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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.

Faceless

First off, if you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been working on my creative-writing MFA applications (on top of my schoolwork) so there’s very little time to work on this blog. Which is fine; I run this blog on my terms. I have a considerably lighter semester in the spring–my last as an undergraduate!–and may write more here after December. I say all this because I recognize that my last post to this blog may have left readers who don’t know me a little concerned. In fact, everything has been going pretty well.

I’ve written previously about my love-hate relationship with Facebook. It has opened up incredible opportunities for me, but has also created endless (and often needless) stress in my life. Which means I’m like about one billion other people on the planet.

I’ve taken breaks from Facebook in the past, primarily because all the political fighting got too much for me. (There are no enemies like friends of friends.) But I always had a deadline of returning, like, after an election.

However, after the most current arguments concerning the U.S. government shutdown, I had enough and decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from Facebook.

Yeah, pretty much. From thedrum.com

And guess what? The world hasn’t stopped turning. I’m still breathing–a lot lighter, in fact.

Now, I will preface this by stating that I’ve not gone totally cold turkey. For instance, as I found out the hard way, people send party and event invitations almost exclusively through Facebook these days, so I do have to poke my head in occasionally for the benefit of my social calendar.

I have also installed the Facebook Messenger app on my laptop so that I can still chat with my friends (which is the primary reason I wanted to use Facebook anyway. I need this because it is important to managing my anxiety and depression issues that I keep in contact with friends on a regular basis, and I have irregular phone service.

But the surprising thing is that I haven’t used Facebook Messenger that much. I think that my reduced exposure to the endless barrage of news stories and arguments has allowed me to live with considerably less anxiety and depression.

All this means that I’m less aware of what’s going on in the world.  But I honestly don’t think that’s a bad thing. I have a general distrust of mass media, and figure that their primary motive is to generate whatever attitudes are necessary, positive or negative, that will stimulate profit. A lot of the news leaves people feeling helpless, and quite frankly, this is the worst possible time in my life for me to feel helpless. And what does all this “knowing” about what’s going on in the world actually doing anything? More important to effect change.

The irony is that I’m going to post a link to this post on Facebook in a couple of minutes. But then I will be done with Facebook for the day. Facebook is my tool; I’m through with being its tool.

Update: Out of Order

A month ago, I posted about the plight of my friends Claire, Brian, Alexis, and Ethan Robertson*, and how the way the System as it currently operates in America undermines the ability of hardworking citizens to provide for themselves in the event that the least little thing goes wrong. And the Robertsons have had more than their fair share of things to go wrong.

Well, things have just got a hell of a lot worse.  In the past two weeks, Ethan has lost all of his disability income. This is an innocent nine-year-old boy who suffers severe autism and requires twenty-four-hour supervision. And to top it all off, Alexis has lost her medical insurance, as well. The argument is apparently that, now that she has turned 18, her $3,000-per-*year* income is sufficient for her own treatment of autism, depression, and various other disorders. Even if she had the enormous amount of money to pay for private insurance, she would be turned down, because the president’s health-care reforms are not in effect yet, and she would be denied because she has “pre-existing conditions“.

I can’t even begin to quantify just how much this pissed me off–and I’m not even directly affected. Can you imagine what it’s like to be in the Robertsons’ shoes? If you can’t, then you’d better have good insurance, because you are in dire need of a heart transplant.

I may not be able to quantify it, but I can sure as hell depict it. Photo by Troy C. Boucher Photography

Someone commented to my prior post, “I wish there was something I could do.’ And I passed on to her the same encouragement I pass on to all of you:

Quit being satisfied. Get angry. Do something with that anger. Fight tooth and nail with anyone who dares presume that the answer to poverty is “get a job”. Such an argument suffers from Tinman-Scarecrow Syndrome: no brain and no heart. Demolish any argument not founded on compassion. Listen. Listen to other people’s stories. Not “my cousin Jimmy knows this one guy who knows this one guy who…” stories. Take them straight from the horse’s mouth. Don’t presume to know people you don’t actually know. Remember what your parents taught you–don’t judge a man till you’ve walked a mile his shoes. And if your parents didn’t teach you that, then it’s up to you to make up for their deficit and get that lesson in your head and heart. Impart good values to your children and your grandchildren. If you don’t have children or grandchildren, then it’s your responsibility to impart good values to those who can pass them on to their children and grandchildren. Work to build a society where a man is not punished for circumstances beyond his control.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Random Thoughts on Race

The issue of race has shown up in a number of news stories the past week or so: the Paula Deen case, the George Zimmerman trial, and Supreme Court cases involving voter rights, affirmative action in education, and the rights of Native Americans. I’ve ended up in a few debates about them. However, I am not a debater, for a lot of reasons. Yet the points that I would like to make to those I have been in discussion with are very close to my heart, and I think it may be worth it to put those points in the public record. (Just a note, the perspective I’m offering here is from an American living in America, though I’m sure most, if not all, of the principles here are transferable to any culture.)

There is such a thing as white privilege. White privilege means that you have been afforded special opportunities through life merely by the color of your skin. In many cases, this affects what you don’t have to go through in life, for example, police and security-guard harassment, and employer mistreatment. The list goes on.

The thing with white privilege is that, if you are white, you can navigate life successfully without once ever having to think about privilege. I’ll talk later a bit about how to overcome one’s own white privilege.

There is such a thing as institutional racism. This has to do with the cumulative effects of centuries of racism. For two centuries, natives of Africa were forced away from their homes and into ships, on which many died, and driven into grueling labor and abominable living conditions. They were stripped of their names and their culture, and afforded absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. The United States fought an ugly civil war for four years in which the issue of the personhood and equality of these abused millions was one of the driving forces.

None of what I have said to this point is not anything you’d find in the average high-school history textbook, though the more gruesome details are usually glossed over. The trouble is that our history books don’t detail what happened after, only little bits if at all. There was a brief bright point during the Reconstruction after the Civil War in which the newly free made gains economically and politically.

Many white folks did not like this, so they started enacting laws to curb the gains African Americans had made. We hear about the separate-but-equal laws that were put in place–African Americans were forced to go to inferior schools, and were to use inferior restrooms, water fountains, bus seating, and so on. This was all intended to send that message that the black man had better know his place.

But the story is far uglier than all this. First, we isolate these stories as a Southern narrative, ignoring the history of racism in the North, where it played out more in housing and employment. This wrongly absolves Northerners of their subculture’s role in perpetuating racism in America.

Second, our textbooks touch briefly on “sharecropping” without ever explaining what it was. In sharecropping, African Americans were allotted land on which to raise crops. The white landowner collected a (large) share of the crops raised as a form of rent. Sounds like a good deal, right? Until you find out what the history books don’t tell you–that it was against the law for the sharecroppers to leave the land, often unless they paid a large sum of money to the landlord. You’ll notice that the sharecroppers didn’t earn money; their payment was crops. Sounds an awful lot like slavery to me.

Then there was debt peonage. Suppose a sharecropper decided to escape. Or suppose an African American citizen who owns his own land crosses a white person. Then the African American could easily find himself in court on trumped-up charges that he owed the white man some money. Much of the court system was structured more informally a century ago–today, we would see some of them as “private courts” without legal standing and with huge conflicts of interest. And thus the African American was ushered into the debt peonage system, in which he would “work off” the debt. This brought about the “chain gangs” working the roads, and also, less commonly known, the vast majority of the mining labor that brought about the steel-industry boom in the South. Prisoners under debt peonage were forbidden any contact with their families, not even letters, and many died from the back-breaking work.

And we like to think that we wiped all of that away with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. But, just as people looked for ways to worm around the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, so too today the law works against African Americans and other minorities. We structure our school financing such that those in minority communities have nowhere near even the basic resources for their community schools. If they are lucky, they live where the law allows them to travel far from home to a school with no connection to their neighborhood or their culture. If they aren’t lucky, their school–often lacking even basic resources like functional plumbing and enough textbooks for each student–has draconian security measures in place such that students serve jail time for offenses that would merit a suspension in a white school, what is popularly known as the school-to-prison system.

Then we set up our legal system so that it favors whites. One of my Bible-college professors was a sort of guru when it came to race relationships, and he deeply influenced my understanding of race. In a lecture, he related the story of a racial-reconciliation conference he attended. The speaker asked all of the white attendees to raise their hand if they had ever been driving and the police pulled them over for no reason at all. Not only did no one raise their hand, they were astonished as to why the question was even asked. Then the speaker asked the African Americans in the audience if this had ever happened to them, and every single one of them raised their hand. And then they shared their individual stories of how this had happened to them. (I’m going to touch on this later, as well.)

For another instance, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine have identical effects on the body. The only difference is that powder is primarily sold by whites and crack by minorities For a long time, the punishments for selling crack were far more severe than those for selling powder. Only last year were these laws changed. Similarly, minorities face much stiffer punishments than whites for marijuana possession.

And so we have all these ways for minorities to enter the criminal-justice system, and then we make it so that it’s harder for ex-convicts to find employment and education. Job applications require you to indicate if you have a felony record, and though there is the statement that a record cannot solely bar you from employment, it is also generally accepted that an employer can avoid hiring someone for any reason not covered by law. So an ex-con can have an exemplary record otherwise, but the employer can look at the application and decide she doesn’t want to hire him just because he “smells funny” or what have you, and doesn’t ever have to give the reason why she’s not hiring him.

And then there is the issue of higher education. If you have a drug offense, you are not allowed to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which virtually all universities require for entry. You can be convicted of murder and go to college just fine, though. And, as I already indicated, if you are in possession of or are selling drugs, you are more likely to face felony charges as a minority than as a white.

And so it all feeds into itself. Minorities have trouble accessing the sort of education that increases their chances of attaining higher education and thus improving their employment prospects. In fact, there is a chance that even being at school will mean jail time. They are more likely to face prison time via an unequal legal system, and once out of prison, struggle to attain gainful employment. Thus you have a generation stuck in a socioeconomic class where the goal is to survive, not to thrive. Without good jobs pushing a community to the higher tax bracket that will ensure a better-funded school, the choice is to either stay in the community school or take a chance at bussing or open enrollment–if those are even legal options in that state.

And that may sound like a simple choice, but to choose a school that is not a part of your community or culture can look like an act of treachery. There are also more complex sociological considerations. Consider the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was thirteen, my mother, three siblings, and I found ourselves in a public-housing complex. It was not a good place. You had the option of going outside and getting in fist fights all the time or staying inside all the time. Very few people graduated from high school. More commonly, you’d drop out of high school, have a baby, and apply for your own apartment in the complex, thus ensuring three generations knowing little outside that environment. My mother did not consider this the life her children should have, so ultimately, we stayed inside all the time, worked hard on our schoolwork, and worked to graduate from high school. And almost everyone in the neighborhood, even property management, looked down on my mother for raising her kids to think they’re better than everyone else. My mother thought everyone was better than that place and didn’t understand why people weren’t trying to get out. Oh, and did I mention that, in a city that was nearly 90% white, the percentage of whites was considerably lower in our complex?

And it’s all far bigger than all these legal issues. Look at our media. How often do you have a positively-portrayed minority main character? Why are shows featuring African American casts–a group that makes up 12% of the United States population–relegated to secondary networks and get little notice even when they are well-written? The days of The Cosby Show seem so very, very long ago. Why are Latinos, nearly 20% of the United States population, barely on television at all, and it they are, they are cast as either maids or criminals? One of the main answers, of course, is that these decisions are made based on which populations have the most buying power–and a big reason whites have more buying power is all the reasons I described above.

And did you notice that in the amazing year of 2002, when African Americans won Oscars for both best lead actress and best lead actor, they were for the role of the wife of a prisoner, and the role of a corrupt police officer? And, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to convince me that if that’s the only way you ever see people who look like you portrayed in the media, that it will have absolutely zero effect on your self-image as you grow up.

And throughout all of this, I’ve primarily portrayed the experiences of African Americans. I have not really even touched on the experiences of Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, all of whom have had to deal with racist barriers in society unique to their own groups. You can see how long I’ve gone just describing one group, and frankly, I don’t have enough time today to get into all of them.

Quite simply, we have to undo five centuries of white supremacy in the United States, and we are fools to think that one swipe of a legislative pen or one march will undo all that damage. It will take a hell of a lot of work for many generations.

[Much of the content in this section came out of the fantastic documentary, Slavery by Another Name, which I highly recommend you watch. It’s worth all 90 minutes.]

There is a difference between prejudice and racism. The trouble with using such loaded terms as “prejudice” and “racism” is that we are not all always on the same page in terms of their definitions, and this causes all sorts of problems in trying to discuss these very real issues. So, in discussing these issues, I rely on definitions that are commonly accepted in academia. Yes, I’m going to trust people who have dedicated their lives to the study of a subject in which I am not an expert (and I am indeed an expert in precious little, if anything).

So, using this rubric, prejudice has to do with preconceived notions about a group that cannot possibly be true for every member of the group. “Blacks are criminals”, “Asians are freakishly intelligent” and “Whites can’t dance” are all common prejudices, and all are easily dismissed. There are, of course less common prejudices. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, we are all prejudiced in some way. I know that one of my biggest prejudices is assuming that, if I see a random white person on the street, that they are relatively well off, which, not only isn’t true, but is also kind of bizarre when you consider that I am a white person without a lot of money.

Racism, however, is when a group takes advantage of prejudices and uses them as justification for the creation and justification of laws, both in government and in culture, that ensure that one group cannot advance, over a long period of time. This is why it is said that nonwhites can’t be racist. It cannot possibly be said truthfully that nonwhites have, over a long period of time, asserted their authority in both government and culture to assure that whites are collectively lower than nonwhites.

It’s okay for blacks to say the N-word but not okay for whites to do so. When whites say the word, they are recalling a history in which that term was used by whites towards African Americans as a means of ensuring that African Americans “knew their place”, that they were inferior to whites.

When African Americans use the word in reference to themselves, they are doing what has been called in sociology circles as “reclaiming the word”. I have a ready parallel in my own experience. The F-word that is used to denigrate gays and lesbians is one of the ugliest words I know, and has been used for very much the same purposes as the N-word in terms of pushing people to second-class status. However, I know some gay men who use the word on occasion in reference to themselves or to other gay men. When they are doing this, they are making a statement. They are denying the power that the word has had in demeaning their lives. They are taking the torch meant to incinerate them and turning it into a celebratory bonfire. But a person who is not gay or lesbian cannot possibly use the word in this way, because they have never had their feet held to the fire.

Not all gay men believe this, or use the F-word in this way (for example, I don’t). Likewise, not all African Americans believe in using the N-word this way. However, it is the general standard as it has evolved in American culture. Which leads me to my next point…

If I don’t belong to a group, I do not have the right to determine the standards of that group. I have got into numerous debates about the use of Native American names and imagery in professional sports. (It’s a big issue in collegiate sports, as well, but I’m better versed in the issue at the professional level.) I’ve done some study particularly around the name of the NFL team in Washington, a name so offensive that it’s on par with the N-word and I refuse to say or type it. If you dig into the numerous court cases surrounding the use of the name and imagery, the arrogance is shocking. What it comes down to is that Native Americans confront the white owner of an athletic team that uses an offensive name and a stereotypical image that is meant to symbolize their entire set of cultures. (News flash: Native Americans in the past dressed lots of different ways. They covered the entire continent and collectively were as diverse if not more so than Europe.) The white owner says, “But I am honoring you!” The Native Americans say, “If you were honoring us, we would feel honored, and we very much do not.” The white owner’s reply: “Well, I just don’t understand why you don’t feel honored, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And you know what? As I am not a Native American, I really don’t have the right to an opinion about how Native Americans should feel they are represented. To assert otherwise, to insist that another group must think and feel differently about themselves is, guess what, an exercise of white privilege.

And, to cut off this inevitable train of thought at the pass, this same standard does not apply to, say, the Boston Celtics or the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As an American of about one-quarter Irish descent, these depictions do affect and reflect me. I don’t find them offensive, and the consensus of Irish Americans is that they are not offensive. And though there is a nasty history of oppression against the Irish in America’s past, an argument that such oppression is happening today, let alone that these depictions have in the recent past been used to denigrate and disparage Irish Americans, is most difficult to support.

The word “cracker” is not racist. Go back to my previous explanation of the difference between prejudice and racism. The word “cracker” has not been used to denigrate European Americans over an extended period of time to ensure that they will be subjugated in society. Whether the word reflects prejudice is another matter, but perhaps might best be taken on a case-by-case basis.

A racist action does not equal a racist person. The charge of racism is so loaded that the one action you can be certain will shut down any change is to call someone a racist. I argue that, in order for a person to be racist, they must exhibit focused acts of racism over an extended period of time. By this definition, there are indeed racists, but I would argue the vast majority of people are not racist.

On the other hand, I think most white people commit acts of racism. Many of these acts are unintentional. We mirror attitudes and behaviors that racist cultural artifacts have handed down to us. But if we do not correct our actions, we contribute to the continuation of racism.

So the next time someone tells you did something racist, I suggest you follow this course of action: Stop, apologize, consider how the act was racist, and work to avoid doing the act again. It takes a measure of humility and effort, but the long-term benefits to society are immeasurable.

The people who can provide the most honest account of a group are the people who belong to that group. If I want to know the views of women, I ask many women. I don’t just ask one, because no one person should ever be expected to represent an entire group, but I can gather a general consensus if I ask many. The same goes for any group, majority or minority, whether by race, sex, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, politics, on and on. No group is homogeneous. We are, in the end, all unique.

The converse is also true. I don’t want white people telling me what African Americans or Native Americans think or feel. I don’t want men telling me what women think or feel. On and on. For someone to assert an authority voice for a group to which they do not belong is the height of arrogance and, often, privilege.

Overcoming white privilege takes much time and effort but is worth it. First, you have to recognize it exists. This is not easy since, as I said before, if you are white, you can go through life just fine without ever having to think about it. To recognize it means upending some paradigms that have been handed down to you in your culture.

Then you have to identify how it works in your own life. As you go about your day, think about what you don’t have to deal with as a white person.

Next, you have to be willing to listen. Like I said, the only people who can bear proper witness to a group’s experience are members of that group. Again, this will upend some paradigms, and you must remember that listening is just that, not contradicting, not arguing. Later you can suss things out, on your own. For example, a neighbor of mine railed against public education not teaching that the Greeks stole their entire culture from Africa. On an objective level, not only would he be hard-pressed to provide verifiable evidence, but the statement expresses a misunderstanding of what culture is. But on the subjective level, he was rightfully pissed off that the African American perspective gets cut out of our history textbooks.

Then consider what you can do to disrupt the racist structures in society. Only you can say what you can do–whether it is a small action or a big action, it will contribute to the betterment of society. But inaction equals compliance, so goes the activist creed.

All of this has been milling about in my head for a long time. They are issues I am passionate about and are close to my heart. It’s just that they all spilt out today.

Prestige

I’m a mutt. My roots are flung all across southern Europe, western Europe, and western Africa. My family has been in the United States so long that it’s probably safe to say that my “people” aren’t from anywhere other than America. And if there is a such thing as a distinct American ethnicity (apart from Native American ethnicity), then I’m a likely archetype.

It’s not the only thing mutted about me. My dialect is almost literally all over the map.

A couple of weeks ago, an amazing study of dialects came out  of North Carolina State University. This elegant and thorough study, best known for its eye-catching maps that are a lot clearer than one often finds in the fields of sociolinguistics and dialectology, caught fire across the internet, appearing most notably on Huffington Post and Business Insider. We even discussed the study in my Advanced Writing class.

The study endlessly fascinates me. I have long been interested in linguistics, to the point that a friend of mine and I devised our own language some years back. A lot of it is because, well, I talk funny. When I’ve spoken with professional linguists, they say that my dialect sounds something like a cross between North Dakota, Cleveland, and Maine. I even throw in some things that are way out there–a lot of Canadian “eh” and British “brilliant”.

There are a lot of reasons why I talk the way I do. If you dive into the maps in the study, you will see that my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, is very much a borderland, a fact which any linguist will confirm. You’ll notice that, for a lot of the word usages that were studied, the numbers are roughly even. There is a line, roughly equivalent to Interstate 70 through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, that divides the North Midland dialect and the South Midland dialect. Bloomington is also a college town, attracting people from all over the country and all over the world. I grew up hearing many different dialects, and in my adolescence, I particularly took up with a household from Brooklyn and a household from Boston.

Then there was my moving around in adulthood. For instance, what do you call a carbonated beverage? If you check out the study’s map, you’ll see that Bloomington, Indiana is about evenly divided between “coke”, “soda”, and “pop”. Now, in my family, who came from further south, it was called “coke”. (And some of my friends and relatives also said “sodie pop”, and I’m always surprised that that usage never shows up in such studies. I guess it’s too rare.) But then I moved off to St. Louis at age 18, where virtually everyone says “soda”. The word stuck, although when I lived in England briefly (how I picked up “brilliant” to mean “cool”), I discovered I needed to say “fizzy pop” to be understood. But I’ve lived in Minnesota for nine years, where most everyone I know says “pop”, and yet “soda” has stuck with me.

Another test is “you guys” vs. “you all” vs. “y’all” vs. plain old “you”. “You guys” holds a slight majority in Bloomington, though my relatives an hour south more often said “y’all”. I’ve had mostly African American neighbors about half of the time I’ve lived in Minneapolis, and I’ve picked up “y’all”–but curiously, I never did from my family. My pronunciation of “I” has become more Southern for the same reason.

Some of it was a matter of choice. In third grade, during reading time, my teacher pointed out that “either” and “neither” could be pronounced with an “e” sound or an “i” sound, and I decided that very day I would use the one I heard less often, and have said the words with an “i” ever since.

Which leads me to the point of this post. Something else that some linguists have picked up on my dialect is that it sounds affected, like I’m trying to put on airs. Now, they don’t think I’m trying to do this; rather, they think these are subconscious habits. The main reason they think I do this is that they notice I even change dialects from one sentence to the next.

Like I said, they don’t think I’m trying to do this. They think it’s subconscious. And now, after having studied some linguistics, I finally understand why.

In any culture, there is what is called the prestige dialect. A prestige dialect is the one you’re supposed to have if you expect to climb the socioeconomic ladder. As an example, they say that, if you want to make something of yourself in New York City, you can’t actually sound like you’re from New York City. A lot of us are aware of the idea without necessarily labeling it a prestige dialect. In America, we have what’s called a “newscaster dialect”. It’s not really an actual dialect–though some say it most resembles the dialect of Des Moines, Iowa. However, if you wish to advance as a newscaster, sounding like you’re from Brooklyn or Atlanta is straight out. So this dialect wields a lot of influence in media, which influences how we talk. We associate having “no accent” (there’s not really a such thing) with power and influence and belonging to the upper classes.

I think I picked up on this at a very early age, and tried to sculpt the way I speak to something other than what I heard around me. I also cannot underestimate the power of television on my upbringing. As my father cut us off socially to hide the abuse, television, where the newscaster dialect holds sway, was my only window into how other people talked. And, looking back, I think at least some of my schoolteachers tried to “correct” the more Southern parts of us kids’ speech. Then again, with a university renowned for its school of education, not all of my teachers were from southern Indiana.

And so I went through life accruing what I thought sounded like the way people talked who were above me socially. I’m almost certain it’s how I picked up the more East Coast/New England parts of my dialect. Where I’m from, such a dialect means you’re most likely associated with the university, and thus you are educated.

And I wanted desperately to be educated. I entered kindergarten functioning at a fourth-grade level. But, rather than offer me any enrichment, the principal told my parents that the teachers couldn’t do their job with me in the classroom, so their goal was to dumb me down to the other students for the sake of classroom management. By the age of 13, my father out of the picture and my mother disabled, we found ourselves in public housing. In my neighborhood, trying to get out of there was frowned upon; you were “thinking you’re better than everyone else.” My mother didn’t understand the mentality–she thought that everyone living there deserved better than what the neighborhood had to offer.

But, at some point in the past few years, something clicked. I picked up a bit of a drawl–living in Minnesota!–that gets even stronger when I go home to visit. I started using the word “ain’t” in the hope that my awful, horrible first-grade teacher (who deserves about a half-dozen blog posts of her own) might roll in her grave. I quit caring about how I might impress people with the way I sound.

And I wish we all would just give it up. Last semester I researched the subject of dialect discrimination for class. It’s an ugly thing, primarily because it ensures that people remain in the class into which they were born. We have plenty of mechanisms that do that job in our society as it is. If we, as an American culture, truly hold to the Horatio Alger principle that success comes largely through hard work, then we must dismantle the impediments that keep the hard work of certain groups of people from receiving its just reward.

Don’t believe that such things exist in America? I could write volumes on the subject, but I’ll close out with this one simple fact I stumbled across yesterday: An adult born into wealth is 2.5 times more likely to be wealthy without a college degree than an adult born into poverty with a college degree.

Not a one of us is intrinsically any better or worse than the next person. We all have something valuable to share with our species, and justice demands that honest work deserves honest reward.

 

PS: For a nice, quick-and-dirty study of American and Canadian dialects, check out this great blog post: http://dialectblog.com/northamerican-accents/

Opinions

In my online Adolescent Lit class the other day, we were asked to read two essays regarding the value of young-adult literary awards created especially for works that showcase the writing and stories of racial and ethnic minorities. The first essay was written by a white male scholar, who believed that such awards prefer subject matter over literary merit, and thus run a great risk of rewarding inferior writing. The second essay was written by an African American female author as a direct rebuttal, explaining the history of how mainstream awards have repeatedly dismissed the efforts of non-white authors and illustrators.

For my class, we were to post our response as to which side won the debate in the class “discussion,” which functions like a message board. I wrote that the field of literature was an extension of the field of academia, which exists as the result of centuries of white privilege and institutional racism. The vast majority of whites are, for many reasons, ignorant of the privileges they are afforded in society based solely on the color of their skin. Moreover, a person has no ground on which to claim what is appropriate for a group to which he does not belong, particularly if he belongs to a group that has historically oppressed the group in question. (This is simply a matter of respect in my book.) For these reasons, in the class discussion, I made the bold assertion that the first essayist did not even have the right to an opinion in the matter.

I awaited a mob of classmates, charging with virtual pitchforks, ready to pillory me for daring to suggest that someone doesn’t have the right to an opinion. I waited in vain. Most of my classmates–interestingly, including many who are not white–appreciated my perspective, and stated that they hadn’t even considered the angle of white privilege. Only one student rebutted my claim that the first essayist didn’t have the right to an opinion, since, as we are so often told, everyone always has the right to an opinion.

I, of course, disagree.  For example, I have the right to an opinion about matters of taste. But even then, that only goes so far. I may not like what someone is wearing, for instance, but even then, I don’t necessarily have the right to air my opinion about it, especially if doing so belittles the other person (and so often it does.) In fact, if someone is walking down the street stark naked, the only reason that should be my business is if that person is too cold–then, it is my moral obligation as a fellow human being to ensure they are warm.

As I stated already, I don’t have the right to an opinion of how a group should feel or be treated, if I don’t belong to that group. But that never happens, right?

And then there are matters in which it doesn’t even make sense for opinion to come into play–and yet it seems almost everyone, in their postmodern, it’s-all-what-you-believe mentality, thinks otherwise. Many of these matters have to do with what a person has the right to know.

I do not have the right to know what two (or more) consenting adults do in the bedroom.

I do not have a right to know how your genitalia look or how they function. I do not have the right to an opinion as to whether your genitalia should match what I think your gender is, or even what  you think your gender is.

I could go on, but I need to get a move-on with my day. Blogger Dan Pearce has a great list that delves further into this issue. I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but overall, it is great food for thought.

Like I said, there is much more I want to say on this subject, but that will have to wait for other days.

No

Many across the United States are aware that Minnesota is in the midst of a nasty battle for a constitutional amendment (an amendment the Republican-led state legislature felt so important that they had the state government shut down entirely via lack of budget until the amendment was put to ballot) that will restrict the rights of emancipated adults to engage in civil contract (the contract of legally-recognised marriage) and restrict the religious freedoms of churches who wish to follow their beliefs by marrying same-sex couples.  This concerns me.  Not because I am gay (I don’t think I’m quite marriable).  If I were straight as an arrow, I believe this would still concern me.  See, this battle is being fought by and large by people who claim they are fighting this battle in the name of Jesus.  When I read the Gospels, I see that Jesus repeatedly lambasted those who wanted to embroil themselves in other people’s moral affairs.  He actually praised the Pharisees for their practises of personal piety, but then condemned them for legislating everyone else’s morality ad nauseum.  This Jesus has been forgotten somewhere along the way.

I’m also concerned because I live in the Twin Cities, what I sometimes call a “gay bubble,” and so many I converse with are utterly convinced that the anti-marriage amendment will be defeated, no problem, and they’ll point to some random poll to prove it.  Yet every single poll I’ve encountered has said that, though a tight race, the amendment looks like it will pass.  Moreover, I know a number of people who are working at various levels of Minnesotans United for All Families who all confirm my assertion and refute that of my acquaintances.  I think living in this gay bubble inures people to attitudes outside the bubble

But as concerned as I am about this amendment, I am even more concerned about a second ballot issue which has garnered less national attention.  The proposed amendment would require a “photo I.D.” in order to vote.  Can’t afford the fee for a photo I.D.?  Well, just head down to your DMV and they’ll make you a special, free voter ID.  It sounds innocuous enough, doesn’t it?    But then the truth rears its ugly head….

The hue and cry that got this proposed amendment put on next week’s ballot was claims of rampant voter fraud.  Extensive studies have demonstrated that this rampant voter fraud simply doesn’t exist.  The claim that it’s easy-peasy to just go down to the DMV?  Never mind the many mitigating factors that can keep someone from the DMV.  Just ask the good folks in Wisconsin.  They were told that they could do just as Minnesotans are being told, to go down and get your free ID at the DMV.  But then the DMV employees were instructed specifically by the state government to do everything possible to *discourage* applicants from obtaining these voter IDs. (Watch this video to see these tactics in action.)  Or voters of a certain political persuasion (read: Democrat) had their closest DMVs taken away from them outright.  Never mind that the implementation of this special voter ID will cost in the neighbourhood of $50 million with no clue as to how to fund it.

If this sounds like a diatribe against the Republicans, it is somewhat, but only because they are the ones who have seized upon this issue.  (I have diatribes I can write against the Democrats, but that will have to wait for other writings.)  Look at the stats across the country.  There is a clear correlation between the ease with which one can vote in a particular state and the likelihood that that state will favour one party or the other in elections.  (I say this having come from Indiana, one of the more dependably Republican states, which is also one of the hardest states in the country in which to vote.  For example, you have to be registered at least thirty days before election time, and the polls close at 6 p.m.—the earliest in the entire country.)  The Republican leadership are well aware of this correlation, and have admitted as much.  So, on the surface, this is appears to be a matter of one political party subverting the political process to gain control, which is in itself repugnant.  (For the record, I agree with George Washington in thinking that political parties are an inherently bad idea.)

But the heart of the issue is much more insidious than a simple power play.  It is nothing less than the assertion that some human beings are inherently inferior to other human beings.  A couple of months ago, I haphazardly ended up in a debate (I hate debate, or rather what is mislabelled as debate these days) on Facebook with a friend of a friend (there is no enemy like a friend’s friend).  I gave him my personal account of how, two years ago, I was nearly turned away at the polls under the existing laws for reasons related entirely to poverty.  And this friend of a friend asserted that he didn’t care.  He didn’t care about whether circumstances beyond my control kept me from the polls.  Furthermore, he stated that he could hear a million stories that were the same, and they still wouldn’t change his mind about ensuring that this repugnant amendment becomes enshrined in the Minnesota state constitution.

He stated it right there: he believes his Story is more important than mine, or those of the hypothetical million others, and by extension, *he* is more important than I or the million others are.  And I maintain that the belief that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others lies at the core of most of our social ills.

And that is what this fight—what many fights—are about.  It would take unmitigated gall to walk up to someone and say, “Yeah, you know?  You could vote just fine last year, but I’m taking away your ability to vote next year.”  Of course, most backers of this amendment would dare not express such unmitigated gall to someone’s face, instead hiding behind the anonymity of the ballot box and the socioeconomic, racial, and cultural cloisters that keep nearly all of us from ever truly learning the experience of anyone whose Story isn’t like our own.

Last night I went to a Halloween party.  As I rode the bus through increasingly conservative neighbourhoods out to the inner-ring Saint Paul suburb of my hosts, I saw on a number of lawns a maddening sight that was the impetus for writing this article: signs, side-by-side, one saying to “Vote No” on the anti-marriage amendment, but to “Vote Yes” on the voter suppression amendment.  This repeated sight angered me because the posters of the signs could not see that both of these amendments are cut from the same cloth of inequality: that homosexually-coupled individuals are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to live lives of the same quality as their heterosexually-coupled counterparts, and that the poor, the disabled, the elderly, college students and anyone else who doesn’t “fit” that look to be marginalised by this amendment are inherently inferior and don’t deserve to participate in one of the foundations of a functional democracy.  Both of these amendments maintain that some people are fundamentally inferior to others, an assertion that undermines the very notion of democracy.

And so, I turn back to my earlier illustration of all of us hiding in our own little homogeneous cloisters.  We have the gay, the lesbian, the ally who will fight tooth and nail for their own rights and of those close to them, but are at best indifferent to the rights of those who do not run in their own circles.  And that is repugnant.

To vote no on both of these amendments is to affirm the dignity and equality of all our citizenry and to support democracy.  It is the absolute least we can do.  May we do this and far, far more to uplift our species.

A final note: this is my last word on the subject.  And I will not be lured into what-passes-for-debate-today on the subject, because there is no possible way you can convince me that some human beings are inherently better or worse than others.

Edited 28 Oct 12 to add a link regarding Indiana voting shenanigans.
Edited 5 Nov 12: I also want to add that supporters of the amendment have stood on the idea that the amendment will “reduce voter fraud.”  The evidence of voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, far smaller than the statistical margin of error.  Yet this amendment would remove from thousands the ability to vote in order to sift out one or two voting cheats.  From a mathematical standpoint, this makes no sense.

 

Edited 5 November: Fact-checked, figure “hundreds of millions” for implementation of Voter ID measures brought down to “in the neighbourhood of $50 million.”  Still way too much for an unnecessary measure

Commonality

Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited.  The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.

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Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways.  We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name.  True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate.  What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.

These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions.  We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.

It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction.  An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat.  And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens.  We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.

However, it does not have to be this way.

We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities.  But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring.  What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label?  If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?

It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe.  The one thing that all human beings share is Story.

By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.

So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it?  First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.

In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.

Uncensored

Last night I indulged in a carton of Ben & Jerry’s–perhaps not the smartest thing for a man trying to lose weight, but it’s not like an everyday thing.  As I decided on my flavour (“Late Night Snack”, fantastic), I noticed that one new fluffernutter-inspired concoction was rechristened, from “Cluster Fluff” to “What A Cluster”.  This did not surprise me.  The company had recently been pressured by conservative activist group One Million Moms to change the name of their latest flavour, “Schweddy Balls”, inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch.  However, as of today on the Ben & Jerry’s website, that name remains (though, personally, I think the idea of putting chocolate and rum together sounds kind of disgusting).  Even so, though the company has used salacious flavour names in the past*, they apparently felt compelled to change the name of “Cluster Fluff”.

This censorious behaviour echoed an online conversation I’d had earlier in the day with a good friend in Canada.  He had recommended a website for me to check out, and though I was certain it would include no “graphic” imagery, I figured it would still be blocked on library computers.  I told him such, to his shock and consternation.  After all, this was a library, a purveyor of information to the masses, and a cultural institution which has a long history of standing against censorship.  If Canada doesn’t censor public internet use in this way, surely the United States wouldn’t, either.  I then explained that in the United States, the federal government can reduce a public library’s federal funding if they do not install “nannyware” filters in their computer labs.  (Some American libraries have simply chosen to forego the federal funding, on principle.)  I illustrated this attitude in American culture with the catchphrase of Helen Lovejoy, the pastor’s wife on The Simpsons: “Will somebody please think of the children?!”  My friend replied that people should focus on raising their own children, not other people’s.

I’m undecided on how I feel about his statement.  On one hand, as they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children grow up, not in the bubble of their parents’ watch, but in society at large, and we fool ourselves if we think our actions have no influence at all on the next generation.  On the other hand, how one chooses to parent, how one chooses the values to inculcate into their children–we consider these sorts of choices as a hallmark of a free society, and, so the argument goes, if someone wants to raise their child more “precociously” than another, then so be it.  And yet, this view is also used to enforce attitudes that really do harm society: “I’m raising my child to stand against homosexuality, and rules that say ‘gay’ students get ‘special protection’ from bullying is undercutting my right to raise my child as I want.”

What I am sure of is that it is absurd to believe one can raise a child in a protective bubble in perpetuity.  There is a difference between, say, giving your twelve-year-old pornography (ignoring the fact that some of the Bible is quite pornographic), and that twelve-year-old discovering it just by being a member of society.  Children are going to find out about the real world no matter how much they protect their children.  It is the job of the parents to first build up values such that their children can handle “the real world” when–not if– they encounter it, and then, to discuss issues in an age-appropriate manner when–not if–they come up.

The challenge comes when a segment of society believes it is (literally) their God-given responsibility to act as God’s mouthpiece in any and all situations, to hand out the judgements and punishments in God’s place.  To this, I can only reply that, in a great many situations–from the woman about to be stoned for adultery, to his many encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus told people to mind their own business when it came to others’ morality, and to focus on their own.

As an aside, just to make my personal statement about censorship, allow me to say that, if you were not aware of what “Cluster Fluff” refers to, it’s a play off the phrase “clusterfuck”, which generally refers to a complex and intractable situation.

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*”The company has had other controversially named flavors as well — Karmel Sutra and Hubby Hubby (in support of gay marriage) — for example. But Schweddy Balls has received much publicity-generating attention.” Read more here.

“Objectivity”

Occupy Wall Street began modestly enough, a couple hundred seemingly homogeneous folks gathering to protest in the largest city in the United States.  As such, it needn’t gather much more news coverage than a curiosity, perhaps buried in “news of the weird”.  Yet, though in one month’s time, the protest has swollen to thousands, as its message and mission has grown more focussed, as it has carried out clear and positive actions (such as the demonstration that successfully averted some foreclosures), one would think from the amount and nature of mainstream media coverage of the movement that Occupy Wall Street remains entirely a small gaggle of unfocussed, vaguely angry “young people”–a myth.

The internet, though, isn’t (wholly) mainstream media.  What is interesting, though, is that one need not look far online to find this same unanalysed and untrue trope–of “lazy”, misguided youth, small in number and devoid of real purpose–perpetuated in comment sections across the web.  I personally believe that this is the direct result of the message that the mainstream media have perpetuated since the beginning, as one sees the same eerily similar phrasings repeated over and over.  The mainstream media established the meme of the “spoilt young middle-class rabble-rousers”, and so it has perpetuated through repetition.

It makes sense, though.  The mainstream media are owned by the same corporations that the protesters stand against–and if there is one enemy the protesters consider to have in common, it is corporations.  Through consolidation and buyouts over the years, the power to disseminate news has concentrated itself into fewer and fewer hands, leaving the news we get every day more and more “corporate”–even as the internet, smart phones, etc have placed the power to spread news in more and more hands.  The mainstream media outlets, quite simply, are not going to bite the hands that feed them by relating news stories that stand against their own self-interest.

This, however, is nothing new.  The myth that news media are, or should be, “objective” is taught from childhood.  But, first off, human beings are not by nature fully objective entities.  We are a conflated, confused mishmash of beliefs, principles, and goals, and there is no real way around it.  I think also of times past when the media would go to absurd lengths to promote its own economic well-being.  At the turn of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for a major city newspaper to print up a made-up story of, say, an elephant escaping the zoo and rampaging the city, causing panic and, yes, increased newspaper sales.  The fact that the last paragraph would read, “The preceding was a complete work of fiction” did nothing to keep people from spreading the rumour of the escaped elephant that they knew their cousin’s cousin saw yesterday–after all, aren’t we taught in school that, when writing news, you put the least important information at the end?

The mainstream media are putting Occupy Wall Street in the last paragraph, hoping that, if we ignore it, we will keep believing them and buying their products.