Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cultural appropriation and the millennial environment

The recent protest at Yale University over issues of cultural appropriation and Halloween have received support, analysis and condemnation. Responses opposing the protestors run the gamut from thoughtful concern about free speech to indignant clucking.

Much of the thoughtful criticism focuses on the supposed "intolerance" of the protesters, asking what happened to the legendary free speech protests of the 1960s. Some of the writers objecting to these protests seem to think objections to racial caricature, at Halloween or any other time, represent a new low in public support for free speech. That would probably come as a shock to the Nuremberg tribunal, who found the vicious anti-semitic caricatures of Der Sturmer had helped fuel the hatred that drove the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. The court sentenced the publisher of Der Sturmer to death for crimes against humanity. Free speech has always had limits, and most Western countries acknowledge that in a society that aims at tolerance and diversity, incitement to hate lie falls outside these limits.

To understand why student complaints about the use of cultures in Halloween often seem to focus on practices that do not seem hateful, it helps to understand the environment the millenial generation has grown up in. The Internet has shifted the context in which today's students experience restrictions on speech. The power of the Internet has made the actual repression of information and opinion very difficult, except for extremely authoritarian governments willing to endure considerable self-inflicted harm. Students today have never lived in a world where censorship of ideas can plausibly come from an American civil servant or a judge. Instead, they have spent their lives in the world of the DMCA, where expressions get blocked not by laws but by licenses, not by bureaucrats but by lawyers, not by state power but by private claims of ownership over ideas. The controversy over cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes involves not free expression but property.
"MGD06JesusSaysBuyMoreArt" by Infrogmation - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons -
Connor Friedersdrorf quotes the offending email by Erika Christakis: "Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious... a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?" That looks to me like a naive and nostalgic view. In Halloween celebrations of the 1960s and 1970s, parents whipped up costumes for their children, Halloween decorations were made at home, and students pulled sheets of their beds for toga parties. Some parents still make costumes for their children, but Halloween today is a multi-million dollar business. Stores pop up in major cities in September and October, selling multitudes of ready to wear costumes. These costumes come with design copyrights, trademarks, even business method patents. The only people who do not get to make claim on this revenue stream are the people who created and maintain the living culture that gives many of these costumes their meaning. Cultural appropriation is not kids being transgressive; it is yet another an example of big business using the powerless as raw material to make a buck. Moreover, it is one means of turning that many things appropriated from the powerless into cash that individual students can choose not to participate in.  The email from Erika Christakis advised students offended by a costume "...if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other." That misses part of the point. Costumes are big business. By the time a student puts on an offensive costume, the exploiters have rung up another sale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


for the people of France mourning loved ones. And the people of Lebanon. And Syria, Iraq and Russia. Pray for everywhere terrorism leaves its ugly imprint.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The 11th day

of the eleventh month, the guns of the war to end all wars fell silent. The millions of the dead in that war included my great uncle Launcelot Cumpston. Eleven years after the end of that war, my father was born. I was born eleven years after the Second World War; a war in which my cousin John Cox died.

We frequently commemorate the war dead with the phrase "lest we forget". In its original context, the phrase did not refer to the need to remember the dead and the sacrifice they made. It appeared in Rudyard Kipling's poem recessional as a refrain: it calls us to remember that power politics and military might will not keep us safe.

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

let us remember all the men and women who served in war and peace, those who stood guard and those who bound up the wounds, those who gave their lives in battle to resist aggression, and those who laid down their lives to witness that there is another way.

Above all, let us honour the memory of those who died without complacency. I believe the near future must include a day on which we can say: here ended war. I believe that if that day does not come, then a day will come, although nothing will ever mark it, when humanity ended. And I honour the sacrifices made by brave men and women in the armed services of our country.