Punching Down

I read a very interesting article that I thought was worth sharing.  You can find it here.  But I wanted to add a little more to it and thought it would be worth sharing on my blog in addition Facebook which is probably where most of my blog hits come from.

Here are a couple of excerpts that caught my eye if you don’t have time to read the whole thing:

Any theory of being American must explain one salient and striking fact: cruelty. America is the most cruel nation among its peers — even among most poor countries todayIt is something like a new Rome. It has little, if any, functioning healthcare, education, transport, media, no safety nets, no stability, security. The middle class is collapsing, and life expectancy is falling.Young people die for a lack of insulin they cannot crowdfund. Elderly middle-class people live and die in their cars. Kids massacre each other in schools — when they’re not self-medicating the pain of it all away. The combination of these pathologies happens nowhere else — not a single place — in the world. Not even Pakistan, Costa Rica, or Rwanda. Hence, the world is aghast daily at the depths of American cruelty — yet somehow, they seem bottomless.

(Of course I don’t mean that all Americans are cruel. I just mean that in the same way we say countries have attitude, dispositions, that there’s such a thing as a French or German national attitude or disposition, so, too there is an American one. Nor do I mean America is “the most cruel society in the world”. Can we really ever judge that? But it is uniquely cruel — a kind of special example — in weird, needless, and singular ways.)

And this passage:

When we noted that the despised of England hated the newly arrived despised of France hated the newly arrived despised of Germany and so on, not to mentions natives, blacks, and Asians, in an endless vicious circle, we are also saying: America was learning to be cruel, by forever constructing greater heirachies to seize the fruits of a Promised Land. But greater hierarchies require greater cruelty to climb up, too. And the irony is that all this is what the despised came to America to escape.

(I’ll add peripheral point. The despised, when coming to a Promised Land, are the least likely, perversely, though we might not immediately think so, to want to share it — because they, at last, have something that they feel is theirs. Today’s servant wants to be tomorrow’s master. Today’s peasant wants to be tomorrow’s landlord. Today’s victim aspires to be tomorrow’s oppressor.)

The author’s thesis is that America was built on this idea of punching down the next wave of settlers in order for those who were despised in their country of origin to raise themselves up the hierarchical chain.  In essence by punishing and being cruel to others you win.  And this attitude is uniquely American.

This attitude towards immigration has been noted by many others, but in this essay it goes a step further to basically saying that our attitude towards the next wave of immigrants is the country’s defining personality characteristic that pervades many areas of policy.  He makes a compelling case, at least it’s worth thinking about.

I think there are some other things that I would add as being important to this historical narrative and that’s:

1.  Before America even became a country the first people to be punched down were the natives.  So we are even from the very first people who arrived on shore built out of cruelty.  Throw slavery into the mix and you have some scary beginnings in terms of values.

2.  Maybe we are to some degree a Christian nation.  The idea that punishing people is good for them is a very puritanical one, borne from the old testament.  We see it today in our justice system.  There isn’t a strong desire to raise each other up or to forgive, only to punish.

The irony of course, as the article points out, is that so many have to come to this country for the same reason.  To escape oppression and have opportunity that they didn’t have where they came from.  And rather than embracing what we have in common and reaching out with a helping hand, we instead want to become the oppressors and have the privileges we didn’t have where we came from.

I know many people have already turned the corner from this attitude, but it sure seems we have a long way to go.

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I Have My Reasons

I had this idea in my early 20s that there was an equation that could define what it mean to live a fulfilling life.  I had reasoned this based on what I had observed that seemed common to the well being of all people.  People would generally laugh at me when I’d say something like this just as you may be doing now.  To be sure when I said equation I was describing nothing so trite as x+y=3, or anything like that.  This equation was look and full of many variables.  Some of those variables might be simple, like having oxygen and water.  Other variables could not be settled so easily and they would not have the exact same value for each person.  In fact the same could be true of oxygen and water, but there were certainly variables in that equation which might be more broad and whose details might on the surface look quite different for different people.  An example might be something like art.  Art is important.  For some it’s the doing of art, for others it’s the appreciation and enjoyment of it, for some it’s both.  For some people it’s painting, for some it’s writing, for some it could be making floral arrangements.  I think it’s true to say that I didn’t even have the equation worked out myself and I still don’t but it seems obvious to me that there is common ground when it comes to these variables that can be used for this equation to come up with a solution for a productive and meaningful life.

I was listening to a podcast recently where writer Andrew Sullivan was arguing with Sam Harris that reason could not form a basis for happiness.  This idea was reinforced in another podcast where Russell Brand was trying to make the point on his podcast that this secular world that is edging out religion is also edging out spirituality and thus making our world bereft of meaning in some way.  I would first say that I am not altogether sure that this is even true in that there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that our world has a lot less suffering (as a percentage of the population) than we had even a 100 years ago.  But let’s say that Russell Brand’s assertion is true in his more deist outlook, and I know many other theists who share similar concerns.  As I look at the person I am now, I am someone who leans strongly in the direction and importance of reason.  More specifically scientific reasoning.  And I reflected on this claim by Sullivan.  Are things like love and spirituality eroded by reason?  If I hold reason, logic, empiricism, and all that stuff as guiding principles in my quest for truth, am I going to miss out on important meaning that could be present in my life?  The anecdote I started with here came to my mind, an idea that came to me from beauty I saw in mathematics, but also the reasoning I had done in observance of the human condition.  So I decided to write a post why I think reason is wonderful, in my humble opinion.

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I will start by saying reasoning can be flawed, but not all reasoning.  Saying reason has no value because reasoning can be flawed is flawed reasoning.

Reason tells us that spirituality is important to humans.  Reason has shown us that you don’t need to believe in the divine to have spiritual experiences.  It’s reasonable to seek spiritual experiences.  When I reflect on why a certain experience was spiritual for me this helps me understand what factors might lead to more of these experiences.

Reason tells us that love is important to humans.  Feelings of intense love can be spiritual, and like spiritual experiences enjoying the emotion and not thinking to much about it the moments is a good idea.  Reason tells us that love is a lot like a drug, and makes act irrationally.  I don’t mind this fact actually.  Being aware of that though can help us think twice making a decision based solely on love, which also isn’t a bad thing.  Just as one might claim that life is more than just reason, life is also more than just love.  And even if love often defies reasons, we know there are reasons why humans love.  When I reflect on the reasons why I love, I understand myself better and this can lead to me having more experiences where I get to have those wonderful feelings of love run through me.

Reason informs me that humans must have meaning or purpose – things that drive us to more, to live another day just for the possibility of fulfilling that purpose or experiencing that meaning.  These things vary wildly among people as there are many ways to find meaning.  Too many perhaps because some seem to not know what direction to go in.  When I use my reasoning skills to evaluate meaning and purpose I feel like I understand how to make life more fulfilling.

Reason tells us that sometimes you have to do things for no reason at all.  Perhaps a better way of putting this is that it’s reasonable to do something that you’ve never done before, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.  It means taking a risk.  Fail or succeed you grow, and spending a lot of time reasoning about the possible outcomes can ruin the value you might get from taking the risk.  Without risk we don’t grow.  Reason tells us that when we stagnate we become apathetic and life loses meaning and purpose.  Time seems to fly by as it becomes routine and this precious existence is over before we know it.  So I’ve reasoned that I need to keep challenging myself, and sometimes it’s made life harder, but never dull.

Reason informs me that we all reason and by being clearer about our own reasons we can better communicate them.  Conversation can help expose us to different lines of reasoning, and help evaluate what lines or reasoning are better, worse, or just different.  Reason tells us that there is no right answer to the best flavor of ice cream, but there is a right answer to how to jump the battery in your car.  And this may be the reason why you have to sit and have an ice cream while you wait for AAA to come and tow your car to the mechanic.

Reason informs me that there are better and worse ways of thinking about problems and that there are rules to reasoning.  Reason has shown how prone to cognitive biases and delusion we are.  Reason tells me that it is hard to overcome these problems and it takes being conscious of it, and takes perseverance to continue to learn and to be reflective.   When we aren’t aware of how our reasoning can be flawed that’s when conversation can breakdown.  And once we can no longer have conversations through shared norms of sound reasoning, when conversation fails to resolve our differences, reason tells us that violence becomes a much more likely option in resolving differences.

Reason tells me that even though emotion can often guide my reasoning, I serve my compassion better when I detach emotion from reasoning because life also isn’t all about how I feel about it.  Reason tells me sometimes I have to step outside of myself so I can be more sure that reasoning isn’t flawed by my emotions.

Reason tells me that ignorance might be more blissful, but that there is nothing about life that says it is supposed to be one happy moment after another.  Sometimes reasoning will make us sad, anxious or scared.  But we can use that to drive us to make the world a better place and not let ourselves be paralyzed by it.  If more people used this type of reasoning, reasoning would lead to less experiences of sadness, anxiety and fear.

It’s reasonable to assume that you might not agree with my reasoning, but it was important for me to demonstrate that reason doesn’t have to be the antithesis to meaning and that it can actually enhance it.  It also may be that my reasoning is flawed.  There is a reason why I write a blog to have conversations.  There is also a reason that I keep trying to learn more, because good reasoning sometimes just requires more information.  There is a reason why I love reason, and hopefully you love it a little more after reading this.

Ask an Expert

Currently I am in Austin, TX attending the national American Meteorological Society meeting.  The conference continues to grow in size as the field becomes more interdisciplinary and attracts professionals from both the private and government sectors.  You meet researchers, educators, broadcasters.  Of course one of the big topics here remains climate change.  You won’t see many speakers spending time proving that it’s happening.  There are a few, but a bulk of the people will be talking about how to we get more people on board to take action?  How do we get government to listen?  How do we communicate more effectively to the public?  What are the kinds of policies we need to mollify people who are worried about jobs and livelihood as we switch to more and more renewable energy?  But climate change itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about although it is part of the inspiration for this post.  That and a podcast I listened to with Tom Nichols who wrote a book called The Death of Expertise.

As someone who writes a blog, uses social media, and is a professor, I am fairly outspoken about climate change and have had my expertise challenged many times.  I consider myself an expert of sorts, but as I sit here surrounded by greats in our field and even lesser known ones, I also know that I am a light expert when it comes to climate change.  And I know a lot.  But there are people who know more.  There are people who have a great depth of expertise.  I spent 11 years in university becoming what I am.  There are people who have spent the same amount of time and then on top of that spend year after year researching problems and testing hypotheses and collecting and analyzing data.  Why do they do such things?  We live in a time where much information is available instantly.  Have people like myself and others here simply wasted all our time and just should have waited for the internet to be in its current state so that we could gain the same level of expertise through a few days (hours?) of googling?

I have tried different methods of engaging people on the subject of climate change publicly (some I’ll admit I knew weren’t helpful to anybody but myself), but nothing really seems to make much of a difference.  In the end, someone who might be a line chef at a restaurant will adamantly disagree with you.  And of course I have had far more educated people disagree with me as well, but they have not been educated in meteorology or a related field. And it shows.  I’ll be honest if you want to be critical of climate change with me, I can tell the moment you start speaking, how much you actually know about the science.  Now that’s not to say that you couldn’t have a lively debate should you talk about policy, law, or the pros and cons of renewable energy.  These are all things I am not an expert at, and don’t pretend to be.  So why do so many people pretend they can be an expert on the topic of climate change?

You might say that skepticism is healthy, and this is true.  But that skepticism needs to also come from other experts.  Within the scientific community disagreement and skepticism are everywhere, and scientists within a discipline are constantly challenging each other to do better.  Yes there are times when science fails, but more often than not the expertise of people makes a positive difference.  It seems that it’s our penchant for noticing the failures that perhaps skews our perceptions.  But the amount of expertise it takes just for a plane to successfully take off and land is immense, and there are over 100,000 commercial flights per day.  Many people of course falsely see planes as unsafe modes of travel, but most of us know there is no safer way to travel.  Assuming people in aviation don’t know what they are doing because of the rare plane crash would be an obviously false perception.  For people who deny the validity of climate science I often ask them why the scientific findings are inherently different than the science that was used to make the computer they are using to argue with me?  One of the more intelligent people (non-expert however) I’ve argued with about climate change plainly stated that he trusted a prediction 2 years out of an asteroid collision with Earth, but still maintained that any climate model that tried to predict climate was no better than flipping a coin.

It’s clear that climate science is much more about politics than the science, but since the truth of the results lies outside of the purview of political leanings, the science gets attacked, weakly but loudly.  What other choice is there for such people?  With instant access to information, the perception that one can be knowledgeable enough over a number of hours to speak authoritatively on issues gives them the confidence to do so.  This simply isn’t true.  This post might seem boastful to some or elitist.  In some ways I suppose the latter is true.  I do feel that I represent a very small portion of the population that understands the atmosphere well.  But as I’ve said I’m also smart enough to know how much more there is to know.  And while I am generally smart enough to slog my way through scholarly articles in most field, never would I assume that this makes me an expert.  Put me in the presence of an expert and you’ll find me asking more questions than being argumentative.  And there is expertise to be found in many walks of life.  I don’t go in telling mechanics what their job is about, or spend a lot of time second guessing how accountants do their job, or tell a carpenter he’s hammering a nail all wrong.  I feel I am humble enough about the things for which I know little, but appropriately confident about the things in which I have expertise.  Too often that expertise is challenged by people with none and too often I feel like I should almost apologize for knowing a lot about something.  Personally, I am glad there are experts out there.  I am glad there are people who devote their lives to the understanding something well, to perform tasks everyday knowledgeably and skillfully.  And I am also glad that there are enough experts to challenge other people with similar expertise, who are there to spot mistakes and make improvements over each other’s works.

It seems that we have drifted in this country away from the appreciation of expertise.  And I don’t think one side of the political spectrum is immune to it.  As I watch the numerous cheers for Oprah Winfrey to be our next president, I get deeply concern that the value we place on expertise has waned to dangerous levels.  It is a great age, because there are so many places where we need people with expertise.  Everybody has the ability to be an expert in something.  But this takes time, study, and experience, and this fact should never be forgotten.  Take some time to think about how your day is made better by the experts in your world.

Men Not Being Believed? Blame the Patriarchy, Not Women.

A friend of mine linked me an article that she said pissed her off, and when I responded she asked me to turn the response into a blog post because she said I articulated her thoughts better than she could.  I have elaborated on my response a bit here for more clarity.  The article in question is here.  Reading at least a portion of it will put my response in context, but I suspect many of you have read posts by the men’s rights and so my response might just make sense on those grounds.  For the record, I think the article has some valuable points that are worthy of further discussion.

My response:
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As is often the case with these types of arguments some valid points are mixed in with just some unnecessary vilification which makes me less apt to take it seriously. I would agree that if we are going to tear down men for their inappropriate sexual behavior then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have those same standards apply to women, and in the article he discusses an incident involving Mariah Carey.  I do think there is a case to be made about men not being believed when they are victims of domestic violence or harassment. However when this argument is framed in devaluing the experience of what women have gone through I think this is where this person and others like him begin to lose my sympathy.

I think one can see part of the reason why the person feels the way they do because they sort of give the game away with rejecting the idea of systemic oppression. The model isn’t flawed it’s just more far reaching than he is able to recognize. First, his analogy about terrorism is a poor one, because he’s the reason why we don’t take Muslim deaths at the hands of Christians seriously is because of systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, not because terrorism isn’t systemic oppression. In a way his analogy actually contradicts his argument about systemic oppression of women. More importantly what all such people like this lose sight of is that the systemic oppression of women does oppress men as well. And a lot of feminists get that. For instance, if we value some hyper-masculine version of man the result of this is that it defines both women AND men in a certain way.  In a binary view of gender, whatever a man is, a woman therefore is not.  Any deviations outside of those category definitions results in criticism and a loss of freedom for both genders.  Both genders suffer.  The man holds the power to be sure in some respects and this is his advantage, but his humanity is diminished. Want to be emotional? You can’t. Want to think football is stupid? You can’t. Hate cars? Too bad. Want to become a florist? You’re being a pussy. So men do suffer in at least some ways (maybe not as many ways) from the systemic oppression against women.

I would also suggest that most of the “disbelieving” of men comes not from unsympathetic women (and sure there are likely some) but more likely from other men who maintain this hyper-masculine view of society.  I mean let’s ask why you might not be believed as a victim of sexual harassment or domestic abuse.  The arguments might go something like this:

“I mean you’re a man, you’re supposed to be tough.  Just hit that woman back, show her whose boss.  And if you did get hit, well you’re a man, you’re just supposed to suck it up.” 

“Did you get sexually harassed?  You’re a man you’re supposed to like women touching you, anywhere and at anytime.  It’s sexy when women want you.  You must be gay if you don’t like women coming on to you.  I mean every man wants to be as irresistible to women as you are.”

Such attitudes are the result of systemic oppression of women in which hyper-masculinity is valued and femininity is not valued.  The quote on the cover photo here is about a male victim from another male, but one could easily see how such a dismissive attitude would even be enhanced if the perpetrator was a woman. Complaining about sexual harassment, being the victim of violence inflicted by a woman, these are all considered feminine qualities and are devalued in a patriarchy.  Thus you are treated just like a woman.  Disbelieved at best, and at worst ridiculed for being essentially a traitor to your gender.  The attitude can even be bore by women, because we are all born into a society that normalizes the patriarchal structure.

As I’ve always argued, being feminist has advantages to both men and women.  The sooner we tear down the patriarchy, we improve the condition for all genders and sexual orientation.
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Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

Murder Addiction: Hollywood’s real problem?

Hollywood, CA – Today horror and shock turned into sympathy and understanding as serial murderer Harry Weinberg admitted to the public that he is in fact a victim of murder addiction.  Just a week ago it was finally discovered that Weinberg had been murdering young female actresses for over 2 decades, and police had thought they caught one of the most monstrous serial killers in U.S. history, but todays heartfelt speech by Weinberg softened the hearts of many when they realized, that like many of us or people we know, he too was suffering from addiction.

Weinberg is a Hollywood mogul known to many for producing some of the most prolific films over the last 30 years and owner of one of the biggest Hollywood Studios Mallowmax.  Having scores of great films under his belt it was hard for even this journalist to not give him some leeway after his impassioned words.  Weinberg said, “I guess you could say that I might be responsible for that first murder, but you know I felt I had pretty good reasons for it.  You never think that doing it once will spark a lifelong desire that you can’t explain.  Before I knew it I had murdered 5 more young actresses in a week.  It’s like it didn’t even matter if they were talented or not at first, and then it became sort of a game.  Like the more talented they were, the more I wanted to murder them.  It really escalated in ways I never imagined.  But now I know I need help and am going to check myself into a clinic that specializes in murder addiction and get the treatment I need…finally…it’s been so long…”  Weinberg then broke into sobs at which point law enforcement officer Sgt. David Wolski, who had initially arrested Weinberg, also became overwhelmed by emotion.  We had a chance to talk to Wolski after Weinberg’s announcement. “When I first started investigating this case I was in a state of horror.  Finding out how he took advantage of the dreams and hopes of young actresses who had no recourse but to trust him and walk into his home.  This type of manipulation is typical of your average serial killer.  FBI profilers made this quite clear.  But now after hearing about how he’s struggling with addiction…well to be honest I don’t know if it’s moral anymore to put him in jail. He’s sick, and he needs help.  Law enforcement will be meeting with the District Attorney’s office later today to discuss our next move.  But I think it’s clear at this point that a lot lighter sentence is warranted.”

Others in Hollywood have also come under fire during this scandal for not alerting authorities earlier of the murders that were heavily rumored to be taking place.  Several big actors have been named in knowing about Weinberg’s behavior including Hollywood star Bob Afflert.  Afflert, however denies any explicit knowledge when we talked to him, “Listen you hear rumors sure.  It happens all the time.  This is a tough business.  Sometimes people say it’s murder getting ahead here, but you know…you think that’s just an expression.  I never thought someone would actually be getting murdered.  I mean sure there are many days that go by where a young actress doesn’t show up to a set, but dreams are dashed 20 times a minute in this industry, you just figure, here’s another actress who couldn’t make it and has gone back to her farm in Iowa or something.  As I look back, yeah I can see now that a lot of them were probably being murdered.  It’s sad to look back and think of all those lives lost.  But no more sad than a powerful and wealthy man suffering from addiction.  I hope he gets the help he needs.  As a powerful and wealthy male myself, I realize it’s all too easy to fall into addiction like this.  Nobody is going to bring those girls back to life, so I hope that moving forward we can focus more on the help he needs and not the hurt he caused.”

Nevertheless public outrage remains high and questions the structure of an industry that could support this type of behavior so long.  They worry that Weinberg isn’t the only one who has behaved this way, as young actresses going missing has been a common theme throughout Hollywood’s history.  People wonder if this incident will finally change the culture of silence and looking the other way that has been a mainstay in the industry, or whether more young actresses will be murdered under the guise of everybody’s favorite cliché: “That’s show business!”

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.  I am not sure it’s something that I have any definite answer for so I hope it generates some discussion.  Some people say it’s just something made up by the left, like privilege.  I find such people who say things like that are the most guilty of cultural ignorance and what privilege actually means.  However one of the ways the topic seems to continue to come up is in terms of things like dreadlocks, or Halloween costumes.  Most of the times the topic comes up these don’t seem like really clear cases of cultural appropriation, but I try to listen and think about it more deeply because it is important.  Most recently I was listening to a podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis who is a physician and sociologist who, along with his wife, was at the center of a cultural appropriation issue at Yale.  I’ll get back to him in a second.

As someone who is half Indian (not native, but from India Indian) my life experience has been very different when it comes to cultural emulation.  Indians generally see it as a form of flattery.  Whether we have been visiting their country or whether in Canada.  There is a real sense in the community that we are valued when white Canadians want to eat our food, dance our dances, or dress in our clothing.  Growing up there was nothing more exciting than seeing a white person who could eat a spicy curry and then get up in Indian garb a kick ass on the dance floor doing the bhangra.  My dad was always someone who wanted to learn about other cultures.  We would often go out for dinner to different ethnic restaurants and he would order foods he’d never tried and he would always ask the waiter or waitress what the usual way the food was eating.  He wanted to use chopsticks or fingers where applicable.  For my dad experiencing the culture wasn’t just trying the food but eating it in a way they did.  For my dad, part of understanding culture was living it as much as you could, even if it was only in small ways.  The warmth he received by people of those other cultures for his honest interest and attempts to do as they did always inspired me to have the same attitude in my life.

A recent cultural appropriation incident in the NBA. Lin wears dreads.
A gracious response from Lin. Noting Martin has Mandarin characters as a tattoo.

I have noticed in my time in the U.S. the sentiment being different and it has become more heated in recent years.  Now of course it should make perfect sense.  Some readers might already be saying, well the history of Indians in Canada is different than African-Americans in the U.S.  There is no doubt about it.  Cultural appropriation is a real thing and I think Nicholas Christakis did a good job of defining it in the podcast.

“The notion of cultural appropriation, the kernel of the idea there, is that some communities of people are so denigrated that not only are they killed and wiped out, but all of their ideas and culture is stolen from them, they are effaced and that all that’s left is a kind of caricature of who they are and there is some truth to that …it’s like adding insult to injury…[like] not only do I engage in genocide,  but I take all your ideas and your culture as well and don’t even credit you and who am I to do that?”

There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.  Anybody who doubts the existence of cultural appropriation is blind to some real history.  However, if we are interested in making the world a better place, we still have to answer the question about the best way to move forward.  When I see someone genuinely interested in my culture to the point of wanting to emulate it, I don’t see a thief, I see an ally.  They might not be able to experience the lived experience of being someone of my race, but I see someone willing to defend my rightful place as an equal human in society.  Christakis that things have maybe gone too far:

“…now, the whole history of ideas, culture, art, and music is endless theft.  [because really] it’s endless modification, and transformation and exchange of ideas and of thought and musical and artistic forms and so forth”

I find myself agreeing here.  I mean we could get really ridiculous if we wanted to.  Someone could refer to African-Americans behaving badly as thugs, and this is offensive, because we know what the common usage of that word means, but then if I yelled out…”No that’s not offensive to black people, that’s offensive to me because the word is of Hindu origin and your appropriating my culture!”  As Christakis says to trace back practices and ideas back to one particular culture is tricky business indeed.  Culture has been stolen before, it’s been given, it’s been modified, it’s been incorporated, it’s been fused.  It’s complicated.  How do we right all of the wrongs and still move past it?  I guess we are struggling to answer that question as humans.

As I go back to my personal experience I think what matters most is that attitude you have towards another person’s culture.  If I’ve been discriminated against, which is a painful experience, I certainly don’t want others to experience it, but I want them to understand it.  At the same time I don’t want the best things about my culture to remain hidden, when I can share them.  If people are truly interested in my culture, think it’s beautiful, neat, cool, awesome, fascinating, that to me is when humans come together.  The fact that you might not be able to experience the worst of what I face, doesn’t mean, if you’re interested, that you can’t experience the best of my culture.  At least that’s my attitude.

But it’s true that there are some extremely marginalized groups in this country, and I can’t claim to know what that feels like.  I can understand the source of that frustration given the history, and the fact that we live in a country where many don’t admit there are racial problems, where history is white-washed and there is a lot of glossing over the atrocities in which this country was founded.  There are reasons to be angry, but I still hope there is a path forward.  I still hope there is way to make sure people understand the history and the wrongs that have been done, while still having the wisdom to include those who truly enjoy what your culture has to offer.  I agree that people’s cultures aren’t costumes for Halloween, these are things people of those cultures wear everyday, and so appreciating cultures is also something you do everyday.  I think there are lots of people out there like that and I think it’s something to embrace.

Please share your thoughts, I don’t profess any scholarly knowledge here, and would enjoy hearing other voices on this matter.

*Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about the incident at Yale beyond the article I linked, I encourage to read the e-mail that started it all by Erika Christakis which I thought was a thoughtful one.  You can then watch the YouTube video where Nicholas Christakis is surrounded on campus.  I challenge you to watch the whole video.  I couldn’t stomach the whole thing. He handled the situation as heroically as possible.  Also here is the podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis.  The first hour relates to the incident.