Category Archives: Commentary

When Is Appropriation Appropriate?

I’ve learnt not to post anything controversial to Facebook. I’m conflict-averse, like any good native-born Midwesterner, and I also think that the medium of Facebook is inappropriate to debate. It’s not well designed for it. Kittens and puppies, I always say.

Close-up of two pale-colored puppies roughly three months old, possibly Labradors, kneeling side-by-side in green grass.  The hindquarters of a third puppy are visible in the upper left of the photo.

I’ve given you kittens before, so this time, have some puppies. Photo by Lisa L Wiedmeier via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1HTtwNy

But sometimes it seems I can’t help myself. And so today I posted an article about belly-dancing that struck a chord with me. You see, one time I saw a performance as part of a larger event that appalled me. I didn’t know going in that the belly-dancing would be part of the evening’s festivities. And when these white women swiveled out onto the stage, not in haremesque attire associated with the art form, but in kimonos and geisha makeup for a “kabuki-inspired” performance, I raged out of the auditorium. I had fooled myself into thinking that we had somehow got beyond yellowface.

Now, this Japanese take on a minstrel show was beyond the bounds of decency. But it made me think. what about belly-dancing itself? Many performers are not of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay for them to practice this art?

To answer my question, I just started paying attention to what my friends of Middle Eastern descent had to say on the subject. Not that belly-dancing came up in conversation all the time, and not that I broached the subject with them. But on occasion, a snippet of opinion surfaced, and, over time, I pieced the snippets together.

And the consensus was that it was not okay.

And this is the sort of thing that often has creative types like myself up in arms. An aesthetic can’t be owned by one culture to the exclusion of all others, so the argument goes. If so, we wouldn’t have English-language haiku, or the Asian influences present in Impressionist art. And without the intermingling of European and African influences, we wouldn’t have jazz or rock. So much would be lost, as the argument goes, if we all held to some strict, politically correct standard of artistic segregation. Besides, the artist should be completely free to use whatever methods or aesthetic she wants; creativity is paramount.

I argue that there is something more important than creativity–yes, even for artists. For there is an identity more fundamental than “artist”: human being. And for human beings to survive, let alone thrive, they must be able to live and work together in community. Our social nature, our ability to think in terms greater than the individual, is one of the chief reasons we have evolved to this point, and is key to our continued survival.

Respect is also the key to understanding the concept of appropriation.  And the key to respect is listening.  Simply put: if the consensus of a group to which you do not belong is that it’s okay for others to make use of an artistic expression originating in or representative of that group, go for it! Have fun.

But if the consensus of that group is that an expression is not okay, knock it off.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an upswell of discontent from Japanese people about speakers of other languages using the form of haiku — even as the form is sometimes stripped of its original intent as a meditation upon nature.

The presence of East Asian influences in Impressionist art came out of the larger European movements of Orientalism and Internationalism in the late 19th century, which developed as a direct result of European colonization in East Asia. It’s important in the study of the Impressionist era to bear this troublesome history in mind. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have not been any recent calls from Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian artists to dismiss Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the way we now do, say Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though we might want to talk about Gaugin’s objectification of Tahitian women in his work.)

With regard to the musical examples I offered above, jazz and rock, it’s important to bear in mind that artistic movements do, indeed, develop organically. Cultural cross-pollination created jazz, rock, and many other movements musical and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a consensus from African American (and in the case of jazz, also Jewish) communities that those who do not belong their communities shouldn’t perform these genres — even as the audience for both jazz and rock over the decades grew increasingly white. An academic critique of, for instance, Elvis Presley and his complicated history with African American performers is worthwhile, but there has not been any great advocacy from the African American community that whites should quit listening to his music (though I half-wonder if some younger readers could list five of his songs — even Kings get dethroned eventually.)

To go back to my initial example, one could argue that the performers I saw that night were simply artists practicing a form of artistic syncretism. But the Asian American community has been resolute in its unacceptability of yellowface performance. And a growing number of people of Middle Eastern descent are decrying the appropriation of belly-dancing.

Even as I declared a certain black-and-white rubric regarding what to do and what not to do, notice that I’ve presented my examples with nuance and exceptions. Human beings are by nature complex, their histories, both personal and collective, tortuous and at times torturous. No one’s going to get all of this right 100% of the time, and group consensus also involves those who dissent. But the goal is not perfection, or “correctness,” but respect.

It’s tricky business. And it’s very much involved in what I do with my life. I’m a creative person across a few media. For instance, I designed this ballcap.  (Sorry for the shameless plug.) I’ve been interested in sports branding for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I discovered the online sports-concept community (and the existence of graphic-design freeware) about four years ago that I took up my hobby in earnest. And as I engaged with my fellow designers, I discovered a sharp divide within the community regarding the use of Native American imagery in the branding of a team, whether real, (like the baseball team in Cleveland or the NFL team in Washington) or fictional (I imagined my ballcap for a baseball team in Charlotte.) And as some designers like myself decry, for instance, the questionable moves of the Washington NFL ownership, others not only state that the branding is intended to honor Native Americans even as Native Americans claim otherwise — exactly what the ownership maintains — but persist in using such imagery in their own fictional concepts. On which point, I will simply say it doesn’t matter what you believe if that belief is contrary to fact. And the fact is that the consensus of Native Americans — with, yes, a bit of dissent, an issue meriting its own essay — is that such branding is disrespectful, full stop. So, to my fellow designers, I simply want to say: stop.

I also design jewelry. Mostly, I practice what is called assembly, meaning that I put together manufactured pieces in original designs — I don’t smelt metal or melt glass or anything like that. (Another shameless plug for my work is here, though at this exact moment the work is not for sale.) Another popular and lucrative style of jewelry design is bead-stitching, much of which was first developed by Native Americans. It’s a style I’ve thought about doing, though I wonder if I’d have the patience for it. But I’m not going to take it up for the time being, for the simple fact that I presently live in a community with a large Native American population, many of whom practice bead-stitching as a source of livelihood. I have decided that to do so right now would be disrespectful to the Native American community in that I would be using my hobby to undercut their ability to earn a living — in spite of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the local Native American community has not come out against white people making and selling bead-stitched jewelry.

And, really, that’s what all of this comes down to: personal decisions. But none of us live alone; the personal decisions of all of us over time aggregate to build a culture. And it behooves us all to build a culture that edifies rather than destroys, on a foundation of respect rather than of selfishness.

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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

It’s raining in Fairbanks today. Maybe some of the rain can help put out a few of the 200 forest fires in Alaska right now. It’s the first time since Monday that the skies don’t look like something out of a post-apocalyptic horror movie. You likely have no idea just how pervasive the smoke is. When I blow my nose, I smell smoke in my mucus even though I haven’t been outside for days.

We had well-below average snowfall in most of Alaska this past year, and the lack of meltoff already increased the threat of forest fires this summer, even before summer began. So it’s not entirely unexpected — though, as this is my first summer in Alaska, and I’ve never lived where forest fires were the norm, it’s a thoroughly unsettling experience. I look out my window and it appears, as my university’s official Facebook account put it, “like Mordor.”

View out of a highway from a driver's windshield. The air  is  an orange haze from smoke. Evergreen trees line the highway, and a car in the distance.

Not a current photo, but this will give you some idea. Photo by rickz via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1IAUebn

What disturbs me about the fires is that most of them were set by people, not by lightning strikes or what have you. This in spite of an state order not to light fires.

And I wonder what would possess people to start the fires to begin with. We’re under orders, but the orders are difficult to enforce, particularly in a state so sparsely populated. So it falls to each person to be accountable to themselves and to be responsible. And hundreds have failed to do so.

Perhaps it’s Alaska’s characteristic culture, the individualistic frontier spirit, that compels people to flout the law so. But I’m not willing to write it off to the culture, particularly when I see this mindset playing out all over the world. It’s disturbing when a person puts their self-interest so far ahead of everyone else’s. It gives rise to oppression and tyranny, when the needs of the few holds sway over the needs of the many.

As we edge closer to the precipice of major climate disruption and the effects of mass extinction, those who grasp power, who selfishly put their own interests over the needs of our entire species — such people hold the keys to the extinction of our own species.

To preserve one’s own species is one of the primal drives of nature. Can we be such fools as to bring about our own demise?

When the Atheist Went to Church

Small white wooden church at sunset.  Barren trees to the left, traces of snow on the ground,

Once a native, now a stranger. Photo by keeva999 via Flickr. http://bit.ly/1FPtg14

I am presently on vacation in a delightful corner of Pennsylvania, staying with two dear friends, Jason and Allen. Yesterday I joined them at their church, my first Christian service since 2008 and first service of any religion since 2012. I didn’t have to go. I could have stayed home, and my friends wouldn’t have thought anything of it. But my friends are important to me, and I wanted to participate in something that was important to them.

We arrived at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ several minutes before the beginning of the second service, and as we stood about in the foyer, I was hit suddenly with an anxiety attack. Read the rest of this entry

Erin Go Blah

Been awhile since I’ve written here. It’s certainly not because I’m not writing. Indeed, I’m working on essays and stories and the start of my thesis, on top of my schoolwork. This has become, I suppose, the space in which I write when I have something big and timely to say.

I’ve had my head bitten off before for bringing up this subject. I particularly don’t enjoy being figuratively decapitated, but if there’s anything I’m learning about writing, it’s the need to set aside ego in deference to the truth.

And the truth is this: St. Patrick’s Day is kind of sucky.

Chihuahua wearing a green St. Patrick's Day top hat, surrounded by four-leaf clovers.

And it sucks even more to be a pet on St. Patrick’s Day. Credit: Faith Goble via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/grafixer/

Let’s take a good, hard look at how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated. Read the rest of this entry

Potato Salad

So  I’m going to make a couple of confessions here. The first is that I never liked potato salad. The second is that I had never eaten potato salad until a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t matter that I’d never eaten it; I was certain that it was simply terrible and I’d never touch the stuff.

A couple of weeks ago my friend Chris threw an impromptu party before heading off for an extended stay in Portland. I was the first to arrive at his place (a bad habit of mine, showing up early), and we hung out whilst he prepared for the rest of the guests. Chris had bought fried chicken from Cub Foods supermarket, which I was very happy about, since I love their fried chicken. He also set about making potato salad.

It looked vaguely like this. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/  CC License: http://bit.ly/1mhaR6e

It looked vaguely like this. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/ CC License: http://bit.ly/1mhaR6e

Read the rest of this entry

When the Aints Came Marching In

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

Photo courtesy of Pete Miller via Flickr.com. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pmillera4/

I like baseball. I can’t say I’m the perfect fan – I don’t follow it the best in the world, and I don’t understand the finer points of the game. But I enjoy watching a game, especially live. As an American of a certain age, I think  it was unavoidable that I would have some connection to baseball. I remember when I was two or three, my mom bought me a little plastic Baltimore Orioles helmet (although I thought the logo was of Chilly Willy).

When I was older, I watched baseball on TV. Indiana doesn’t have its own major-league ball club, so we split our loyalties among the closest teams: the Chicago Cubs, the Chicago White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds. Our local TV station aired the Reds, so that’s who I followed. Later, the station switched affiliations to the Cubs, and though Harry Caray was fun to listen to, I couldn’t really get into the Cubs. Read the rest of this entry

Too Much of a Good Thing

One of my indulgences is my Netflix account. It’s astounding, when you think of it: access to thousands of movies and television shows for just $8 a month. Yet, with all of my viewing possibilities, I tend to fall back on television series I’ve seen before. I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and Netflix offers me plenty of video comfort food.

When Freaks and Geeks was cancelled in 2000 after a mere 18 episodes, the show’s devoted fans were livid. They (by which I include myself) wanted to know more about the futures of these high-schoolers. We wanted more of the well-crafted characters and thoughtful plots. But the powers that be thought otherwise – the same powers that cancel 2/3 of American television shows by the end of their first season – and canceled the show. Read the rest of this entry

Unpatriotic

I closed yesterday’s post with an odd allusion that might not have made much sense in the context in which I put it, so I thought today I’d clarify.

You see, patriotism doesn’t make much sense to me, and here’s why:

First off, patriotism implies an allegiance to a country that either you were born into, or that you have moved to and chosen for yourself. Now, in the latter case, having an allegiance because of a conscious decision you’ve made makes some sense. You determined which country would be the best fit for yourself, and you’ve made considerable sacrifices in order to reside in or even to take up citizenship in that country.

But most people don’t make that conscious decision. They reside in the country they were born in. And though some may disagree with me, I will maintain for this argument that you don’t choose where you’re born.

So, then, what obligates your loyalty to a choice you don’t make? Let’s start by looking at who or what makes this all-important choice. And of all the theories and philosophies and theologies I can think of, it boils down to one of two options: Chance and Fate.

Let’s look at Chance first. This theory assumes that the place and time of your birth is left up to the randomness of the universe. And it’s hard to argue in favor of loyalty to sheer randomness. But, to make my point clearer, let’s look at just how random this chance is. It’s important to bear in mind that nation-states, as we understand them today, are very temporary things. I’m reminded of how my father always referred to “the great 48 states of the United States”. Now, I think my father was aware that there were 50 states when I was a child, but when he was a schoolboy, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states, and he could never get that early schooling out of his system. So it’s always been evident to me that what constitutes a nation-state changes over time. And, for a wonderful further proof of this phenomenon, check out this video:

If I had been born at a slightly different time (relative to the very long history of humanity), then my obligation, my loyalty, would suddenly change. So this idea of patriotism is a very impermanent thing.

But now, let’s argue that the time and place of my birth were not random, that some supernatural power (that here, to accommodate all the belief systems that share this claim, I call Fate) had foreordained the time and place of my birth with a specific purpose in mind. Then, suddenly, there’s purpose to the time and place of my birth, which would seem to justify a feeling of loyalty and patriotism. But wouldn’t this adoration be more properly directed to the Fate that put me here? The time and place would be secondary, in this equation.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s argue that this formula still obligates me to be patriotic to my country. If the time and place of my birth were foreordained, it stands to reason that this would be true of every single person who ever lived (because, gracious, there’s nothing particularly special about me). But then, that means that different people are born in different countries at different points of history were all put in their particular locations by this same Fate. And that would mean that every person was obligated to be loyal to whichever of the thousands of countries that have graced this planet over the milennia.

Now, here, I think the fact that I was born in America gets in the way. In the United States, we are taught that our country is the greatest country in the world. (Even though, in many measurable respects–from healthcare to infrastructure to education to sports–we are not #1.) But it stands to reason from the path of my argument that every country could argue for being the greatest country on earth. And that makes no sense.

It’s not that I’m lacking in loyalty. It’s where I place it. And I place it in humanity – a view which is independent of time and place, and which recognizes our fundamental equality.

I am not a patriot. I am a humanist.

On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe

You will notice above this post a link to a new page. This page will lead you to the .pdf of a multigenre essay I wrote this past summer, entitled “On the Impossibility of Turning into a Giraffe”. (Alternately, you can click here.)

The essay details the history of Exodus International, from the perspective of former leaders and clients, as well as from my own experience. I have chosen to publish this story for free and online so that anyone may have access to the information therein, and learn about the inherent dangers of attempting to change one’s sexual orientation. I hope that this work might help anyone who wants to know more about this history, or who might be considering such treatments.

Limited Time Offer

My last post generated a bit of controversy amongst readers and friends. Some insisted that I thoroughly could write fiction if I chose to dedicate the time and effort to improving my craft. I was perhaps a bit too surreptitious in the first paragraph–I wanted to allude to the fact that, indeed, there is some choice involved.

However, I still maintain that I can’t write fiction, and here is why:

At present, there are forms of writing that in which I am far better. I write memoir and poetry well. I’m further ahead the learning curve with both of those art forms. And I have a pressing deadline: I must have writing samples prepared for graduate school by the end of the calendar year. This must be the best work I’ve ever written. And it needs to be in the genre I choose to write for graduate school. The schools want me, amongst other things, to write in the forms in which my writing is most mature. My fiction writing is not possibly going to get there by the end of the year.

There is another, deeper concern involved as well, also related to writing. I don’t have much time to write. I don’t mean in my day–I mean in my lifetime. All I have to do in life is a limited-time offer.

Act now and we’ll throw in this free waffle iron! Photo by Cloganese. Via Flickr.com

I’m not wanting to sound alarmist and melodramatic, prognosticating my death. But I have to be honest. I wasted an entire decade of my life in ex-gay therapy–time I couldn’t commit to personal or professional development because it all had to take a back seat to the impossible attempt to turn into a heterosexual (or a giraffe, which was just as likely and just as necessary).

And I can’t necessarily predict a long life, either. Though my mother’s family tree is filled with centenarians, it’s hardly the case for my father’s side. Indeed, I buried my father when he was only 59. I am also (as I have discussed previously) diagnosed with psychiatric illness. Those who suffer mental disorders can expect a lifespan 25 years shorter than those undiagnosed. And it’s not because of suicide, like you might think, but rather from physical ailments that go untreated because doctors ignore symptoms, believing they’re just in the patient’s mind.

Believe me, I hope to beat every one of these statistics and become yet another centenarian to grace my family tree. But, with all of these factors taken into account, I perhaps am more deeply aware of my mortality than some. Seeing a parent die when you’re only 23 can do that.

So I run on the assumption that I’m not going to be around as long as the next guy. And I have a lot that needs to be said. I often say that mine is a case of the message being more important than the messenger. And I write so that something of me will live on after I die.

So it’s not for lack of desire that I don’t write fiction. I simply must focus my energies on my strengths, so that something worthwhile comes of the time I have left on this planet. This to me is far more important than my random desires.