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Trying To Move My Thinking Forward On Cultural Appropriation

I've had trouble getting my head around the idea of cultural appropriation -- when and how it's appropriate to adopt elements of other cultures -- in large part because I've had trouble applying the pragmatist criterion I described in an earlier post. That is, I've struggled to pinpoint just what it is that's harmful about the borrowings we label "appropriation." (To be clear, this does not mean that I doubt such harm exists or assume that it's OK until I can explain exactly what's wrong with it.) The most obvious response is to adopt a culture as property" paradigm, which I find problematic because it draws on certain assumptions about cultural independence and boundedness that seem to map poorly onto anthropological reality.

I had a minor "aha" moment reading a comment by atlasien in response to Rachel raising this issue. The nut of it is this:

I tend to use a simple idea to spot appropriation… the belief that a unique aspect of another culture can be absorbed into your identity while remaining a marker of that other culture (in other words, still viewed as authentic and unique, not melded into globalized pop culture) while being stripped of its negative connotations.

I need to ruminate more on this way of looking at the issue -- currently I can't even come up with a snappy label for it to parallel the "culture as property" view. I've encountered similar perspectives before, but never quite hashed it out enough in my own brain to be able to recall it (as opposed to being baffled as described in my opening paragraph) when confronted with new questions of potential cultural appropriation. Atlasien's description highlights the way that the wrongness of cultural appropriation is more about how it seeks to define/speak for/claim authority over/claim the benefits of the identity and way of life of the apropriate-ees.

For the moment, I'll note two considerations about this view. First, I would say that a cultural element can qualify as wrongfully appropriated if it's treated as a marker not just of "that other culture ... viewed as authentic and unique," but also of a sort of generalized Other/opposite-to-my-culture-ness (contrast, for example, the new-agey practitioner of an eclectic hodgepodge of non-Western cultural traits with the narrowly-focused Japanophile). Second, I'm hesitant about the (usually implicit) presumption that the only valid alternative to appropriation is total immersion in the other culture (leading either to becoming fully bicultural, or a conversion away from your old culture). Taken too far, this could tempt one back into the same conception of cultures as distinct and internally holistic and fully integrated that I found problematic in the "culture as property" view.


Executive Committee Of The Bourgeoisie, Again

In theory, the government is supposed to protect citizens against corporations running wild in the free market. In practice, government seems to just as often protect corporations against citizens acting in the free market. Case in point: an impending ban on labeling milk as artificial-hormone-free in Pennsylvania and possibly several other states:

As of Jan. 1, Pennsylvania is banning labels on milk and dairy products that say it comes from cows that haven't been treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, which is sometimes known as rBGH or rBST. State officials say the labels are confusing and impossible to verify.

... "It confuses them," [PA agriculture secretary Dennis Wolff] said. "It seems to imply there is a safe, nonsafe dimension."

A former dairy farmer, Mr. Wolff said he decided to look into the issue after he received calls from farmers complaining that they were being forced to stop using bovine growth hormone if they wanted to continue selling their milk to certain dairies. He also said his office had received many calls from confused consumers.

Mr. Wolff's office could not provide surveys or research showing that consumers were confused by the issue, and was unable to come up with even one name of a consumer who had complained.

Aww, poor companies being forced to keep up with consumer demand -- don't worry, Comrade Dennis will fix the production quotas for you. Hey Mr. Wolff, I figured out an innovative scientific test to verify whether milk comes from cows treated with hormones: go inspect the farming operation. Dairy farms are pretty big, so it shouldn't be too hard to find them and go have a look around.

In addition to the regulatory capture issue, this story pushes another one of my buttons: Wolff's rationale assumes that the only legitimate reason to choose one product over another is the physical characteristics of the item on the shelf. So if there are no hormones in the milk itself, it's wrong to distinguish between hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated milk -- and indeed, consumers must be prevented from making that distinction. But that is a false way of looking at consumer choice. When you buy something, the effect is to support everything that happens along the production chain in order to bring you that product. And any physical/causal effect of an action may legitimately be taken into account in deciding whether to do that action. So even if Wolff is right that milk from hormone-treated and non-hormone-treated cows is identical down to the molecular level, I would still want to buy milk from hormone-free cows because of the effects of the hormone treatment on the cows.


Anti-Vegetarian Subsidies

Neil the Ethical Werewolf points out the huge skew in how US farm subsidies are distributed -- over 70% go to meat and dairy production, and much of the rest goes to empty starches and sugars. This makes those foods disproportionately cheaper, and thus contributes to the skew in American diets toward eating too much meat and low-quality carbs. Neil sees the problem here as one of nutrition, particularly for the poor who can't afford to fight the subsidy current. I don't want to dismiss that concern, but I do want to point out another effect: the harm to animal welfare and the environment.

In discussing the animal welfare/rights or the environmental argument against consuming meat (or at least factory-farmed meat), the options for action typically wind up focusing on personal choice, i.e., becoming a veg(etari)an. The obvious public policy instrument would be some kind of ban on the production and/or consumption of (some kinds of) meat -- though you'll almost never hear anyone advocating that. But here we have a case in which some progress could be made simply by rearranging our subsidy system.


Youse Talk Like That In Pennsylvania, Say?

Since I hail from Palmerton, PA, I was interested to note Benjamin Zimmer's post pointing out this comedy sketch poking fun at "heynabonics," the dialect of northeastern Pennsylvania. Most of "heynabonics" is widespread informal and/or lazily-enunciated American English (e.g. the classic pre-dinner conversation "Jeet jet?" "No, jew?"). The two distinctive-to-Northeast-Pennsylvania items covered in the video are "youse" and "heyna." I've always thought "youse" was a much more logical alternative to "y'all," but I'm afraid the latter is becoming the QWERTY keyboard of English pronoun innovation. "Youse" was common but not universal in Palmerton, and was sometimes explicitly noted as being a "Monroe County" thing (Monroe County lying just northeast of Palmerton's Carbon County). "Heyna" (a "tag question" like the Canadian "eh?"), on the other hand, was new to me despite living at the border between northeast and southeast Pennsylvania. But in Palmerton (and possibly surrounding areas -- I'm not sure) we had our own tag question, "say?" The Heynabonics video in some ways reminds me of how Palmerton was also marginal to southeastern Pennsylvania's regional sub-culture as well. I have some college friends from the Philly suburbs, and they would occasionally forward me "you might be from Philadelphia if" lists and other such things, on the assumption that I was from the same region -- yet I rarely got most of the jokes. Then again, you also have to factor in the fact that I was fairly shy and my family moved to Palmerton from northwestern PA when I was 9, so I never fully imbibed the full Palmerton culture (for example, I didn't start drinking iced tea or eating pierogies until after I moved away from home).

Zimmer also points out the "glottalized" pronunciation of the region's major city, Scranton (pronounced more like "scran'-un"). Many years ago I was traveling through this area with a friend and her dad, who hail from Long Island. The dad mentioned that we were getting close to "Scran-Ton" -- not just pronouncing the T as a T (rather than a glottal stop), but emphasizing the O (pronounced like "off" rather than reduced to a schwa) as well. I found it amusingly unnatural-sounding.

A Note In Passing On The Race And Intelligence Debate

I haven't had time to read any of the conservative columnists who have recently claimed that science proves black people are stupider than white people. But I have encountered a number of my usual reads denouncing these columnists and their conclusions. I noticed an interesting aspect to their denunciations: the cause of the columnists' error, insofar as one is asserted or hinted at, is portrayed as motivational bias. That is, while these columnists are not necessarily racist per se, it's also not exactly a negative influence on their lifestyle to decide that their race is smarter, so they like and want the conclusions they're coming to. Reaching for a motivational bias explanation is unsurprising given the framing of the columnists' argument, in which they seem to protest too much that they really wanted to come to the opposite conclusion and they explicitly make the motivational bias accusation against liberals who hold that there are no racial intelligence differences. Motivational bias is also an easy explanation because that's just what racism is from a mainstream perspective. What's not raised as a possible explanation is interpretational bias. What I mean is the tendency to take one's own culture as an obvious universal norm, and therefore to see people from other cultures as coming up short (a tendency that is stronger for people in dominant groups, since that dominance means they are less likely to encounter a situation where they're forced to question those assumptions). I find the comparative inattention to interpretational bias curious since the most common anti-racist attack on intelligence testing is that the tests assume certain norms and background knowledge that make sense for middle-class whites, but which can't be assumed -- and therefore lead to poorer test performance -- on the part of people from other backgrounds.


Tipping Is Stupid

A while ago Hafidha Sofia asked why we tip waitstaff a certain percentage of the price of the meal, since the amount of work they do is not proportional to the cost of the meal (a plate of spaghetti is just as heavy as a plate of prime steak). I've come to favor the second of the two theories I proposed in the comments -- percentage-based tipping was created by the restaurant owners as a way to create an incentive for waitstaff to encourage diners to spend more on dinner.

I always try to tip generously. But I would just as soon see tipping abolished (in every profession -- I'm sometimes a quite stingy tipper because I don't realize certain people are supposed to get a tip), a la the Australian system. The basic problem with tipping is that there's no deal worked out in advance. With anything else you pay for, you and the seller agree up front how much you'll pay and what you'll get in return. If you don't get what you pay for, your options (depending on the severity of the disappointment) include demanding a replacement, taking your business elsewhere in the future, and suing. When the service is paid for by tipping, however, the tip-ee has no guarantee going into the transaction what their compensation will be. They have some control in that good service will tend to be tipped better (though that has the side effect of encouraging insincere, ingratiating, subservient behavior). But the size of the tip depends just as much on the generosity of the tipper, which the tip-ee has no control over.

It probably wouldn't be too hard to eliminate tipping in the US, if there was the political will for it. It would simply require eliminating the special lower minimum wage for tipped professions. After an admittedly awkward adjustment phase, diners would decide that since the food is more expensive and the waitstaff make decent money without tips, there's no need to tip. The burden would shift to the restaurant to take care of its employees, rather than the waitstaff to suck up to the customers and accept whatever they deign to bestow.

What The AP Didn't Tell You About "Doctor Immigration"

Yesterday this story came over the Associated Press wire, with the slug "Doctor Immigration." It concerns Pedro and Salvacion Servano, a Filipino couple that came to the US in the 1980s and is now facing deportation. The story is quite clearly set up to evoke sympathy for the Servanos -- they're successful, hardworking people who get glowing recommendations from everyone who knows them.

Frustratingly, the only information about exactly why they're being deported that reporter Genaro Armas gives us is this:

The couple married in the Philippines in 1980, and two years later, Salvacion Servano's visa was granted and she left the country. Pedro Servano followed in 1984 after getting his visa, and the couple moved to Philadelphia.

The Servanos applied for U.S. citizenship while living in San Diego in 1990, but an immigration official noticed during an interview that their visa application listed them as single. They were accused of lying and misrepresenting their marital status, and the deportation process began, [attorney Gregg] Cotler said.

Such a brief and unenlightening description works to keep the Servanos looking sympathetic, and keeps the focus on the sadness of their predicament. But it's also a bit insulting -- as if we the readers are too dumb to understand how immigration law works.

Luckily I live with an immigration lawyer. I asked her about this story, and what she surmised (with the obvious caveats that she hasn't looked at any of the documents from the Servanos' case and isn't giving formal legal advice here) is the following: there are two separate queues for single versus married adult children of US residents who are trying to immigrate. Both are (like practically all family and employment-based immigration, due to the quotas on the number of visas we give) hugely backlogged. But single people get a higher priority than married ones, presumably because single people are thought to be more a part of their parents' family as opposed to the new family that a married couple forms. At the moment, the difference in the backlogs between the single and married adult children queues for Filipinos is 6 years. By failing to report their marriage, the Servanos were able to get into the country much earlier than they would have otherwise. Though I'm quite willing to believe that it was an honest mistake (it's easy to make such mistakes because US immigration law is so byzantine), there is at least a rational explanation of why they're having their difficulties.

Had the story explained all of this (and assuming my wife's surmise about the details is correct), it might have made the Servanos less sympathetic -- some people would say "well, they're queue-jumpers (even if inadvertant ones), and therefore they have to accept the consequences." (To be clear, I don't take this view myself, and I hope the Servanos find some legal workaround that allows them to stay in the US.) But it would have been much more informative.

The additional detail would also have transformed the impact of the story. Instead of being a heartstring-tugger that cultivates vague pro-immigration sentiment, it would have pointed to a specific problem in immigration law -- the complex and often arbitrary maze of laws faced by prospective legal immigrants, and the enormous backlog in issuing visas due to the huge mismatch between our quotas and the demand. This is an important issue to highlight, as it shows how glib the demand that immigrants "just wait in line" is. But instead Armas figured we just wanted to hear about how gosh-darn nice the Servanos are and how sad it will be when they're gone.


Do You Have The Bad Kind Of Asian Fetish?

I always have to roll my eyes whenever I read the comments of any post criticizing racial/ethnic fetishes. Inevitably there will be a handful of men very earnestly worrying about whether the criticism is too broad and covers my desires/relationship which is totally not racist I swear. Here's the thing: If you understand the reasoning behind the criticism (rather than just taking note of the conclusions), you'll be able to figure out which desires/relationships it affects, by seeing which ones meet the premises of the criticism. (This is a basic principle of pragmatist philosophy that applies across the board.)

Since we're talking about the feminism criticism of racial/ethnic fetishes, let's break that one down as an example. As I understand it, there are two wrong things happening in the case of these fetishes (plus one exacerbating precondition). If these things don't apply to a given desire/relationship, then it's not being criticized, even if you apply the same terminology (e.g. "Asian fetish") to things that are and are not targeted by the criticism.

0. The exacerbating precondition: A desire for a partner who exhibits characteristics that make her* more compliant in forming a type of relationship that primarily caters to the fetishizer's needs. In the most common examples (Asian and eastern European fetishes), the characteristics in question fall under the general heading of submissiveness, and the desired relationship is one in which the woman serves the man in a traditional way. But the fetish can take a different form -- e.g. a fetish for black women or Latinas is often based on a quest for a partner who is passionate and sexually loose and thus would comply with a kinkier and more sex-centered relationship. I describe this as an exacerbating precondition because, while it is present in nearly every criticism of racial/ethnic fetishes, it can be conceptually separated. It's still problematic to pursue such characteristics in a racially/ethnically neutral fashion. And it's still problematic (based on conditions 1 and 2 below) if you fetishize a certain race/ethnicity based on good characteristics -- e.g. if you were to fetishize white women because you're seeking someone who's independent-minded and insists on an egalitarian partnership.

1. The first problematic aspect of racial/ethnic fetishizing is the assumption that an entire race/ethnicity exhibits whatever characteristics you're seeking in a mate. This is stereotyping, so it shouldn't be too hard to understand what's wrong with it -- it's not even Anti-Racism 101 material, this is Pre-Anti-Racism.

2. Slightly more complex is the problem of treating individual members of the fetishized race/ethnicity as if they are (or worse yet, demanding that they be) just instances of the stereotyped category. If you're pursuing/dating "an Asian girl" rather than "so-and-so, who is, among other things, (descended from people) from one or more places in Asia," you're doing it wrong. Romance is about bonding with a particular other person, and it's harmful to that person to be treated as simply a stand-in for or embodiment of some category.

The other thing to remember is that comment sections of blogs (particularly large-membership political blogs -- you might be OK talking things out in the comment section of a friend's personal blog) are not the best venue to figure out whether your particular case falls under the criticism or not. It's unlikely that other commenters can acquire enough information in the space of a comment or two to accurately judge your situation. But you shouldn't be surprised if they assume the worst, based on 1) your earnest insistence that you're being unfairly lumped in with the bad guys, 2) your desire to show off what an enlightened human being you are because you're able to exhibit basic decency in your personal relationships, 3) your focus on your own individual purity in the context of a discussion about a society-scale problem, and 4) your desire to get a stamp of approval from someone else in order to relieve your guilt and/or defensiveness, rather than engaging in honest self-reflection.

*Throughout this post I'm assuming that it's a man fetishizing a woman, since that's the most common dynamic and one in which the power differential exacerbates the harm done. But the comments to the Pandagon thread linked above contain examples of white men fetishizing Asian men, and Japanese women fetishizing white men.


Little Rock 9 : Jena 6 :: Undocumented Immigrants : Criminal Aliens

Sherrilyn Ifill has a good post (via The Debate Link ) describing a difficult problem in struggles for justice -- the wider society insists that oppressed people be perfect before they are granted justice. Only if an oppressed person's record is impeccable (proving that they've done everything right and still haven't been able to make it) will defenders of the status quo admit that there's an injustice that must be remedied. She describes how the 1950s and 60s US civil rights movement directly recognized this ugly fact by carefully choosing people with squeaky-clean records to be the face of the movement and carry out the key acts of civil disobedience like the Little Rock 9's attempt to attend a white high school. She contrasts this to the Jena 6, who are encountering problems because they're not perfect -- they did in fact beat up a white kid -- and thus their imperfection gets used as an excuse to ignore the injustice in how they have been treated.

Focusing on the "good" members of the oppressed group can work if everyone's fate rises or falls together. That is, it may have taken someone as perfect as Rosa Parks to get people to realize that segregation on buses is unjust, but then the only feasible response is to let all black people sit at the front of the bus.

Things get trickier when the fates of the "good" oppressed people and the "bad" ones can be separated. I think something like this happened after the downfall of segregation with the shift to surficially neutral yet racial-injustice-promoting attacks on welfare mothers and inner city drug dealers (coupled with the lionization of "good" blacks like Parks or MLK Jr.). But I don't know enough about the relevant history to do a whole post on that.

What I do know something about is how this dynamic of sympathy for the "good" oppressed and demonization of the "bad" plays out with respect to immigration in the US. The divide here is between undocumented immigrants and criminal aliens. The dynamic here is particularly vicious because the "bad" immigrants aren't just pushed to the side in favor of more sympathetic figures. They're actively thrown under the bus (sometimes by progressives, sometimes by conservatives who have been convinced to make concessions) in order to help the good immigrants.

The immigration debate focuses almost entirely on undocumented immigrants -- people who sneak into the US and have no legal authorization to be here. For many people, undocumented immigrants are already too flawed to deserve help -- after all, they broke the law to come here. But there is also a substantial base of sympathy for the image of the "good" undocumented immigrant. This "good" immigrant is someone who faced such crushing poverty in Mexico that they had little choice but to immigrate, and who has worked very hard, managed their finances well, stayed out of trouble, and learned English so as to pursue the American Dream. Most progressives are sympathetic to such "good" immigrants (and by extension to all undocumented immigrants), and therefore support policies like expanded legal immigration quotas and a path to legalization for those already here, and oppose policies like militarization of the border and various pointlessly punitive measures such as denying immigrants access to GED classes.

Criminal aliens, on the other hand, are people who (usually) entered this country legally, but who are deportable because they've been convicted of one or more crimes. The crimes in question are not necessarily big ticket items like murder -- they include such relatively petty infractions as public urination, posession of small amounts of drugs, or minor shoplifting (my favorite was the man who was charged with "grand theft animal carcass" for stealing enough ham for two sandwiches*). Nevertheless, their criminal records make them imperfect, and thus they find it hard to get sympathy from non-immigrants.

Criminal aliens are frequently forgotten in the immigration debate. For example, this diary by duke1676 presents a good starting point for a progressive policy to deal with undocumented immigration -- but it's presented, and endorsed by DailyKos, as a progressive policy on immigration full-stop. When criminal aliens are mentioned in the immigration debate, it's usually to crack down on them. They're the bad immigrants we bash in order to highlight the goodness of the hard-workers.

The recent failed immigration bill got as far as it did because it balanced the expanded opportunities for hard-workers with harsher treatment of criminal aliens. The new options that the bill created for undocumented immigrants had strict and inflexible rules barring people with criminal records. The bill also expanded the range of crimes that count as "aggravated felonies" that make people automatically deportable, to include crimes like drunk driving. It also lowered the burden of proof that ICE has to meet when showing that someone has committed a deportable crime, allowing them to use more kinds of documents and evidence than they currently can. Clearly some people would support justice for immigrants only if they could be assured that the justice was going only to "good" immigrants who, through living a blameless life so far, proved they deserved it.

The blame here obviously lies with the conservatives who refuse to admit that imperfect people can be victims of injustice. I'm not an activist strategist, so I can't say whether ignoring criminal aliens to secure justice for undocumented immigrants is an effective and acceptable strategy given the attitudes of the general public. What I can say is that if we do make that tradeoff, we have to recognize that there's a tradeoff being made, and that criminal aliens have a claim to justice from the immigration system even though they have criminal records.

* But of course focusing too much on the people who are deported for trivial offenses like "grand theft animal carcass" risks repeating the justice-for-good-people phenomenon within the category of criminal aliens. My admittedly radical position is that the only crimes for which deportation should be a punishment over and above serving the sentence that a citizen convicted of the same thing would serve are crimes against the USA qua USA (as opposed to crimes against the USA qua place you happen to be living or USA qua place where the opportunity presents itself). That list would include things like terrorism, spying, election law violations, or smuggling. But it would not include things like rape, murder, or theft.


Another Test

Sorry about the flood of test posts -- still working out some kinks in the publishing settings.

New Site Test

OK, worked on the sixth try.

New Site Test

Second try ...

New Site Test

Let's see if I managed to get everything set up right on the first try ...

THIS BLOG IS MOVING -- update your bookmarks, links, feeds, etc.

This blog is getting a new home. The new address is:


In Which We Learn That I Am Not That Much Of A (Pro)Feminist Yet

A conversation with my wife a little while ago:

Me: I understand that they installed a lock on the laundry room door so that only people who live in this apartment complex can use our facilities. But it's really annoying that the lock is double-sided, so you have to use your key to get out of the laundry room too.

Her: It's also potentially dangerous for women.

Me: Huh? How so?

Her: Say I ended up in there alone with some guy who decided to make some kind of threatening advance. It would take too long for me to fumble for my key and unlock the door to escape. He'd have plenty of time to grab me.

Me: Oh yeah. Duh, why didn't I think of that?


Bilingual Unoriginality

The same editorial cartoon joke about the California fires, in both English and Spanish.



The new job and finishing up dissertation-related paperwork have kept me busy lately, but I wanted to note something before the post it relates to falls into archive-land. Mandolin wrote a much-praised post listing and linking all the many types of feminism out there (in the course of which she considers me not only a feminist, but also the representative of cissexuality). What I wanted to make particular note of, though, was a comment by Lisa Harney. Harney points out that we should write (and think) "trans woman" and "trans man" as two-word descriptions rather than running them together into a single word. The underlying principle here -- which applies more broadly than just in the choice of spellings -- is to avoid "third-sexing" or "third-gendering." Third-sexing occurs when trans people are accepted, but accepted as a third (and/or fourth) sex alongside and equal to (cis)men and (cis)women. The problem here is that for (most*) trans people, they see themselves as being fully members of their transitioned-to sex/gender. The preferred alternative to third-sexing is to see trans and cis as subcategories of "men" and "women."

I'd add to Harney's discussion that I've encountered third-sexing with respect to gays and lesbians as well. In particular, I've seen traditional Native American societies praised for accepting gays and lesbians as a "third sex" and/or some form of male-female hybrid. While that is certainly better than burning them at the stake, and I can't say how well it worked within the context of traditional Native American society, I always felt that such an arrangement would be quite inadequate to the needs of modern LGB people.

* I say "most" to leave the door open for some people (trans or cis) who do actually identify as neither male nor female.