african mask

Harry Potter and the Racist Subtext

african mask“We know your hearts are good, but even with good hearts you have done a bad thing.” – Leo Quetawke, Head Councilman in charge of law and order for the Zuni people

Cultural appropriation is a difficult concept to understand for those of us who belong to the majority culture. We see the world as one unified whole. We measure the sun by Greenwich Mean Time, the seasons by the calendar of Pope Gregory XIII. For us, an African mask in a shop is a decoration, divorced of cultural significance. We congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment and modernity because we can recognize its beauty.

This state of affairs does not make us bad people. It does not make us responsible for colonialism or slavery, any more than African American or Indigenous American genes make their owners victims or losers. On the contrary, it presents us with an opportunity to rise above our past, to forge a new global fellowship built on trust and open communication. As with any educational pursuit, this requires hard work. Continue reading

Teddy Roosevelt vs Ammon Bundy: why white thugs should be treated with respect by police

The “Arson Rebellion”: justice and due process matters whether you’re rural and white or urban and black

ammon bundy.jpg

image courtesy of heavy.com

Let me tell you a story about Teddy Roosevelt. As a young man, he lived in the Dakota territory, hunting, ranching, watching the American bison disappear, and resolving to preserve the land and its bounty from a “class that always holds sway during the raw youth of a frontier community, and the putting down of which is the first step toward decent government.” One day, three such men stole his boat, the only one on the river, while he was hunting mountain lions. He and his two companions built another boat, pursued the thieves downriver, captured them, and then marched them three hundred miles to Dickinson and turned them over to the sheriff. During this pursuit of justice, he also managed to read Anna Karenina, musing in his 1888 book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail that “my surroundings were quite gray enough to harmonize well with Tolstoy.”

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refugees

Refugees: an American fail

refugees

image courtesy of LobeLog.com

We have accepted more than 100,000 Somali refugees since 1991. In the last 25 years, 50 of them have become terrorists. That’s 0.05%, which is good, but not good enough for us. We want zero terrorists, including those who go back to Africa to kill people. We don’t want African people to die either. That is our strength, no quarter, no shadowy corner where the darkness can hide from the light. Continue reading

refugee_children_from_syria_at_a_clinic_in_ramtha2c_northern_jordan_28961347726329

Help me Governor McCrory, you’re my only hope

refugee_children_from_syria_at_a_clinic_in_ramtha2c_northern_jordan_28961347726329

image courtesy of wikimedia.org

The Syrian refugees who are currently undergoing a two year vetting process had nothing to do with the attacks in Paris. They are the Albert Einsteins trying to get out of Nazi Germany, and we are stopping them. This is how we lose the war. We burn a whole city to get revenge on two already-dead homicidal maniacs. There are a limited number of brainwashed suicide bombers. Remember Japan. It’s an act of desperation. It’s the hallmark of a General out of options. Continue reading

EDWINS

The EDWINS Project: a model from Cleveland for reentry

EDWINSA couple of weeks ago I got to tour a new residential project that is taking shape a few blocks from where I live. It’s not a new a development or a swanky condo high rise. It’s a campus to house students from the EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute. The students are former prisoners, mostly from correctional institutions in Ohio, who are working to build new lives on the outside by training full-time for careers in the restaurant industry. The campus will provide a safe, convenient living space for people who might otherwise be homeless.

So far, about 89 students have completed their training at EDWINS in 2 years. The placement rate is over 90%. The recidivism rate: 0%. That’s a much better success rate by far than any sports team in Cleveland could ever hope to have–and one that is far more important.

EDWINS restaurant is in the northwest block of the Shaker Square commercial district. The cuisine is classically French and the atmosphere is upscale enough that we often feel not dressed quite right to even stop at the bar for a cocktail (although last winter, on a blustery, snowy night we holed up by the fireplace in jeans, and no one seemed to have a problem with it).

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Ben-Carson

Ben Carson’s magical thinking on the Holocaust

In yet another bit of stunning historical revisionism, GOP Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson claimed in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that the Holocaust may not have happened if Europe’s Jews had been armed:

“But just clarify, if there had been no gun control laws in Europe at that time, would 6 million Jews have been slaughtered?” Blitzer asked. Continue reading

Monticello_Reflection

Land of the free, be brave.

Monticello_Reflection

photo credit commons.wikimedia.org

I am a proud Democrat. I think the Democratic Party started with a Virginia planter and Renaissance man named Thomas Jefferson. I am not proud of TJ for owning slaves. Slavery is an abomination, the antithesis of everything for which the Democratic Party stands. Jefferson himself was an abolitionist, describing slavery as holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” He also believed that emancipation would result in a large scale race war which would destroy America, his beloved experiment in liberty.

I believe otherwise. I believe that if one allows a man to stop being a wolf and become a fellow Renaissance man, he will do exactly that. I believe this has been proven time and again during the intervening centuries. I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party. I have read Max Weber. I understand that every moment is valuable, not only in the present, but also for the fruits it may bear, properly invested, in the future. Continue reading

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider

Tantō

Kuratas Mecha courtesy of engadget

Kuratas Mecha courtesy of engadget.com

After a courageous performance
Against a team
That was clearly on fire,

And graciously ignoring
The obnoxious juvenile response
Of a nation defined by our wars,

Japan has quietly
Saved the world
By building a giant robot.

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider

Megabot USA courtesy of businessinsider.com

It has been a pleasure,
My fellow Americans,
To have served with you

In our common causes
Of freedom and justice,
But the day we feared has come. Continue reading

point-counterpoint-2

Crusader Baiter: Robertson declares war on Islam

The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, wikipedia.org

In a move of unprecedented celerity and international cooperation, the Summit Against Violent Extremism launched a worldwide counterattack on the recruiting methods and radicalization techniques used by the Islamic State and other extremists. Recognizing that the threat must be neutralized on all fronts, the summit presents a comprehensive approach, from building awareness through education, to destroying extremist narratives online with facts and larger counternarratives, to empowering community efforts to disrupt radicalization before the damage is done. Specific attention was given to the role of religious leaders. From the press release: Continue reading

Stop the Rape Epidemic: female lives matter

Good sex is when two nervous systems become one. It’s selfless, literally. A completely unrelated type of good sex is when two nervous systems generate a new nervous system through physical contact. If you combine these two types of good sex you get the best sex ever, and a wonderful new nervous system. Both parents love each other as much as they love themselves and they love the kid even more. If they have the resources to thrive, bet on it. Continue reading

S&R Honors: The Culture and Iain M. Banks

SRHonors_BanksI don’t remember which of Iain M. Banks’ novels I read first, whether it was Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but it no longer matters. I was hooked on his galactic space opera setting (the “Culture” novels) from the get-go, and I’ve read every Culture novel except his last. When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hoped to read that last novel before he died. For that matter, I hoped to write this post honoring the Banks and his amazing imagination before the cancer claimed him. Alas, he died in early June.

There are a lot of people who look down on space opera as a genre. I’m not one of them. The best space opera plays macrocosm off against microcosm, and the actions of a the few (or the one) have great consequence in the greater universe of the setting. Banks’ Culture novels do this in spades.

There are artificial planets that were left behind for unknown reasons by long extinct races. There are Ringworlds and Dyson spheres, as well as wars so great in magnitude that such massive structures and their trillions of inhabitants are killed. There are digital hells created for the dead, when technology has advanced sufficiently that death has largely become a choice. And there are artificial intelligences that range in size from missiles to “General Services Vehicles” which are usually home to billions of intelligent biological lifeforms.

It’s not that the Culture novels provide technology that is indistinguishable from magic, because they don’t. Banks certainly plays with the laws of physics, but mostly just to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and so on. Nuclear reactors that are so small they can be surgically implanted in a human(oid) body. The ability to alter DNA and transition from male to female to dolphin to plant and back to male humanoid again.

And then there’s agents of “Special Circumstances.” These people essentially do the Culture’s dirty work, do it of their own free will, and do with at least one carefully backed-up copy of their brain pattern stored for safe keeping and re-incarnation if the agent is killed in the line of duty. They are the highly deniable hands, feet, and nanotech that permits the bulk of the Culture to exist largely free of large scale conflict.

While I have enjoyed all of the Culture books I’ve read, one of my favorites is Excession. It takes a philosophical idea – the “Out of Context problem” – and applies it to the Culture itself. How does a post-resource limited, high technology, anarcho-libertarian society survive when faced with something that is clearly from another universe entirely? Will the Culture do any better than the Aztecs did when the Spanish showed up? And if so, how and why?

And if you don’t love the hilariously, if occasionally ominously, named AI spaceships, I recommend you have your sense of humor examined.

Good bye, Iain M. Banks. There appears to be no mindstate backup for you on file….

CATEGORY: BusinessFinance

Teaching underclass kids which fork to use

CATEGORY: BusinessFinanceI recently came across a useful article over at Ragan’s PR Daily entitled “What to wear to work in the PR and marketing industry.” After reading through it, my first reaction was that it was mistitled – what it offers is good advice for what to wear to work in just about any industry. From where I sit now, there’s nothing terribly innovative about author Elissa Freeman’s advice, but it’s also true that there’s sometimes significant value in being reminded of the basics and having them presented in a tight, coherent fashion. We have so much noise in our society, so many messages screaming for our attention every waking minute, that it’s easy to lose focus on something as simple as dressing appropriately for a work culture.

The main points? Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2

Why we write…or don’t…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (Image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s a bitter day when one sees a talented artist give up his art. Sam Smith’s A Poet Says Goodbye to Poetry reveals a great deal about the state, not just of poetry, but about the state of art – especially literature.

The State of Things

The divisions between “high” and “low” art disappeared more decades ago than most people realize (for the hell of it we might say it happened in the year 1930 – not because of the economic collapse caused by Wall Street which precipitated the great depression, but because the Pulitzer committee gave the fiction prize that year to Oliver La Farge’s novel Laughing Boy for what were largely political reasons – the committee’s other options that year were William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel – any of which choices any educated person might think preferable). The rise of creative writing programs post World War II created, unintentionally, a self-contained world of writers writing for each other – as a result, educated audiences who might have read Hemingway and Hammett a generation before no longer exist in any appreciable numbers. Those who read Pynchon and Delillo (or even know who Pynchon or Delillo are) are separated from those who read Elmore Leonard or Patricia Cornwell in ways that reflect the economic politics of publishing.

What used to be seen as the “mid-list responsibility” of once family owned publishing houses like Scribners or Simon and Schuster – to publish or keep in print (I believe the term used once was “champion”) literary work, whether fiction or poetry – is, and has been for some time, over. Shareholders and corporate execs champion profits, not culture. Genre forms – mystery, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, western – are reliable sellers – and some talented writers who might pursue more personal, literary paths have chosen to adapt their artistic visions to genre fiction. Some of these have transcended their genres (Kurt Vonnegut and Cormac McCarthy are examples). But the disappearance of the “mid-list” gave other, possibly equally talented authors no way to access the marketing muscle of major publishing houses.

As a result talented writers who might have pursued their visions independent of the creative writing school system (which, more than anything else, is like an “old boy/girl” club where “mentors” help “mentees” and the majority of students get shuffled through for their tuition) now turn to small, independent publishers who often find that even getting their authors reviewed – a staple of arts pages in newspapers only two decades ago but one of the first casualties of the collapse of the newspaper as a medium – requires them to approach the plethora of “book bloggers” on the InterWebs whose chief aims seem to be promoting their favorite authors – and whose overwhelming interests (I looked at nearly 600 book blogs this fall as I helped my publisher pursue reviews for my latest book) are for whatever the current reading fad is (as most of you know, right now it’s something called “Young Adult Paranormal”). It is a system rife with all the pitfalls and problems of the chaos we know as the Web.

Think for a moment – what have been the most successful books of the last five years? You know them – The Twilight, Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey series. I’ve emphasized that last word for a reason: for the same reasons that movie studios (once taken over by corporate interests) began grinding out sequels for any film with a flicker (however dim) of originality and appeal, mainstream publishers now seek franchises – they want writers willing to grind out hundreds, even thousands, of pages telling long, convoluted stories (usually rather badly in the opinion of this “pedantic bastard” as a high school friend once termed me in signing my yearbook) that follow Propp’s Morphology of the Folk Tale the way that kid making your blackened salmon at Applebee’s follows their picture book prep manual to get the “food” on your plate. The sad part, for this pedantic bastard, is that if I were allowed to approach any of the authors of the above-named series and asked them about Propp, I fear what I’d get would be blank stares followed by calls for their security details to remove me. And what might be worse, to me, would be talking with them and discovering that they were well aware of their use of Propp but wrote for no motive but money.

There’s a term George Orwell coined to describe this kind of writing – prole entertainment. If you don’t know this term, you should – be forewarned: it is not complimentary.

A Few Words About Culture and Change

Despite the efforts of culture critics such as Neil Postman to warn us of the danger of allowing ourselves to be seduced – either by a particular medium or by the power of technology itself to change our lives in unexpected ways, human culture continues to embrace the changes to our lives – and our art – wrought by new technologies and media as rapidly as they appear. (For the well informed, that word “wrought” has special meaning given its reference to Samuel F. B. Morse). We embraced the telegraph, the radio, film, then television, and most recently, the Internet: all brought with them not only new methods of communication but also necessarily changes in the way we think about and use (or think we can use) information.

This has clear implications for our appreciation of language – the medium (in a slightly different meaning of the word) for writers – especially poets – for whom a word, to invert a famous saw, might mean a thousand pictures. So for my friend Sam, and to those like him who have felt the need to abandon this medium we all love so dearly – language – I feel especially pained. He and I gave talks in the late 1980’s that warned teachers and professors all over the country that the medium we treasured – the written/printed word – would likely be subsumed by the power of other media delivered via newer technologies.

Never have I wished more that we’d been wrong than as I write this.

The Pragmatic Artist

As media and technology savvy as we’ve always been, both Sam and I have embraced new media wholeheartedly – fully aware that Merton’s Law dogged our every step. When Sam posted the link to his latest blog post on Facebook (natch), friends and colleagues – known in both the real and virtual worlds – weighed in with sympathy, encouragement and commiseration. In the comment thread on his post, I got into a dialogue (ah, Plato – show of hands as to those who’ve read him? Anyone? Bueller?) with the talented singer, composer and musician Wendie Colter concerning Sam’s decision to abandon poetry. I include below part of our discussion:

Wendie: Jim – artists make art for themselves first and foremost. But I maintain it can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs an energy exchange to live. Payment is one form of energy exchange, just like applause, reviews, acknowledgement from a community of peers, etc. If an artist doesn’t receive at least one of those things to her satisfaction, it is beyond discouraging. I haven’t met one artist (and I was raised by artists) that didn’t have the desire to make art for their living as a primary life goal.

Me: Wouldn’t argue any of that Wendie. But artists also make art for the future – it’s a strong motivation, to leave something behind, to be remembered – that’s the area I’ll be addressing in my response to Sam. As for that vacuum you mention, I understand what you mean, but I’m one who believes no artist has to live in a vacuum – and I believe there are options artists can take (Sam’s taken one, but he seems to think it must involve leaving one art form for another – I disagree with that decision qualifiedly) – and that those options, whether marketing, technological, or some mix of the two, offer artists the opportunity to promote – or present – their art in venues and in ways that might find them audiences.

Wendie’s argument – that artists have to find an audience and make a living – is both valid and powerful. And her career as a composer of music for television, film, and commercials bears out her commitment to finding a way to practice her art in a fashion that allows her to make a living practicing her art. Her response to my reply – that an artist’s leaving one medium to practice another is a bitter experience – is made clear below:

Wendie: Only thing I’d say to that is that to move away from one medium that you had your heart set on and your identity wrapped up in is sometimes necessary. Painful and heartbreaking, but necessary.

Sam, as his essay notes, has made that painful change from one medium to another, hoping that pictures will give him the artistic satisfaction he gets from words.

But at heart Sam is a writer – as his output for Scholars and Rogues shows. Whether he can ever equate what he achieves with his camera with what he has achieved with his pen as a poet (I’m speaking metaphorically) is something only Sam can decide.

Perhaps his artistic decision is acceptance of a reality that I haven’t been able to accept yet. Perhaps what Sam has done is make a pragmatic decision that, like Wendie’s, allows him to follow an artist’s path and find an audience who appreciates his talent in ways that he never felt he achieved through his career as a poet.

Perhaps the word will die – and with it the art of the word – literature – will die. So Sam’s poetry will have been a mistaken foray into a dead art form. This development is possible – though not probable.

So in case language survives, however, here are some ideas that might be worthy of his consideration.

Writers can embrace marketing and technology

As one privy to Sam’s decision before he announced it publicly, I suggested to him that he consider combining his photos with his poems. Such projects expand his potential audience to include both those who appreciate photography and those who appreciate poetry. This is called cross marketing – and is a proven way to reach multiple audiences.

Many writers use YouTube as a method of attracting new readers by offering interviews, readings, and talks about their work. Sam is one of the best readers I’ve ever seen – and he could introduce readers to his poetry – as well as give talks about his poetry – or poetry in general (his understanding of the genre is, as you’d expect, keen) that could help him build an audience. He could even create videos that combine his poetry with his photography – and attract readers to his work as well as combine his artistic interests.

Social networks allow writers and readers to find each other – there are the general networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but there are also specialized networks such as Goodreads that allow authors and readers to establish relationships – relationships that will help an author build audience.

Why we write…or don’t…

The story of literature, particularly poetry, is one of unpredictability. Poets have come into and gone out of fashion (John Donne), had their works bowdlerized in the name of “improvement” (William Shakespeare), and enjoyed great acclaim in their lifetimes only to become more famous for their lives than for their work (Lord Byron).

What I’m saying is, one never knows how one’s work will be received by future generations. That may seem pompous and idealistic, but as the poet said, “Who shoots at the midday sun….”

So I have encouraged Sam to work at finding publishers of his work – even if that means working with a small, independent publisher – who’ll care about his work – and him – and who’ll work with him to get his work out there so that it might be discovered – either in his lifetime or later. As I mentioned in my response to Wendie, and as I often remind my wife Lea, a gifted artist herself, artists create for the future as much as for now.

The hard part of being an artist is accepting that we won’t necessarily achieve the sort of acclaim we may think we deserve in our lifetimes.

Harder still, though, is to leave a body of work as fine as Sam’s poetry in a drawer without finding an outlet for it – especially in an age when finding such outlets is more possible than ever thanks to that very technology I spoke of earlier.

As much as I wish Sam well in his new artistic venture as a photographer, I hope he’ll consider finding publishing homes for his books of poetry. They are, to paraphrase a poet who labored in obscurity only to become after she was long dead a major American writer, his letters to the world.

They are fine letters – I hope he’ll offer them to be read.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

Frank and Liliose

One of my hardest adjustments to living in Rwanda has been that of having hired help around the house. Well, let’s say it’s been my hardest and easiest adjustment.

In Rwanda culture, a standard for most homes includes having a house girl or house boy help with weekly chores, and also for a guard to patrol the property at night. So, a portion of my monthly rent in Kigali goes toward the salaries of one house girl and a guard named Frank.

Frank keeps our house safe at night. From Sunday through Saturday, he sits at his guard post between sundown to sunup regulating our gate and keeping watch over the property. Frank wears a blue uniform with tall black boots and a baseball cap that my roommates occasionally borrow while intoxicated on the weekends (we recently bought him an extra hat as a gift for his good spirits). Frank keeps the gate locked every Continue reading

A pause

It has officially been two months since I exited the plane at Kigali’s International Airport. Life since then has been what I imagine life to be like if staring inside a tornado from a grounded bathtub – calm at the base with a whirlwind of disorganized familiarities spinning chaotically above. The best part about sitting in the bathtub, though, has been the view of observing each bit of life swirling around me. And unlike the tornado, I’ve been able to choose which pieces to bring back down to Earth and which to send sailing with the wind.

This post is a pause…a time of closing my eyes to the swirling gusts to absorb the joys and learn from the hardships. I have not loved all moments here – whether spinning or still, but I have enjoyed most. And, when I pause I also consider: isn’t this what makes up every stage of life – the chaotic and calm, the loving and not loving of moments?

Continue reading

Six days on Rwanda's roads

I recently spent six days traveling the Northwest corner of Rwanda. My brain has not yet processed the amazing, frustrating, enlightening adventures of the week. And, that makes writing about it difficult.

After my Internet-less efforts to write a blog post produced nothing but scribbled nonsense in a notepad, I decided to embrace the chaos. Truthfully, the need to process Rwanda has been an integral part of my life in Rwanda. So, I have summarized my trip in the best way my disheveled brain knows how: to describe the random, beautiful chaos of my week by stating the random simple events and emotions that filled my days.

In the past six days I…

Learned how to shoot a bow and arrow.  Walked through a thunderstorm (Rwanda has more lightning strikes than any country).  Road passenger while a friend drove a Jeep Liberty down the front steps of a hotel (the steps looked like a ramp).  Met a medicine man.  Bargained one night in a presidential suite for $13 more than the cheapest hotel room in town.   Continue reading

Words of my Rwanda life

Goats Everywhere
Banana trees Cover the hills
Motorcycles Most popular mode of transportation
Bare black baby butts Seen frequently around neighborhoods
Hills Not a single part of Rwanda without them
Carrying on the head The large items locals can balance continues to baffle me
Dirt roads Main roads paved, side roads not
AK-47 rifles All security and neighborhood guards carry them
Tropical fruit Mango, passion fruit, pineapple…yum Continue reading

Shaila meets the gorillas

I made my way toward town under a bright, star-filled sky. It was 4:30a.m. Locals still meandered their way home from the bars, but I had my hiking boots on in preparation for a new day. I was off to see the gorillas.

An estimated 800 Mountain Gorillas currently live in the hills around the Rwanda, Uganda and Congo borders. The Rwandan government allows visitors to see these rare creatures, but only after allocating a limited number of permits each day. While tourism helps boost the country’s economy, the national parks remain protective. Just 20 years ago, this species faced near extinction, with fewer than 300 reported members of its kind.

Rwanda recently raised its trekking prices to $750 for foreigners. Many would consider this a hefty sum, and this poor traveling grad school student was no exception. Continue reading