroyed.

These are the sorts of thoughts that people like Professor Kip Thorne inspire in me…and I tend to be a gloomy person by nature.  Congratulations, Professor Thorne, and congratulations also to Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish, Kip Thorne’s co-recipients.  It’s people like you who help keep life worth living for people like me.


*Kip Thorne was also responsible for the bits of the movie “Interstellar” that were actually scientifically accurate, and he certainly cannot be blamed for any departures from legitimate scientific realism one finds therein.

My response to a misguided Facebook video (and the subsequent silly statements by the President).

I wrote this posting originally in response to a video that I saw on Facebook (see above), shared by someone I know.  The letter reproduced in it pushed my buttons rather firmly, as someone who loves the ideas of America, rather than loving symbols or songs, flags or anthems.  I had long held off on posting it, though, because I thought maybe I was overreacting, and in any case, I’d written “The Idolatry of the American Flag,” which covered much of the same ground.  However, given the President’s absurd remarks about the NFL, and the many well-intentioned but foolish people following the above-quoted gentleman down the mindless patriotism rabbit hole, I decided it was worth saying everything again. Continue reading “My response to a misguided Facebook video (and the subsequent silly statements by the President).”

Depression Can Be Powerful

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

-Kris Kristofferson

 

There’s a curious phenomenon I’ve sometimes noticed, wherein I find myself not exactly welcoming bouts of depression, but feeling as if they are normal for me—more truly me than other states of being.  There’s a dark familiarity that’s difficult to explain, along with a sense that my mind is in some ways clearer, saner, when depressed than it is at other times.  Certainly, my concentration often improves when I’m depressed.  I’m less easily distracted, whether by good things or bad things; it’s a curious phenomenon.

It’s vastly preferable to anxiety, but I’ve mostly gotten past that over time—having lost one’s career, one’s health, and one’s family, and having spent a few years in Florida State Prison, will tend to make other social concerns seem petty and trivial by comparison.  Similarly, fear of pain, and even of death, can be significantly blunted after having gone through enough grief—when one has felt physical and emotional agony that has led one not merely to lose one’s fear of death, but to wish for it, many things lose their ability to intimidate.  The greatest fear can then be simply that the pain will continue, that this life will not end.  But even that loses its urgency over time, and the pain becomes familiar.

This doesn’t seem to be a universal occurrence, as the many heartbreaking cases of PTSD make clear, but it’s also surely not unique to me.  There’s no doubt an accumulation of various life events, interacting with the baseline neurology and physiology of the individual, that leads to some people being hardened by circumstance, and others being eroded or destroyed by it.  Which one of these is so in one’s own case can, of course, be difficult to tell, even from within.  Even if we accept as a truism Nietzsche’s claim that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” it is no doubt a fact that some things simply kill us slowly.

Anyway, it’s just an interesting fact that often when I’m depressed, I feel sharper, more clear-headed.  There’s some data indicating that those with a history of depression are more realistic in their assessment of their own abilities, and of reality in general, than people not prone to depression.  I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating.  It’s not that depressed people are more pessimistic in general—though when in the grip of a full-fledged episode, many undoubtedly are—but that they simply evaluate reality more objectively, more accurately, more scientifically.

It may be that taking the blinders of comforting illusion away leads to a truer and more potent understanding of reality, even if it can sometimes nudge one towards despair.  Darwin’s “Devil’s Chaplain” has a sometimes-horrifying sermon to deliver on the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” but even such a nature has grandeur and beauty.  Its beauty may be all the greater because it does not exist in reference to mere human concerns; rather, our concerns are subordinate to and contingent upon it, and are altogether trivial.

It’s not that the universe wants to destroy us, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has been heard to say in a playful tone (for if the universe really wished to destroy us, we would be destroyed); rather, it’s that the universe does not care about us one way or the other.

There is freedom in this, but as with all freedom, there is responsibility, and the recognition that one’s fate is in one’s own hands, to save or damn oneself and, possibly, the Earth.

Another benefit of the feeling of depression—no doubt part and parcel of the force that eliminates some forms of fear—is the urgency it takes away from mere happenstance.

The Tao Te Ching says that, if you accept death with your whole heart, you will hold nothing back from life (or words to that effect).  I’m not sure that’s always true; sometimes accepting death can simply lead to apathy.  But apathy can be a form of freedom, too.  As long as it’s a position not born of denial, but rather of acceptance, it seems a morally defensible stance, if not one that I want to embrace.

Having accepted that one will inevitably lose everything can be freeing.  This is especially so if one has already lost nearly everything that one ever placed real value upon, and come out the other side and realized that one has lived through it—and that one could do so again.  One comes to the realization that one is not deeply or profoundly afraid of losing anything, nor even of losing everything.  “Damaged people are dangerous; they know they can survive.”

I would take this one step farther.  Not only do damaged people know they can survive; they know that ultimately they will not survive, nor will anyone else.  Far from being crippling, this knowledge can be the removal of an onerous burden.  Knowledge that we are ephemeral makes life more precious than if it were eternal, but it also takes a lot of the pressure off.  The circumstances of one day, or even one life, are just not all that crucial in the scheme of things.  It’s okay if you fuck up from time to time.  Indeed, it’s okay if you’ve fucked up your entire life.  It’s not a permanent mistake.

That’s some of the freedom, the familiarity, and the perverse comfort that depression sometimes brings me.  It has its costs and its miseries—more or less by definition—but it has power, too.

The Idolatry of the American Flag (read by me)

Given the brouhaha over the President’s denigration of football players who kneel during the national anthem, and the players’ and owners’ (generally) mature and measured responses, I thought I would try my hand at reading my own article about a related subject.

The audio is here:

The plea bargain system is a sadistic game of extortion

First Published October 3, 2015.

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Imagine the following scenario:

You are being held hostage  by a group of armed men and women.  You know they are a very large and well-financed group, and that escape is nearly impossible.  Representatives of this organization–a few of whom even claim to be working to protect you–give you the following choice:  You may agree to be their prisoner for a specific amount of time, perhaps a few months, perhaps a few years.  You will also be giving up most or all of your material possessions, agreeing to proclaim publicly that you have done some terrible deed to earn this captivity–thus destroying your good reputation, if you have one–and even relinquishing some of your human rights.  The alternative is to agree to play a twisted, sadistic, and highly rigged game, one which you have very little chance of winning; even your own so-called allies assure you of this fact.  They tell you bluntly that the game is stacked horrifically against you, and that your ruin will be sought assiduously by your opponents, using all of their considerable resources.  If you lose, they will keep you prisoner for a far longer period of time than you had been offered–perhaps even for the rest of your natural life, and your imprisonment will entail risks to your health and the risk of death–and you will lose all that you would have agreed to give up anyway.  The choice is yours.

What would you do?

This is the choice faced by those who find themselves in the American criminal justice system and are offered a plea bargain.

The plea bargain system, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, is essentially the process I have described above.  An accused criminal (already assumed guilty by the State, whose Prosecutors are tasked with winning, not with actually finding the truth), is given the option of pleading to a specific charge and agreeing to the imprisonment and/or other punishment entailed therein.  If the accused does not agree, he or she is assured by the State that they will seek the harshest possible sentence available to them under the law, and they have the influence to make it stick.

Some might currently be thinking, “Well, but the accused has the right to legal representation,” and this is, technically, true.  However, the Prosecution works within the criminal justice system every day, all day (except weekends and holidays, of course), and thus knows the ins and outs of the judicial process better than almost anybody else.  They have political pull, they know the judges…and they know the police, who can be relied upon to go along with their prosecution, since the police and the Prosecutors depend upon each other to achieve their goals and thus to move up in their particular careers.  If one has a great deal of money, of course–and I do mean a great deal–one can hire a private defense attorney, but most of those who are brought before the criminal justice system do not fall into that category.  The usual suspects are, instead, relegated to the Public Defender’s office.

I have serious respect for the Public Defenders, as a general rule.  They take on a thankless and even reviled role, which many of them do for purely idealistic reasons, believing (unlike a good fraction of their counterparts) that every person is innocent until proven guilty, and deserves a fair trial with a vigorous defense.  Unfortunately, individual Public Defenders tend to have ridiculous numbers of cases–measuring into the hundreds at a time–and lower budgets than the Prosecutors’ offices have.  This fact, of course, runs counter, in principle, to the very idea of “innocent until proven guilty”.  If we were living by that moral code as a society, we would surely give our Public Defenders better resources than their opponents, who after all have their own budgets in addition to the help of local law enforcement.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, more than 90% of all criminal cases never go to trial, but are instead settled with a plea bargain.  This is often seen as a good thing for the defendant, a way for them to reduce their potential sentence.  However, what it really represents is a means by which the State can achieve the conviction of an accused citizen without ever having to go to the trouble of proving their case.  This is especially true when the accused comes from a lower socio-economic background, but it is by no means confined to that group. Any person who finds him or herself brought before the courts is, of course, terrified…especially one who is innocent, ironically enough.  Even the reasonably wealthy do not have resources in the same league as the vast, monolithic, and merciless machine which is the State’s criminal justice system.  The accused in a criminal proceeding faces a dilemma rather akin to being given the choice of either playing a round of Russian roulette or being shot outright.  It is impossible for a defendant to make a rational, honest decision in his or her own best interest in such a situation.  And though Defense attorneys are there to help, they are, as I said, overworked and underfunded.  In addition, Defenders have to see and work with the Prosecutors day in and day out.  They tend not to make waves over what they see as minor cases, because they might want or need a favor in the future on some case of greater political import.  This is not done out of some moral failing on their part; it is done out of simple, brutal necessity.

When an accused makes his (or her) statement before a judge, announcing that he is pleading guilty to a particular charge, as part of a plea bargain, he is asked by the judge if he has been threatened or otherwise coerced into making this plea.  Of course, if he answers anything other than “No,” he will not have his plea bargain available any more, and he can rest assured that the Prosecution will be livid, and will pursue his ruin with even greater fervor than they might have otherwise.  Yet to pose the question at all is a sick joke, for the true answer is always and inescapably “Yes.”  A defendant who accepts a plea bargain always does so under threat–and it is a threat of force, since it entails being taken to prison in shackles, by armed men and women, and being held there against his will a long period of time.  It is a rare situation indeed in which a person would plead guilty without being under such a threat.  The accused knows that truly fair trials are very few and far between, especially for those who do not have a great deal of money, and for those in ethnic minorities.  He almost always–90% of the time, anyway–takes the seeming lesser of the two evils on offer.

If our society does not have the resources to give a full and fair trial to every person who is accused of a crime, then rather than institute a biased, extortionist, abusive system of plea bargains, we should simply not opt to arrest and prosecute so many people.  There are real crimes to prosecute; we should apply appropriate resources to those crimes, and this includes providing for the actual fair trials of the defendants.  We should never bully or railroad any American citizen into a prison sentence under threat of a worse one.

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I will be writing more about this subject, and other aspects of the criminal justice system, in the future, between posts about my fiction.  I encourage you to respond with comments, and share your views and experiences, whether you agree or disagree with me.  I, in turn, will do my best to engage in honest conversation with you.